Luminary: Rich Carney, Executive Director of Austin Bridge Builders Alliance
The life and career of Dr. Rich Carney, Executive Director of Austin Bridge Builders Alliance (ABBA) is an incredible journey of faith, stewardship, and vision. His reputation for mobilizing Christian and business communities in cities across North America has provided Rich a unique cross-cultural and organizational perspective to maximize excellence. We recently had the privilege of sitting down with Rich to hear his story of victory through faith.
all things faithful Thank you for sitting down with us today, Rich. Our followers may not know this but you’re such a man of vision and life experiences spanning the military, government, church and faith-based ministries. You currently serve as executive director of Austin Bridge Builders Alliance. What you and your team are doing is so exciting! Can you share with us a little bit of ABBA’s history, your mission, and the impact that it’s having on the communities you serve?
Rich Well, the idea for ABBA has been around for 30 years, but we only incorporated 16 years ago. I stand on the shoulders of so many men and women who’ve done some great work, but Dan Davis and David Dalgleish especially come to mind. One was a businessman turned pastor, the other one was a businessman with great vision and the two of them just loved the Lord and had this idea: how to bring the body of Christ together, starting with pastors.
You know, in one sense pastors are some of the most isolated people in the world. They feel they have to be perfect – their wives, their children, basically everything. When you feel like you have to be perfect and you’re isolated, it becomes very lonely.
So, Dan did something unique – at least it was unique at the time. He created an outreach called “Pastors in Covenant,” groups of pastors supporting each other. It took a long time, but over two decades it started spreading out.
Over the years, many groups were created and supported by ABBA. Initiatives just like Pastors in Covenant: the March for Jesus USA, they rallied churches around the area and the Austin Disaster Relief Network (ADRN), where we put together their first board and made introductions to pastors. There have been other things, we’ve interacted with some great ministries like the partnership we’ve had with Alan Graham, with Mobile Loaves and Fishes. What a powerhouse that organization is!
This is what ABBA does! We make connections with people of like-minded hearts doing God’s work through great ministries. ABBA is kind of like an incubator or a relationship connector. All of these people have their own calling on their own lives, but what we have found is that God uses a neutral third party convener to start so many things that make such a difference in our community.
We make connections with people of like-minded hearts doing God’s work through great ministries. ABBA is kind of like an incubator or a relationship connector.
That’s a little bit of where ABBA has been and our history. I’ve been here five years, and we’ve seen a lot of great things. I’ll share a couple of these. Today we minister to four different sectors: the local church, the marketplace for business, civic or city officials (government), and nonprofit leaders. We’re strongest by far in the local church and the marketplace. When I got here we didn’t really have any relationship in the marketplace, and it’s just been a God thing again and again.
With local churches, we’re partnering with Christ together and other organizations of churches in the region. We started mobilizing churches to come together to serve the community, and during the last few years we’ve seen over 150 churches from across theologies, ethnicities, and geographies partnered together representing or mobilizing over 7,000 people.
The objective is to practically serve as the hands and feet of Christ, to love people in the community, but there are other motives there. For instance, helping the body of Christ learn to honor, respect, and trust one another, and from that they have some shared identity.
Also, working with the marketplace has been phenomenal. Early on, a number of business executives approached us and said “Would you please get involved with this?” and we did. We’ve done a number of things including business lunches, business summits, activities where we bring business leaders together with great speakers – notable speakers from around the country. What’s happened is encouragement. If you’re an executive, I don’t care if you run a billion-dollar company or growing startup, there’s a lot of loneliness. You need encouragement. While you go to church on Sunday and get equipped with a lot of good Bible training, you also want to know how to live this faith out Monday through Saturday.
ABBA provides opportunities and events for business leaders to network with their peer group and making connections. Over 5,000 people have attended one of our faith and work events over the last five years and to God be the glory.
ATF You’ve had such an amazing life story and career, including nearly 30 years of service in the United States Army Special Forces and Reserves, the State Department, and the Department of Energy. How did the strength of your faith influence your decision making and in your life choices during those earlier years?
