Sean Lambert is the President of Youth With a Mission (YWAM) out of San Diego/Baja. He shares how his ministry has evolved from building one home in 1990 to now having built 5 thousand homes for the poor in over 25 countries.
Full transcript:
Adam: Welcome to the show, my name is Adam Ritz. I consider myself the luckiest man in broadcast to be a co-host of this show, along with Ray Hilbert. Hi Ray, how are you?
Ray: Adam, I’m doing terrific, and you?
Adam: Always excited to be here with you, because not to co-host the show, but I consider myself a listener. That’s why I said I’m the luckiest man in broadcasting and in radio, because I get to learn along with our listeners about faith in the marketplace, with some of the people we’ve been talking to, and the caliber of guests we have on the show – leaders in the marketplace talking about their faith and their spirituality. It’s fantastic for me to hear as a listener, as well as a co-host. That’s why I consider myself so lucky. So glad to be here with you again.
Ray: Well, it’s a real honor too, and it seems like every time we have a show, Adam, we kind of get floored by who God allows us to interview, and the caliber of leadership and the things that they’ve accomplished in life and for the Kingdom. And absolutely, I have really been looking forward to today’s show. And so, you know, this is a place where we like to, as we described, lift the hood, if you will, and look under that hood and learn how Christian leaders think and how they plan and how they execute, how they solve problems, how they overcome adversity. So our guest today, folks, is Sean Lambert, and Sean is the president of Youth With A Mission, out of San Diego/Baja – YWAM for short. We’ll get into all of what their ministry does there. But I’ve come to know Sean over probably the last six, seven years, somewhere in that time frame. And I tell you, the story that we’re going to hear today is stunning. “Out of the mouths of babes,” we’ve heard before, and I know Sean, you’re going to be joining us here in just a moment. You’re going to tell the story of how this whole ministry evolved. And so Sean, let’s get started. If you’ll take just a moment to introduce yourself to our audience. You’re in beautiful San Diego right now as we’re talking online here, but tell us a little bit about yourself. Sean Lambert, folks.
Sean: Yes. Hello, everyone. Yeah, we’re at the world’s largest land border. More people cross back and forth between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico than any other place in the whole world. And so that’s why I’m here. Probably others would think you’re here for the great weather. I grew up in Minnesota, so I do know the value of a good San Diego winter. But that’s not what gets me up in the morning. I love engaging the poorest people in the world, and there’s a bunch at our border that we’ve been engaging for 27 years now. We’ve built over 5,000 homes for the poor in 21 different countries, starting with the first house in 1990. And that’s a great story to tell if we have time.
Ray: Well, that’s a great place to start, actually, Sean. You know, I’ve had the privilege of personally coming to the Baja peninsula with my family on multiple occasions, and participating in a home build. And I’d love for us, in a moment, to get to the specifics of that, what happens there, and so forth. But this is a ministry. I think I just wrote down, you said that over 5,000 homes have been built. And yet it started with one. In fact, I know in Zechariah, it says, “do not despise the day of humble beginnings.” And so this incredible ministry that you now lead began with the building of one home, a number of years ago. Why don’t you take a moment and share that story with us?
Sean: Yeah, I think often we outthink ourselves, and I think if we just do the right thing, no matter how big or small it looks, and just respond in obedience, which is what we did. We start every year with a bunch of prayer in YWAM, and one of our leaders said, “Jesus needs an offering.” So I said, “What’s it for?” And he said, “Well, we’re going to take an offering, and we’re not going to know what it’s going to be used for, and we’re going to collect it all.” And there were 68 missionaries there. None of us had a salary; we all raised our own support. So I asked him, “Well, if we know what the offering is, it’ll be better.” And he said, “No, no, no, this is what God told me. We’re going to take an offering and we’re going to put it at his feet, and he’s gonna tell us what to do.” So anyway, so make a long story short, we raised a couple thousand dollars with these missionaries. And we started praying and no one could figure out what to do with the money. And that was right when I was engaging Tijuana, which is one of the largest cities in Mexico. It’s got 1,000 foreign factories, very low unemployment rate.
