Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

Brian Stiller

Podcastor

Author

Global Ambassador @ WEA

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Brian Stiller: Rebuilder with a Cause

June 1, 1996 About

By Ben Volman

Where do you go from your ideal job? In March 1996 Brian Stiller was at the height of national prominence leading The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). But after more than a decade at the helm he felt the Lord’s call to move on.

A few months earlier, Stiller had volunteered to help save Ontario Bible College/Ontario Theological Seminary. The century-old schools in north Toronto were in receivership. Although he was dedicated to their survival, Stiller told their search committee his leadership was temporary. The new board chair, Archie McLean, then wrote to 150 evangelical leaders across the continent asking who should lead the college. Out of 100 answers, more than 50 suggested Stiller.

Driving through Florida after a frustrating job interview, Stiller and his wife, Lily, began discussing the schools. They recalled a Jack Hayford sermon describing Abraham on Mount Moriah with Isaac, looking back at a lifetime of altars, and it reminded them of Brian’s lifelong call to restore faltering ministries. Then he heard an inner, assuring voice: “I have something more for you to rebuild.”

For the past decade and a half he has served the revitalized (and re-named) Tyndale University College and Seminary as president and now serves as president of the Tyndale Foundation. A key part of his legacy will be the school’s expansion onto an impressive 57 acre property adjacent to the existing campus.

Friends and colleagues often use the same words to explain why Stiller, at 67, has had such an impact as a leader: vision, energy, an ability to think on his feet. They also hint at something else: a readiness to meet the risks of a great vision.

“Faith as an operating principle requires you to leave the comfort zone,” says Stiller. Plus, there’s his personal disposition: “If it’s not in trouble, I’m not interested. Maintenance is not in my vocabulary.”

Growing up in Saskatchewan, the son of a Pentecostal pastor, helped instil that attitude. His father, Rev. C. H. Stiller, a regional superintendent, brought healing to many broken communities. “My style of leadership was learned from my father,” says Stiller, “I watched him come alongside pastors; that was the big influence for me.”

Lily, his wife of 46 years, was raised in Kenora, Ont., and met Brian at Central Pentecostal College in Saskatoon. She was impressed by his energy and spiritual commitment; he admired her “quality, depth and great passion for the gospel.” Soon after marrying in 1963 they came east, and Stiller began studies at the University of Toronto. (Eventually he also earned an M.Rel. at Wycliffe College, an evangelical Anglican college in Toronto, and a D.Min. at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, an evangelical Boston seminary with Baptist roots.)

As a young man, he envisioned a career leading evangelistic rallies. “Evangelism and public witness captivated me,” says Stiller. But his preaching skills fell short and he had “too few scars” to be a draw at youth events. Success came more easily in the multi-denominational team approach of Youth for Christ [cut it is called ‘Youth Unlimited’ only in Toronto (now Youth Unlimited)]. In 1967, he was assigned to oversee their Montreal branch. He and Lily started their family there, with son, Murray, born in 1968 and daughter, Muriel, born in 1971.

At first, the local problems seemed overwhelming; the branch was ready to fold. Instead, it became a testing ground where Stiller developed the managerial, governance, media and fundraising skills to rebuild a faltering ministry. The couple returned to Toronto in 1971 where the branch had already closed. Again, Stiller’s efforts restored the local ministry. In 1975 he was appointed Youth for Christ national president.

Secular trends were transforming North American culture, pushing ministries to be more innovative. “We were going through the transition of the counter culture,” says Stiller. “I learned how to develop a network and build; it was the best training environment.”

By mid-1982, Stiller felt he was being called to a larger challenge and told the Youth for Christ board that he was leaving. He was on retreat, weighing an offer from a large church in Vancouver. Studying Nehemiah, Stiller wrote down: “Find a broken wall that no one cares about.”

He was already a council member of the EFC, a forum of Canadian Christian leaders established by his mentor, Harry Faught, pastor of Danforth Gospel Temple. The organization was active but volunteer leadership kept it under-funded. The EFC was seeking a full-time leader. Half an hour after Stiller wrote “Find a broken wall,” Merv Saunders called to ask him to consider leading the EFC.

Mel Sylvester, a Christian and Missionary Alliance superintendent (and future Canadian EFC president/board chair) also spoke to Stiller at an EFC meeting in November 1982. “I had a strong leading to look Brian in the eye,” said Sylvester, who followed that leading by telling Stiller: “You need to lead this up. We need a Moses and you’re the man.”

In February 1983, Stiller took the reigns at the EFC. In the first year his budget was $26,000. Twelve years later, he left the organization with an annual budget of $3.0 million. The “EFC co-opted my gifts better than anything I’d every done,” says Stiller. “The objective was so clear. I knew what to do. Those were the best moment of my life.”

One of his first initiatives was founding Faith Today (originally Faith Alive) with Lori Mitchener as the first managing editor. A year later, Audrey Dorsch took over and expanded it into a major Canadian publication.

“I started as an editorial assistant, but when [Stiller] first asked me to take over as editor I declined,” Dorsch said. “I didn’t think I could be the managing editor of a magazine; and then I also became the director of communications of [the] EFC.”

“The role of leader is to see beyond what is, to what is yet to be,” says Stiller. “I enjoy seeing people succeed. Most people do what they can because they aren’t sure they can do more. The leader has to bring them to their optimum level.”

