A High Calling

When academic success proved hollow, Steve Douglass decided he wanted something more.

by Judy Nelson   |  03 . September . 2010
image-steve-douglass-calling-465x280 "The secret to this ministry is its people and the Holy Spirit. They are the ones to keep the ministry alive," says Campus Crusade for Christ president, Steve Douglass. Photos by Tom Mills

Standing in the Great Court at MIT, Steve Douglass was alone. His father had driven the freshman 16 hours from their home­town of Rockford, Ill., to Cambridge, Mass., for college.

“My dad shook my hand for the first time ever,” Steve remembers. “Good luck,” he bid, and turned to walk away. The tran­sition was abrupt and left Steve alone to face his future.

During his midwestern childhood, Steve had inherited a heavy load as man of the house; his father’s alcoholism required him to become an early family stabilizer. And shortly after Steve left for college in 1963, his mother divorced his father, perhaps sensing her safeguard­ing son was no longer there to preserve the peace for her and Steve’s younger sister.

While still in the Great Court, Steve began to set goals for his next 4 years: get good grades, find leadership opportu­nities, go on a few dates and play college basketball -- “not too difficult for MIT,” he adds. He remembers a firm determination to succeed.

Four years later, Steve had substan­tially accomplished each of his goals. He found himself again standing in the Great Court, this time along with officers of the college, classmates and his mother in the audience. His name was called to receive an award he had set his heart on as a fresh­man.

As Steve climbed the cement steps to receive the silver platter, it was almost as if the steps turned to hollow wood and this thought echoed in his mind: Big deal. So what? Later he realized, if even in the mo­ment of success it’s no big deal, then this is going to be a long life.

Between MIT and Harvard Business School, Steve met a group of Campus Crusade students in his hometown. Success had proven hollow; maybe there was meaning in a relationship with God?

“What I saw in those meetings was the love and joy of Jesus beaming forth from the faces and lives of the people in a small group of students,” he remembers. “They didn’t just talk about Jesus; they lived out His presence and power in their lives. It was magnetic and irresistible. One night that summer I sat up in bed and said, ‘God, that’s what I want.’”

At the end of his 2-year master’s pro­gram, Steve applied his newfound faith to his business mind. He and three Christian roommates spent 800 man-hours and con­ducted more than 100 interviews for their master’s thesis on Campus Crusade for Christ.

It was an unusual endeavor to fo­cus on a not-for-profit at that time in one of “the high temples of capitalism,” Steve says.

They discovered the ministry had grown by more than 50% in one year and was not equipped to handle its expansion, so the project set out a 3-year plan to help the organization adjust and thrive.

By the time it came for Steve to graduate, he had calculated the best investment of his life, and a few months later was invited to a celebratory dinner for the top 2% of his class academically. He soon realized the dinner’s real purpose -- not to congratu­late the scholars, but to affirm the faculty and administration. They enjoyed hearing that steel companies, Wall Street and fam­ily empires would soon receive the best that Harvard Business School had to offer.

Each of the 14 graduates told what they would be doing next. Ironically, Steve was last, and the expectancy culminated like an exclamation point punctuating a salute to a free enterprise’s future. Steve took a deep breath.

“I have decided to join the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ.”

Silence.

“Forks dropped,” Steve recalls, “and so did jaws. People averted their eyes and coughed.” The exclamation point curled to a question mark in the uneasiness: Where have we gone wrong? The professors thought. He’s joining the not-for-profit sec­tor? This is not ethical!

In 1969, founder of Campus Crusade Bill Bright, a former businessman himself, asked who would imple­ment the project’s recommenda­tions. Steve’s response had already been decided: I will.

Since then, Steve has been serv­ing skillfully, applying his learning and more as Bill Bright’s administrative as­sistant, vice president for administration, executive vice president, U.S. director and finally president designate in August 2001.

“You know what most people say about following a founder, don’t you?” Steve laughs. “The prognosis is not good for most -- 5 years at best -- and even less for those who follow a strong founder!”

Still, 9 years into the job, Steve has kept the ministry on track, even stream­lining where the original mission may have picked up extra baggage. Although Steve worked closely with Bill for 3 decades, he returned to his mentor when Bill was on his deathbed in 2003, commit­ting to God’s 1951 vision to help fulfill the Great Commission.

Steve believed that God would bless what He had given, and if the ministry were to veer off that path, it would lose its gift to the body of Christ and perhaps God’s hand of blessing.

Many people expected Steve to bring in a new program or project as the launch of his presidency, but when he sought God, Steve got a different message. “The secret to this ministry is its people and the Holy Spirit,” Steve says. “They are the ones to keep the ministry alive.”

Steve awakened early one morning in August 2002 to sense the Lord saying, movements everywhere. That phrase be­came a concrete rallying cry, one that was measurable and motivational.

Steve’s heart was flooded with tremendous excitement over what God had planned: Everywhere there would be local movements of God, people who band together in the power of the Holy Spirit to own the goal of teach­ing others to teach others to teach others about Jesus. Just like the group of students he met the summer of 1967, whose infec­tious faith helped him come to Christ.

My primary role,” says Steve, “is to make Campus Crusade effective in help­ing to fulfill the Great Commission by building spiritual movements ev­erywhere.” Steve’s days are busy, overseeing 25,000 staff members in more than 190 countries.

“The Bible is our manual,” he says, “and my job description is first and foremost to walk closely with God. That alone helps to take care of a lot of problems like worry.

“Campus Crusade for Christ has al­ways been God’s,” Steve says. “I simply have the great privilege of helping to make the most of it.”

“Given Steve’s background,” says Denny Rydberg, Young Life’s president and a ministry peer of Steve’s for 20 years, “it’s a testimony to his discipline and love for God that he is so stable; he’s like a solid tree with a great structure.”

Steve Douglass faces the future with stability, experience at every level and a passion for God’s success in reaching the world.