Our History: A collection of miracles

Our History GroupAn early challenge

At the age of 26, Owen Phelps and his wife Jane found themselves leading a new acquisition for their parent company. It was a corporation that published five community newspapers and did commercial printing. Neither Owen nor Jane had ever taken a business or journalism course. Owen’s degree was in theology. Jane was a math major.

Their new company had neither grown nor made a profit in several years. Their mandate was to grow it into a profitable enterprise. Over the next eight years, its annual revenues more than tripled and it became profitable. Its market value grew 5-fold.

If this success story could be told with only one word, it would be people. The couple found good people and helped develop them into championship performers and teams. That wasn’t always easy in a community of just 1,000 people, operating under severe compensation restraints. But it gave them a focus on achieving organizational success by helping people become all that God intended them to be.

It was a trial, error and correction process. Gradually they were drawn to the truth of Jesus’ admonitions to his disciples in the Gospels that real leaders are servants and shepherds of their people and stewards of the whole universe.

New challenges, old solution

When Owen moved into diocesan ministry, he found a new set of performance challenges, but he sensed that the solution would be the same – people. He began to follow up on his New Testament studies years earlier and to probe further into Jesus’ ministry and teaching for more clues about how to develop effective leaders. He presented a few seminars to parish leaders and teams on the topic of biblically-based leadership. Eventually, his bishop came to him and asked him to find or develop a leadership program that would serve priests and lay ministers.

After a couple of years of experimentation and slow progress, Owen bumped into a friend at a convention in Florida. They had a few minutes to visit. The friend knew Owen was finishing his doctorate in administration/management and wanted him to recommend the best books he had read in the program. Owen listed a few, but then noted that he was a big fan of Ken Blanchard’s work. As a young leader without any experience or education in leadership, Ken’s books – especially The One Minute Manager – had been a lifeline for him. “The more I’ve learned, the more I have come to appreciate his work,” Owen said. “It’s as if he cuts people’s meat for them.”

A little miracle

The friend was shocked. “I just finished producing a TV series with Ken,” the friend said, explaining that Ken was becoming very active in the field of Christian leadership. It was Owen’s turn to be shocked. He begged for more details. Maybe Ken’s work would be the answer to his prayers and the prayers of his bishop. With his friend’s help, he started to track down Ken and learn more about his approach to Christian leadership.

Eventually Owen made contact with Phil Hodges, Ken’s friend from college days and his cofounder of the Lead Like Jesus movement. Phil and Ken were preparing to launch their Lead Like Jesus training program. As luck – or Providence – would have it, Phil was coming to Chicago soon and that would be a short drive for Owen, so the two decided to meet for lunch. It was a blessed decision. As each shared his hopes and dreams, the meeting ate up the entire afternoon.

Phil noted that he would soon be unveiling the new Lead Like Jesus Encounter at American Martyrs Retreat House in the Dubuque Archdiocese. Owen promised to attend. On the drive home, he dreamed dreams and made plans. Resolving for the Encounter to be more than just a passing experience, he decided he needed someone else to go with him. After some prayer and reflection, he reached out to Dick Kunnert, a Catholic layman with extensive management and community service experience. Dick graciously agreed to join him. They drove out to the Encounter in March 2003.


The experience was incredible! And Dick and Owen left inspired. The Encounter was all they could talk about on their 4-hour ride home. For the first two hours they raved about the power of the program, its processes and its materials. But then their discussion turned to what would have to be added to the program in order for it to fit well with Catholic teaching and tradition. As a Gospel-based program, its core teachings are very much home in Catholicism. But it definitely needed some additional elements to achieve complete alignment.

Dick said the Catholic version of the Encounter would have to include material on the role of the laity as outlined in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the teaching of John Paul II. He said it would also have to recognize the centrality of community. Owen said it would have to quote from a Catholic translation of the Bible and its section on Habits would have to include Mass and the sacraments. Before they returned home, The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus had been conceived.

