In the last half of the 20th century, the son of a Canadian prairie Pentecostal pastor emerged as a leader within what was then a burgeoning evangelical Christian movement, bringing to it a constructive influence in the national corridors of governance, academe and activism.
Brian Stiller was born in 1942 into a Pentecostal minister’s home. During his own youth, his father pastored several different prairie churches over the years.
The young Stiller, from his early years, was assertive, curious and a seeker after the means to integrate his maturing Christian faith into the broader life of Canadian society. Among his siblings is a renowned transplant advocate and internist Calvin, and David, who applied his business acumen in the field of faith-based international development. Brian often speaks highly of his brothers as people who carried their faith values into their chosen fields, just as much as he, himself, attempted to give faith leadership in the areas of societal influence.
His post-secondary education was in both the arts and theology. His earned degrees are as follows: University of Toronto (BA in History), Wycliffe College (Master of Religion), and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Doctor of Ministry),
Stiller often cites a timeline of three different leadership experiences, each of which brought a range of opportunities to add vigor and thought to the Canadian evangelical Christian movement. That movement, he often suggested, emerged, along with other influences, from the social upheavals of World War II.
The intention of this essay is to trace these leadership experiences, citing Stiller’s own autobiographical comments recorded in his 2012 commentary on the biblical Nehemiah. That man, a bit of a hero to Stiller, was responsible for the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem and its restoration to the people of Israel following their Babylonian captivity in the 4th century BC. (Stiller has a dozen or more books to his credit, penned over 25 years) The particular tome for our consideration is Find a Broken Wall: 7 Ancient Principles for 21st Century Leaders. (Castle Quay Books, Toronto).
(Update: The writing aspect of Stiller’s leadership was recognized by The Word Guild, a fellowship of writers who are Christian, at their gala on June 23, 2017, in the form of the Leslie K. Tarr Award for lifetime achievement in Christian writing and publishing in Canada.)
The three Stiller experiences, summarized in Christian Higher Education Canada briefing notes, were:
- During the 1960s, he worked with youth, first as director of Youth for Christ in Montreal, then Toronto YFC, and finally as President of Youth For Christ Canada.
- In 1983, he was appointed President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. This provided him with a national profile as a voice for people of biblical faith. Within months of his appointment, he founded and became editor-in-chief of EFC's national magazine, Faith Today. By way of weekly television (including Cross Currents on Vision TV), as well as other media, his opinions and views of issues of moral concern were sought.
- In 1997, he left EFC to become President of Tyndale University College & Seminary; the school had gone through a major restructuring. During his tenure, Tyndale moved to university status and purchased a 56-acre campus from the Sisters of St. Joseph. Its seminary expanded its programs and became Canada's largest theological graduate school. In 2009 Stiller retired from his presidency at Tyndale and was named president of the Tyndale Foundation.
But our current exploration focuses on Broken Wall that Stiller wrote in 2012 – a book that combines his skill at enunciating biblical leadership concepts with an account of his personal pilgrimage through the hallways of Canadian faith activity.
Notes Stiller, in the book’s introduction (page 7):
Most of us end up doing something we never had in mind in the first place. When I graduated from the University of Toronto in 1966, I had laid out my goals and the means to achieve those goals. I missed on both counts. Almost thirty years later, in 1995, when I responded with a throwaway line to Geoff Moore, a businessman and member of the board of Ontario Bible College/Ontario Theological Seminary… I had no idea where it would lead. Little did I know my response would result in my life being taken over by a bankrupt college and seminary and immerse me in the bone-crunching task of creating a Christian university.
One of the YFC experiences involved a posting to Montreal during the years surrounding Canada’s centennial in 1967.
After completing an undergraduate degree (1966) and twelve months of floundering in ministry, I found myself with two offers: director of the Montreal chapter of Youth for Christ (YFC) and youth minister at a Montreal church. At that time my wife, Lily, was expecting our son, Murray, and our car was on its last legs. One position offered $65 a week salary and the other $55. Both were of equal interest. With no sense of clarity but highly aware of our coming needs, we chose the first.
Finding, to my surprise, that the YFC organization was in serious debt, I learned how to rebuild, developing skills that led to a series of wall-building ministries.