So you have 5,000 people a month moving into the Baja region. And I was just discovering all of this, and I ran into a man, Sergio Gomez, who built homes for the poor. He was a former boxer and had big guns and a gold tooth and used to sleep in his car before he got saved because he was so poor, and he knew what it was like to not have a home. He introduced me to some families he had built a home for, and I started crying and got motivated. I said, “Sergio, is there any way me and a few friends could just do one house?” That was my whole vision. And so I went back to LA and I said, “I know what the money’s for: It’s for the poor.” In fact, I love the three rules of the early church, you know: abstain from sexual immorality, don’t eat and drink blood offered to idols, and then later in Galatians, they told Paul, “Don’t forget the poor.” And Paul wrote back, “That was the very thing I was eager to do.” And so I presented this and everybody was “Yes and amen, let’s go do it.” So 18 of us went down on Memorial Day weekend in 1990 to do one house – that was our whole vision. And while we’re building, there was another family living in an old abandoned bus on the side of a hill, and my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter started playing with their kids, and ran over to me the second day and asked a question that changed my entire family’s life, and over 100,000 other people that have now participated in Homes of Hope. She said, “Daddy, are you going to build a house for the bus people too?” And I can still remember that moment with great emotion, because I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m gonna have to do a second house.” But this time, I had no money, I had no team, I had no way to even know how to do it. And that’s a whole other story. But we did the second house, and then we did 12 in one year. And then we did 25, and then we did more and more. And so, right now, we’re almost doing 380 houses a year, all over the earth – it’s almost one a day. And it all came from just saying yes to an offering, and just moving in compassion, and having a soft heart, and not overthinking your obedience. So it’s a great story.
Ray: From your three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, look at what God has done. That is powerful. And Sean, as I said a moment ago, and in the opening of the program, one of the things we love to do on this program at Bottom Line Faith is really help business and marketplace leaders apply their faith. But we want to learn from the best Christian thought leaders in the marketplace. And so I think there’s a real lesson there. And you talked about you just went in faith and you did one thing out of faithfulness. And then God – it seems like – just showed you step by step. Would you agree with that, just kind of like, one thing at a time?
Sean: Oh, yeah. That’s the problem with our American franchise system. We want to know everything, we want to think it all the way through, we want perfection before we even have obedience. In fact, one of my friends, who’s a great Bible teacher, says in the Bible, it’s God speaks, we obey, God explains… maybe. But the way we like it is, God speaks, we demand explanation, we obey… maybe. So I think we just have to get on with acts of kindness. When we get inspired, do it, you know, reach out and do it. Don’t wait for the perfect plan. Just start going out in obedience, which is kind of how we ended up with engaging the business community. I had a friend who was a CEO and in a small group forum with YPL, and he brought his small group – eight men and women – and they built the house and they loved it. And that turned into a whole movement within YPL, so much so that we’ve had over 600 presidents of companies build homes with us – mostly with their families. And then some of them thought, “Well, this is really great for my family. I want to bring my whole company.” They have one company, right there in Indianapolis, that has brought over 5,000 employees, spouses and kids through Homes of Hope in the last seven years. So it’s been amazing. Engaging the poor is such a life-changing experience for everybody.
Ray: Sean, how many houses into the project did it take before you realized, this is it, this is the full time, this is what I’m supposed to do?
