Shining Starr

In late March, Young Life said goodbye to Bill Starr (January 26, 1926 – March 31, 2019), a humble leader with an uncompromising heart for Jesus and kids. Among his many achievements, Bill came up with the idea of the local area committee, a godsend to every staff person and volunteer leader. He also helped with the transition of Young Life going from a first-generation to second-generation mission. Finally, he will be most remembered as the man who guided the mission through the racial unrest of the 1960s, a time that threatened to tear Young Life apart.

From Commissioned Officer to Committee Architect

Bill Starr joined the Navy in 1943, served in World War II and became the youngest commissioned officer in the U.S. Armed Forces. When the war ended, he enrolled at Wheaton College, during which time he met two people who would change the course of his life: Ruth Glittenberg and Jim Rayburn. The former eventually became Mrs. Bill Starr. The latter became his boss.

Bill’s introduction to Young Life came during a leadership meeting at Wheaton; he began leading at a local high school there, and came on staff in Portland, Oregon, in 1949.

There he devised the plan to have local adults support the work in their own areas. He recruited eight couples from eight local churches to form the first Young Life committee. The idea quickly took off across the nation. This not only gave more ownership to local areas, but also eventually freed up Rayburn from trying to raise the mission’s entire budget.

Our Joshua

From 1956 through 1964, Bill served as the Midwestern regional director over 10 states. The position helped prepare him for his most prominent (and challenging) role: president of Young Life. The moment was captured in Made for This: The Young Life Story:

To follow a charismatic leader is one challenge. To follow the founder of the mission and the only “boss” the staff had ever known, was quite another.

Bill Starr knew this. “Of course, it’s daunting, following a man like Jim Rayburn. Here’s a man who I had the utmost admiration for; he was like a father to me. In that sense, it was a very daunting and awesome responsibility.”

But, like Joshua before him, Bill followed the Moses-sized footprints of Rayburn with a firm belief that it was God who had placed him in this position.

Bill, a World War II veteran who had served on Young Life staff for fifteen years, was only thirty-eight when the board of directors asked him to assume the role of associate executive director and general manager of Young Life. The age factor did not deter him, though. “Leadership was natural to me. God had, for some reason, put that gift in my life; because it was natural, it seemed to me ‘if that’s what God wanted, then that’s right.’”

Along with all the cultural pressures the mission was addressing at the national and local levels, Bill also faced the much-needed task of steering and stabilizing the mission. In 1964, the mission had outgrown the structure that had been in effect since 1941.

Bill and the board set about to transform Young Life from a pioneering model, based on one man’s vision of management, to a corporate one, a challenging transition to say the least. The new president understood the growing pains that might ensue. “I think there’s a constant tension—in the ‘freewheeling, allow the spirit of God to direct’ (whatever that looks like), over against ‘how do we organize for mission effectiveness?’”

Bill brought a new degree of organization and professionalism to the work. From these efforts he also helped start the benefits and retirement program that blessed thousands of staff over the years.

One Gospel, One Mission

During his 13-year presidency, Bill’s greatest achievement was navigating Young Life through the ’60s and ’70s, sticking to his firmly held conviction, no matter the amount of opposition, that the mission must include both suburban and urban ministry.

“There was a push by many in the mission to make urban and suburban two separate organizations,” Bill said. “They thought, ‘Well, God taught us how to work with middle-class kids. Why not just do that — we know how to do that.’ That to me was a denial of the gospel; the oneness of Christ’s body. How could we talk about the gospel and talk separation like this? To me it was incompatible theologically. We had to fight to keep it all together; it was not right to separate it. America was becoming more pluralistic all the time. It’s one mission. It’s one gospel.”

Under Bill’s direction, Young Life’s leadership discussed this theme in the July 1968 edition of Focus on Youth. No Young Life publication, before or since, has received the response this issue did. Years later, Bill reflected on the era:

“Dr. Martin Luther King appeared on the American scene in a big way in the ’60s, preaching about the sin of racism. Many white churches and leaders from all walks of life joined in to be a part of the marches and demonstrations led by Dr. King and other black leaders. Many Christian organizations were shamefully quiet. Young Life was working in a number of urban areas out east with some very outstanding black leaders. We decided it was past time to declare our position. Young Life had needed a vehicle to express our convictions on a number of issues, so we developed a magazine called Focus on Youth. A group of us gathered in Colorado Springs to put together a focus issue on our support of the Civil Rights Movement. We titled this issue, ‘I’m Not a Problem, I’m a Man.’ It created quite a stir — eight Young Life areas closed and let their staff go. We, at the same time, grew 12 new areas and raised thousands more dollars. It was another learning experience. If we do what our Lord asks us to do, He blesses us way beyond what we might expect Him to do! From that experience, we were able to add another whole division — Urban Ministries.”

Final Years and Legacy

After serving as president, Bill moved into other presidential positions: overseeing the Young Life Foundation, and then outside the mission in various non-profit organizations.

Bob Reeverts, 44-year staff veteran, recognized Bill’s giftedness as a spiritual leader:

“You had a natural respect for Bill. For many of us younger people coming up at that time, Bill could articulate the compassion of Christ in a new and different dimension than Jim had communicated, and that impacted our lives so much. He was another one in Young Life, who through his articulation of the gospel, enlarged the mission’s understanding of our Lord.”

Ruth preceded Bill in death in 1995, after 46 years of marriage. Four years later, he married Deanna Sylte-Lucas, one of the original Sylte Sisters, a musical group from the 1950s who often played at Young Life camps.

Bill Starr was, above all, a man who loved Jesus and wanted kids everywhere to know and love Him too.