Interview: New General Director of Frontier Mission Fellowship

Special Series: Ralph D. Winter (Part 4)

This is the last part of a series of articles about the life and ideas of Dr. Ralph D. Winter, whose memorial service will be held Sunday, June 28. Winter, the co-founder the U.S. Center for World Mission, passed away on May 20, 2009, after a long battle with cancer. He was 84.

It is never an easy task to succeed an organization's founder, especially one who was described as the group's "center of gravity." But even more difficult is the fact that that founder is Dr. Ralph D. Winter, whom many regard as the most influential missiologist in the past century.

David Datema, the new general director of Frontier Mission Fellowship (FMF) and Winter's hand-picked successor, sat down with The Christian Post this past week for a candid interview about what he has learned from his predecessor, what he will have trouble replacing, and the future of the U.S. Center for World Mission and William Carey International University - two of a number of ministries part of the FMF family.

The following are excerpts from the interview.

CP: How old are you?

Datema: Forty-three.

CP: Were you personally appointed by Dr. Winter or nominated by the board of directors?

Datema: Well, he appointed me but the board did have to ratify that, which they did.

CP: When did you know that you would be the successor?

Datema: It was towards the end of April. Not very long ago.

CP: Why do you think Dr. Winter picked you to be his successor?

Datema: I think part of the answer to that is forever lost to us. But I know that he did value scholarship and he valued careful thinking. I think he was afraid of someone coming and making widely divergent decisions without thinking it through. He was never against wild and crazy ideas because he had a few of his own, but he really valued, I think, being careful. I think what he must have seen [in me] was a carefulness, but that is probably just the tip-of-the-iceberg answer.

If you look at the document that he wrote when he appointed me, which was read to our staff, it is interesting because in that document he mentions at least three times the word 'team.' He says in there that 'I could have chosen a lot of people to do this, but whoever that person is, [they are] going to have to rely on team effort.'

We really didn't have anyone on our staff who was the obvious heir apparent of Dr. Winter. So I look at it this way, whatever reasons there were – who knows, it could have easily been someone else – but whoever it would have been needs the rest of the staff in order to be effective.

CP: What experience from your past do you think will be most helpful in your new position?

Datema: I think the people skills. I was a pastor so I've related to people in a lot of different context and I think I have the ability to work with people. I have what you can call 'people awareness.'

Also being an MK (missionary kid), I was not an adult on the field but there were still a lot of things that I could glean from living in another culture, from being an observer. Missionary kids are great observers because they are not expected to do anything so they take a lot of things in. So at least I have a familiarity with different cultures.

CP: You were not only a missionary kid but I heard that you also wanted to be a missionary as an adult until something happened to your son that prevented you from fulfilling this dream. Do you feel comfortable sharing about this?

Datema: That is one of the continuously more defining things in my life. My first child was born four months prematurely and he was in ICU for four months. He just barely made it. It is a miracle that he is alive today. He has severe disabilities: cerebral palsy, he's blind, doesn't talk.

So if I would have my way I wouldn't be here, I would be somewhere else. But taking care of him and the extent of his needs are great enough that we don't imagine being in too many other places. So there was anger there. There was real wrestling with all of that.

CP: Wrestling with "Why did this happen to my son?"

Datema: Yeah, well that was probably a higher thought than what I really had. It wasn't really about my son. It was about me. Why God did you give me this real interest in frontier mission and I can't do anything? I can't go do it. And just the whole idea of what I wanted to do and having circumstance make that impossible. And that is something that you don't get over in a week or two. I think it was a period of months, it could have been years really to accept the fact that my plans weren't going to happen and to begin to accept the possibility of different avenues and different ways. That was what led me out here (USCWM) to begin with.

CP: So what year did you come on staff at the USCWM?

Datema: 1999

CP: What will your immediate focus be as Frontier Mission Fellowship's general director?

Datema: We find ourselves in waters that are un-navigated. We have a founder who was in some ways the center of gravity in this organization and now he is gone. So it is really a period of transition – not just on paper, it really is. It is something that is felt. It is felt by all of us.