Rich That’s a good question. I like the choice of your words “strength of faith influencing decisions and life choices.” Although I didn’t know it at the time, my strength started when I came to faith in Christ. As a ten-year-old boy, I was actually listening to the pastor on Sundays. Of course, I know now that was the Holy Spirit who convicted me of where I was and as I visualized it and understood it then. I accepted Christ, was baptized, and it was a love journey. As a young teenager, every time the church was open, I was there.
I grew up in a time that was spiritually active, during the Jesus movement. It was intoxicating, with people coming to Christ, getting saved left and right. All people, races, rich, poor, all flooding into the kingdom at one time and it was just a beautiful thing, changing the culture and the climate of people and especially in that generation.
When I got to Junior High I started thinking about what to do with my life. I remember one day walking across the church campus, talking and negotiating with God, and I said: “I think I should go into ministry.” We’re having this conversation and then the doors of the sanctuary open up and I see the pastor up there giving the announcements or something and I think “Oh, I can’t be that good”, and of course, it’s just a young boy’s perception of things. So I said, “I’ll go in the Army.”
Why that came to me at the time I didn’t know, but I went off to college where I met my wife Sandee. What a wonderful experience college was for me! I was in ROTC, then went off to the service. We were active in all the chaplain ministries, going to the chapel, things like that.
Whatever I did in life, I wanted to be the best I could possibly be. And my dad was good at that, he said “Son while you’re young, don’t have any regrets. Do everything you possibly can do.” I was very athletic, so I joined the 1st Ranger Battalion. I went to Ranger school and all of that. I served during the time when our country was under the Carter-Reagan administrations. We were really at the cutting edge of a lot of things that were happening during those days. Then I went into Special Forces, which for those who are not familiar are the Green Berets. I went through that training and was assigned the 7th Special Forces group down in Panama.
And so all along the way, my early journey had an impact on all my decisions. When I was in the Army, I loved what I did. I absolutely loved it. I think God blessed me and I excelled at it. And I noticed that men would come to me when they had issues. Now, I wasn’t a chaplain and I had no intention of becoming a chaplain. But I did notice there was something different.
Eventually, I was recruited by the State Department in a counterterrorism role. And when I began that journey, I more intentionally started praying again. I was in Washington DC – a terrible commute that took an hour and a half just to get into the office. I start praying on the way to work, and at five minutes I’d be done. But that five minutes soon turned into an hour and a half of prayer.
All these things were foundational and strengthened me, we were also quite active in our church and I think it was a tribute to Bible study and prayer. I was very engaged in the Word of God. Precept by precept, word by word. I served as a Deacon and Elder at several churches and ended up becoming a vocational pastor. I had two or three other jobs and was doing that, but all along the way, God was in it. He strengthened us and opened doors and we saw His church grow. Lots of people came to faith, it was just an amazing journey.
So I guess I would say the strength of my faith did influence decisions. Decisions to want to go to the military because I wanted to serve and give back. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to protect people who couldn’t protect themselves. In special forces, we have a motto, “De oppresso liber,” which means to free the oppressed. I even get calls from friends, some who are not of faith still, and I pray for them all the time. They say “Rich you’re getting to do that, to free the oppressed in ministry.”
When you go into the ministry or military or whatever, whether you’re in as a business leader, it’s always a calling. All of this is God’s calling. It’s not like I left God’s calling when I left the military or I’m in it now because I’ve been doing faith-based ministry. It’s always a calling. HE just shifts the focus. All the things I’ve done, all of these decisions – the things that were in my leadership and my understanding – all came through my faith. Constantly praying.
I can remember, I was at a training camp during Desert Storm. I was in this tent in the middle of the Saudi desert. And I had been there for a couple hours praying and one of the non-commissioned officers – a great man who later became a pastor as a matter of fact – came in and said “I knew I’d find you in here all alone praying. We need you over at the headquarters.” No matter who you are or no matter where you are, you can be who you are, if you’ll stay faithful to that.
