About 40 years ago, at 2 o'clock in the morning, Billy Graham was doing some sanctified arm-twisting. Graham had called on his boyhood friend T. W. Wilson. Wilson's ministry had diverged from Graham's; Wilson had served as a vice president of Youth for Christ and was itinerating as an evangelist. Now Graham wanted him back.

As Wilson later recalled, Graham said, "God has spoken to me that you are to come with me and help me."

"We've gone over this before," a dog-tired Wilson replied. "Now let's not spoil our friendship."

But Billy Graham told his friend (known to intimates simply as "T") why he needed him: "T, I need somebody who is an evangelist; I need somebody who knows me and my ministry, my family; I need somebody I can trust."

"I didn't want to come with Billy," Wilson said years later. But after consulting his wife, Mary Helen, and seeking God's will, he decided to set aside his own plans and devote himself to supporting Graham. "I have never regretted it," Wilson said.

T. W. Wilson did many things for Billy Graham, from managing his personal security to being his traveling companion. "T. W. was without question an extraordinarily important member of the team," Graham biographer William Martin told Christianity Today, "though less public than the others."

Behind the scenes, he worked as a diplomat, using his tremendous warmth and enormous fund of one-liners to turn opposition into cooperation. He served as an ambassador, maintaining contact with the thousands of people who felt they had a personal connection to Billy Graham. And in the inner circle, he was the trusted soulmate, on occasion saying no to Billy Graham, and telling him that one of his ideas wouldn't work or shouldn't be tried.

Wilson died on May 24 at age 82, and thus put on hold a personal relationship that had lasted since 1934 and a ministerial partnership that had endured since 1948.

The Gift of Sacrifice

In the days after Wilson's passing, friends and admirers frequently remarked on how he had sacrificed a public ministry of his own, for which God had greatly gifted him.

Longtime friend and crusade song leader Cliff Barrows told CT that Wilson "had a great gift as an evangelist, but he gave that up for what he felt was a higher responsibility when Billy asked him to travel with him."

Paul Robbins and Harold Myra, long-term co-leaders of CT's parent organization, compared Wilson's sacrificial willingness to serve to that of General George C. Marshall. Marshall led the joint chiefs of the armed services under Franklin Roosevelt. Perhaps the best military mind of his time, Marshall longed to direct the cross-Channel Allied invasion of Europe. But ever the servant-leader, Marshall sacrificed battlefield glory to stay in Washington, where the president wanted and needed him. Instead, Dwight D. Eisenhower won the glory of victory, and eventually gained the presidency that could have been Marshall's.

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Billy Graham's team consisted of enormously gifted people who had been on promising career paths of their own, but like Marshall, they subordinated themselves to the group ministry to which they had been called. "Life is not a solo existence," Barrows told CT. "Effective work in evangelism is not a solo ministry. It is a team of people whose hearts God has knit together."

John Stott once told biographer Martin that he did not know of a more effective small group of men who operate as a team. Martin, a sociologist at Rice University, recalls that when he began researching A Prophet with Honor (William Morrow, 1991), he asked about former members of the team, whether they might still be alive. "If they're still alive," he was told, "they're still part of the team."

The Graham organization, Martin told CT, has been remarkable both for the longevity of its individual members and for the consistency and longevity of the team. "Unquestionably, part of the success of the Graham team has been the ability of the individuals involved to subordinate their egos for the good of the ministry as a whole," he said.

"They all subordinated themselves to the ministry," Martin said, "not just to Billy Graham. And he subordinated himself to them and the ministry, as well. Of course, the team had a leader, but the leader never thought he was the only important member."

Paul and Silas Bound in Jail

The team of which T. W. Wilson was a key member has embodied a biblical principle of ministry: the formation of teams under the leading of God's Spirit for mutual encouragement, accountability, and discernment.

Jesus sent out his disciples two by two. Paul traveled and ministered with Silas, Timothy, Barnabas, and others. (Paul even shared his byline with Timothy and Silas.) Such team ministry is a divinely ordained prophylactic against a variety of ills, ranging from discouragement to embezzlement.

Of course, there are bad team ministries. Public ministries attract sycophants who bask in reflected glory and feed their parasitic egos off another. And inner circles can create jealousy and division in the ranks. You can always tell a responsible team ministry by the sacrificed egos and mutual subordination.

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The sacrifice involved in team ministry recalls what Paul and Timothy wrote to the Philippians: "In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others." Paul and Timothy give this advice just before they urge believers to have in themselves the self-abasing mind of Christ. But we cannot help wondering if the team ministry that Paul experienced with his own traveling soulmates in ministry was not also an inspiration for this exhortation.

Any tribute to T. W. Wilson is a tribute to the importance of teams, of shared ministry, and of the mutual accountability of soulmates. The pattern is biblical but rarely realized. May we more readily embrace this model because of T. W. Wilson's example.

Related Elsewhere:

A biographical sketch of T.W. Wilson is available on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Web site. You can also read the BGEA press release announcing Dr. Wilson's death.

An obituary appeared the day after his death on the Web site of the Ashville, North Carolina, Citizen-Times.

Stories and memories of T. W. Wilson are included in A Prophet with Honor, William Martin's 1991 biography of Billy Graham, and in Graham's 1997 autobiography Just as I Am.

Related Christianity Today articles include:

Graham Associate T.W. Wilson, 82, Dies | He is in the presence of Jesus, where he longed to be, says evangelist. (May 25, 2001)

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