173: Norris Williams: Making The Right Things Easy: A Cherry Farmer Who Leads From True Identity In Various Roles And Cultivates Leaders Of No Reputation
The greatest leaders in the world have no reputation. Like Jesus, they don’t care for accolades or recognition. They simply follow God’s voice in serving Him and His people to the best of their abilities. But those leaders need to come from somewhere. They need to be lovingly cultivated to find their true identity under God’s guidance. This is where Norris Williams comes in, a cherry farmer who prunes not only fruit-bearing trees, but also emerging servant-leaders in the Kingdom of God. As a coach, Norris inspires and equips ordinary men and women to know their true identity and use it to bring about positive transformation in their respective areas of leadership. Joining Thane Marcus Ringler in this conversation, he talks about making the right things easy, living in the Kingdom, being a man of vision, what healthy masculinity looks like, identity versus roles, developing leaders of no reputation, tribalism and so much more.
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Norris Williams: Making The Right Things Easy: A Cherry Farmer Who Leads From True Identity In Various Roles And Cultivates Leaders Of No Reputation
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This episode is an interview with Norris Williams. Before we get to the interview, who is Norris? Norris Williams coaches leaders and builds teams across the globe. Norris inspires and equips ordinary men and women to know their true identity. He catalyzes changes by creating environments where people and teams listen and learn together, cultivating a culture of constant improvement by pruning creativity and innovation. The results of knowing one’s true identity are bringing positive transformation to teams, government, businesses, schools, neighborhoods, homes, communities and cities.
Norris’ coaching has included successful business owners, addicts, government officials, professional athletes, juvenile delinquents, farmers, families and more. Norris coaches people across the US, Middle East, Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. Norris Williams has been married to his girlfriend, Laurie since 1980 and together they have four married children and nine grandchildren. Norris has known his identity since 1973. He has brought his identity to his roles as husband, father, grandfather, international leadership trainer, mentor, coach, student, professional football player, the quarter horse rancher, trainer, farrier, director of a 400-acre ranch for juvenile delinquent boys, wilderness survival instructor, and cherry farmer.
Norris is an amazing man and I was excited to have this time with him. We talk about so much including making the right things easy, leadership, hanging out with the trinity, living in the kingdom, his experience at the boy’s ranch, being a man of vision, what healthy masculinity looks like, marriage, identity versus roles. Developing leaders of no reputation, tribalism, and much more. He’s an amazing man. I was privileged to have this time with him. As I know, you’ll be honored to get to learn from him here. He has lived an amazing life. You can find out more about Norris by visiting Identity Exchange is where he does some coaching. If you want to reach out to him there, there’s a contact that we can get you in touch with his email. If you send us an email, we’ll be happy to connect you guys. Without further ado, please enjoy this awesome interview with Norris Williams.
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Norris Williams, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Thane. It’s truly my pleasure and honor to be here.
I’ve been giddily excited about this conversation. My wife can attest to that. I want to start with one of your skillsets and my dad would appreciate it immensely. From talking to some people, I’ve heard that this guy can hunt. He can hit a moving target from a long way away. Do you have a story of this skillset that you have acquired?
I do like to hunt. We like to eat fresh organic meat in our house. Every year, I hunt deer and elk. The last few years have been successful and I’ve got some nice big animals. The shot was on the run on an elk at 342 yards. That was God’s gift. It was fun.
The other thing I’ve heard you’re quite an aficionado at is riding horses. I heard stories of some epic adventures of riding horses through the wilderness. What is it like to take a horse on an adventure through the wilderness? That’s something that I’ve never experienced, but it seems like a gratifying thing.
When you have the opportunity to have horses that you can trust and that can take you through dicey places and you have to put your trust in them, it’s quite a bond. Taking a pack string of mules and horses through the mountains, it’s an adventure that not many people have and that I can say has brought me such great joy, memories, adventures and hardships. It’s a lot of work, but it is pure joy to be out there and have a relationship with the animals that you trust and they trust you.
In developing that relationship with an animal like that, what is that process like? When did you first start riding horses?
We had a quarter horse ranch. I had horses when I was younger, the family did. We had a ranch where we raised quarter horses for cutting. We had stallions, mares, and babies. The thing that I enjoyed the most was when we would purchase a horse, say from Texas that had been out on the range for two years, wild and you’d get them. They had not even had a saddle, but not much less a halter on. You had to take this wild animal and get them to be able to be somebody or an animal you could trust. My favorite part of that process was taking the wildness and making that wild animal different. We did it through kindness, making the right things easy, and doing the right things was the easy way for the horse at all times. Working with the young wild stock was always my favorite part.
It’s cool to know that story because of this idea of doing it with kindness and love, there are always two paths in trying to train an animal. Sometimes it’s probably by fear and punishment a lot of times versus kindness and love. Maybe that’s still involved. Are there two different paths in training animals? Is it the same process just different mechanisms for it?
There are two different processes for sure. There are those that favor more intimidation and fear rather than making the right things easy. Even with that, there are some horses that it seems like every day they were trying to figure out ways to hurt you and you had to be wary of them. It didn’t make them not useful, just who they were. Other horses were as steady and as predictable as they can. You use the same methods on all of them, but they came out different because each horse was different. You had to treat each horse and mule a little bit differently. The foundation of kindness and making the right things easy was always there. Sometimes, even though you had the same strategy, you had to use different tactics for each horse.
One of the ways that you’re known as now is a cherry farmer. There’s a lot in between horses and cherry farming that we’re going to get to, but I’m curious about some of the lessons you’ve learned in horses like making the right things easy. That’s such a great lesson even for us in our lives, but I’m sure that there is an endless array of examples of lessons that come from farming cherries. From what I’ve heard, you grow extraordinary cherries. This is apparently from feedback from local growers. This isn’t Joe Schmoe saying, “It’s good cherries.” These are people that know the business. I’m curious what goes into growing extraordinary cherries?
The lessons are endless growing extraordinary cherries. Here are a few things. To grow good cherries, you don’t add things to the tree. You only take things away. Every year the tree grows suckers and suckers are branches that produce nice leaves, but no fruit. They suck the energy away from the tree, from the fruit. You have to be ruthless in pruning away the suckers that don’t bear fruit. Otherwise, your tree will be full of beautiful leaves and not as much fruit or smaller fruit. You’ve got to be taking things away from the tree that is keeping it from producing fruit. You do that every year.