The emerging youth culture coming out of Canada’s 1967 Centennial celebrations, during his Montreal stint, played a significant – and sometimes noisy – part to the evolution of Stiller’s insights. (Pages 65, 66 provides some insights Stiller gained by working with Youth For Christ in Montreal, in the midst of the “two solitudes” personified by Quebec and the rest of Canada during that period.)
On pages 11-12, Stiller recounts a choice to be made: assuming the pastorate of a large, well-established west coast church or taking on the leadership of a then small and struggling group of evangelical leaders and thinkers.
After sixteen years in Youth for Christ, I resigned. Board members and staff knew it was the right decision and so did I, even though I had no other job waiting and no definite ministry interests to explore.
A few days later, when speaking at a spiritual emphasis week at Trinity Western University (TWU), philosophy professor Phil Wiebe asked me point blank whether I’d be interested in the role of senior minister at Christian Life Assembly (CLA) [just down the street from TWU, in Langley, a Fraser Valley city]. It was, and is, one of the largest churches in British Columbia, attended by several thousand people every week.
I was moved by the congregation’s vision and considered the position seriously. I asked for some time to come to a decision.
Returning to Ontario Stiller worked through the process during a private retreat, considering Nehemiah’s biblical desire to “find a broken wall.” His conclusion: he could not go to CLA. But he had no other plans.
Now, the prospect suddenly emerged of leading the small but emerging Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Its genesis a few years before had come because Christians of an evangelical stripe had been trying to emerge from a cocoon of non-involvement in the larger society, even though their churches were growing.
“EFC?” I queried. “There is no organization, no funding. It has no significant place in our community and little credibility in the wider church, and for sure none in the political life of Canada.”
The more I spoke, the more I heard myself describing a broken wall.
Stiller helped the Evangelical Fellowship, which was broadly representative of some three million Canadians, to pick up a role that, in its infancy, had seemed virtually impossible. He talks, here, about something called a “value proposition” and uses some of the faith-advocacy interfacing in Ottawa in the 1980s to explain what he was going through, in his leadership role.
Early in my [EFC] tenure, Terry Law, founder of World Compassion and personal friend, challenged me: “In fifteen words or less, what is your mission?”
I stumbled and fumbled. I didn’t know. There were many things I thought this national association could do. But I hadn’t landed on a value proposition as its launching pad. What was our reason for being? Such an exercise is critical for any organization, but more so in this case because much of the popular perception of evangelicals in Canada was formed by images and caricatures beamed to us from south of the border.
Canadians are both blessed and plagued by the many voices of U.S. media. Many a home is permanently tuned to U.S. news broadcasts. Canadians seem to exhibit a greater familiarity with U.S. government and law than with Canadian.
… We needed to identify the value of a national evangelical voice. A couple of years earlier the EFC executive had asked me as a volunteer to survey Canadian evangelicals’ expectations of the EFC. I put together a modest survey. The responses identified the need for a voice.
… It had fit well with the evangelical view of mission—to focus on preparing people for eternity. It had also fit with our view that life outside the mission of the church—such as managing our nation— was not as much concern. We were satisfied in leaving it to the older, mainline churches to oversee our country assuming there was a continuing consensus of general Christian values. Such thinking was deadly.
The question that then led to the discovery of the value proposition was: How can we shift Canadian evangelical thinking to that of a wider awareness of God’s agenda, including engagement in public life and participating in cultural leadership?
Stiller amplifies the conundrum by summarizing a major public policy issue of that period; the Supreme Court’s striking down of the Criminal Code position on abortion – in effect leaving no law on the issue. That decision galvanized the evangelical community, he said.
In a series of public lectures called Understanding Our Times, I explored how we had arrived at our current position and what our biblical mandate was in the public square.
Ambiguity was gone. Everything we did was measured against the [aforementioned] value proposition. In time we worked out a more broadly defined mission and vision, but still under the aegis of “being a voice.” As people understood, it brought increased support across the country.
We focus, now, on some of Stiller’s personal feelings as he describes the process of accepting and moving into the presidency of the historic but financially-struggling Ontario Bible College/Ontario Theological Seminary (now Tyndale University College and Seminary). In this particular segment, he speaks of the growing rapport between a Catholic order and a cluster of evangelical leaders.