Sean: Not very many. My real passion has always been youth, and Youth With A Mission, the organization I work with, has this founding vision of waves of young people. And as we all get older – I’m 57 now – we say youth is an attitude; you just say it louder every year. And I still believe in young people. But the first 350, 400 homes I did were all with high school kids. and I never spend a nickel on trying to get business people. I should have, but I didn’t. I just kind of went with whoever got sent, so all of these business people that have come have all been word-of-mouth. In fact, our Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, has come and built the house. Steve Reinemund, who used to be the chair and CEO of Pepsi, has come and built a house. Not trying to name drop, just trying to say, it’s been such a fabulous event, where we just have hundreds and hundreds of business leaders that have brought their wives, their kids, their employees. In fact, one of my favorite stories is this business leader from Chicago who always went skiing in Vail during Christmas and New Years and decided to participate in one of our first Homes of Hope events for business leaders. And his thirteen-year-old son Patrick was kicking and screaming, saying, “Dad, you’re ruining my life. I should be skiing and I’m working with these stupid poor people.”
At the end of the trip, in the red carpet lounge at United Airlines, as he was flying back to Chicago, he turned to his dad and said, “Dad, this is the best vacation we’ve ever taken as a family.” And he’s come 24 times now through Homes of Hope with his family. And so, one of the best tastes we can give of God to our kids is to engage them with poor. And when I say that, too, I want to be careful because the way Homes of Hope works, it’s very relational. So I think the best answers in life are always relational ones, and Ray, you’ve built with us, and you can attest to this, that maybe the first few moments you look and say, “Oh, they’re poor, they’re different than me.” But after just a few minutes of being there, you realize, these people are just like me. They have dreams, they have hopes, they have kids, they have jobs, and then you become friends with them, and you work relationally with them. And that’s the power of Homes of Hope. It’s very relational. In fact, God did not send a payment for our sins; he sent a person. And the best answers in life are always relational answers. And so whenever we move relationally, we’re moving with the true nature of the Kingdom of God.
Ray: Sean, I’d like to just transition a little bit because, boy, our half-hour is going to go extremely quickly here, because the power of the story. But let’s talk a little bit about leadership, let’s talk a little bit about your journey as a leader. You know, you’re now 25, 26 years into this journey with the project and all the homes. And so you’re really in celebration mode to some degree. But take us back to maybe the toughest time and your journey, when maybe discouragement set in or where you maybe questioned God in that. Can you elaborate on that a little bit and tell us a little bit about that?
Sean: I’ve never experienced discouragement.
Ray: Alright, well, then we’ll move on. I know that’s not true.
Sean: Yeah, well I’ll tell you, I got started with a bang. And we’re rolling the first couple years. And I call it sloppy – I was a good-hearted leader, I had good character, but I was sloppy in the sense that I wasn’t really well thought-out and well-managed in my own leadership skill. And a day came when my right-hand guy, who’s over money, came and said, “I have to tell you something, I’m struggling with addiction. And you know, I need to take a break.” So by the time the smoke cleared, you know, I don’t know where $50,000 went and blah, blah, blah. And we were very small. And I remember most of the other staff, when they saw the house of cards starting to fall, they bailed too. So we went from 28 staff down to about 5. And I was at max, I was emotionally running out. So I call this pastor, you know, if you ever need a hug, call a pastor, right? So I call this pastor, and he listens to me grouse for a few minutes, and he says, “Sean, the problem with the way you’re telling the story is, you’re blaming everybody else for what happened under your own leadership. You need to quit making excuses and accept responsibility for everything that’s happened.” And he hung up on me. And I thought, what kind of pastor is this? I’m telling you, guys, that changed my life, I want to write a book someday called “It’s Not My Fault,” and have the “not” crossed out. Because as soon as you accept responsibility in your own leadership for what’s happening, you become a growing leader. And so what happened is, I quit making excuses, and all of a sudden, I saw all of these learning and growth opportunities. In fact, from the minute I prayed,” God, if this is true, you show me,” the learning and the energy that came back into me was phenomenal.