It’s a yearly process. As it says in John 15, “Every branch in me that bears fruit is prune so that it bears more fruit.” Even if you have a branch that’s growing, you have to stop the growth out because the branch will want to get longer. You have to prune the end of it so that it pushes all the energy back into the branch so that it can bear fruit. You don’t want it to become this long branch. Every fruit-bearing branch also has to be pruned back so that all the energy goes into producing the fruit. There’s protecting the fruit from predators, from the disease.
Growing fruit is a lot like discipleship. You got to work with each individual tree. Some trees need a complete restart. Let’s say an elk or a deer has come in and mangled all the branches, chewed on them and something happens from the saliva of a deer that destroys the life of the branch and things will deteriorate. There has been damage to the branches from an animal that got in there one night. You then look at it and you say, “I can’t salvage any of this up above,” and you take your loppers and you lop off right below all the damage. It’s a restart and new branches will grow. The trees not dead because it’s still connected to the root, but you got to restart the tree.
I’m curious, in the beginning, what led to you have an interest in farming cherries?
I didn’t have an interest in it, to be honest with you. We were moving here to Cashmere where we live and this property was available and it had a cherry farm on it. My degree is in Agricultural Business, we’d raised horses, I’d raised hay and other crops, but I’d never been an orchardist. When we got here, I looked at it and said, “Lord, what am I going to do with this? I didn’t know how to be an orchardist, how to be a cherry farmer.” I got mentoring from my good friend Ruben Garcia. He is the father of a friend of my son’s who came and I said, “Ruben, I don’t know anything about pruning. I know I need to do it.”
At the time, we had 35 huge cherry trees were on the property. I’ve got my loppers, I’m taking a branch off here and there and he comes up to me and he says, “Give me those loppers.” He takes them from me and he starts whacking branch after branch. I said, “Ruben, you’re killing the tree.” He looked at me and he says, “You have to hurt the trees. If you don’t hurt the trees, no fruits.” I sat there and went, “He’s killing the tree.” He even took a chainsaw out and started cutting off these huge branches. I’m going, “He’s the expert, but this tree is going to die.” That’s what I thought. The next year that next spring, they were filled with fruit.
That principle, “You have to hurt the trees or there will be no fruit,” became something that God started to use in my own life. That became the lessons from our orchard that God taught us. We came into it, my God’s designed not by my great desire to be a cherry farmer. I saw that this was also a way that it’s how my kids went to college because we were missionaries. We didn’t have any money to send them. We have four kids. We started a cherry business and we sold cherries in Wyoming. My kid’s summer job was driving all the way to Wyoming 4 and 5 times a summer and selling 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of fruit a week. That’s how they paid for college was selling fruit.
How many years has it been now with the farm?Make the right things easy. Click To Tweet
What’s interesting is a lot of times, we think about something like farming that, it feels like it removes us from some of the other things that are happening in life. A lot of times, it connects us more to what life is about and grounds us. Also, teaches us lessons that can’t be learned through a textbook because it’s tangible, visceral and it’s physical things that we learn with our hands. How would you say the last twenty-plus years of having this farm grown you or changed you as a man?
Passages like John 15 have come alive for us. Understanding when Jesus gave those analogies of the fruit, branches, and pruning that this was a language that those people understood. They knew what farming and vineyard were because they lived in that world that was their world. It gave them an example that they understood. As you say, most of us are removed from that world. It gave us an up-close look at what Jesus meant and what does it look like to be connected to the mind, to be connected so that you bear fruit. All those lessons became life for us. This is what life looks like in the Kingdom of God.
It’s the orchardist. The father pruning us so that we bear fruit. Each tree is different. You come up to each tree and you look at it and say, “What branches do I get to take off of this tree?” It’s this intimate process because when you are the one pruning the tree, you know the tree and you’re shaping how this tree is going to look. That relationship you have become more real. When I think of the relationship the father has with me, he’s doing these things so that I’ll bear more fruit because he loves me. He loves the trees. I love my trees. I was doing training in Beirut once with these Syrian refugees. One of them had been a farmer back in Syria and had to flee all of that. He was now in Beirut and he had a drop the mic moment in the middle of this training. He stands up and we became good friends as a result of knowing his history.
He said, “You can have everything needed to grow fruit. You can have good soil, water, the right climate, but if you’re not connected to the vine, you’re dead and the branches that are not connected are dead. No matter if you have everything.” It was one of those moments for all the people in the room to say, “We may have lost everything, but we’re still connected to the vine. We’re still alive. We can still bear fruit because things don’t look good for us now and the tree is all mangled.” I described that it got ravaged. There’s still life there because you’re connected to the vine. It’s when you’re disconnected from the vine. That’s when you die.
You mentioned a little piece of the greater puzzle that is, Norris Williams. You mentioned training in Beirut and in addition to being a cherry farmer, the main focus of your work in your life over the past countless years. It has been connected to your identity, but also connected to mission work around the world, training, leading, and helping develop what is referred to as becoming a leader of no reputation. I’m curious what does becoming a leader of a known reputation mean to you?
That began when I was a boy. Both of my parents are gone. They’re with the Lord now. They were instrumental early on in my upbringing too. Some of the questions you said, what was growing up like? My earliest memory is my mom. She couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. She had no pitch, but she knew Jesus. She had this undaunting ability to have joy, no matter what happened. I remember her singing the voice of joy into my life, the voice of God so that I could hear his voice. Early on, I began to hear the voice of God in my life because my mom sang that into me.
She was that person and my grandmother who suffered in their life and yet lived lives of joy and strength without complaint. Her mother died when she was nine. Her father left her. She never saw him for 25 years. She was raised by a grandmother, hardship, suffering, and yet to meet my mom, you met a person to feel the joy of the Lord. Living with my father, who was one of my greatest disciples, but he was a mean guy. Sometimes he was an angry guy and could be verbally abusive.
