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Big Shoes to Fill

A global missionary talks about finishing well
  • Linda Piepenbrink
  • October 1, 2019

Bill Taylor ’61 felt lost when he arrived on Moody’s campus in 1958 at the too-young age of 17. Maybe intimidated, just a little, to enroll in the same school his parents attended. It seemed like everyone on campus knew Dr. William and Stella (Britt) Taylor ’37, famous missionaries (if we can use that word), and his dad would soon become president of CAM International. Big shoes to fill? There’s more. One of Bill’s ancestors is even listed in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, burned at the stake by Queen Mary in the year 1555.

Looking back, Bill admits that he wasn’t quite ready to inherit that mantle. He didn’t even feel ready for college, having lived the life of a missionary kid who bounced back and forth between Latin America and the United States for his education.

“My first year found me majoring in ping pong, emotionally sleepwalking, disoriented,” he says, having fun but also describing his “slow and uneven” personal development.

Moody would become one of God’s tools to build discipline into his life and help him grow up. Bill had no idea then that he would spend 55 years as a leader in global missions, 17 of those years in Latin America and eventually serving as executive director of the Mission Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance. Last September Bill was given the Lifetime of Service Award by Missio Nexus, given to a leader for finishing well a life of service to the cause of global mission. Unexpected, he says, but not bad for someone who got off to a rocky start at Moody.

How rocky? Here’s where the story gets a little funny. During his first year Bill says he cheated in three courses, including Personal Evangelism. He copied off the paper of the person sitting next to him, none other than his still-good friend, George Verwer, founder of Operation Mobilization.

Bill didn’t get caught (and thanks to Verwer, aced the test). But God intervened in his third semester by sending a chapel speaker who spoke on “The Danger of Unconfessed Sin.” Discerning the Holy Spirit at work, Moody’s president, Dr. William Culbertson, dismissed classes for the day so that students and faculty could do business with God.

That night Bill broke as he confessed his sin to the dean of men, Franklin Broman, who offered unconditional grace and then advocated for Bill before the academic committee. As a consequence, Bill had to repeat the courses in Evening School and (hardest of all), had to confess to his parents, who were making a special trip from Latin America to attend the Moody Missions Conference that year.

Bill’s not embarrassed to tell this story—he can be remarkably transparent when he has a point to make. Many years later, when he was the featured speaker at the 1990 Missions Conference, Bill spoke honestly about those days of confusion and sin, followed by the grace and hope he found at Moody. Once again, the Spirit was present. Ongoing generations of Moody students have their own sins to confess, and Bill wanted to nudge them along.

By the time he received his missions diploma, Bill said he started “waking up.”

Later in university he became part of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and much later joined its staff. Although Bill says he’s not a fan of more schooling (he flunked second grade), his dad encouraged him to pursue a ThM degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. Later, after years on the mission field, Bill would also earn a PhD in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas, Austin.

While serving as a camp counselor during his summers in grad school, Bill met his future wife, Yvonne De Acutis ’65, one of the 16-year-old campers. Six years later, in 1967, he married her. Saved at age seven through a neighborhood Child Evangelism Fellowship Bible club, she enrolled at Moody with a double major in music and Christian education.

She loved her professors—legends like Virgil Smith for piano (“I came out with a whole other level of piano technique and interpretation”) and Rosemary Turner for missions (“She had spent twenty years in India—just the stories she had to tell!”).

Because of Yvonne’s rigorous schedule, she would get up at 5:30 a.m. and sit in the stairwell of the girls’ dorm, reading Scripture and praying. That’s when the Holy Spirit began training her in intercessory prayer, a habit that later sustained her through the challenges of missionary life in Latin America.

Growing Pains in Guatemala

A crisis hit during their first year as missionaries to Guatemala. Bill plunged right into ministry, having learned Spanish while growing up in Latin America. He had an easy time with their year of language study, and figured Yvonne would follow suit. He relished being a seminary professor, with its teaching, mentoring, and frequent opportunities to speak (in impeccable Spanish). Besides, the evangelical subculture had taught him that “the more you did, the more spiritual you were” and “the harder you worked, the more God blessed you.” Meanwhile Yvonne, Texas born, struggled to learn the Latin American culture and language, not to mention trying to build cross-cultural relationships and take care of their first child. One night she said, “We need to talk.” Bill was in a hurry to get to yet another speaking engagement, but she insisted, very firmly, that he needed to stop and have a serious conversation. Otherwise she would be taking a break with the baby back home in Texas.

