Backward and Forward

Franklin Graham, my boss, and I had just finished a meeting in the early 1990s when I walked into my office at World Medical Missions and found a letter marked “Personal and Confidential” on my desk from the Christian Medical & Dental Society (CMDS, as the ministry was called at that time). As I opened it, little did I realize it was the first step in a journey that would result in me leading CMDA for 25 years.

David Stevens, MD, MA (Ethics)

Franklin Graham, my boss, and I had just finished a meeting in the early 1990s when I walked into my office at World Medical Missions and found a letter marked “Personal and Confidential” on my desk from the Christian Medical & Dental Society (CMDS, as the ministry was called at that time). As I opened it, little did I realize it was the first step in a journey that would result in me leading CMDA for 25 years.


Frankly, I almost threw the letter in the trash. My passion was healthcare missions. That is what God had called me to do when I was a senior in high school. He showed me how He had designed me to be a missionary as I helped develop Tenwek Hospital from a bush hospital to a tertiary care center, build a hydro-electric project, start a huge community health and development project, begin a nursing school and much more. He had then brought me to Samaritan’s Purse to help other mission hospitals reach their full potential. I wasn’t interested in the position.


However, instead of throwing it away, I bypassed “File 13” and showed the letter to my wife Jody. Without hesitation she said, “I think God designed you for this!” (Thank God for Godly spouses!)


I dutifully sent information and answered questions for the search committee between my work leading relief teams overseas. They asked, “What is your vision for CMDA?” I responded, “I don’t have the slightest idea. Before I can cast vision of where the organization needs to go, I need to find out where it is.” In spite of that almost flippant comment, we were invited to the “final four” interviews in Dallas, Texas. I was stunned late one evening, after two days of interviews, the committee chair called me to tell me they held a straw vote before opening the floor for discussion. And that vote was unanimous to invite me to serve as the organization’s leader.


I confess, my first thought was, “God, don’t I get any say in this!?”


Before ending the phone call, I promised that Jody and I would seek God’s will. The chair said, “Take as much time as you need.” So I was surprised when I got a call three days later from President-elect Don Wood asking if I had reached a decision. I hadn’t. He closed the conversation by saying, “We haven’t let the other finalist know anything, so why don’t you and I covet that God will give you direction by tomorrow night?”


We got serious, and God called us to CMDA.


Little did I know what else He was up to in this process. As I shared my decision with Dr. Gene Rudd and Jonathan Imbody, my Thursday morning prayer partners, Jonathan only half-jokingly said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” I hired Jonathan as the new Communications Director before I officially started. He is the one who nudged me to send out CMDA’s first news release, an action that was the first step in starting our public policy voice. Since then, Jonathan has effectively served as CMDA’s Vice President of Government Affairs in Washington, D.C. for the last two decades.


When I sat down in my office chair for the first time at the office in Dallas, Texas on August 1, 1994, my first thought was, “What in the world do I do first?” I knew God had called me, and I knew I had answered His call, but I hadn’t actually asked the search committee one key question, “What are the biggest problems the ministry is facing?” It is probably good I didn’t, because my first year with the ministry was the most difficult year of my life. That is saying something, since I had previously dealt with tribal unrest, financial issues, problem staff members, in addition to being shot at and crashing in an airplane. Thank goodness God often only reveals the next step to us. If we saw the entire picture at once, we would likely pull “a Jonah” and run away.


CMDS had significant financial problems. Sometime before I came on, the board had taken an offering to cover the next payroll. A few weeks after I started, the head of our large short-term mission program told me I “wasn’t in charge of them.” Despite all efforts, they broke off 11 months later, and as a result, finances took a hit. I had been vilified, membership was down and we had lost an essential part of the ministry.


Truthfully, looking back, I thank God for that time. I leaned on Jesus as never before. Doesn’t Jesus teach us the most profound lessons in our deepest valleys? In addition, God was moving us in another way—literally.


A few weeks after I started, I flew to East Tennessee to speak at a meeting I had previously committed to while still working at Samaritan’s Purse. While at Samaritan’s Purse, I had gotten to know the Gregory family, as their company had helped us with medicine and supplies for relief work. Joe, one of the brothers, had once joined me on a trip to East Africa. We bonded. You know, the type of bonding you do when you both get food poisoning and are vomiting in a ditch!


I had heard they had left their company and bought a pharmaceutical plant in Bristol, Tennessee. Seeing it was nearby the airport I was arriving at in Tennessee, I decided to try to find it and say, “Hi,” to Joe. Little did I know it was God’s prompting.


They were just starting out and had about 50 employees. As they showed me around their large and almost empty newly remodeled office building, I made small talk, “Wow, look at all this beautiful space! Who knows what God is going to do with you? We just put a desk in the hallway for an assistant in our small building but you have room to grow!” About 15 minutes later, John Gregory, the President of King Pharmaceuticals, picked up on that comment, “Why doesn’t CMDS move in with us? I will give you a floor. I figure God will bless you and it will flow through to us!”