My mom was undaunted in her joy and her love. That was that example of what it means to have joy and to be able to lead with joy because she led without a position and leadership. She had influence without a title. Watching my grandfather, my dad’s dad, every day he’d come home and he was an ordinary man who had grease under his fingernails every day. He would use lava soap to clean himself and I would watch him come home and he would get his hands all clean as he could. You were not allowed to go into his room until he was done praying, but the door would be open.
I would peek in there and here was my grandfather on his knees and he would stay on his knees for half an hour after he got home from work. I remember looking through the door at that an ordinary guy. A guy nobody knows his name, but he led and influenced. Part of that was in my observation of what real leadership looks like. These people had no title or position and yet their influence was great. I remember early on, I thought, “I’m going to be a mountain man. When I grew up, I’m going to live in the woods and eat my own food.” I would read everything about what living in the mountains was all about. My dad told me, “That’s not what God has for you. God put a leadership gift on you so you’re going to have to be around people.” I was a bit disappointed in that because I had those early dreams to be out in the wilderness for me.
He began to disciple me on what leadership was like. How do you lead as a kingdom leader? What is leadership in the kingdom of God look like? It has nothing to do with position or title. It has everything to do with being able to hear God’s voice. Those were the early days of that. Fast forward to going into places like the Middle East. God put that on my heart early on in my life because my father told me, “God is not the respect or persons like we were. Every man or woman on this planet has a reason to be here in God’s kingdom. It has nothing to do with where they were born or who their parents were. God chose all that for them. He put them there in that place for such a time as this.”
From early on, I always had this belief that every person had a reason to be here. I began to discover, I want to know why I am here, that there were these good works that God prepared beforehand that Norris should walk in those. That’s what I wanted to do with my life. I want to walk in those things that God had prepared for me. God has prepared those same good works for every man, woman, and child on the planet. It seemed like arrogance to me to go in and train people on leadership that works in our culture or think that I’m going to go in and because people take my class, they’re now trained as leaders. I don’t believe leaders are developed in the classroom.
I believe leaders are developed out in the trenches of real-life and you have to be in real life. The leadership principles have to make sense in real life or it’s a course or a class. When you begin to study what Jesus said about leadership, it’s a bit counterintuitive to some of the ways that we teach leadership. I did a study of the gospels many years ago and I looked for two things who are the leaders Jesus chose, and who were the leaders that opposed him, and who did I look most like? It was sobering to see that oftentimes I looked more like the leaders that opposed Jesus than those he chose. The leaders that Jesus was choosing if I had been asked, I wouldn’t have chosen those leaders.
I wouldn’t have chosen those that he seemed to raise up to leadership. The disciples were abandoned of no reputation except bad reputations. I don’t know. None of the people that you would have thought would have made his team made the cut. I would have been like Jesus. Like the disciples when they come up and say, “Jesus, what are you talking to this woman for?” Not only is she a woman, but she’s also a Samaritan. Surely, she can’t be the one to read Samaria. She’s married five times living with somebody. She doesn’t make any of our leadership teams based upon her history or who would have thought that a naked, crazy guy would be the one to reach all of Decapolis. I wouldn’t have.
I don’t want to hang around naked, crazy people. I avoid that. I don’t think that’s not the one that’s going to be here to reach this place, but Jesus sees things differently. He hears from the father differently. It says of him, he was a man of no reputation, not a bad reputation. He didn’t care about that the same way we care about it. When we’re training leaders, what are we training them into to lead like Christ, to where they’re not concerned about reputation, title, or position, but they know how to hear God’s voice as Jesus did? Be able to respond and move into places that they have been prepared since the foundations of the world to move into and bring the Kingdom of God to bear into these places that you and I can’t go.
They don’t need Western leadership principles to move into this neighborhood in Beirut or this village in Nigeria. They need the people that are on the ground there. I felt it was arrogant for me to come into these places and think I was going to teach them about leadership when the leaders are already there. They’re already on the ground. The men and women are there. They know what to do and they will feign appreciation for what you’re doing because that’s their culture. They want to make you feel good, special and we can come home and write a great letter. I trained 300 leaders but what does it do? I wanted to get on the ground with people and say, “What do you need here? Let’s spend time with the father together and ask him what he wants to do.”
If we can do that, if we can get people to learn how to hear from God themselves and know who they are, what their identity is, and have God tell them that, then we got a shot. We got a shot at God doing something there and it’s not dependent upon Norris or my organization. We create dependency on God alone and developing those leaders. The greatest leaders that I know in the mission world, nobody knows their name. There are people that are doing stuff and they don’t get to speak at missionary conferences. They’re not writing the missionary books. They’re leading hundreds of thousands and millions of people to the faith. Nobody knows who they are, their people of no reputation in our world. They’re my heroes.
To re-iterate what you shared about the questions that you asked, who were the leaders that Jesus chose and who were the leaders that Jesus opposed and which do I look most alike?
The leaders that oppose Jesus, not that Jesus opposed.
That’s a great question for self-evaluation. It’s counterintuitive to culture and how we may be instinctually operated. It takes a reframing of our perspective in that. I thought that was a helpful tool to do that. I want to know a little bit more about becoming a leader of no reputation and developing servant leadership, which is what others have also spoken as one of your sweet spots in that. What does that process look like for you in the younger, earlier years? I know football played a role in your life in the early years, and you competed even professionally for a bit and then moved past that into different arenas. It’s a meandering path for all of us in many ways. I’m curious what the different phases or stages of your own development in becoming a leader of no reputation look like throughout those different roles or places that you lived and occupied.
When you live in a performance-based world, which that’s what sports are, that being an excellent golfer and wanting to even advance your career in whatever sport you’re in, it’s a performance-based criterion. This was the early part of high school, even junior high, high school, that whole transition period. Even back then, I was having lots of success. I did well in sports, particularly football and wrestling. When you are living in this performance world and people are congratulating you and wanting to get close to you because of something that you could do, I had a hard time with that.
People weren’t wanting to get to know me for me. They were wanting to get to know me because of something that I could do. The relationships were hollow for me because they didn’t know me. They knew what I could do. That pushed me to want a deeper relationship. It was during that time in my life, 13, 14, 15 years old, that the number one core value that guides my life came into existence. When I discovered how much the Trinity loved me and wanted to be with me, it changed my life. It was the reason that I started following Jesus was that I could be with them and I didn’t have to be good at anything. I didn’t have to be smart, be handsome, and have a great week in sports.
