More than 50 years ago—it was in 1953—Billy Graham awoke at 2 A.M. with dreams for a magazine. "Trying not to disturb Ruth," he wrote in his autobiography, "I slipped out of bed and into my study upstairs to write. A couple of hours later, the concept for a new magazine was complete. I thought its name should be Christianity Today." Billy used that document to recruit board members and staff and to raise the necessary resources. The first issue was distributed in October 1956 to more than 200,000 pastors and church leaders.

Twenty-five years ago, we published CT's 25th anniversary issue, with Billy on the cover. Our founder responded to questions with lively, incisive insights.

This summer, in CT's 50th anniversary year, we were to meet with Billy again. We anticipated less lively repartee on evangelical currents and world events this time. On the plane to North Carolina, Christianity Today International (CTI) president Paul Robbins and I read Newsweek's August 14 cover story, "Billy Graham in Twilight." Yet he had preached earlier in the summer in Baltimore and, before that, in his "final" New York City crusade.

Our car climbed up a steep, narrow road over the multiple folds of rugged Blue Ridge woodlands to his mountaintop home. As we pulled up, three dogs gazed lazily at us. Inside the modest log home, we soon saw Billy's tall, lanky form moving slowly toward us down a long hall. His warm welcome matched his sunny smile.

The day before, Billy told us, he'd felt a great deal of pain, but today he was much better. "Everything is nostalgia now," he said, explaining that he is largely isolated.

Despite bodily limitations, he stays engaged, reading The New York Times, Christianity Today, 1776 by David McCullough, and, most recently, A Mind for God by James Emery White, the new president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

We talked about the concept paper he had written at 2 A.M., and he smiled, saying he hadn't seen it in a very long time. "It's been a crucial document for us," I said. "When CT was in crisis in the mid-'70s and everyone had a different idea about what the magazine should be, it was pivotal. I remember at a trustee retreat at the Airlie Center in Virginia, Harold Ockenga dug into his old battered briefcase and found it, then read it aloud—every word. When he finished, everyone agreed, 'That's it! That's the mandate for what CT should be.'"

With limited hearing, Billy listened intently. "What year was that?"

"1976. Since then, we've studied and used it regularly as CT's essential grid."

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We talked about The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, the book CTI vice president Marshall Shelley and I wrote as a 50th anniversary project. One of the chapters, "Birthing Dreams," is a case study of his founding CT. Far more than just creating the vision, he communicated it to high-capacity leaders, drove the process, raised money, formed an independent board, and articulated core concepts to staff. He celebrated, prodded, and praised, starting with the first issue and then in supportive ways in various roles for 50 years.

More Than He Is

The book, however, is about far more than his founding and leading CT. For 30 years, we on staff have observed how, even though he may not have read management and leadership books, he leads naturally, congruent with the wisdom and skills you find in leadership literature from Peter Drucker to Jim Collins. It was, in fact, Jim Collins's research in his book Good to Great that most intrigued us. Collins learned that the best CEOs—what he calls "Level 5" leaders—combine extreme passion for a cause with deep humility and a sense of teamwork. Billy's closest associates confirm this is exactly the case with him.

In true Level 5 mode, Billy often deflects credit and puts his accomplishments in the context of teamwork.

"Thanks for your letter affirming the book," I said.

"You've done a tremendous amount of research." He smiled. "But I'm afraid you've made me out to be more than I am."

Billy is intensely aware of his own humanity, intensely aware of human complexity and his own weaknesses and failures, however he perceives them. Despite his genuine humility, many leaders have affirmed to him that the book rings true.

"We loved talking to so many of your trustees and colleagues," I said. "Each had a unique perspective, but they all fit together. Even when they disagreed, it wasn't contradictory. For instance, your brother Mel told us you didn't care one bit about money. However, your ministry trustees said you cared a lot—the trustees, of course, referred to your shepherding of corporate monies, which every CEO must do. Mel meant your personal money."

Billy said Mel had talked to him about investment opportunities. "Mel made a lot of money," he said, with an approving smile.

Money, of course, has always been a crucial issue for any leader, and our research reinforced the widely accepted perception that Billy modeled financial integrity.

He Makes It Happen

We went on to talk of his serving as the benchmark for CTI's core values and positioning. CT has always taken on a fairly unique role—connecting closely with the academy and the best of scholarship, then "translating" the academic content to a broad readership. This combination of blending the contributions of the scholar and the activist parallels Billy's own leadership. When we mentioned this, he said he wished he had spent much more time studying.

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"Yet you've always been an intent student—you've been a listener, with a high respect for scholars," we responded. "Your partnership with Harold Ockenga and John Stott, for instance, had tremendous effect."

Billy agreed, and he told us the story of his taking the initiative to launch Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with Ockenga, who then served as its president while remaining chairman of CTI. "Harold became a very good friend," he said.

As we chatted, one of the dogs entered the room. Billy explained that its owner had died, the dog had been skin and bones, in need of a good home, and he and Ruth had taken it in. Now it was not only healthy but also rambunctious! It wanted attention; it rubbed against us and wouldn't settle down. Finally, Billy asked his associate, John Akers, to lead it outside.

John tried. He got it halfway down the hall, but it came bounding back. John tried again; no luck. I got up, clapped my hands, and tried to hustle him toward the door. The dog ignored me.

Billy pulled himself from the chair, grasped his walker, and slowly urged and led the dog down the hall toward the door, where it bounded outside.

