Special Profile: Peter O’Donnell

Posted by: DVULI | June 27, 2023

Peter O'Donnell holds a Hoberman sphere.

by Kimberlee Mitchell, Staff 

The thumbprint of Peter O’Donnell can be seen across most components of the DVULI curriculum/training experience. Before the program’s launch in 1998, Peter was identified as one to help lead the design and format of our 7-module program built with kingdom intention. While there have been updates and modifications to the 15-month training, Peter’s insight and precision has greatly contributed to what has sustained DVULI for 25 years. We recently spoke with Peter about his own DVULI experience and discovered there were nuggets previously unshared with the DVULI audience.

Were you once a youth worker?

Not in the typical sense. I had a degree in developmental psychology and was working as a university career counselor when I came to Christ. I came to realize that developing people was not just a job but a ministry. Using my counselling background, I volunteered to train YFC Youth Guidance workers and served on the board of my local YFC chapter. I then joined YFC Canada as National Training Director, which led to a similar role for YFC International. I launched my consulting and training practice in 1988. A decade later I was invited by a former YFC colleague to be part of the DVULI design team.

A quarter century hanging out with DVULI urban youth leaders annually, what was your takeaway?

I’ve had countless conversations with participants at the second national conference (NC2) where someone would say, “You know what? A whole bunch of things came together for me at this conference.” It’s like the light bulb went on for them. Many of them also said, “Now I know why instructors and alumni often tell me to trust the process!”

Looking back at what DVULI has built, does anything surprise you?

We always wanted the message out there that you (an urban leader) can do more. What surprised me was that there were often people who thought, “Yeah, probably not in my ministry backyard.” From the outset we believed that perhaps 25% of the participants would end up changing ministries within two years. A major challenge we face is helping them create space for innovation. That’s been key to our success from the beginning.
Many leadership development programs end after a few years, often because they were designed to force people toward certain results instead of creating a space for people to grow into their results. Most programs are focused on delivering content modules, but DVULI’s design is all about creating shared learning experiences. Those experiences give our participants, regardless of their city and year, a common language to support each other’s diverse ministries.

What’s one part of this initiative that makes you proud?

The city coordinator model. I think it was brilliant that first time out for a city coordinator we said, you’re a co-owner. You’re not sitting off in a corner or taking time out from the sessions. You’re there learning too. If the city coordinator is not doing the work alongside the cohort, they have no idea what’s going on. They can’t be as helpful as they need to be if they’re not in there to share in the learning journey … both its struggles and its breakthroughs.

Is there a significant leadership lesson you’d like to offer the DVULI family?

During my time with YFC Canada I became discouraged by some of the leadership changes at the national level. I resented how those changes interfered with how I was approaching my work.

In my devotional time one morning I stumbled across a parable I’d never explored before. In Mark 4:26-29, God is the Sower, and the seed he sows grows no matter what we do. This parable captures an important reality. Sometimes we are incapable of knowing why certain things are happening in our lives, but we can always count on those events being part of God’s plan. Our response isn’t to question or complain, it’s to make ourselves available for the harvest.

That reset my attitude and sustained me for the remainder of my time with YFC. I realized I needed to stop complaining about how the organization was getting in the way of my calling and, instead, I should figure out how to live out my calling despite whatever worldly barriers were blocking my efforts.

…More recently I’ve realized that what I’ve done at every point in my career, and my life more broadly, is to partner with God in developing people. Helping them to discover and express fully their callings. I also believe we each have multiple callings. Our lives are always a mix of ever-changing commitments as God’s instruments of reconciliation and growth in our unique worlds. That’s why the core value of Balance is foundational to the DVULI curriculum…We are more than our ministry position. My primary calling over the past couple of months has been as a grandfather, helping a granddaughter navigate a major life change, helping her to respond to God’s call on her life. The constant thread is partnering with God in developing people.

What would you tell an urban youth leader entering the DVULI journey?
Trust the process! The DVULI journey is designed to crack you open during the training, help you grow, and then sustain you for the long haul.

Gerald Bell (Kansas City 2003) contributed to this article.