They loved me and they wanted to be with me. That is the core value that I claimed to the most. I get to hang out with the Trinity and I don’t have to be good at anything. I was up hunting here and it was early in the morning. It was 4:30. I crawled into this deep hole in the dark, the wind was blowing, the stars and the moon were out. I was sitting there and I said to the Trinity, “What do you guys like to think about? What do you guys talk about and enjoy every day?”
About that time, these bull elk started bugling. If you have never heard it, it’s one of the most amazing sounds in the woods. They bugle in that darkness and they were all around me bugling. It was this magnificent sound. The father said to me, “We like that. We made that and we enjoy it every day that they’re doing that.” The sun started to come up and the moon was still out and they go, “We enjoy that. We made that. That’s our creation and we love it.” They then said, “Norris, we love you. We don’t just love you. We like you. We like how we made you and we like being with you.” I sat there in my little hole in the woods bawling my eyes out with the Trinity because the relationship is pure and I didn’t have to do anything. I didn’t have to earn it. It brought me back to those early days as a teenager. That’s what changed my life, knowing how much they love me and they have all of me.
When you’re in those performance-based places in life, those systems or roles of competition, whether it be sports or elsewhere, you have to live in these two different realities. This created the reality of that sphere. Whether it be your sport for performance or your job per for performance, whatever that may be, yet we have to work on untraining that within us and knowing that’s not the bigger version and picture of life. This is something that I know I still struggle with, even though I’m not in that sports space, in that career space of competing and trying to perform. How do you live in the midst of those two realms? I’m curious how you did it back after having this experience as a young man and coming to this realization, developing this relationship with the Trinity. What does that look like then to have your life be in both worlds in some ways and having to still perform on the football team but not having that be your identity? What was that process like for you? For most people and it was different for you, it’s not an overnight switch, it’s training. I’m curious what that training was like.
There were some clear watershed moments for me early on because I played hard and I like violence. Even as a child, the harder things were, the more violent things were, the more I liked, I enjoyed it. I loved the physicality of sport and football. I had people who were part of the church that we were with questioning whether I could call myself a Christian and play the way I was playing. I liked the hitting and there were those that thought that you couldn’t be a Christian and play the way you’re playing. These were people that I respected.The greatest leaders have not reputation in the world. Click To Tweet
This became a leadership principle that God used in my life from that point on. My dad, we were talking about this and he said, “Let’s go look at Acts 20 and that whole story of when Paul sailed pass emphasis, landed, lead us and all the elders came to him and told him not to go to Jerusalem.” He said, “These were not evil people. These were the elders. They were all telling him not to go to Jerusalem in the spirit.” They are hearing from God in the spirit. They weren’t speaking evil. They were speaking prophetically. Chains and death, “Don’t do this.” Paul heard clearly from God, “I want you to go to Jerusalem.” He told me back then he said, “Norris, you have to be able to hear God’s voice yourself. Even if everyone is telling you not to do it, if God’s telling you to do it, that’s what you have to do. Even if you are all alone and everybody is opposed to you, even those that are elders. If this is God’s voice in your life, that’s what you have to do.” That became a guiding principle for me because I knew I could hear God’s voice from an early age that I knew God was speaking to me so I made the decision. I’m going to keep playing because this is what I believe God has made me for, to do this thing.
Many people have a disconnect between the reality of living in the kingdom and playing sports. I never did. I remember in every practice, I would be having these conversations with the Lord saying, “Lord, how would you do this drill? How would you think here?” What happens is that God began to give me the vision which became part of my identity because I could see the whole field in my head as every play was an operation. It would happen instant pictures in my head. I could come up to the line. This is what the defense is.
I knew what every player and every position was doing, it would go in my head this fast, how to get open, where to arrive to make the block, and all of those things. I was experiencing his presence as I was playing and I thought, “I’ve got to be able to do this and play for his glory. I can’t have things separated in my life.” This life of living in the kingdom has to make sense in all parts of my life. How would Jesus play football? How would he think? How would he practice? How would he support his other teammates? How would he inspire? How would he lead? How would he endure when you feel like you can’t go on? I began to experience that as worship.
I know that may sound odd to some people, but that to me was a reality for a living. This thing called the Kingdom of God has to make sense in ordinary real life. It can’t just be for the spiritual parts of our existence. It has to make sense and it did for me. That came out of those early training times with my father on how do you experience God. He had me go to Colossian’s in whatever you do in word or do, do all in the name of Jesus. If you can’t, then you shouldn’t be doing it. Everything can be spiritual when we use that grid. I don’t separate the spiritual from the secular because we’re never separated from his love. That’s a lie that somehow what I’m doing separates me from him. Even some of the early investment evangelistic tools we were trained in, there’s this giant chasm and you’re separated from God. That’s not even true. Nothing can separate us from his love. All of our activities in life can be acts of worship, all of them. That’s how I approach playing.
As you transitioned out of football and you moved into what God had for you next, how did that experience shift for you when you were getting into different realms of whether it be mission work or in jobs of providing a living? Did you experience a shift in that, or was it a pivot over and a continuation for you at that time?
I got injured after I signed with the Steelers. My legs went numb from the waist down the first part of the preseason. I had the orthopedic guy for the 49ers back then Dr. Martin and he did an examination on me and he said, “You’re done. If your L5 is up against your sciatic and the way things are, if it moves anymore, you’re going to be paralyzed from the waist down.” It’s difficult. If you’re a golfer and if from one day to the next, you were told you can never golf and can never swing that club again. For a football player, that’s an immediate thing.
When you’re done, you can never do this thing that you’ve been doing now for a long time. If your identity is a football player, that’s going to crush you. That’s why many players have self-destructed because that’s been their identity and it’s not an identity. You bring your identity to every role that you have. Early on in my life, I had discovered who I was. My father had helped me figure that out, “Your identity isn’t football player, this is who you are. You bring your identity, you do this for him.” There were sadness and grief. I had to grieve that loss that I can’t do this anymore, but it didn’t change who I was. That was already secure.