Suddenly his speaking engagement lost its importance. Bill stopped and they talked—a lot—and he learned to cut back his over-committed schedule. Finishing well, he was discovering, does not start at the end of life. Instead, he says, “it informs every stage and season of life.”

Yvonne found unique ways to use her music training in Guatemala. “I think I ended up using it far more on the mission field than I ever would have here,” she says, now living in Texas. Latin Americans innately love music, she says, but because of the poverty-based culture, there was little opportunity for music classes, band, or orchestra. So Yvonne developed pre-evangelism music appreciation recitals that she performed in homes and in public. She’d teach about composers like J. S. Bach, and “use it as a jumping off point to give the gospel,” she says. Out of those concerts, relationships were formed, which led to evangelistic Bible studies.

A conflict developed between Bill and another missionary leader in Guatemala, reaching a crisis in 1972 with no apparent resolution possible. Deep in sorrow, Bill thought about quitting, but then an unexpected visitor intervened. Late at night, after the martial law curfew, Bill’s dad knocked on the door, a complete surprise; he lived in Dallas. What was he doing in Guatemala?

“I have come,” his father said, uttering one of his famously short, pithy, unexplained phrases. But now Dr. William H. Taylor, the visionary missionary executive, was stopping by for a visit to his own son, and staying long enough to ask the important question: “Well, how are you doing?”

Bill dissolved into tears and shared the painful story. His father listened, spoke words of healing and hope, and prayed. And because of that unannounced visit, Bill persisted until it was time for his US home-leave, five months later.

To this day Bill is amazed that his father made the trip to Guatemala. “He had no idea of my brokenness in 1972,” he says. “Had the Spirit spoken to him in a dream? Perhaps so.”

Another Round of Culture Shock

After earning his PhD, Bill received repeated offers to teach missions in the US. After 17 years in Latin America, he moved with his wife and three children from their beloved Guatemala to Illinois in 1985. Bill loved his new job teaching on the faculty at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, but his kids experienced the same culture shock Bill had felt years earlier. Bill was heartbroken, but says, “I had determined years ago that never would I sacrifice my family on the altar of my ministry.” So after only a year, he resigned his position and they moved to a small town in Arkansas “in the middle of nowhere.”

Why there? Bill answers with typical transparency: “I just felt like the Lord was saying hide, disappear. I’d had eleven or twelve invitations to teach, to head missions agencies, or to pastor a church in the states. But when TEDS didn’t turn out, for my family’s sake, we went to this town where we had some friends and the kids made the transition to the US.” He served as a part-time pastor at a small church for four years until 1990. But the transition of adjusting to a new culture, new church, new friends, new job, new everything, was still brutal. The wrenching losses created a “paralyzing desert” for Bill that also affected his family.

The watershed moment came in 1991 when a Christian counselor, himself a third-culture person, advised Bill to thank God for bringing him to the US. Otherwise, “He will not be able to release you into the fullness of your future.”

Bill took it to heart, and within six months of their move to Arkansas, he began serving part-time, then full-time, with his lifetime mentor, Dr. David Howard, at the World Evangelical Alliance’s Mission Commission. He would serve with WEA for 30 years. As Bill began traveling in his new role, he made an odd request to his father, the old-school road warrior who was retiring from missionary service.

Shoes. Bill wanted a pair of his father’s beat-up shoes—a personal reminder to finish well, just as his father had. For the next 30 years Bill packed the old shoes in his suitcase. Though he never wore them, he used them as an object lesson when teaching and preaching.

Today, Bill and Yvonne live in Austin, Texas, where they founded TaylorGlobalConsult, a ministry non-profit. Bill invests most of his time mentoring key leaders (in Latin America and the US) and writing, teaching, and consulting. Yvonne assists him and spends time with their eight grandchildren and in intercessory prayer as a “watchman on the walls.”

“Finding ourselves in a later stage of life, we desire to serve and strengthen Christ’s global Church, locally and globally, and to finish our own race with faithfulness and integrity,” Bill says. Mindful of how few leaders actually do this, Bill recently helped edit an anthology on the subject, Spirituality in Mission: Embracing the Lifelong Journey (William Carey Publishers, 2018).

“Finishing well may mean completing life with broken dreams, unanswered prayers, and unfulfilled desires . . . It may mean few publicly recognized evidences of high productivity or tangible value,” he writes. But, “it means coming to the end of the life race, perhaps off-camera, quietly, with authentic faith and personal integrity.”

About the Author

  • Linda Piepenbrink

Linda Piepenbrink is managing editor of Moody Alumni News and senior editor for Moody’s Marketing Communications department.