By Marcia Bosscher

Karon Morton: Conducting Honorable Business


Living in Madison, I have occasion to visit InterVarsity's National Service Center, the hub of InterVarsity operations, serving over 1,600 staff, including field staff who work with 909 InterVarsity chapters on 590 college and university campuses across the U.S. At the NSC, I have come to know and deeply respect Karon Morton, the woman who gives leadership to the operations side of the organization. I appreciate the time she gave to The Well to be interviewed about her work and her role as a woman in leadership.

Karon, you are Vice President and Director of Operations at InterVarsity. Tell me what that means. 

Vice President — all eight vice presidents on the cabinet report to the president, Alec Hill. Our primary job, for each of us, is to be thinking about the good of the organization as a whole. And then Director of Operations is my particular area: the finance area, IT, HR, legal, some pretty significant infrastructure pieces. The other team I oversee is the directors of our three retreat and training centers.

You grew up with parents who were in business, is that right? Did you work in the business?

Yes! They decided I shouldn’t waste my summers away, so my brother and I both worked at the company, which manufactured power supplies and transformers. I could actually read their resister at one point. And I can do military spec soldering, which really impressed my sons! I worked with my parents through my college years, though my mom died during that time, when I was nineteen. 

Was that sudden?

She went into the hospital for a week of tests and died within the month.

You don’t have to talk about this, but you were young. That must have had a powerful effect on you.  

It's actually really critical to my faith journey because I had an experience when my mom died. I grew up basically in a non-Christian home; we didn't go to church or anything when I was growing up. We got the call that my mom had passed away, and my dad and I went to the hospital, and I just said, "I'm not going into the room. I'll go up to the floor with you, but I'm not going in." But the nurse just ushered us in, and there I was, all of a sudden. My mother's body is lying there and the nurse said, “Will you look for her possessions?” And so I did. The nurse left the room and I went through her things.  And what I realized is that my mother wasn't there. She really wasn’t there. It was just such a profound experience for me.

My father remarried pretty quickly after my mom died, and he married a woman who was a Christian. We went to church on Easter Sunday and I heard the Gospel. And I just knew it was true. So my mother's death in November, followed up by the spring message of Easter, it all just came together for me. 

Did you go on with school or work?

I took a break from school after my mom died, for three years. I just took a night class, because I really needed to get more involved in the business with my dad to try to keep things going. They had been a team. And through helping run my dad's business, I discovered I was pretty good at it. So I actually took some tests and went back to school and majored in business. 

When you finished school, did you continue to work with your dad?

I was working four jobs, actually. It’s a funny thing. The Bethel Lutheran Church here in Madison had a choir that was touring the country and they came to our church in California. Their choir leader gave a talk about identifying what you're really good at, and focusing on that. At the time I was working at the church, I was working for my dad part time, I was working for some friends of mine who had gone into consulting, and I was doing the books for an insurance agent. I thought, yes, it would probably be a good idea for me to focus on something.

I went to Urbana '79 and came back trying to figure out what I was going to do. I was encouraged to apply for a job with Urbana, came out for an interview, and then came to Madison to work for Urbana. I thought it was a two-year commitment, but was then recruited to be the next Urbana operations director, and I did that for twenty years.

This grew into other pieces and finally, I was Senior Associate Director of Missions and Urbana. I was working with Dan Harrison and really overseeing both Urbana and the missions team, sort of the back office person there. Everybody else would go out all over the world during the summer and I was the one staying here.

And then Steve Hayner [past president of InterVarsity] offered me the opportunity to move into this role. I stayed on for one more Urbana doing both jobs, and then moved fully into this position.

You moved into a position with a tremendous amount of responsibility.

Early in my days in this job, I kept having a nightmare that I was forgetting something that was very important that I was supposed to be doing. It terrified me. I so wanted to be competent, and be seen as competent. Finally, I had to humbly ask my supervisor, "Is there anything I’m missing that you think I should be doing?" My recollection is that he said, “Probably, but I can't think of anything." I also asked that of a couple of colleagues I trusted the most. Their reassurances helped, but frankly, I still live with that concern. The Lord has simply helped me to enter into my own "humanness" and realize that I am going to make mistakes and that's part of the journey.

Have you seen major changes in InterVarsity in your time, in terms of women in leadership?

When I came into this role, Geneva Vollrath was the Vice President of Advancement, and we together became the first two women VPs in InterVarsity's history. We looked at each other when Steve Hayner said, "We need more people who can sign stuff." That's sort of how it was presented. But Geneva and I could look each other in the eye and say, “This is a big deal.”

But a big deal was not made out of it at the time.

It was very low-key, and even to this day it is rarely talked about. I think part of that is that there are two minds when it comes to women in leadership within the organization. There are a number of folks in the fellowship who are complementarian, although they choose to be supportive of women in leadership in the fellowship; if you were to look at a church environment, they would think differently. And so it is still a sensitive topic for some. 