Bumps in the road

But the gestation period was a long one. Both men were busy with other things – and the very next month Owen had a heart attack, emergency bypass surgery and two other surgeries on the same Easter Sunday morning. It was, he reflects, his own little resurrection of sorts. In the several months of recuperation that followed, he had plenty of time to pray and reflect on why he was spared. He decided it was to serve as a good husband, father, father-in-law and grandfather – and to devote his professional life to the mission of teaching others how to Lead Like Jesus.

That resolve eventually led him to Kansas City to become a certified Lead Like Jesus Facilitator. Dick was too busy to join him, but found time to prepare a 1-hour presentation introducing the idea of Leading Like Jesus to clergy and laity in the Rockford area. In February 2006 Owen reached out to the world by launching The Catholic Leader e-newsletter. Soon people from almost 40 countries have signed up to receive complimentary subscriptions. Eventually Dick found time to become a certified Lead Like Jesus Facilitator too.

As inquiries and speaking invitations increased, it was clear that the effort needed some sort of organizational foundation. Not wanting to be distracted by the launch of a new, free-standing organization, Jane and Owen decided to “adopt” the Yeshua Catholic Leadership Institute as a division of their own consulting and publishing corporation. Dick and Owen continued to present Encounters using the ecumenical Lead Like Jesus materials and adding Catholic elements on the fly.

Birth of a Catholic movement

Gradually it became clear that to have a large scale impact on Catholics around the world, the Yeshua Institute would need Catholic materials blessed with an imprimatur. Phil, Ken and Owen arranged to meet December 2006 at Ken’s beach house near San Diego to discuss this next step. It took them less than an hour to settle on a plan. Owen would write a book to explain the Catholic view of Leading Like Jesus. Ken would write the foreword. Then Dick and Owen would develop a Catholic version of the Encounter and Owen would prepare a workbook for Catholic Encounter participants. The three men headed to lunch at an outdoor fish market and then went to see the newly released movIe The Nativity Story before going to Ken’s house for dinner with his wife, daughter and granddaughter.

As the Catholic book and workbook took shape, Dick and Owen continued to present Encounters to Catholic audiences using the ecumenical materials but adding Catholic references ad hoc. This provided them with an opportunity to experiment with how Catholic elements should be presented when it came time to present a Catholic Leading Like Jesus Encounter using explicitly Catholic materials. Our Sunday Visitor Publishing came on board in 2008, and The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus book was published in the spring of 2009. The workbook with the same name to be used in Encounters appeared in the fall of 2009. The table was set to begin offering an explicitly Catholic Leading Like Jesus Encounter.

First Catholic Encounter and Training

That happened for the first time on Oct. 10, 2009 when Owen facilitated an Encounter at St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (affectionately known as Little Flower) Parish in Indianapolis. A month later, on Nov. 12, Dick and Owen presented another Catholic Encounter, this one in Techny (near Chicago) – and the next day conducted the first ever Catholic Encounter Facilitator Training for 13 of the 18 people who attended the Encounter, plus 3 more from Little Flower.

Participants included a true microcosm of the Church: diocesan and religious priests, permanent deacons, a religious brother, a woman religious, laywomen and laymen. They came from eight states – as far east as New Jersey and as far west as Texas.

Milestones, miracles continue

Since those initial programs we have taken The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus all across the U.S. and to five foreign countries on three continents (Haiti, Canada, India, Uganda and Tanzania). Invitations to share that vision in a variety of place and contexts continue to arrive.

Our story is nothing if not a collection of miracles.

As the scope of our outreach expanded, it became clear that we would have to further develop our organizational base too. So in January 2013 we incorporated the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute as an Illinois nonprofit corporation, and in September 2014 finally received federal recognition of nonprofit, tax exempt 501(c)(3) status from the Internal Revenue Service. In November and December 2014 we conducted our first-ever fund drive, and we are grateful to report that, while modest, it exceeded our expectations.

Today we are poised to continue serving Catholic people around the world so that the day comes when our vision is realized: “Every Catholic in every walk of life leads like Jesus — as servant, steward and shepherd.”

With God’s grace and your prayers, we are moving closer to that moment with each passing day.