The Story of What God Did: Turnarounds and Transitions with MedSend CEO Rick Allen
PART 1: “Lord, what am I doing here?”
“I wasn’t a missionary. I wasn’t a healthcare professional. And I don’t particularly like hospitals.”
August 2023 marks the 15th anniversary of CEO Rick Allen joining the staff of MedSend. While he wasn’t officially involved for the first 16 years of MedSend’s ministry, Rick’s history with the healthcare missions funding organization goes back to its founding. He served on the Missions Board at Black Rock Church in Connecticut along with Deirdre Topazian, wife of MedSend founder, Dr. David Topazian. Project MedSend, as it was called in its earlier years, officially launched in 1992.
“I excitedly looked forward to reading their stories when the mail came and I saw that the postmark had MedSend on it,” he reminisces. “I was always anxious to read them, because the stories were always compelling.”
In 2007, Rick took a part time pastoral role at Black Rock Church leading through a difficult turnaround process. A church Black Rock had assisted and then taken over had recently suffered a painful split.
Turnarounds, Rick explains, are just as rough and stressful as they sound. Turnarounds are necessary when an organization has suffered a steep decline or failure in resources or operation that requires a complete overhaul. “This is different from a transition, which if not done well turns into a turnaround,” he says. Rick had spent much of the last several years of his 25-year career in the software business overseeing transitions and turnarounds in the corporate world. Little did he know then, God was preparing him for what lay ahead.
Transitioning From Corporate to Ministry
“I was bi-vocational in 2007. I was running a business turnaround in Manhattan, and I was pastoring at Black Rock Church in Stamford, Connecticut. The turnaround was successful, we accomplished the objective. And I was praying to the Lord that I might be able to go into full time ministry in Connecticut, and not have to commute into New York City,” Rick shares.
At the same time, Rick’s eldest daughter was home from college and nabbed a two-week engagement filing papers for Project MedSend. After dropping her off for work one day, Rick’s wife, Linda, happened to go inside and strike up a conversation with the office manager, Diane Bowerman. Rick says it went something like this:
Linda: How are things going here at Project MedSend?
Diane: Well, we could use some help with management. We’re in a major transition.
Turns out, Linda knew the perfect person to help. She went home and asked Rick if he would consider helping Project MedSend.
“I called Diane, and she told me what they needed,” Rick says. He knew a couple of people on the board and met with them as well. “I felt that I might be able to contribute. I went through an interview process with the then CEO and it was decided that I would come on board as COO, Chief Operations Officer.” Rick expected that he would function as a consultant for a short period of time to help MedSend through a leadership transition and get back on its feet.
“When I started at MedSend, we were a small organization.”
Rick, who has a lively and self-effacing sense of humor, shares a story about those early days that still makes him laugh.
“When I started at MedSend, we were a small organization. Up until that point it had run out of the basement of Dr. Topazian’s house,” he begins. Before transitioning out, Dr. Topazian had found an inexpensive office space, in keeping with the ethos of MedSend as good stewards of the resources they have available. “That wise and judicious use of our resources is still core to our mission,” Rick shares.
“So, Dr. Topazian found office space that was very inexpensive,” he continues. “It was small. We had one full time person [Diane, the office manager], and two part time people. There was only room for three desks. So, I show up one day, and there’s no room for me,” he says with a chuckle. Those who know and have worked with Rick over these past 15 years will not be surprised to hear what he does next.
“I walked into the storage closet,” he laughs. “And I’m thinking if I’m able to clear the stuff out of the storage closet, I might be able to put a desk there. So that’s what I did. I started at MedSend in a storage closet.”
30 days into his new role at MedSend, Rick admits he was having some misgivings. “At that point, Dr. Topazian had left, and I turned to the Lord and asked, ‘What am I doing here? I must have misread what you intended.’ Because at the time, I wasn’t a missionary. I wasn’t a healthcare professional. And I don’t particularly like hospitals. So, when I added this all up, I was questioning what the Lord could possibly have me doing here,” he says.
15 days later, in the middle of September 2008, Rick had his answer: The stock market crash of 2008 and the economic upheaval that followed.