What do you see in the organization today? Do you see barriers for women?

It's not overt. But I hear women talking about not being given credit for their ideas. They’ll say, "It was my idea. A man affirmed it and built upon the idea, and then the man got credit for the idea." I hear that frequently. That's a very subtle nuance that happens in a team setting. And that, I think, is one of the biggest problems we actually face in InterVarsity these days for our women — are their voices being heard and acknowledged?

Do you think women leaders can be helpful with this?

Yes, and I think we’re learning as women how to support each other in leadership. For example, in a meeting where I was describing how I saw something, another woman stepped up, even though I don't know that she had a strong opinion, and said, "Yes, I really like what you're saying." And she affirmed two or three things that I had said to bring emphasis to her support. I think as women we can strategize about how to help each other move ideas ahead. And we can collaborate and cooperate with one another.

You can feel very alone. The support from other women is very important. As we get more women in leadership positions, I think we can help each other, knowing that we are taking some risks at the table, that feel more risky to us than they might feel to a male colleague. So helping each other have a voice, and receiving affirmation in the context of more male colleagues can be very helpful.

Have you had some times in your leadership where you say, "Oh, this is because I'm a woman that I understand this or am experiencing this."

Yes, and I've gotten to the place where I can now say, “I'm not sure if I'm experiencing this because I'm a woman and I have sensitivity in this area, or not.” I've learned to ask the question, to put it out there with my male colleagues. I find it helps to question myself in front of them, rather than to just assume. One of my colleagues has said to me, I'm not sure that's about your being a woman. I think it's about this, X, Y, or Z.  And so I have to be aware that my own sensitivity at times may not be spot-on, and so testing the waters and allowing my colleagues to give me some feedback can be helpful.

I had a funny thing happen recently. We have a leadership event that we're going to be leading as a cabinet. And all the speakers that had been suggested are women. It was refreshing to have my male colleagues say, "Is it okay to have all women speakers?" And to turn the tables, I actually thought, it is okay to have all women speakers. Women are often put in the position of seeing a full slate of male speakers. But I said, you know, these are leaders we're trying to train. And I think we need to demonstrate men and women working together in partnership. So I do think it's really important to have a man lead part of these sessions. Because what's really, really important, is to see the partnership. 

I read a quote once from George MacDonald, ". . . for nothing is so deadening to the divine as an habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things . . ." I know this can be an issue working in a Christian organization. What brings life to your relationship with God over these years?

You know, I think dependence on God. My jobs have always been big; they're always beyond what I'm capable of doing. I have talked about crawling to Urbana on my knees, because with Urbana there is just so much that can go wrong. You can be subject to weather, sickness, so many things. And in this role, there's so much—the role is so much bigger than me.

And life is just not neat.  There were times in Urbana where I would say, "Lord, can't you just give me a break from all this other stuff—family, health crises? I'm trying to do Urbana." And the answer is no. Life still comes at you full speed, so some of the times when it's most difficult, it gets harder. I feel like God just keeps me needing him. And that is good.

I have to keep my relationship with the Lord vital.  I have to be aware of when a practice has become stale, and I need to move into something that gives me life in a new way in my relationship with the Lord. I don't do the same things with my husband Andy that I did when we were first married. We have different patterns now. And my patterns of walking with God have had to change over time, too, as our relationship grows and changes. And hopefully I mature. [Laughs]

I think I would also like to add that I've built three pillars into my world: spiritual direction, counseling, and personal coaching.  So I meet regularly with a spiritual director, a counselor, and a coach.  I've learned that working on my internal world is as important as the external work I produce. It is indeed a journey inward and a journey outward.  

Karon, what do you find most satisfying about your work at InterVarsity?

What I most enjoy about my work is pulling together the gifts, skills, and abilities the Lord has cultivated in me, and applying them to ministry.  I love what we do in InterVarsity, and it is a privilege to be part of it, even from behind the scenes.  Some days it is tough, the regulatory environment is much more substantial these days, and sometimes the hoops we ask staff in the fellowship to go through feel onerous.  I totally get that.  But, I hope that we will be seen as conducting our business in ways that are honorable in the eyes of the Lord, and above reproach in the eyes of regulators, auditors, investigators, etc., as a witness for Jesus to the world.

Thank you, Karon. Is there anything else you would like to say to our audience at The Well?

Keep on keeping on to what God has called you to do. Be faithful to what God has called you to do.

About the Interviewer

Marcia Bosscher is the former editor of The Well and now an associate with InterVarsity's Faculty Ministry. Having been married to a professor and sharing life with grad students and faculty in a campus church, she has a deep interest and care for those in the academy. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with a golden-retriever mix and a diverse array of lodgers and travelers.