The Gift of “You’re Fired!”

New City YMCA at Cabrini


These were the words I heard from across a table on a Monday morning over 20 years ago. I was stunned. I had two hours to pack my office and leave. It was the first big failure in my life. But as I look back now, it was also a time when God decided to teach me about integrity.

When I interviewed for the job, one of the questions I’d asked was whether they functioned well as a team. The answer had been a resounding YES, accompanied by stories of their support of each other. The reality, however, was something very different. Brittle laughter could be heard in staff meetings when a joke was cracked—usually at the expense of another staff person. They didn’t know how to function as a team, and I didn’t know how to build a team. Between backbiting, sarcasm, and a general lack of respect, I was miserable. I can look back now and know that I lacked the integrity to build trust and to lead. While I said that I was there to serve them, in reality this job was just another rung on a ladder to my dream job. Because my faith didn’t match my words, which didn’t match my actions, my pride was all they could see.

In the middle of my misery, I got a call to interview for a position in Chicago’s inner city, at a YMCA in one of the worst housing projects in the United States, Cabrini Green. Weeks before a little 6-year-old boy named Dantrell Davis had been gunned down in gang crossfire while he walked to school with his mom.

Surely God didn’t want me to go there?

I decided to go to the interview, but only for the experience. The Friday interview was a one-day process and as fast and tough as I’ve ever experienced; half-hour slots with various leaders and board members; little time with the people I would lead; and an offer of employment at 3:30 that same afternoon. I told them I would let them know my decision by the end of the weekend. I prayed, I wrestled—and I decided God surely could not intend for a young, white woman from a farm in Indiana to go serve in Cabrini Green. And so I turned down the position on Sunday evening.

On Monday morning when I arrived at work, I heard the words, “You’re fired!” They said, “Nancy, you can really run a YMCA, but we’re not sure anyone would climb the mountain with you to plant the flag”.   I could picture the image of Iwo Jima in my mind, but I didn’t know why anyone wouldn’t climb with me!  With my stomach tied in knots and my body shaking, I called my husband. He came over with some boxes and we packed up my office. In the middle of packing, the phone rang—it was the leadership in Chicago, wondering why I had said no and what it would take for me to reconsider. My heart pounded so hard I was sure they could hear it over the phone.

How do I sound nonchalant and calm, considering what I’m going through, and tell them I would like to reconsider?

My fear and pride kicked in. I was afraid if I said yes, they’d think something was wrong or know I had been fired. So I explained how hurried I had felt through the interview process and requested permission to come up and spend time individually with each person I would be supervising.

That same week, while driving to Chicago for the second interview, the story of Jonah came on a radio program I was listening to in my car. Jonah—you know, the guy God told to go to Nineveh. Instead Jonah said no way and headed for Tarshish. God let him spend some think time in the belly of a fish in order for him to see the light. I realized God was speaking to me as directly as He ever had in my life—Cabrini Green was my Nineveh.

God took me to Cabrini Green to learn about integrity and leadership, His way.  The words I heard when I was fired set me a course to learn about this “leadership thing”.

Today, while painful, I know that experience was one of the best character and leadership development experiences of my career.  I learned how to choose well, lead well, and how to finish well.  In upcoming musings, I’ll share the lessons learned and encourage you to choose well, lead well, and finish well.