The character of leaders inevitably shapes the culture of the groups they lead. The IMB is not an organization so much as it is a fellowship—a family of spiritual brothers and sisters deeply committed to one mission. We influence one another, edify each other, and encourage one another in grace. In a Christian mission, a leader is not just a boss; he or she is first and foremost a brother or sister in Christ who reflects the character of the head of the body of which we are all members.
The building at the International Learning Center where all new IMB personnel are trained is named in honor of a former missionary—Don Kammerdiener. Since in many cases a significant financial contribution precipitates recognition of this sort, it’s important to note that in Don’s case, this honor wasn’t purchased. It was conferred because of who he was, because of his character.
New missionaries who arrive to prepare for cross-cultural service won’t have an opportunity to get to know the man behind the name because Don Kammerdiener passed away on January 23, 2019. Although they can’t meet him in person, they should be introduced to his character, because he helped shape the culture of the IMB through spiritual depth, wisdom, and commitment.
If you talk to the people who worked alongside Don over a missionary career that spanned four decades, three qualities surface immediately: humility, integrity, and the value he placed on relationships. So I asked Don’s colleagues to describe how they observed these character traits at work in his life.
Ron Wilson, a retired IMB missionary who served in Latin America, recalls the way that Don urged him to adopt the posture of a learner while serving alongside national partners. Don counseled him never to short-change language learning because it’s a key in communicating the gospel.
Some people assume that after missionaries have acquired language, they stop learning and become teachers or leaders. But Don was aware that when we’re serving alongside local Christians, language learning is just the beginning. We never stop learning from locals. When talking with missionaries he was mentoring, he often asked directly, “What are you learning from your partners?”
“Don’s deep respect for national partners was reflected in the way he encouraged them to take responsibility for cross-cultural missions sending.”
Ron vividly remembers one trip with Don to Cuba:
We didn’t stay at fancy hotels; instead, we stayed in the homes of our local partners. We ate meals with them, rode public transportation with them. Don taught me to get to know ordinary people. And he taught me by modeling that behavior for me.
Don was always concerned about what was reproducible. What can your national partners do? If you build a big building, can your national partners do that? Sometimes if we go in with American ways, those are not always reproducible.
Don’s deep respect for national partners was reflected in the way he encouraged them to take responsibility for cross-cultural missions sending. Former IMB writer Erich Bridges remembers the vision Don brought to his role as vice president for the Americas:
He led missionaries from Canada to the southern tip of South America in the task of reaching hundreds of millions of people with the Gospel of Christ. He approached that monumental challenge with a mixture of humility, vision, determination, and humor. Thanks in part to Don’s leadership, those years saw Latin American Baptists transition from being “receivers” of missions to being key senders of missionaries to unreached peoples worldwide.
“When you think of integrity, you think about Don Kammerdiener,” observes Terry Lassiter. Don and his wife, Meredith, once traveled with Terry. They spent several days together in the Suriname jungle and at night they slept in hammocks. Don and Meredith snored so loudly that one evening after midnight when a neighbor who had been stalking an animal shot and killed it nearby, they slept right through the whole event. In the morning they all just laughed and laughed. But what impressed Terry over the course of the trip was the deep love Don had for his wife:
As long as I knew him his highest earthly commitment was to his wife Meredith. He was one of these guys who had influence around the world but his love for his wife was paramount. Nothing speaks to me of the character of a man more than the way he loves his wife.
Ron Wilson says that when he thinks about Don, one passage from Ephesians comes to mind—“walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1, NASB). Don had a deep theological perspective and understanding. His unwavering convictions were expressed through communication and interactions that reflected the qualities Paul described in Ephesians 4—gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love, eagerly maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
“A thousand points of grace—that’s what those who knew Don felt of his presence in their lives.”
Don had a gift for diffusing tension and anger, even in situations in which there were a range of views or strong differing convictions. Jerry Rankin, former President of the IMB explains:
Don’s wisdom and insight was reflected in his ability to articulate in numerical order pro and con perspectives of any issue. His honesty and integrity was never questioned, his thinking and actions clearly guided by biblical principles, and his love and support for those he dealt with was always evident.
Don’s reputation as a person who prioritized relationships was consistent whether he was hiking into villages in Latin America or walking the halls of the IMB office in Richmond. His accessibility inspired affection. Mark Kelly, a former writer for the IMB, explains that Don, “always showed an interest in you as a person, not just a co-worker. He made us ‘home office’ folks understand we were just as integral to the mission as the ones on the front-lines. He was lovable, and we loved him.”
Wendy Norvelle, who served as associate vice president of Mobilization, describes Don as a role model, mentor, and friend. When her daughter was born, Don showed up at the hospital to greet the new baby and congratulate the family in person. She explains:
Even in the busiest moments, Don treated me as a person of value. He took time to pour his life into mine, sharing his leadership philosophy, and apologizing when he made a mistake. He wanted to know what I thought or recommended before giving me input or advice. He was always willing to admit that he didn’t have a corner on the market of wisdom, but he was the wisest man I knew.
I observed him investing in every person—it didn’t matter their race, gender, or level in the organization. He was a servant leader, always pushing others into the spotlight. But he would step up and protect those who were in the fire too. That’s the kind of man he always was.
A Thousand Points of Grace
During the celebration inaugurating the training center in his name, Don poignantly expressed his gratitude: “I thought about expressing appreciation for everything you’ve said tonight, but I just don’t know how to do that,” he added. “There are a thousand points of grace through which all of you have touched my life.”
A thousand points of grace—that’s what those who knew Don felt of his presence in their lives. His character will continue to shape the culture of the organization he loved. The lines of a classic hymn beautifully reflect Don’s influence:
I would be friend of all — the foe, the friendless;
I would be giving, and forget the gift;
I would be humble for I know my weakness;
I would look up, and laugh, and love and lift.
“I Would Be True,” words by Howard Arnold Walter and music by Joseph Yates Peak.
Eliza Thomas is a writer and editor with the IMB. She has served with her family in Central Asia for more than a decade.