As Billy eased back into his chair, I thought, Here's another simple example of his leadership, like his graciousness and humility. He sees something needing to be done and, convenient or not, gets up and makes it happen. He does what God tells him needs doing. One of his associates told me the difference between Billy and so many other leaders is that when a major challenge or question loomed, Billy would spend all night on his knees in prayer.

Intuitive Leadership

CTI president Paul Robbins began briefing him about a recent trip with other CTI colleagues to South Korea, where plans are developing for a Korean version of Christianity Today. Billy expressed strong enthusiasm, then said, "I've heard people say South Korea may be the number one evangelical bastion in the world. Do you think that's true?"

Paul said he did. "They told us that 41 percent of the South Korean population are now committed evangelicals. They've become the second-largest missionary-sending country in the world."

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"That's wonderful."

"And they're still doing those early morning prayer meetings. At 4:30 in the morning, we went to Sarang Community Church. There were about 1,500 people there to pray—five mornings a week this happens!"

Billy remembered in the 1950s, during the war when they had no heat, their praying was like that. "Those are wonderful people," he said, and spoke of his wife's sister and husband who have been missionaries there for years.

We discussed the remarkable opportunities today, including CTI's role in founding the Global Christian Internet Alliance (GCIA) with organizations around the world, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's use of new technology to present Billy's messages in ways that result in thousands of conversions. He asked about accessing and if we agreed the internet would dominate our future media. As we explored details, he most wanted to know if we were having a spiritual impact on people. "I think about that a lot," he said. "Are we really being used to change people?"

As we reviewed CTI's current editorial leadership, it reminded me of visiting Billy here in his home years ago to get his approval as board chairman for some major corporate shifts. Then he had been on the point, carrying the responsibility. Now he was listening intently, encouraging, full of the same wisdom, giving not direction but blessing.

"My sister Jean [Ford] is coming in a few minutes to see me," Billy said.

"Jean was very helpful to me in researching the book," I replied. "She's delightful—such a fresh breath of air."

"She is," Billy agreed. "It's always refreshing to be with her and [her husband] Leighton, too. They're both so positive."

As I reflected, that's what those dozens of people we interviewed were: positive leaders intent on communicating a gospel of compassion and love. Positive leaders like the CTI trustees Billy personally recruited the first couple of decades. With his intuitive sense about people, he set the bar high for both capacity and spirit, and the CTI board has ridden that momentum for 50 years.

Anointed Patriarch

Among Billy's prayers for us at the end of our time together were these:

"Our Father, we praise you for your majesty and glory, and the fact that you are omniscient, and that you are present, that you're here in this room. … Thank you for all that has been accomplished. We pray this will be only the beginning of a whole new phase as they approach the 50th anniversary. May the vision of the future be greater than the vision of the past."

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Billy walked us down the hall past Ruth's closed bedroom door, which reminded us of her bedridden pain. However, the ironic saying on her door showed her saucy, wry, generous personality: "Nobody knows the trouble I've been." As we passed a spectacular mountain view through the spacious windows, we knew we were leaving a home of tremendous pain, discouragement, courage, love, and faith, all intertwined.

We walked to our car, the dogs happily chased each other, and Billy settled himself in his rocker on the porch, waving goodbye as we pulled out.

Descending the steep hill, we spoke of his prayer for vision, and of his prayer being like a patriarchal blessing on us and CTI's ministry. Later, we talked at length about the many leaders who have powerfully experienced something mystical, a presence of God's Spirit when with Billy. As Fred Smith told us in the book interviews, "You can't understand Billy without understanding that he is anointed."

Once, when asked what he was most surprised by in life, Billy answered, "Its brevity." Too quickly for all of us, his life has moved to twilight. In his 60 years of ministry, he has communicated optimism and hope, empowered soul mates, summoned courage, grown through failures, trauma, and betrayal, leveraged his weaknesses—and ignited other leaders. Above all, he has led with the love of the Lord Jesus.

For Christianity Today and CTI, with all its ministries—and for all Christians in this "best of times, worst of times"—Billy's prayer continues to resonate: "May the vision of the future be greater than the vision of the past."

Harold Myra is executive chairman and CEO of Christianity Today International.

Related Elsewhere:

Myra wrote, with Marshall Shelley, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, an excerpt of which is available on our site.

Also posted today are two Graham interviews originally published in the 25th anniversary issue of Christianity Today:

Candid Conversation with the Evangelist | Graham's freewheeling comments reflect the character and charisma that have spurred his career as a Christian crusader.
In the Beginning … | Billy Graham recounts the origins of Christianity Today.

Christianity Today's other articles on its 50th anniversary include:

Where We Are and How We Got Here | 50 years ago, evangelicals were a sideshow of American culture. Since then, it's been a long, strange trip. Here's a look at the influences that shaped the movement. By Mark A. Noll (Sept. 29, 2006)
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Sidebar: 'Truth from the Evangelical Viewpoint' | What Christianity Today meant to the movement 50 years ago. (Sept. 29, 2006)
What's Next? | What evangelical leaders say are the priorities and challenges for the next 50 years. (Oct. 2006)
Evangelism Plus | John Stott reflects on where we've been and where we're going. (Oct. 13, 2006)
Sidebar: Legacy of a Global Leader | Less known than Stott's earlier work is his ministry with Langham Partnership International. (Oct. 13, 2006)
One Reader's Thoughts on Christianity Today's 50th Anniversary | After five decades of reading, I've clipped far too many articles. (Oct. 12, 2006)
Media in Motion | Evangelicalism's mission and message outlast evolving technologies. A Christianity Today editorial (Oct. 18, 1006)
Save the E-Word | Let's improve the public perception of evangelicalism. A Christianity Today editorial (Oct. 19, 1006)

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