Lessons Learned in Leadership: How Billy Graham’s Northwestern role influenced his ministry
Though Billy Graham spent only four years as president of Northwestern, his time at the school would influence his ministry throughout his life.
"I can see that many good things came of my time there, especially in the experience I gained in management and finances and in working with a board," Graham wrote in his autobiography, Just As I Am. "The years there also gave me a greater understanding of young people. All of this would be valuable to me in future years."
At the time of his appointment, Graham was the youngest college president ever. "In his role as college president, he became aware of both his strengths and weaknesses," said Graham spokesman A. Larry Ross. "I think he was overwhelmed."
Surrounding himself with trusted leaders
Graham held the title of president of Northwestern, while pursuing God’s calling to a life of evangelism. That taught him an important lesson in leadership.
"His time at Northwestern developed a pattern of leadership he would follow throughout his career," said Ross. "“The pattern was that he chose the right leaders and equipped them to do the work. He chose good people for big positions and then got out of the way. I think that’s something that was honed at Northwestern."
Graham also found colleagues at the college. Many of the early leaders of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association were people Graham had worked with at Northwestern, including George Wilson ’36 (college business manager), Luverne Gustavson ’39 (Graham’s secretary), Betty Lowry (described by Graham as "an administrative whiz") and Jerry Beavan (college registrar).
Ross added, "Through Northwestern he formed relationships with men who would remain at his side through his life." When Wilson died in 1999, Graham said, "George Wilson has been one of my closest advisors for well over 40 years. I owe him a debt of gratitude I can never repay. Human terms cannot measure the remarkable contribution George has made to my ministry."
Wilson helped keep the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association on the cutting edge of technology in using computers to build and maintain mailing lists and a donor base, and even won awards from the United States Postal Service for his work. Upon Wilson’s death, Prison Fellowship’s Chuck Colson said Wilson was "probably helping the Lord reorganize His computer files and reduce production costs in Heaven."
Wilson’s devotion to the Twin Cities and Graham’s reliance on Wilson kept the headquarters in Minneapolis, even though Graham lived in North Carolina. The University of Northwestern connection is the reason that for four decades, "Minneapolis, Minnesota" was "all the address you need" to write to Graham.
"George had been an established businessman, and all of his supplies and contacts were in the Twin Cities," recalled Ross. "He was established there and felt there was no sense reinventing the wheel."
Ross noted that the Midwest location served Graham well. "I’d go into the office in Minneapolis for meetings and somebody would be having their 35-year anniversary luncheon," he recalls. "There’s a strength of character and commitment in the workforce pool there that I think was a benefit."
Casting a wider net for evangelism
Throughout his ministry, Graham was known for reaching beyond his strict fundamentalist roots to involve the broader Christian community in his ministry. Some of these efforts were questioned and even challenged by leaders at Northwestern. In his autobiography Graham recalled, "While some of the men on the board did not like it, I saw great new possibilities for evangelism in this development."
During this time and in the early days of his evangelistic ministry Graham developed some deep convictions about the subject of separation. In a November 1958 article in Eternity magazine Graham wrote, "It seems to me that the entire weight of Scripture lies in the direction of fellowship rather than separation. John 13:34 and 35, 'A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another.... By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.'"
Ross notes, "He got a renewed vision for a unified Christian community and would often work with over 100 churches to set up a crusade. His goal was not ecumenism—to come together just to be together—but to find the common denominators on which everyone could agree. In many cases it was a burden for their community and for evangelism."
Ross said the tension between some board members at the college and broadly based evangelistic crusades helped Graham learn a balancing act that would serve him throughout his career. "Maintaining his conviction without compromise—while realizing there’s an opportunity to work together—was galvanized there," said Ross.
The importance of media
KTIS radio was also part of the fabric of the school. Although plans for the station had begun a decade earlier, the station "signed on" in 1949 during Graham’s presidency. Graham was instrumental in raising funds to start KTIS, and his was the voice listeners heard during the dedication prayer.
"As he got his own ministry, he knew the importance of media ministry," said Ross. "He started stations, and starting KTIS strengthened his commitment to radio and to media ministry." Later, Wilson was influential in Graham’s ministry by expanding the organization into television, radio and satellite broadcasts.
Equipping for another call
"He obviously didn’t have the credentials or degrees for [the presidency]," continued Ross, "but it prepared him for the many challenges that would come as God put him in situations where he had to totally depend on the Lord’s strength— whether it was preaching while sick, or going into communities and countries where against great odds he would do the seemingly impossible, trusting the Lord for the outcome."
From learning management skills to finding managers, and from locating his ministry doctrinally
to locating its headquarters physically, Billy Graham’s life and ministry were shaped by his years at Northwestern—four years full of lessons and people that helped to equip him for a lifetime of evangelism.
Written by Doug Trouten, chair of the the communication department at University of Northwestern. He has taught journalism at the college since 1999 and was the editor of the Minnesota Christian Chronicle for more than 20 years.