Laurie and I were only married a year so my vision to play professional football didn’t happen all at once. It emerged. It does I was playing at college and had a lot of success. A small percentage of players go on to play professionally so I never had that as a guarantee. I had my degree. I finished my degree in four years. I had done a lot of other things besides play football while I was there. It started a fellowship for Christian athletes, a Chaplaincy program for the team. I may have done a lot of other things that had to do with who I was. Football was an add on.
I did want to have a home for juvenile delinquent boys for something that was in my head from even high school that God had shaped me for to work with marginal young men, to have them know who they are and their purpose in life. I thought, “I’ll play football, make enough money, buy a big ranch and fund the whole thing.” God had the same vision but a different path to where we were missionaries depended upon him every month. God did that for me because he took away the, “I did this. Look what I did.” He’s been faithful throughout my whole life saying, “No, Norris. It’s what I do.”
My father told me when I was twelve years old or so, “Norris, you can’t take any credit for even one molecule of your existence. That’s why God hates pride because of all this that we’ve given and then we start taking pride in it. It’s all from him and for him. Don’t read your own press clippings. This is about him and his glory.” He’s been faithful to keep me. I can’t take credit for anything. It’s been his grace, power, and him at work the whole time. The transition was hard, but the boy’s ranch thing came to being and God provided for us. We’ve been living by faith month by month since March of 1983. He has demonstrated his faithfulness as we follow him in obedience.
To focus on those years, I believe fourteen years for you at the boy’s ranch, was that right?
Flying H. Ranch is what it’s called. What did you learn in those years of this missionary work in a boy’s ranch with other couples? Do you have any favorite experiences or memories from that time that paint the picture of what those years were like?
When Laurie and I started, we had a three-month-old son. We weren’t much older than the boys that were there. The boys were ages 13 to 18. That’s all four of our kids were born and raised. This may shock some people. When we first moved to the boy’s ranch, it’s way up in the mountains, a 400-acre ranch. It was still on party lines. A party line meant that there were four people on the same phone line. You’d pick it up and it’d be your neighbor. He’d say, “Norris, I’ll be off in ten minutes.” There were four people on the same phone line. We had no cell phones and no television.
It was a different way for our kids being raised. They were outdoors all the time and then they were witnessing what hands-on discipleship looks like. Discipleship is a huge passion rather than teaching, but what does discipleship look like? It looks like being in the trenches with people living real life. We were there fourteen years and as you can imagine, hundreds and hundreds of boys went through there during that time. I’m still in contact with many of them. I’ve done their weddings, it’s been pure joy. Some of these guys are in their 50s now. Every day we did devotions and we had times of counseling, all of that.
In the hundreds, thousands of times that these guys have come back and said what they remember, never once did they ever say, “I remember that devotion you led or those things that you said.” They always talk about the experiences, “I remember when we were out bucking hay, training those horses, on the survival hike up in the mountains with no food for ten days and the experiences.” It’s all about the relationship that they remember. It cemented in us that be present. It’s not important what you say, it’s being present and trusting God to say what he wants to say during those moments.
Trusting God to speak through sitting around a fire or a hug. They would say to us, even though it was hard to be there, we felt safe and loved. God used that as a preparation tool for what real discipleship and leadership training look like because I believed back then that this marginal delinquent had chances to be leaders that no one else could be. They already weren’t afraid of much. They were willing to break the law for what they wanted.
If you could get guys like that to go out and lead, you got to shot it at different places that you and I can never go. I used to tell them when I was 25, “You came here because you thought you had this problem, but we’re going to send you out as a kingdom leader back to this home and school.” These principles of, you have a reason to be here has been a part of our life from day one since Laurie and I have been married. Those were great days. Those were training times. I have no regrets there.
When you think about vision and living life on vision with vision, one of the things that people have mentioned is that you’re a man of incredible vision and you’re able to distill down and clarity when there are competing visions per se and work with others in that. You’ve inevitably been able to do that in your life in the sense that one of the references I spoke to talked about how knowing your identity, as you’ve talked about at such a young age, and then being committed to it and living on that trajectory, your entire life is something that most people can’t say. It’s incredible to see the commitment, it’s lifelong in that. As you look back on it now, how do you maintain that commitment? How do you live committed to that identity and that calling in each season and phase and do it with consistency throughout your life? What role does vision play in that?
Vision is not hard for me. My wife used to be nervous. She thought we were moving every week because I would have a new vision for someplace or something because my imagination is vivid on how things could be here or there. One of the names God has given me is that I’m an eagle that sees. There are times when Jesus puts me on his back, you remember when Gandalf and the dwarves fell out of the trees and the eagles caught him. They were there on the backs of the eagles. It’s like that for me. We’re flying around and he shows me stuff, people, and changes that are coming.
It’s because I am comfortable with change and with the crisis, it’s also one of my core values. That has been part of God’s preparation for me that when a crisis happens, I don’t get ruffled. I like crisis and chaos moments and I’m okay with ambiguity. I’m okay that we thought we were going here, but God said, “No. I’m closing that door and now I’m doing this.” I’m okay with that, which helps me when I’m in leadership with a team that we may have been committed to this, but if God hiccups, we want to make sure we’re paying attention. We want to be listening to him and how do we do that.
My ability to build teams comes because I believe everybody has a reason to be on the team. How do you want people to know who they are and how they fit on the team rather than having everybody get on the team to fulfill what everybody should do? I value creativity. I love strategy and tactics. I love to think that way. Another name God has given me is I’m a field general. I’m not a general in the tower. When you’re on the field as a general, it’s different than sitting up and looking down.
You’re in the blood, the blood and the beer, you’re there with people. You see what’s going on with them, and you’ve got to be able to make decisions in those moments. That’s part of what God has helped me to do. I don’t get distracted in the middle of chaos and crisis. I still hear his voice. For me, knowing that about myself has been that anchor when the crisis and the change comes. A number of years ago, this girl we were at a different place. I was beating myself up a little bit because I’m not a naturally contemplative person that can sit in one place for a long period of time and hear from God that way.
I always wished that I was more like that but when I would see these people doing that, I’m more of an ADD guy and I like doing stuff. She came up to me and she said, “Norris, God wants to tell you something now. He likes how he made you. He doesn’t want you to be like these other people. He wants to speak to you while you’re moving.” It was such a powerful moment for me that God wants to speak to me while I’m moving because that’s how he made me. I want other people to be able to hear God how he made it in the way that he has wired them. When we try to tell people, “You only hear from God one way.” We have our seminar on the five steps to hearing from God.