In fact, I turned to my wife at my lowest point and said, basically, “I quit.” And I said, “I’m a failure as a leader, let’s do something you want to do.” And I have a very wonderful wife, and she started crying, and she looked at me and she said, “I just want to be in the will of God.” And as soon as she said that, it was like rebar came into my soul, and I thought, “Yeah, I just want to be in the will of God too.” I was crying, and so we prayed, and we both had a sense that if we quit now, Home of Hope is done. No more poor people are going to get a house. So we had this sovereign sense of destiny, that God still wasn’t finished with us. We had some learning and growth to do, but he wasn’t finished with us. And then a long story, God started speaking to us about pruning, trimming back things that were, you know, I love John Wooden, “I never mistake activity for achievement.” So we had lots of activity and maybe not so much achievement, so we pruned back everything. And I’m telling you, since ‘94, the fun of learning and the fun of growing, especially when you quit making excuses. I’d say the best gift you can give yourself – any leader – stop making excuses. It’s not everybody else. It’s you. And then all of a sudden, you have this 20-20 vision, and you just become a growth, and then the hope comes back into your heart because you’re growing and you’re seeing accurately. And hope comes from seeing life accurately, and then when you have hope, you can add learning to it. Now we have a $15 million organization, with 170 full-time staff and, you know, thousands of people coming every year. It’s just amazing.
Ray: That’s phenomenal insight, Sean, and that is advice that is absolutely applicable, whether leading a sizable non-profit ministry that you’re leading, or if you’re a CEO or a business owner building an organization or a company. That’s totally transferable advice, wouldn’t you agree?
Sean: Absolutely. In fact, one of my favorite things I’m onto now is maybe one of the most misunderstood scriptures, where it’s in Acts, attributed to Jesus. It says, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” And I think most of us would turn that into a financial thing, right? “Oh, I better write another check.” But let me just flip the words just a little bit and say this: “Only what you give to is what you get to keep.” So if you think, like in education, they found the best way to retain learning is to give it away, meaning the teacher that you think back in high school or college was the best teacher, they somehow got the information through you and back out of you, whether it was writing or creative project or whatever, and they made the class fun. And there was discussion because the information is going out of you. When it leaves, you actually get to keep it. It’s true in relationships, right? If you have a spouse, and you don’t give to them, guess what? You’re going to lose them. If you have kids, you know, and you never pay attention to them, you’re not going to have relationship with them. So the best principle I think that no one ever talks about, that I’d love to see somebody amplify at a deeper level than I’m in right now, is only what you give to is what you get to keep. And that’s what I found with the poor. The more I gave to the poor, the more rich I got, in the sense of fulfillment. And I think it’s such a great principle that it applies so much more than just to finances.
Ray: That’s incredible. So Sean, I want to do something. What I’d like you to do is take a moment and walk us through the experience of Homes of Hope. What happens? Just give us a high-level framework, and then I want to come back and talk about the impact that this can have on presidents, business owners, and executives. Obviously, that’s our audience. So walk us through what happens on a Homes of Hope experience.
Sean: Yeah, I think I think it starts with the value of the one. I’m not a big movie guy, but the movie The Martian, with Matt Damon, where they think he’s dead on Mars, but then they realize he’s alive. So they got one chance to come back. And there’s this little scene where the crew of the spacecraft has to defy NASA and decide if they’re going to go back and get him or not. And there’s a great line in the movie, and I cried like a baby when I saw it. It said, “533 extra days in space is worth that guy’s life.” And I just started crying and I thought, that’s the heart of God. You know, that’s what makes Homes of Hope work. If one is valuable, then everyone is valuable. And as soon as we start picking and choosing who’s valuable – that’s why this whole issue of abortion is so relevant, because if you’re diminishing, if one thing is not valuable, well, then I can pick what else is not valuable. And it’s the value of everybody. Well, what I love about The Martian is you have the whole earth, the Chinese, everybody, thinking about how can we save one person. And to me, that’s Homes of Hope in a nutshell. It’s the value of everybody – not just because they have a felt need, but because God created them in his image. Therefore, they are valuable, and we can reach out.