One day my wife—knowing Tyndale’s financial distress—pointed to the campus of the Sisters of St. Joseph, just west of our campus: “Brian, someday the Lord will give that to you.” Those fifty-six acres were arguably among the most desirable in the city of Toronto. Located inside the north perimeter of the city, just a few minutes’ bus ride from the proposed new subway line, this campus was the pearl of North Toronto area. Framed by a beautiful landscape, watered by the East Don River, it included what many have said may be the most beautiful chapel built in Canada in the twentieth century.
[Over the next nine years]I continued to believe this adjoining campus would be ours. I read Hebrews 11 as a promise: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (11:8 niv)
Stiller then chronicles the discussions with the Sisters, particularly with the Mother Superior, Sister Margaret Myatt, that led to a spiritual and corporate consensus resulting in the transfer of the property to Tyndale over several years. One of his St. Joseph advisors, Sister Sue Mosteller, asked, at one point:
“Is the Holy Spirit leading you and do you believe this is the place he has reserved for Tyndale?” To my response she added, “Then you need to tell that to Sister Margaret. She, too, is being led by the same Spirit, and her desire is that the facilities be used for a witness to our world of Jesus Christ.”[She added that his communication with Myatt should “thump with vision.”]
The rest of that particular passage covers the period in which many millions were raised to acquire the property and numerous negotiations helped to smooth the process of occupying it, section by section, as the Sisters and a tenant prestigious Catholic high School (St. Joseph’s Morrow Park) prepared to re-envision their own futures.
Toward the end of his book, Stiller recounts the interplay with provincial authorities which became critical in Tyndale’s acceptance of its teacher education program in the larger community. He examined the role that a school’s own community and their leaders would play in helping political leaders to understand Tyndale’s role in contributing constructively to the social advancement of a province’s population – including those who had come to Canada from other countries. (Page 150-2)
Stiller recounts the process of bringing together many of Tyndale’s supporters, many of them leaders in large and influential ethically-rooted churches, to help provincial cabinet ministers to understand the school’s vision and dilemma. There were some tense times, particular when, for whatever reason, the provincial education minister seemed unable to move forward the Tyndale plan for a teacher education program. (Page 152ff)
One particular exchange, when pastors were meeting with then finance minister Greg Sobora, was telling:
Quietly, without any prompting, [one pastor] spoke up and said, “Minister, Tyndale matters to us very much and if we feel you are being unfair to them, we will remember you next fall.”
It came so unexpectedly, clear and unrehearsed. The minister smiled and asked, “Brian, what is your time line?”
After that, the minister of education quietly changed his mind.
As part of the body politic of this province, and knowing that our way forward was being blocked (for what reason we never did learn), we believed it was appropriate and within the mandate of our university and fair as a follower of Jesus to press the point in a polite and gracious way, ever asking that we be treated fairly and justly.
Perhaps the last vignette from Stiller’s “rebuilding the wall” account illustrates, purposely or otherwise, what was needed during those varying circumstances in those previous four decades, for him to fit his vision and skills to what needed to happen in his particular faith community. (Page 164-65)
In my final months at Tyndale, a search firm engaged by the Tyndale board in the search for the next president, asked me, “What is a primary task of president?” My response: “Be a storyteller.” The leader is charged with telling the story again and again: the story of where we have been, where we are going, and what drives us to get there.
People love stories. Staff and board love to be part of it. We had come through a disaster. Though few of the former board and staff remained, our constituency and remaining faculty remembered it well. As we were freed from debt and as the new campus came into play, the telling of the story gained momentum. Members were enthused about this new history we were writing, believing our course was the right one. For faculty or staff distracted by the past, this new story seemed to overcome it.
Today, in his mid-seventies, Stiller has been able to put those storytelling skills to work on a global scale. In 2011, Stiller emerged in what could be described as a “senior statesman” role, as Global Ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), one of several “big tent” structures representing various streams of Christianity on the world scene. WEA articulates for, broadly speaking, some 600 million of the globe’s close to two billion Christians. In that role, Stiller and Lily roam the world, finding a range of interesting stories about Christian activity, leadership, co-operation and activism. Then, he tells those stories in a range of print, video and new media settings. One of the spinoffs to his “ambassadorship” is Evangelicals Around the World: A Global Handbook for the 21st Century published by the WEA in 2015, with substantive Canadian writing, editorial and financial support rounded up by a Stiller-led team.