Current EFC President Bruce Clemenger appreciates Stiller’s people skills. Clemenger began as a researcher for Stiller and became director of national affairs. “He is able to turn areas of responsibility over to others and let them run with it,” says Clemenger. “He can mobilize people, help them see possibilities and encourage them to step out.”

Making Christians into local “change agents” was at the heart of an eight-hour seminar called Understanding Our Times, which Stiller began in 1984. He gave close to 200 presentations across Canada. It began as a series on the topic: Do Evangelicals Have a Role in Society? Eventually the seminars provided a full workbook for participants.

“We needed to convince Evangelicals that public policy mattered to Jesus,” says Stiller. Today, he often meets Christians who tell him that the seminars led into local, provincial or federal politics.

Lloyd Mackey, a veteran Parliament Hill journalist and author, valued EFC’s ground-breaking work in Ottawa in the 1980s. “He was able to tap into people who were from all parties to help them modify their thinking on the basis of understanding that the evangelical community had something to bring the table,” says Mackey.

Stiller also allowed himself to be mentored by an experienced Christian social activist, Gerald Vandezande. Mackey appreciated that Stiller was not promoting himself, but “tended to be a catalyst that brought people together.” That continues to be an EFC role, co-ordinating and networking politically active evangelical organizations, as well as acting through its own Ottawa-based Centre for Faith and Public Life, a major Stiller/Clemenger initiative, now headed by the EFC’s Don Hutchinson.

That same emphasis on bringing people together enlivened the EFC’s TV programs beginning with The Stiller Report and later Cross Currents. Well informed guests provided challenging points of view meant to stimulate the thinking of Canadians.

Gary Walsh, now senior vice president at Roberts Wesleyan College at Rochester, N.Y., succeeded Stiller as EFC president and points to his international legacy. “Brian developed the EFC to become a leader among evangelical alliances around the world. With few exceptions, [the] EFC has done faith and public life in a more forceful but wise manner than many such organizations. Canada’s leading place in the World Evangelical Alliance is the result of his work.”

Eileen Stewart-Rhude, a Canadian who serves as executive secretary of that alliance’s Women’s Commission, credits Stiller with giving major impetus to national and international women’s programs. Stewart-Rhude also counts herself among those Stiller encouraged to reach higher. “As a result of Brian’s belief in me, I grew into this role.”

Sylvester says of Stiller, “If you said that he was probably the best Canadian visionary church leader of our generation, you’d have little argument.” Walsh agrees: “One could hardly name a Canadian who has had a more profound influence on evangelicalism in Canada in recent decades.” While respecting the decision to leave EFC, Walsh thinks that Stiller might have continued to do great things there.

Lily Stiller sees it more simply. “We knew the schools needed his giftedness and it was time to do that. It wasn’t out of joy but out of obedience.” Brian concurs that the past decade and a half has not been easy. “It was an experience I’d never want to go through again – and [yet] it’s one I wouldn’t want to miss.”

On June 28, 1995 Stiller arrived on the campus of Ontario Bible College/Ontario Theological Seminary with the fall semester due to start on August 28 and no more credit coming from the banks. He had 60 days to raise funds for the fall semester and keep the school functioning into the winter and spring.

The person most closely associated with Stiller in the recovery of the schools was Winston Ling, who stepped into the role of vice president of finance and administration. Ling had recently taken early retirement as chief financial officer of a major corporation and didn’t need a job.

“God brought very two very different people together,” says Ling. “We’re both A-type people who want to win. We fought in his office, but the moment we left, people didn’t know. He trusted me like no one has trusted me before.”

The decision of Archie McLean, a highly respected business leader, to accept Stiller’s request to become the new chair was critical. In an aside that proves even outstanding leaders need leadership, Stiller recalls, “He drove me to eliminate the deficit. He said, ‘You can do it.’ It was his idea.”

The board gave him another challenge: find a site for expansion of the university and seminary. As he and Lily drove near the campus in front of the Sisters of St. Joseph Morrow Park, she pointed towards its 57 lawn-covered acres. “Brian, some day the Lord will give this to you.” Stiller recalled that the schools were still financially “just hanging on by our fingernails.” Yet he knew this was a word from the Lord.

Stiller entered into a close relationship with Sister Margaret Myatt, general superior of the Toronto chapter of the Sisters of St. Joseph. In January 2006, a mutual agreement for the sale of the property was agreed on. A remarkable effort was required to raise the $40 million for the property and $18 million to develop the site. Once again, Stiller has stepped forward [(cut) as chancellor] to meet the risks of leading the Uncommon Ground capital campaign, which currently has secured 70 per cent of the $58 million cost of the project.

“Great leadership is not about having your own way,” says Stiller, reflecting on his career. “It’s about grouping people around a common vision and learning from each other.”

Even as he looks forward, Stiller’s eye remains on the public task of addressing the cultural values of Canadian society. He longs “to raise a strong Christ-like voice in the nation and to find a platform on which that voice can be spoken.”

Lily, too, is looking forward, even as they enjoy the pleasures of five grandchildren. “We’re just waiting on the Lord for the next challenge. Whatever the Lord has for us next, we’re willing.”

Ben Volman of Toronto is a contributing writer at Faith Today.