My focus has been to get our leaders together and humble ourselves before God and each other and seek God. We are in a time of really seeking God during these days. We have our staff conference coming up in a few weeks where many of our staffs, from Pasadena and otherwise, will come here. So that is an opportunity to go through this moment of Dr. Winter passing away together. It is a long moment that will span some months and to be able to live through that together is going to be important to us.

CP: From what I'm hearing, it seems like everyone is still trying to grapple with Dr. Winter's passing away. It might be premature for me to ask this, but have you thought about any long term goals yet?

Datema: The thing that I think energizes us is that we recognize that Dr. Winter's vision is really God's vision. Dr. Winter was able to look at God's work in the world and cast it in a very compelling way, but it is still God's vision. As long as there is an unfinished task, there is still unfinished work for us to do. Dr. Winter's death does not change any of that reality.

CP: What do you think will be the hardest thing to replace about Dr. Winter for the organization?

Datema: When people think of Dr. Winter no longer being here, that scares them. So questions have been asked – and some of our own staff probably wonder about this – but people outside question if the organization is going to make it. When you have a founder-led organization and the founder dies, that can be really hard for the organization. But I have a lot of confidence in us.

I think that the single greatest loss to us as an organization – putting aside personal things – is his mind and the way he would seemingly always be a few steps ahead of everybody anticipating the issues related to missions.

But that begs the question, how are we now going to run that idea machine that Dr. Winter was? How are we going to replace that particular function of calling out the next big ideas? I think to me that is the single most important question. The single most easily seen question when you look at the organization during his time here and now after it.

CP: What would you say is the greatest thing you learned from Dr. Winter?

Datema: There are so many. The importance of thinking. I know it sounds trite. These here are all his most recent books. He bought books almost on a daily basis. If you would actually look at them you would find that they cover a huge breadth of topics. He had such an inquisitive mind. He used to talk about how he would devour books because of his desire to know. That was really unique about him. Most people don't want to learn that bad that they would just spend their life like a sponge. He didn't just soak up things about missions, but man, he was so widely read in so many areas.

This is the stack of magazines that represent his weekly subscriptions. They are piling it on my desk and asking me if I want to continue the subscriptions. Science news, you got your Newsweek and Time, Wired, The Economist - it goes on and on like that. It boggles your mind.

I mean he really believed in truth, in finding out the truth. He wasn't just going to read Christian stuff. He was very widely read, doesn't matter if they were Christian or not. He would read just about anything. He really would read just about anything if it would help him get a better understanding, if it would help him grasp the world better.

And so I think your question is what have I learned from him. I would say one of the greatest things is just the value of being a life-long learner. He'd often say that: 'I learned more after I turned 70 than the previous 70 years combined.' That just tells you how important it was to him to keep learning. He was never satisfied with great ideas, with great burst of understanding that he may have had. He would just continue like that until the day he died – just always trying to learn more. It was amazing.

CP: Is there anything you would like to change about the organization?

Datema: I think organizations tend to take on the persona of the leader, especially if it's the founder. I'm concerned that our organization isn't younger than it is. I think we need to really get a lot younger. And obviously, if you don't attract the younger generation then you die organizationally.

I think he was a builder and I'm a buster. He was almost twice as old as I am. So I think that our organization needs a younger feel, that when people think of it they won't necessarily think of those old people. One great thing about us is we have an intergenerational mix. We've got people who haven't retired yet but are serving here. We've got boomers and busters, but we need more busters and more of the millenniums, or the younger crowd.

I would like to see a big change there. Especially since I have been working with young people for the past eight years with Insight [program]. I really believe in young people. I think there is a lot of potential there that can be harnessed.

CP: Is there anything you would like to add?

Datema: Probably one thing that other people have mentioned is his approachability. I've seen total strangers walk up to him in a situation where you would expect people to be a little annoyed. But he would genuinely give people his time in a way that was just amazing. I think it was because, well he cared about people, but it might have even been because he loved talking about ideas. If you were willing to talk to him about ideas, if you were willing to have a conversation about some idea and really engage, you had him. He loved to do that. He loved to be in that kind of engaging conversation.

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