Taking on the World

The assignment carried with it the intrigue of a message on a tape recorder that instantly self-destructs in a dignified puff of smoke: Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to lead the International Young Life effort — in the whole world.
Donna Murphy accepted.
In 1997, she took on the task of weaving together the varied outposts of International Young Life to create a cohesive team, strategically poised to become a major force in worldwide evangelism. By the time she stepped down from that position in July, hers was a “mission accomplished.”
Young Life President Denny Rydberg said that Murphy’s “dedication, tenacity and skill” in the International Division “laid down tracks where International can run for years into the future.”
“Because of Donna, we are positioned so that we can be an organization that creates movements and not just individual ministries,” he said.
Since 1999, when the International Division was formed, the growth of the division has flourished. There are more than 435 ministries worldwide, reaching kids in more than 50 nations — a 78 percent increase since 1999.
Ministry beginnings
The 49-year-old wife/mother/attorney/social worker/foster care specialist/children’s advocate/businesswoman who charted International’s course for eight years was born the middle child in a liberal New Jersey family.
Her parents were “only Christmas and Easter churchgoers,” and Murphy believes divine providence placed her, then a 16-year-old, in a Maryland high school that had a Young Life club.
“The first time I went to club, I was amazed at how many different kinds of kids were there — athletes, band kids, geeks,” she said. “I was intrigued that so many different types of kids would attend a Christian club.”
Murphy met Christ in Young Life. She met a young man named Jerry there, too. During a three-week bus trip from the east coast to Malibu, they discovered that “we were a great team,” Murphy said.
As a student at the University of Maryland in 1976, Murphy called the Young Life office and volunteered to lead a club. Eastern Division Senior Vice President Lee Corder said she was “one of the best club leaders I ever saw.”
“She ran a club at Churchill High School with 100-150 kids in club every week — in a community that was 50 percent Jewish,” he said.
Murphy worked for Young Life for five years after college, and then set her sights on a career in social justice. After she combined a Master of Social Work with a law degree, she worked in the sexual abuse unit of the Maryland Department of Social Services, and was appointed by the governor to serve on the Foster Care Review Board, a volunteer position she held for a decade.
She and her husband had two children, Brian and Brianna, and when the youngest entered first-grade, Murphy began to pray about what God wanted her to do next.
“Working for Young Life again was never on my radar screen,” she said. “I thought I had left that behind — been there, done that. I never thought about coming back.”
But God placed Young Life in her path again in the form of Lee Corder, who had just become the Eastern Division senior vice president.
“At that time, each of the U.S. divisions had a piece of the world, and Lee hired me in 1997 as the International director to oversee the Eastern Division’s portion of international ministry, which included Europe, Africa and the Middle East,” Murphy said. “Two years later, Denny decided to form a self-standing division of international work. I was hired to lead the new International Division and the entire international effort.”
International strides
The trail to bring the Gospel to teenagers overseas was blazed earlier by courageous individuals who had made great strides for the mission. Young Life’s overseas efforts date back to 1953, when Rod and Fran Johnston went to France, under a joint effort with the Evangelical Alliance Mission.
When Murphy took the reins, the International Division needed financial attention — many areas were operating in the red. Murphy also fostered a common vision for the International Division among the wide variety of ministries.
One of her goals was to change the image of International.
“I wanted it to become the division where everybody in Young Life wanted to serve,” she said.
To do that, she needed to turn isolated pockets of ministry into unified teams, and she had to set structures in place for accountability and fiscal responsibility. “Donna has a unique combination of abilities and skills,” Rydberg said. “She can think strategically, and she has a deep love of Christ. She felt called by the Lord to do this and she threw herself into the ministry with her whole heart.”
Murphy’s legal expertise was “a tool she used every day,” said Chad Edwards, who served on her stateside team.
“There are so many layers of legal issues, and they’re different in every country,” he said.
Murphy worked within a tangled labyrinth of foreign legal systems, and she recruited new staff to join the growing international ministry.
“To do this job you have to cast a vision so that staff will seriously consider the possibility of moving their families overseas, while explaining that, ‘Oh, by the way, you have to raise 100 percent of your support before you leave,’” she said.
Murphy helped foreign staff be more successful in raising their support, and set in place other financial measures that eliminated International’s red ink. In fact “last year, not one region in International was in deficit and that’s a phenomenal accomplishment,” Rydberg said.
Possible by grace
Murphy was invigorated by the challenge of her job, but gradually decided that she did not want to travel as much.
“It’s not like I can leave and be gone for three days,” she said. “It takes 48 hours just to travel to and from the Far East. I have two children, and my daughter is just starting high school. I want more family time and I feel good about what’s been accomplished. I felt that the International Division had reached an appropriate juncture when the division could easily transition into new leadership.”
Rydberg said that her family’s support had enabled Murphy to serve in such a high-pressure position.
“One of the great gifts Donna has is her family,” he said. “They are a tremendous source of strength and stability for a woman in international leadership. Jerry is a wise man; Donna has a good partner.”
She never viewed “leading Young Life all over the world” as an impossible mission.
“My work in International was hard, but it was rewarding,” Murphy said. “When God calls you, He provides grace to do the job.”