Some guy who is sitting over there going, “I can’t do that. I can’t hear from God,” versus, “How does God want to speak to you in how he made you in your identity?” That’s how I like to build teams where people learn how to hear from God themselves because, without their voice, the team suffers. As a field general, you got to be comfortable with a lot of disparity in what people hear. It didn’t throw you off. That’s why Laurie and I survived so long with juvenile delinquent boys. The average time working with that group of the population is about eighteen months because it’s stressful. I’m just wired that way. I liked the chaos. You’ve got 35 juvenile delinquents, your head has got to be on a swivel. There are fights happening all around your conflict. It’s just gifting. It’s the way God wire some people can handle it. Some people can’t, it’s no judgment. It’s the way God does stuff. I like crisis, chaos and change. None of those things changes who I am.
It’s cool that you brought up there was that moment when God spoke to you through the woman saying that he likes the way that he made you. It was this conflict between how he’s made you versus how he’s made other people that we often desire giftings or abilities other people have or strengths that they have that aren’t ours but we want that. We desire that or it’s even a false identity that we are hanging on to. This is something that happens to me and I’m sure it happens to everyone reading a lot. What are other examples of clinging to something that isn’t you or a trait that you want, but isn’t what God has given you specifically, and there has been me needing to be a rebalance or a reminder that that’s not who you are?The Kingdom of God has to make sense in ordinary, real life. Everything we do can be an act of worship. Click To Tweet
This has to do with significance. If this thing gives me significance versus what God has designed. Some of the hardest times in my have been when I have felt like I’ve given myself to something and then God takes it and gives it to somebody else after it’s up and running. I’m then wrestling with, “Where am I getting my significance from this accomplishment or am I getting my significance by being in the kingdom, by being in a relationship with the King knowing my identity in him?” That goes back to, “Am I a football player?” No. All of these things are all along with our life.
We wrestle with where we’re getting significance. Laurie and I have been married for many years. We had lots of hard times, but if I get my significance from, “We’ve been married 40 years,” that’s just as much a false identity as, “I’m a drug addict.” The enemy uses two things to keep us from knowing who we are. He uses the curses of men, “You’re no good. You’ll never be worth anything. You’re an accident. You’re an addict. You’ll never amount to anything.” All of these curses of men, the enemy uses to build these negative false identities. The other part of this is the praises of men.
He uses the praises of men to keep us from knowing who we are. The praises of men are things that we get paid for. We get notoriety for, we get promotions for, we sell books about, and these feel good. They don’t seem negative and we don’t want to get rid of them. I was doing training in Nigeria last November 2019. These 35 liters and the whole training was on learning to hear from God, your identity, and how to become a leader of no reputation. As we were working through this and we did the whole curses of men thing, and we had people write down what are the things that these negative labels that God has put on you.
They wrote all these things down and then they confessed it. I said, “This other one is a little harder.” I had no idea who was in the room, but I said, “There might be a lawyer in the room, pastor, missionary, farmer,” whatever it is that you like about yourself, we’re going to write those things down. He was a lawyer and he says, “Norris, I like to get rid of these negative things but if I’m not these things, who am I?” I said, “That’s the right question to be asking because these false identities keep us from knowing who we are as much as the negative ones.
When those get taken away, then you have to face your own identity crisis.” If you’re a football player and then you can’t do it anymore. Who are you? The same thing, if my identity is husband, father versus knowing who you are and you bring your identity to every one of those roles. I bring my identity to my role as father, husband, football player. My identity comes with me everywhere I go. None of these roles, titles, or positions ever define who I am.
That’s super good. Having the distinction and clarity between identity and roles, what a helpful rubric in that. You brought up one that is common, husband. For me being a newer husband, this is something that’s also fitting and pertinent. I’m curious, in your 40 years in marriage and having the role of a husband, where have you seen that tension of identity versus role pop-up? How have you managed to grow through that with your wife?
Marriage may be the place where if we’re honest enough, it’s where we can identify our own struggles with kingdom issues. All of us have our own little kingdoms we’re building. We will protect and promote those kingdoms. They’re all a false identity of some kind and nowhere does that become more paramount than in the marriage relationship because that’s the closest relationship. Nobody knows you better than your spouse. Early on as we got married back in 1980, I wanted Laurie to fit into my lifestyle. She was beautiful and fun. I didn’t think I needed to do any changes.
I wanted her to become more like me and that didn’t work at all. Over the years, learning this ability to submit myself and Laurie submitting herself because when you get married, you lose some freedoms. You don’t get to do all the things you want to do. The one who thinks they can keep living and doing everything they want, those marriages don’t last. You have to sacrifice. I have to sacrifice. Jesus said, “Love your wife as Christ loved the church.” He went all the way to the cross for the church. How far am I willing to go for my wife? It seems like I got to go all the way to the cross.
I have to give up my life. What part of me don’t I get to do? I am sacrificing that for her and vice versa. When you approach it that way that we are here to build the other one into who they’re supposed to be, then I’m going to sacrifice myself so that they can live into their identity. That’s part of the marriage relationship. That’s hard to do. It’s easy to say. We internally build these kingdoms that we self-protect and self-promote. At least for me, they pop up with Laurie quicker than anybody else. When in actuality, I know nobody is for me like she is. Why do I experience this self-protection and self-promotion with her when I know that she’s for me like nobody else? That’s part of the enemy’s tactic to try to kill and destroy us.
He wants us to be destroyed. One of the things that have transformed our relationship is we ask a little differently. The prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” We’ve taken that away from, the Earth is not my responsibility for his kingdom to come in now but what if I said, “Your kingdom come, your will be done in our kitchen now?” What would the Kingdom of God look like in our kitchen, living room, bedroom, and kids’ houses? The reality is we’re in this kingdom. Let’s make it real. Forget the whole Earth. That’s not my responsibility.
One day, I had to confess to Laurie. Early in the morning, I had said something and I got conviction saying, “That’s not kingdom language, how you said it, the way you said it.” I came back to her in the afternoon. I said, “I apologize for that.” She then said, “Were you apologizing for the way you said it or the content?” All of a sudden, here I was trying to be spiritual, coming and that internal self-protection and self-promotion blip back up. In my head, I’m going, “Can’t you accept it?” The Holy Spirit kept speaking to me right there. He said, “Norris, what are you protecting? What are you promoting?”