MedSend Faces a Financial Crisis
Rick knew his business experience helping organizations navigate transitions and turnarounds put him in the perfect position to steer the MedSend board in the right direction when the recession hit in September of 2008. But first, he had to take a good hard look at where things stood and have an honest discussion with the board.
“I went to meet with the MedSend board for the first time and I told them they need to pray and fast, because God might be done with the ministry of MedSend,” he reveals. Randy Carey, former Senior Vice President of Development, remembers that meeting well. “Thank God Rick was wrong!” Randy quips, thinking back to that tough conversation. Rick heartily agrees.
Rick told the board that they had three significant headwinds working against them. First, the much beloved founder [Dr. Topazian], who had raised every penny of money for the organization and was well associated with it, had left; he was no longer affiliated. Second, a significant amount of money had been invested in the stock market for long term purposes, and half of it was lost. 50% of the reserve that Dr. Topazian had built up was gone. Third, greater numbers of healthcare professionals were coming to MedSend with higher levels of student debt. “I basically told them, if God doesn’t show up, this ministry might be over,” he says. MedSend’s transition had entered turnaround territory.
“If God doesn’t show up, this ministry might be over.”
The board listened to what Rick had to say, went away to pray and fast together, and returned with a united response. They felt sure that God was not done with MedSend and no steps should be taken to either merge or close the organization.
“I told them that I would do the best I could for them. I would help out. But they needed to pray because God needed to show up for MedSend to have any future. And God did show up. God showed up in a mighty way,” Rick says, emotional at looking back. “I sit here 15 years later, almost to the day, sharing with you the story of what God did. You can see God’s hand on this ministry from its founding. It was an amazing movement of God that put me here with my business background in order to protect MedSend into the future. And here I sit 15 years later, with a real sense that God’s hand continues to be on this ministry, and of a powerful future ahead.”
Rick Meets Tom and Libby Little
When Rick first entered the picture with MedSend, he says he came in with his head down. He was juggling two part-time positions: pastoring at Black Rock and running MedSend. He was busy taking stock of MedSend’s financial position and assessing the probability of turning it around. Naturally, he hadn’t really had a chance to do any traveling or meet the grant recipients. He was just beginning to become familiar with their names when he got a call from a grant recipient and his wife who would be passing by Connecticut on their way up to Boston for a conference. A lunch meeting was planned, and Rick was very excited to meet his first MedSend grant recipients, Tom and Libby Little.
“It was meant to be a reasonably short lunch, but I was so engaged, just pelting them with questions one after the next, that it wound up being a two-and-a-half-hour lunch. And they had an amazing story,” he recalled.
Tom was unusual for a MedSend grant recipient. The typical candidate tended to be on the younger side, someone who had just finished their education. Tom and Libby were already on the mission field in Afghanistan when Tom came back home for some advanced training. MedSend was paying off that new educational debt.
“When they left, I was so grateful that God had allowed me to meet, as my very first missionary, this incredible couple with this wonderful story.”
“They told the story of their time in Afghanistan when they first arrived,” Rick shares. “When the Russians invaded, they were there. When the civil war broke out after the Russians left, they were there. When the Taliban took over and then when the Americans invaded, they were there. They told stories of being protected by the Afghan people who they love so dearly. They had raised their family there and been protected by them.”
They told Rick stories of sitting in bunkers with other families and their own children. In order to distract the children, they would play games about who could guess how many bombs were going to land that day. Their word deeply affected Rick. “It was a harrowing time for them, and yet they stayed fully committed to the people of Afghanistan,” he says.
But things had changed. Libby could no longer safely go outside because a new generation of radical Afghans had come into the city where they lived. Essentially it was the Taliban and the beginning of ISIS. Libby, who as an American woman couldn’t leave their apartment without fear for her life, continued to have Afghan women coming up the back steps and doing weekly Bible studies. Both she and Tom continued to minister to the people of Afghanistan.
“I was enthralled by their story,” Rick admits. “When they left, I was so grateful that God had allowed me to meet, as my very first missionary, this incredible couple with this wonderful story.”
Inspired by the faith and obedience of Tom and Libby, Rick was honored a few months later when Libby emailed and asked for prayer over Tom’s new endeavor. He would be taking a group of eight healthcare professionals over the nearby mountains and down into the valley to provide healthcare in a remote area.