No matter who you are or no matter where you are, you can be who you are, if you’ll stay faithful to that.
ATF We read in Jeremiah 29:11 where God declares he has plans for each of us. It seems like God had amazing plans for you throughout your whole life, bringing you into roles of leadership. Can you share one or two of those times when God guided you down that uncertain path and offer advice to those of us who are listening for God’s voice in our own lives?
Rich Well, when I think about the question of uncertain paths, they really combine with the leadership moments in my life. When I was a young captain I was an adviser in El Salvador to their military during a tough time in their country’s history. I knew in the military or in life it’s not about you it’s about getting the mission accomplished and working in it and through other people. I was at a Brigade headquarters that was under attack from a distance and while we were standing around the maps looking I could quickly tell where their artillery was located. If they moved it just a little bit, they would be in range and they could help the troops that were really having a tough time of it. I knew if I went to the colonel in charge, he may not be as open to my recommendations. You know, this is his country, it is his army. I understand that. So I went to one of the other officers I was close to, off to the side. I gave some suggestions on what might help, and I left it at that. And I started praying because that’s all I could do at that point.
Sure enough, he went over and talked to the colonel. The colonel got all excited, this is a good idea. And they moved the artillery pieces down one mile. They were within range and they helped these people, from what could have been a catastrophic event. It was a combination of faith and the fact that I’ve been given that ability.
God has given me a gift to see and think strategically and I could see quickly, tactically what needed to happen. But it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. I knew right off the bat, I needed to work through others and in life so many times people want their flag or their organization’s icon to be highlighted all of the time. Here at ABBA, that’s not an issue for me. I want to bring all your flags. We undergird everybody.
But it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
Perhaps a second example was when I worked at The US State Department in the field of counterterrorism. We did all kinds of amazing things. In one moment, I would be overseas talking to an ambassador and had to get an agreement. And so, I took the time to pray and process what I was going to say and how I was going to say it and God was with me. I’d always pray before I went. And then 30 minutes later I’d be with this driver and I had to do the same thing. I always had to shift – and I’m not saying I always did it well – but I always had to shift culturally. And that was an amazing journey.
My faith was always with me because there were always people that were not Christian. I had to communicate effectively to them and let my love for people come out in that. Wherever I’ve worked I always combine prayer.
Many Christians in Government never use their faith out in the public arena. I would say “let me give you some names, some people in there that don’t know the Lord”. And so here I’m actively in the government, doing my job, and again it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. People love wisdom. People want good leadership. And so we’re doing this all along the way.
The thing is, we need to be bold. Wherever it is, whether it’s the military, its ministry. We have more authority given to us by the God of the universe than we would ever think possible. I think too many times we hold ourselves back and I think one of the things that can help you in life to live your faith stronger is to talk to others like you’re doing here. This is so important. Us sharing best practice, if you will, about life. And so that’s what I share.
The thing is, we need to be bold. Wherever it is, whether it’s the military, its ministry.
ATF Where do you feel God is leading you in the future, with you and the staff of ABBA? What does God’s calling look like now?
Rich The last 15 years God has allowed ABBA to work more specifically with pastors and God has blessed that. We’ve seen the church come together and unify. So much so that they come together and serve practically in the community in a great way. We believe God is doing the same thing in the marketplace with business leaders.
I believe that in a similar way, we have that opportunity right now before us. We’re still going to serve pastors and nonprofit leaders but we believe that we need to take a stronger or more direct focus towards the marketplace. Men and women need to know their Monday through Saturday is just as important as their Sunday. They need to know that there is no sacred or secular divide. Everything is sacred. If you’re a construction worker, every nail you hammer into that wall is an act of worship. And that’s something you need to think about.
