(RNS) Despite his busy schedule as president of Colorado megaministry Focus on the Family, Jim Daly makes it a priority to leave the office in time to arrive home by 6 p.m. to spend time with his wife and two young sons.
But, as a recent conversation with his 9-year-old demonstrated, he confesses that the balancing act isn’t always easy.
“He says to me, `Hey, Dad, you’re really not focusing on your family’ and he gave me a big smile,” Daly said, wincing, as he recalled the trip to drop his son off at school on the way to the airport.
“I said, `I’ll be home tomorrow night and we’re going to wrestle in the basement’ and he said, `Good enough!”‘
For Daly, the emphasis on family is not just a job, nor simply a ministry, but a personal crusade. The 48-year-old father spent much of his childhood in Southern California’s Morongo Valley as an orphan after both his parents died by the time he was 12. Now, he’s striving to not only be a good father himself but to encourage others to look at adoption, heal a marriage or help a struggling teenager.
Daly, who attends a Colorado Springs church linked to the Calvary Chapel movement, describes God as the ultimate father figure. One of his favorite Bible verses is from Psalms, which describes divine protection for the fatherless and widows.
“He’s for the widow and orphan; he’s a father to the fatherless,” said Daly, who became a Christian in high school during a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp. “Those verses all meant a lot to me.”
With Daly as Exhibit A, Focus on the Family has developed “Wait No More” conferences to encourage Christians to consider adoption for children who are languishing in foster care. Colorado officials credit Focus with helping reduce the number of children awaiting adoption in the state from 875 to 550 over two years.
Yet Daly says he’s not satisfied with the drop: “We want to keep on that number until someday it’s no child is waiting.”
As Daly adjusts to recent layoffs at Focus and breaks new ground with expanded outreach efforts, he’s sticking with the ministry’s well-known conservative positions on social issues. In November, he signed the Manhattan Declaration, a document that opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and limits on religious liberty.
Now that founder James Dobson has stepped down as president and chairman of the board, and plans to yield the microphone at his daily radio talk show in February, Daly is slowly becoming the public face of the Colorado Springs evangelical ministry. Yet Daly, who hasn’t decided how to fill Dobson’s radio role, said he views himself as succeeding, not replacing, the well-known broadcaster and psychologist.
“People have often said, `Are you going to fill his shoes?’ and I laugh, first of all, and then I say, `No one will fill his shoes,”‘ he said. “I’m asking the Lord to just give me a new pair of shoes.”
One thing observers have already noticed is the two men’s different styles. Where Dobson was unapologetically outspoken and sometimes partisan, Daly is more winsome and more likely to seek out those with whom he disagrees.
“They’re both committed to the same principles and the same ideas,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council, who also signed the Manhattan Declaration. “They just may approach them from a different way.”
Daly, who worked at Focus for 16 years before ascending to president four years ago, has also opened other new doors, reaching out to 20-somethings that make up more than 10 percent of his staff and seeking civil dialogue with people who typically disagree with his ministry’s conservative Christian stances.
At the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington this fall, Daly shunned the traditional podium and invited Esther Fleece, his assistant on millennial relations, to join him onstage on side-by-side bar stools.
“(W)hen you look at that group, the value voter group, a lot of them are middle-aged or older and they’re reinforcing one another’s worldview and perspective, which is one I believe in,” said Daly. “But we’ve got to engage and raise up the next generation of leadership.”
Fleece said the speech was a display of Daly’s “very relational” personality: “He doesn’t talk at people. He talks with people.”
Those talks extend to groups that have been at political loggerheads with Focus, including the Gill Foundation, a Colorado-based gay rights organization that has been on the opposite side of the ministry’s political arm in state political initiatives.
“It’s better to try a dialogue than not, but, as you know, sometimes talking doesn’t really result in any movement on either side,” said Tim Sweeney, president of the Gill Foundation, when asked about his first private meeting with Daly earlier this fall. “It’s sort of a wait-and-see, but I’m hopeful.”
Though he differs with many of President Obama’s political positions, Daly sees promise in the White House’s fatherhood initiative, writing that “we need more men to follow his commitment to being a husband and father.” Daly said Obama’s experience of growing up with an absentee father “resonated” with his own story.
“We don’t have to give up our principles,” he said in an interview, “in order to have a discussion with people.”