I can’t remember what I said but I thought, “He is not serious. I’m not going to my first CMDS board meeting, all made up of physicians and dentists, and tell them we should move to Bristol, Tennessee. They are going to think I’m nuts, or that King is just trying to sell their pharmaceuticals to our members, or that CMDS will be ‘homeless’ if King goes bankrupt.”

King promised us a 20-year lease with no increases, charged us less than we paid for electricity in Dallas for 24,000 feet of office space. They paid for our maintenance, housekeeping and utilities to boot! After three days of prayerful consideration by the board, they voted to move. It was the most critical decision made in the last 25-years.


In the midst of that first year, I contacted Dr. Gene Rudd, who had stepped down from his position at Samaritan’s Purse, and asked him to join my staff. With our financial problems, there were more than a few raised eyebrows on the board, but I believed if I found a superb person, I should take a step of faith. Gene wasn’t the only person though; in fact, I hired our Media Director before the organization even owned a camera!


Gene moved to Bristol and began hiring staff and sending them to Dallas for training six months before the organization arrived. We encouraged and incentivized our Dallas staff to move with us, but none did long-term.


With funds freed up, new handpicked staff and a clear mission to motivate, train and equip Christian healthcare professionals to glorify God, CMDS became CMDA and grew like crazy with a variety of new ministries. Over the next five year, our membership tripled, we developed our first evangelism training program, we conducted hundreds of radio and TV interviews, we started Global Health Outreach and much more. And because of our marked expansion, we were out of space…again!


King Pharmaceuticals had grown like crazy as well. They were the fastest company in the history of the United States to go from start up to being listed in the S&P 500! I went upstairs to see John and said, “Your generosity has blessed us so much that we have grown. We are out of space.” John smiled and commented, “You’re not out of space.” Thinking he might need some proof, I responded, “Come down to our floor and see!” He didn’t relent but said, “You’re not out of space. If you need more space I will go across the street, build another building and give you two floors! You don’t need space; you need an identity. You are a national organization and people don’t even know CMDA is in this building!”


John’s visionary comment stimulated my vision. We needed our own headquarters.


We liked Bristol. Operating costs were low, we were in the geographical center of our Eastern members and we didn’t want to lose our great staff. But where would we get the money to build?


We hired a company to do a capital campaign study. When they finished, they said, “If you work really hard, you might be able to raise $1.2 million.” That was a downer! They already knew we were thinking a $10 million campaign with about three-fourth of that dedicated to purchasing property and building a 52,000 square foot building, with the rest earmarked to expand our ministries. After lots of prayer, the Board of Trustees took a huge step of faith and God honored it. Two years later we moved into our beautiful headquarters with meeting space for more than 200 people, TV and radio studios, space for over 100 staff members and more. And a year later, it was all paid for!


I tell these stories looking back over 25 years to make this point. CMDA’s growth and effectiveness in ministry is not because of me. All I did was answer God’s call and faithfully serve Him. God has poured out blessing after blessing on and through CMDA above and beyond anything I could imagine or do on my own. He has brought enormously talented and dedicated staff members who have poured their lives into this ministry. We have all had the privilege to participate in what God has done.


Looking forward, I’m excited. God has now brought Dr. Mike Chupp to lead CMDA. It all started when he rotated as a student at Tenwek Hospital in 1988 and I wrote him a letter to challenge him to be a missionary. For 20 years he served at Tenwek, and as medical superintendent he managed over 600 staff members. God has now called him here for this time. For the last two years, he has served as CMDA’s Executive Vice President and done a superb job. As I hand over the steering wheel to him in a few months, he has my complete confidence. He is a deeply spiritual man, an excellent leader, a superb administrator and a visionary leader. God has prepared him, just like He prepared me 25 years ago, to lead this organization. If we ever need CMDA, we need it now with what we face in healthcare and in our country.


One more thing, the reports of my retiring are premature! I’m transitioning to a little slower pace and, I pray, a lot more ministry time. I will still be helping CMDA in its ministry, especially in missions and public policy, as God allows.


Looking forward, I see great things ahead. God’s continued blessings are on the way!

About the Author

David Stevens, MD, MA (Ethics), serves as the Chief Executive Officer for CMDA. From 1981 to 1991, he served as a missionary doctor in Kenya helping to transform Tenwek Hospital into one of the premier mission healthcare facilities in the world. Subsequently, he served as the Director of World Medical Mission, the medical arm of Samaritan’s Purse. As a leading spokesman for Christian healthcare professionals, Dr. Stevens has conducted hundreds of television, radio and print media interviews. He holds degrees from Asbury University, is an AOA graduate of University of Louisville School of Medicine, is board certified in family practice and has a master’s in bioethics from Trinity International University.