In fact, we just did the why thing. You know, Simon Stark, I think, has a whole thing on the why. And I won’t bore you with the whole story, but we came up with one: engaging a broken world with God’s generosity. And Homes of Hope is all about engaging a broken world with the generosity of God. And so a whole bunch of people get together, usually 18 to 20, and say, “We want to go and make a difference in a family’s life.” It’s two to three days to build, depending on what part of the earth you’re in, and what happens to a person, everybody ends a trip and says, “I got more out of this than the family who got the house.” And again, it goes back to that Acts verse I said, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.” So actually, we’re wired to be givers; we’re wired to be generous. And when we are, we’re more fulfilled. So people go, “Wait…” it’s like the thirteen-year-old who said to his dad, “This is the best vacation we ever had.” It’s because God made him to be a giver, not just a taker. And whenever we engage people in giving, they grow and have a blast, so Homes of Hope is really all about a “love your neighbor” party. And we make it fun to come and do it. We have all the food; we have the transport; we pick you up; we have builders; we have host translators; it’s all dialed in. So it’s a very repeatable trip that engages the poor and is a big celebration and a big “love your neighbor” party, you know.
Ray: That’s incredible. And one of the things that struck me, Sean, is just how turnkey this process is, having been on multiple builds. While God shows up differently each time, I kind of know what to expect from the experience itself, because I show up on the job site, and the materials are there and the leaders are there and the resources are there and the family is there that we’re going to work alongside, and quite often their neighbors are there. And you really have scaled this and systematized this. And if you’re a business leader, listening to this program, and if you’re looking for an incredible – not only life-changing experience for yourself, your family, your employees, your customers – I want to highly encourage you to learn about the Homes of Hope experience. When you’re on the experience, you’re going to learn how to run your organization better, too, because you’re going to learn about teamwork, you’re going to learn about scalability and maximization of resources and just repeatable processes. Sean, I just want to say congratulations, because that’s been a just another part of the takeaway for me, personally, is how process-oriented this entire experience is. Fantastic.
Sean: One of my quick favorite stories, Ray, is a group that the board was going to sue each other. They had five or six companies and an LLC worth about a billion, and they were not sure how to dissolve it all or what to do with it. And so they were fighting and some people wanted out and some people wanted to stay in, and it got messy, and they were going to all sue each other. And so the chairman of the board took them on a Homes of Hope trip and they built for a mom with three kids, and it started raining. They almost quit because it was so wet, and they opened the door to say to the woman, “We’re going to leave now.” And she was sitting in her little shack, with a river of mud running through her house, shivering with one of her kids, and the guy shut the door and said “We’re gonna go have lunch now.” And he went back to the team and said, “We’ve got to finish this off.” Anyways, they finished the house. It was very hard, very difficult. The next day, in just less than two hours, they made great decisions. Everything got resolved, and the CEO of the conglomerate came to me and said, “You have saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawsuits, just through Homes of Hope.” He said, “What happened is Homes of Hope recalibrated everybody in that room because we were all selfish, and we all made decisions for the benefit of everybody, not just for the benefit of ourselves.” And I’ve had so many leaders of companies say Homes of Hope is the best teambuilding event we’ve ever been a part of, and they’ve tried all kinds of different things. We’ve even had Ken Blanchard come three times, John Townsend, so we just have a lot of fans that come and feel that Homes of Hope is such a great event for their company.
Adam: Sean, I’m curious, just from a marketing perspective, is that out there on your digital properties, your website? For families, it’s the best vacation you’ll ever have. For business, it’s the best teambuilding event you’ll ever have. Or is this just all word-of-mouth and God’s driving the bus?
Sean: Well we have some. It’s mostly word-of-mouth, to be honest, and I’ve found that with bigger companies, they often will go on a recommendation of a friend more than they will on a website. But we do have if you Google that, we’ve got a media center, we got all these quotes, and we got videos and all kinds of things on there, so you can go to that and figure out how to engage with Homes of Hope that’s
Adam: Sean, would it be okay if we came on the road and brought the show to San Diego?
Sean: Absolutely. Let’s do one right at a Homes of Hope site, or at dinner or something. We’ll have a show and bring a bunch of leaders, and we’ll have them share directly for themselves.
