When I joined Compassion 36 years ago, its office in Chicago was very small. There were 34,000 children sponsored then. But there was a handful of dedicated staff serving children in poverty with such heart that I could see in Compassion the “seeds of greatness.” What could be closer to God’s heart than inspiring the Church to be His loving agent in the world and to build His kingdom by ministering to “the least of these”? This was a cause in which I wanted to invest my life!
They say leadership is a gift — that leaders possess innate qualities that enable them to inspire others to act. In 20 years as Compassion’s president, I discovered that leadership is a gift, but it is the gift given to the leader by those who agree to follow him or her.
As I write my final From the Heart of the President column, I am keenly aware and deeply grateful that for two decades I have received this gift from a truly remarkable worldwide staff now 3,200 strong, plus nearly 50,000 church-based volunteers. Each one is as passionate about releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name as that little band of people in Chicago all those years ago. Today this outstanding Compassion team ministers to more than 1.4 million children.
This issue of Compassion Magazine feels like a humbling benediction on my time at Compassion’s helm. For years I’ve told the children, “You may have been born in poverty, but poverty was not born in you.” You will read about a former Leadership Development student who was indeed born in poverty but is now an influential leader in her country! And another child who is developing into a strong Christian because of the time and care his Compassion mentor poured into his life. Blessed by sponsors like you, these children and so many more just like them are now passing on that blessing in ways that are transforming their nations in Jesus’ name. As I look in the rearview mirror at my nearly four decades with Compassion, my heart can barely contain my joy and gratitude that God allowed me to be a part of a ministry through which He accomplishes such amazing miracles as that!
And now it’s time to look forward. Being a visionary, I love that! It’s been said, “There is no success without succession.” Those two words may be close neighbors in the dictionary, but they are often distant cousins in practice. Even thriving ministries can falter when leadership changes don’t go well. God brings leaders to ministries for “a reason and a season,” and over the past couple of years, both have come together for me in a “fullness of time” sense of completion. So be assured that I have great peace about welcoming wholeheartedly the extraordinary man God has brought to lead Compassion in its next season: Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado. Jimmy and I have been friends for 20 years as he has served as CEO of the Willow Creek Association.
Jimmy’s unanimous selection by Compassion’s Board of Directors is the result of an extensive, worldwide, several-year search process, and of much prayer and fasting by our staff around the world and friends like you. Yet we gratefully acknowledge that his selection is actually the result of God having orchestrated so many details of Jimmy’s life — including his childhood among the poor, his deep faith, his Harvard education, and his leadership experience of equipping 170,000 church leaders across 100 countries — to uniquely prepare him to lead Compassion into its next very exciting chapter!
Thank you for your gift of allowing me to serve you, the children and our Lord all these wonderful years! And thanks to so many of you who have prayed faithfully for me and my family. May I ask you to please support Jimmy and his family in prayer, too?
Now let me step aside and joyfully pass the baton, and the rest of this column, to Compassion’s new president, my dear friend and brother Jimmy Mellado.
I was first introduced to Compassion about 20 years ago, when Wess Stafford and I were invited to a small gathering of newly appointed Christian ministry presidents. Wess had just taken Compassion’s helm, and I was beginning what would be a 20-year career of leading the Willow Creek Association (WCA) — a ministry that helps local churches reach their full redemptive potential by inspiring and equipping their leaders. Wess and I immediately recognized that both of our callings were centered on the beauty and potential of local churches redeeming and restoring our world for Christ. We sensed that someday our ministries would have a strategic partnership. It took a while, but that partnership happened, and through it my respect and admiration for the cause of Compassion grew even more.
I’ve come to believe that Compassion’s unwavering resolve to transform children’s lives is creating the most significant movement of churches in the developing world — and when a church prioritizes and cares for the most vulnerable in its community for Christ’s sake, it becomes more effective and is reaching its full redemptive potential.
I can see how God has lovingly directed so much of my life, including my last 20 years of leading the WCA, to prepare me for the privilege I now have of leading Compassion’s ministry. Even the unique circumstances of my cross-cultural childhood influenced my calling to Compassion. Because of my father’s engineering career, I was born in El Salvador, raised in seven different countries and attended 10 different schools before graduating high school. The nature of my dad’s work often led us to live in the developing world. I have lived in five of the countries where Compassion ministers, and my home churches in those countries are similar to those with whom Compassion partners today; they served the poor and most vulnerable.
One of the blessings of joining Compassion at this juncture is that the ministry is flourishing. I’m not stepping into a startup, stagnant or declining organization. This will afford me a season to develop a deep understanding of what God is doing through Compassion, and the core areas behind our success that we need to build on and enhance.
I can see a few priorities already coming into clear focus regarding our future. Chief among them is a deep-seated conviction about the distinctives that will not change with my leadership.
First and foremost, we will remain a Christ-centered ministry. I will stand by the decisions Compassion made in the past to ensure that we keep a Christ-centered focus in our DNA. Second, we will remain church based in our strategy. Many relief and development organizations include churches in their ministry strategies. I’m grateful for that. However, Compassion takes our commitment to the church a step further, partnering with local churches to deliver all of our ministry programs to children. The local church is our partner on which we consistently depend, not a delivery channel that we use on occasion. Third, we will remain child centered in our approach. All the programs funded through Compassion will go directly toward children’s development. Each child will be known, loved and protected through our church-based program and through a significant connection with a caring sponsor. These key distinctives form the foundation that has made Compassion strong, and they will continue to guide us into the future.
It’s humbling to look back and see how God has guided me toward this calling. I am deeply grateful. And I’m eager to apply all my life experiences to now serve Compassion’s world-class organization. I love Compassion and I’m filled with passion for its cause! I know you are as well, and I look forward to many years of partnership with you in bringing help, hope and the love of Christ to children all around the world!