“For the first time I mixed MedSend and my ministry at the church. I tended not to do that,” Rick admits. “I went before the church, and I asked them to pray. I told the story of how Tom and his team were at that very moment heading over the hill, and how difficult it likely was and how rough that terrain was.”
During that week, Libby sent emails almost every day, informing Rick just how difficult it was. The mules couldn’t move up the hill once they got to a certain point because of the ice, so the missionaries took the packs off the mules and went up and over the mountain with everything on their backs. The next Sunday, Rick told the congregation how Tom and his team were in the valley, they were serving the people, they were sharing God’s love through healthcare with the people of this valley.
The following week, Rick got an email from Libby asking for renewed prayers. Tom had been contacting her daily via satellite phone, keeping her informed and sharing the updates that she would then pass on to their prayer partners via email. She hadn’t heard from Tom that day and she was worried.
“For the first time I mixed MedSend and my ministry at the church.”
“The next email from Libby started with the words “They are all dead,” Rick says emotionally. He remembers being beside himself. In shock, he read on as Libby described how the entire group of healthcare missionaries were ambushed and martyred on their way back over the mountain. The only reason she had any answers about what occurred was because the Afghan guide leading the team on the route began quoting the Quran as the attackers executed them one by one. They recognized his words and let him live.
Anguished, Rick went before his congregation and told them that the people they’d been praying for over the past two weeks were gone. Martyred. “I didn’t know how to handle it,” he confesses with tears in his eyes. “I went before God, and I was angry. I was frustrated. I asked why. Why would You make this be the very first MedSend grant recipient I get in touch with, I get to meet, I get to hear their story? And they’re gone. With tears in my eyes, I’m going before God. And through that process, God spoke and told me three things. He said to move faster, to think bigger. And He told me ‘I’m changing the ground rules’.”
As Rick reflects back on that time and the message he heard from God, he can see that all of those things have happened in significant measure as MedSend moved forward. “It’s been an incredible journey. Those three things have motivated a lot of my behavior over the last 15 years. Because God was so clear with it,” he marvels. “At this point, MedSend has increased by 400%. We are significantly bigger. The resources going into global healthcare missions, both from MedSend as well as others, are significantly increasing. There is a real recognition today that healthcare gives access to places in the world where other forms of Christian witness do not work. Healthcare professionals can get there,” he shares.
According to Rick, the sending agencies recognize that the Holy Spirit is calling on young people to respond. Healthcare ministry expansion is occurring at a rate not seen for 70-80 years. “We need to respond to it,” Rick states. “We need to move faster, and we have been at MedSend. One of the blessings of our board is their willingness to respond to the Holy Spirit’s direction out of confidence and not fear.” That obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leading out of confidence and not fear is a hallmark of Rick’s leadership at MedSend. It’s an attribute he sees with MedSend donors as well.
“God showed up,” he says. “The ministry went into a turnaround model and our donors stayed with us.” While recounting his first years with MedSend on staff, it’s clear that Rick has a deep admiration for the faithful attitude of MedSend’s donors. In fact, it was their commitment to the ministry of healthcare, more than any action he took, that allowed God to turn it all around.
“Were the donors giving to the man or to the ministry?”
“One of the first things I did was look at what happened when Dr. Topazian left the MedSend ministry,” Rick explains. “What I was looking for was, were the donors giving to the man or to the ministry? Much to Dr. Topazian’s credit, they were giving to the ministry.” Dr. Topazian was much beloved, but the donors recognized the hand of God in the ministry of MedSend. Donations had only dropped 10% when Dr. Topazian left the organization, and when Rick saw that the core donors were staying, he realized they would protect the future of the organization and began to plan ways for MedSend to grow and build.
“Tremendous individuals came around me,” Rick shares, naming development officer Randy Carey, who still volunteers with MedSend to this day. “Donor development started under the leadership of Shelly Wermes. Alexis Casey created communication tools to support the new team, and we started marching along. You could interpret God’s hand in it. We felt momentum behind us. And as commanded, we started moving faster and thinking bigger.”
Healthcare remains the only form of access as a Christian witness in many countries.
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