Adam: I’m not that handy, but I can hold up the drywall, and if you put Ray and myself up in San Diego for 10 or so days, we’ll see you.
Sean: You know what else, guys, that’s so important. God showed me this. Homes of Hope is open to anybody who wants to. You don’t have to be a believer. You can be Jewish; you can be Muslim; you can be Hindu; you could be anything. You can be atheists; you can be whoever, anybody who wants to serve the poor is a friend of ours. And that’s the other cool thing about the company process that we have is that it’s open to every employee. And we do have some prayer times at the beginning of a job and at the end, but it’s optional. You don’t have to go. I’ve never had one person say, “I don’t want to be a part of it,” but it is optional. In fact, when I do orientation, one of the things I’ll say to them, “Some of you are going to drop the F-bomb out at the work site. And one of my staff is going to say, ‘Praise the Lord.’ It’s going to work out about the same so don’t worry about it.” So what we do is we just have fun, and I think as believers, we have to be more inclusive, you know, like Bob Goff said in his book, Love Does, “Sometimes we act more like bouncers than ushers. We need to start helping people find their seats.”
Ray: That’s great. I love it. And I can say this, Sean, that on the multiple home builds that I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of, the moment when your team hands the keys to that well-deserving, incredibly beautiful family, the moment you hand those keys to them, and it’s their home, there is no feeling on the planet like that. You literally have transformed a life, and God has worked through you. And so if you’re a listener here, you’re a business leader, and you’re looking for something that’s going to transform your life, transform your company, transform your leadership team, check out the Homes of Hope experience. Well, Sean, believe it or not, we are at the tail end of our program. And our listeners who are familiar with the program know that we end every interview with this same question. And I always take just a moment to set the foundation for this question. It’s based out of Proverbs 4:23 that says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for from it flows the wellspring of life.” And there are some biblical scholars who believe that those were among some of the last words that Solomon wrote, some even believe that possibly, he wrote them while he was on his deathbed, certainly at the tail end of his life. And so this is the picture where the wisest man to ever have lived is writing these words, saying, “Look, I know you’ve learned all these things from me. I’ve learned all these important lessons in life, but above all else…” And then he says, ”Guard your heart.” So Sean, in closing the interview today, we’d like to ask you, if you’re at the tail end of your life, and you’ve gathered your loved ones and your family and your friends, and those that have known you throughout the course of your life, what’s going to be your above all else advice? What would you say to our listeners, “Above all else…?”
Sean: Believe in a 360 degree God of relationship, meaning every part of our life, God cares about. He cares about our health, he cares about our families, he cares about our finances, and the more than we see a 360 God, that he wants to be a part of everything that we’re doing, the more that we really have what I call true life. You know, Jesus said, “I’ll give you living water,” and true life is seeing God in every part of it. In fact, Mary – Jesus’ own mother – thought Jesus was the gardener in the tomb. Now think about that. If she saw in Jesus a gardener, that leads us to think, you know, God is a designer, God is an architect, God is an accountant. You know, everything we think is secular, God already is. It all came out of who God is. So this whole thing of seeing some things as spiritual and other things as not, see a 360 God that wants to be a part of every aspect of our lives.
Ray: Folks, that’s incredible advice from Sean Lambert, president of Youth With A Mission, Baja/San Diego. Sean, it has been an incredible privilege
Adam: I love it. Sean, thanks for joining us. 360, you know, we’ve heard some statements, and that question, some answers that stick with you, and that’s certainly one that’s going to stick with me. So I personally thank you for that answer.
Ray: Sean Lambert, we want to thank you for coming on the show. Again, it is YWAM – that’s the acronym for Youth With A Mission – is the website. Sean, just real quick, are there any Twitter or Facebook pages we should know about?
Sean: Yeah, I think there’s a Homes of Hope Facebook page as well.
Ray: And you can find that through the website, of course. Sean, such a pleasure to have you on Bottom Line Faith. Thank you.
Sean: Thanks, guys.