Those little things that we can do for each other and it doesn’t always land well. Laurie will say to me, “Were you living in the kingdom when you said that to me?” We laugh about it now, but it has been this helpful reminder. The Kingdom of God is our 24/7 reality. Let’s talk and act like it. It’s helped alleviate much of the natural propensity to self-protection and self-promotion because that’s not a kingdom mindset.
It’s an amazing thing, but what would the world look like if we were able to eliminate self-protection and self-promotion? That’s a fascinating picture to think about. Before we wrap up, there are two more that see in this culture. The first comes back to team building and a lot of what you’ve talked about even already in your ability to build teams and what that takes. I feel like one of the topics that were brought up in some calls was this idea of tribalism. Tribalism could be the unhealthy side of team building of being a part of a group or a tribe. Not out of your own role or identity, but the larger identity of being associated with it. A lot of that is seen in this idea of tribalism and how we often drift towards that. I’m curious what your thoughts are on tribalism and how to combat that in building healthy teams or helping people live out of their individual identities.
Tribalism promotes us versus them mentality, which is counter to the Kingdom of God. Tribalism promotes a type of unification rather than the unity that’s found in diversity. Seeing how the Kingdom of God has brought different tribes together, for example, Lebanese and Syrian people, which they’ve grown up hating each other. Being trained to kill each other and the same is true with different tribes in Nigeria to sit with people who have been driven out by Boko Haram. They’re now being told by God to go back, go up there and build relationships with these people who hate you. Love them, forgive them, doing a whole-time with Jesus on forgiving your enemies with people who have their whole identity is hating their enemy.
They’ve grown up not only I hate you, but we as an entire nation hate you and you hate us. Now we’re going to ask you to come and sit together, love and forgive each other. That’s what happens in the kingdom. It’s completely counterintuitive to how we think we’re going to regain control of our power. Tribalism, one tribe wanting to regain power over the other tribe. What the enemy is trying to get people to go and do is to use coercive power. We’ve got to exert coercive power over this other tribe. That’s how we’re going to get what we want versus we’re going to use influential love to go on love these people that are completely different than us.
We’re going to go love, forgive, and empower them. We don’t even think that’s a good tactic. That’s why you’ve got all these tribes sitting around going, “We don’t know what to do now, but we’re going to stay in our tribes and we’re going to hate and avoid each other.” I remember I was at this church years ago and they wanted to take me out for lunch after church. As we approached the restaurant, here’s a whole group of Hells Angels all sitting in their bikes and the regalia. They give off this vibe of, “You better be afraid about us.” There was a waiting list.
I went over and I started talking to these Hells Angels. Visiting with them and then I didn’t live in this town. I grabbed a couple of them. I brought them over to introduce them to these people from the church. There was this stiffness. Afterward, one of the guys said, “You know what you did, don’t you?” I said, “No.” He said, “We were upset that you went and talked to those people. They’re not part of us and you brought them over to meet us. You upset all of this grid that we live in of self-protection. We don’t love Hells Angels.” I’ve asked this question to the church many times, “Do you love Muslims? This tribe that you think is out to kill you? Do you love them? God does.”
Can you imagine what it was like when Paul, the Apostle saw and came to town? Everybody ran, hid their children, “Hide your silverware, Paul’s in town. He’s going to take us. He’s going to throw us in jail. He’s going to kill us.” That was his reputation. Nobody wanted Paul to come to town. I said, “Who were the Paul’s in our world that we want to avoid, but God’s ready to use him to change the world?” We live in this fear. That tribalism is the enemy’s tactic. I believe to overcome tribalism, you got to use influential love. It’s not trying to make them into us. It’s trying to love them for who they are. The tribes are all around us. The challenge for each of us is to say, “What tribe am I in that I’m protecting and promoting? Lord, take me out of my tribe.”
The second one that I’d love to know your thoughts on is this idea of what healthy or godly masculinity looks like. You’ve worked with young men at the boy’s ranch. You’ve lived an incredible life as a man, and I am struck by a picture. I feel like you live out what healthy masculinity looks like in that. It’s something that in our modern-day culture, it’s had this negative personification around men due to a lot of the moving pieces within the culture and the way that unhealthy masculinity has pervaded some of the world and history as we know it. Now, it’s relearning how to talk about it or live it in a healthy way and what that looks like and what God calls us to as men. What are your thoughts on that and on this idea of what healthier godly masculinity looks like?
That’s a real live subject there. The term that has been used in an abusive way is the whole term of headship, being the head of your home. The way that I view being the head or the leader is you’re the doormat. You’re the person, everybody wipes their feet on because it depends on you. Headship is a servant’s role. Jesus demonstrated what headship was by giving up his life for us. How do we lead as men by giving up our lives for those that we’re married to, those that are children, those that are our neighbors that are our friends? What if true masculinity had everything to do with sacrifice? What if true masculinity had everything to do with honoring the differences in people?
What of headship had everything to do with building up the other and loving them rather than having them serve you? Jesus demonstrated what it was. We’re the ones that took it and made it into something that was unhealthy. I don’t think anybody did as much for women as Jesus did. Look at all the times when women were the first ones. I love how he always empowered those people and showed us what real headship and servant leadership looks like. If true masculinity looked like servant leadership rather than position or title as the head, it changes the whole game. It changes the way we play. Identity is under attack all over the world.
There’s a demonic agenda to destroy identity, personal identity, even what masculine identity looks like because there has been toxic masculinity and it’s been global. We don’t want to go back to that, but we don’t want to not address what true masculinity looks like either. It’s a legitimate role to be the head of a home, to be the head of the family, but let’s make it what Jesus meant it to be. Don’t throw the rollout because people have screwed it up. Masculinity for me meant asking forgiveness a lot, asking forgiveness of my kids a lot for being a jackass, for being disempowering, for saying things I shouldn’t have said to being honest about my failures.