It’s just as important as the person who stands behind the pulpit and preaches on Sunday. And I know pastors would agree with me. All of us are called. We’re all pastoring. As a matter of fact, your discipleship most often these days is at work. That is where you have an opportunity. So many wonderful men and women in this community are doing amazing things. If you had heard about it, it would open your eyes and say “Oh my goodness I could do that?”. Yes, you can do that!
Again, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Do you love people, do you care about people? I think we’re going to be in that area and there are some things this year we’re excited about. We have our annual CEO-Pastor Gala Dinner, where we bring together CEO and pastors for a gathering, and it’s wonderful. We had 200 people last year, all sitting together. We bring down those walls. You know, a leader of a multi-million-dollar company and maybe a large church or a small church, it doesn’t matter the size. The point is, when there are two kingdom leaders, they can start to value each other a little bit more and then together we can move The Kingdom of God!
This year we’re glad to announce that we’ll be a part of the Global Leadership Summit. ABBA will sponsor the sole site for Central Texas and that will probably be about the time we will make some other announcements about how and where men and women can engage their faith in the marketplace as well. Along the way, we’re not leaving out our pastors or nonprofit leaders. We’re going to have leadership opportunities in those corridors too. Also, a lot of churches have already approached us. Very prominent churches said ” We trust you. We need ABBA. We want to work alongside you, and we think there’s something out there that you can provide to local churches on how to better interact and connect with the local business community.” And so, we hope to do that as well.
ATF A lot of exciting things going on for ABBA and how they help the community! It’s really profound. Too bad there’s not more ABBAs around the country, right?
Rich Amen. Yes, I agree with you there. I wish we were ubiquitous.
Men and women need to know their Monday through Saturday is just as important as their Sunday.
ATF We know there’s a growing challenge in making faith relevant to younger generations. Rich, what words of encouragement would you offer to young people struggling with the call for Kingdom building?
Rich I think it starts with yourself. If you’re going to build the Kingdom, you need to know yourself and be yourself. I was speaking to a group of about 200 leaders at Austin Stone and it was an amazing time to share about leadership. This young man got up and said: “What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you started in this journey?” I had some answer I started off with and I stopped. I said “No, that’s not true. The truth is, I wish I’d realized that the people ahead of me didn’t have it all figured out and that I didn’t have to model myself after them. I need to model myself after Jesus.”
If you’re going to build the Kingdom, you need to know yourself and be yourself.
It was so true, because so many times as young men and young women, we model ourselves after other people when it’s the Lord Jesus we need to model ourselves after. That is so key. That’s the first thing.
I think the other is that it’s about relationships. Do you like people or not? I’ve always been very serious. I am the guy you call when you want to make something happen. And that can have the tendency to place “project over people.” I’ve been in situations where we mobilize tens of thousands of people. We see all kinds of wonderful things happen.
But I also see a downturn and I always want to say why isn’t this consistently going up and the Lord through prayer says “Son, you’re doing great work. However, you’ve got to love people and people take time.” When I learned that, it changed everything. I also had a lot more joy from doing it.
Loving people doesn’t mean you have to slow down everything you’re doing, but you do need to be walking with the Spirit and listening to Him. And if you really do care about the kingdom, which I hope you do as a young person, God wants to do miraculous things. You know, I got to see a great movement with the Jesus Movement, and it was intoxicating as I’ve said. But you, too, can experience that same thing.
Stay faithful. Stay in the Word of God and pray and remember you’re not alone. The biggest enemy you have is not sin. The biggest enemy you have is isolation.
What I would share with you is this. Stay faithful. Stay in the Word of God and pray and remember you’re not alone. The biggest enemy you have is not sin. The biggest enemy you have is isolation. Because if Satan were to isolate you, which he can’t, but if he could keep you from God and your best friends, then it’s really easy for sin to take you down. So I would say don’t isolate yourself, even if you sin. Ask God’s forgiveness, you’re forgiven by the blood. Get a friend and talk it out, overcome it, and you can be something very, very special. You can see great things in your life. I just say a blessing upon anybody that wants to advance the Kingdom!