True masculinity is not getting it all right. It’s admitting when you’re wrong. True masculinity means being first to admit you’re wrong. Lead in the right things. True masculinity has everything to do with humility, the humility of Christ to never think it was something to be equal with God. He demonstrated what humility was. Without humility, we can’t become biblical leaders. We can’t become kingdom leaders without it. True masculinity is cloaked in humility.
Thank you for those words. I’m struck by, and also I’ve heard from others your endurance and the wisdom that comes through suffering as you’ve talked about. As we close this, I’m curious if there’s a moment that you reflect on in your life where endurance where the rubber meets the road of having to endure one of the darkest, lowest moments in your life? What that point brought or taught you? Do you have a memory or a moment that comes to mind in one of those dark or valley times?
When I was transitioning from the Flying H. Ranch to Novo, those were some dark moments. There were unhealthy members of the board and the leadership. I don’t need to go into all of it. We felt like we were going to be there as a life’s work. I had a vision for stuff and then it all got taken away. There was this point because I had told the board, “I will always be honest with you.” I had to tell them, “These are the decisions you’re making that are unethical. You’re making these decisions and it’s affecting all of us. These are unethical things that you’re doing as a board.”
You can imagine how they received that so I got taken out of the position of being the director. I was the lowest person on the staff. I was ready to leave and go. I don’t have to stay here. I got lots of places I could go to. My wife who’s wise and she said, “Norris, we cannot leave like that. We’ve built too many relationships with people, not only on the ranch but in the community for us to disappear.” She looked at me and she says, “You’re going to have to endure and we’re going to have to leave right.” Those were painful months. It was nine more months. We’re isolated and alone. It was her and I, but what God did during those days with us and him, he brought us back to our relationship with him. He opened up Novo after all of that. We left right. We left well. We didn’t leave in a huff and anger. We endured. Those were powerful moments for Laurie and me, for our relationship with each other and with the Lord to endure those times.True masculinity is cloaked in humility. Click To Tweet
You’ve talked a lot about your dad and the lessons that he’s imparted to you. I’d love to know one last story, what he had told you when looking up the universe as a kid.
I was 9 or 10 years old and my dad knew that I love math and science. He’s reading to me about the speed of light. We were sitting in his bedroom. He’s saying, “The speed of light is 186,000 miles a second.” He goes over, “Go turn the light switch on and off. Since you can’t see it, it’s too fast.” Pluto was still a planet then, I don’t know if it got kicked out of the solar system he said, “If you were to travel to Pluto and back at the speed of light at 186,000 miles a second, how long would it take you to get there?” I said, “I don’t know.”
He said, “It’s 30 years. That’s how far away it is. Traveling that fast, it would take you 30 years to get there and back. At the same time, the Earth would age 3,000 years.” Remember I’m 9 or 10 years old and I’m sitting there and I’m thinking about this. He said, “It’s because the closer you get to the speed of light, aging slows down. If you could travel 1% faster than the speed of light, aging stops.” He’s blowing my mind. I’m a little kid. He leans over to me and he says, “God is light and there’s no darkness at all. He’s the ageless one. He’s the eternal one. He uses the Earth as a footstool, but he’s looking for you.” I’ve always had this big view of God. He’s never been small to me. He’s been intimate because he said, “To this one, I will look through who is humble, contrite and he trembles at my word.” That’s who he’s looking for. He’s looking for those people all over the world. I have a fascination with the speed of light, quantum mechanics. I love that stuff. I love to think about it because God’s in it. He created it. He likes it.
What a story, that’s incredible. Your father sounds like an incredible man. What a legacy. Norris, this has been a real joy. I have three pages of notes here. We could go on forever. I want to end with one-offs before we’re done. The first is what are you most proud of in your life and work this far?
That I’m still married to Laurie Ann. My kids love me and they want to talk to me. My grandkids love me. They liked being with their papa. That’s big medicine to me.
What book or books have had the biggest impact on you?
I did graduate school at NOMMA and there was a professor there named David Needham. He used to teach the Old Testament, the Minor Prophets. It was like we were in the presence of Jesus every time we were in class. We’d be sitting on the edge of our seat. When we were done. He was filled with the presence of God. He wrote a book called Birthright. It’s an old book, but it was one of the first times that I heard and I read somebody talks about what our birthright is in the kingdom of God and that this is what’s possible in this reality that we have and who we were born to be our birthright. That was a great book for me. More book that I got a bunch of them that I’m reading now. Anything that has to do with that subject. There’s one that I read by Brueggemann, which I’ve had to reread 2 or 3 times because it’s been powerful. It has to do with a prophecy called The Prophetic Imagination. That’s a brilliant book and it’s an older book as well, but I have been blessed by that.
What question do you ask yourself the most?
I asked the trinity, “These are ideas or thoughts that I have. What do you guys think about this?” They want to talk.
The final question that we ask every guest that comes on, if you could send a morning text reminder to every up and comer out there, what would you say and why as a short message from you to their phones every morning?
Remember they like you. They like how they made you and they want to talk to you. Don’t shut them out.
What a fitting way to end this conversation, Norris. How powerful. I am grateful that you took the time to come. This has been an incredible joy and impact for me as I’m sure everyone reading.
Thank you, Thane. I appreciate the time. I truly do. I bless God for you.
Thank you. If people want to reach out or find out some more from you and your story, is there any place that you would direct people to connect with or any place for them to reach out?
I don’t have much of a presence on the internet on purpose because of some of the places that I go to. I’m not sure how to answer that question. They could email me and I’ll try to respond. Sometimes I hit select all and delete because there are too many. To be honest, I’m old school that way. They could reach out to me that way. I could make that available to you and if they reach out to you and then you can direct them to my email, I’m fine doing that.
If you want to get in touch with Norris, you can send us a question for him at TheUpAndComersShow@Gmail.com. Norris, until next time, thanks. This has been such a joy.
Thank you, Thane. Blessings to you and your family.
Thank you. For you reading, we hope you have an up and coming week because we are out.
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- The Prophetic Imagination
About Norris Williams
Discovering and Serving Near Culture Leaders through mentoring and inspiration, ordinary men and women become Kingdom leaders able to build and lead teams committed to multiplying gospel movements where they live. Men and women become leaders of no reputation, who know their true identity, who know how to hear from God themselves, who know how to prune to bear more fruit and who know the difference between strategy and tactics.
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