Saving A Family From Ruin


As a high-ranking executive in the life insurance industry I was pretty far-removed from the customer. I spent much more of my time interacting with agents and employees than with our customers. The most important and direct interactions that the company had with customers happened through the life insurance agent, who would initially make the sale, then help to service the account, and ultimately submit the death claim for a grieving family.

For agents, making the sale is perhaps their most challenging task. A life insurance contract is an intangible product that essentially represents a promise to pay claims in the future after the death of the insured life. Many people resist making a significant purchase for which the only perceived return is a payment to their beneficiaries from an insurance company after their death. A relatively high percentage of men and women who enter the life insurance business as agents fail because they simply can’t convince people to make that initial purchase. In response to this particular challenge unique to the insurance industry, the industry has developed a number of ways to encourage sales personnel and reward hard-won sales records. One such incentive is qualification for membership in the Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT). Begun in 1927, MDRT is an independent, international association of tens of thousands of sales professionals in the life insurance and financial services industries who are recognized for their excellence in professional performance, ethical conduct, and client service.

In 1998, I attended the MDRT annual meeting, a huge industry gathering, which was held that year at a large convention center in Chicago. A staggering 7,000 people were in attendance. I was there as an honored guest, but most attendees were insurance agents who had qualified to attend based on their high level of annual sales. The MDRT consisted of platform presentations to the full group of delegates every morning and smaller breakout sessions conducted each afternoon. The morning platform sessions were well known for their emotional content, and attendees always came prepared to be moved by what they heard.

One of those main platform presentations was by David Woods, CEO of an industry association that publicized the importance of life insurance in protecting the financial future of families who lose the primary income earner. David showed a very moving, professionally produced video about a young family with two small children who had lost their father in an automobile accident. He had been killed only two days after purchasing a life insurance policy.

The young widow talked about her husband, and the children spoke emotionally about their dad. The widow said that her husband’s life insurance had saved them from financial ruin, allowing them to maintain their home and lifestyle and even provide for the kids’ education. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Indeed, the short video segment reassured the large audience of insurance professionals that our life’s work is significant and that it provides great value to consumers—consumers who don’t always recognize the devastating risks they face and who often object to “wasting money” on life insurance.

But the tears streaming down my face were for a very different, private reason. You see, I knew the rest of the story. In an audience of 7,000 people representing more than 200 insurance companies, God was speaking directly to me.

As I’d watched the video, the family’s situation sounded strangely familiar. But it wasn’t until the family’s agent was interviewed at the end of the video that I made the connection. I was certain this case had come across my desk at New York Life several months earlier.

As president of the company, I rarely had to make decisions on death claims. Those decisions were almost always handled by executives at a lower level in the corporate hierarchy. But this one had come to me from the legal department. They felt we were not obligated to pay the family’s claim because their application had not been submitted with an initial premium payment. Therefore, on the date of the father’s sudden death, state insurance laws mandated that his life insurance coverage was not technically in effect and enforceable through the insurance company.

Our company lawyers recommended I deny the claim. They felt that if I paid the claim, I would potentially set a legal precedent that was beyond our technical contractual liability.

However, there was one extenuating circumstance: The father who lost his life in that car accident had written and signed a check for the premium payment to New York Life Insurance Company. The check was sitting on his desk at home the day he was killed.

When I reviewed the situation, I didn’t have time to read the entire file. I didn’t know about the wife and kids; for me, this was nothing more than a business decision. I thought about the financial loss to the company if we were to pay the claim. I also thought briefly about the precedent I might be setting by approving it. I knew other agents could potentially demand similar treatment, even when similar extenuating circumstances did not exist. Nonetheless, given the evidence, I decided that the “right thing to do” was to pay the claim. I signed the claim and went on with my work as always. I didn’t think about the situation again—that is, until Chicago.

This video at this time was not mere coincidence. Hundreds of companies were represented at this convention; thousands of agents from around the world were in this audience; and this one video told of one family that had insurance coverage with just one company. The outcome hinged on one executive who made a difficult decision that would forever impact the family’s financial future. That executive was me. And I was the only one who knew it.

Here’s the miracle: At the time of the Chicago meeting, I was questioning the value of what I did for a living. I frequently bemoaned the sacrifices I was making in my own family life to take on such a huge vocational responsibility. As the video ended, it was suddenly crystal clear to me: God had chosen this venue, this story, to reassure me. God was making me aware of the importance of what I did for a living. Just as importantly, God was emphasizing the importance of integrity—of doing what was “right” instead of relying on legal loopholes and technicalities.

Needless to say, this experience with its resulting epiphany changed me forever. It not only changed the way I conducted business, but also how I lived my life. I subsequently told the story to thousands of agents and employees at New York Life, which gave me an opportunity both to express my faith and to indicate the importance of the work our agents and employees did to provide important benefits to our customers when they need it the most. Sharing my experience also helped motivate agents who were typically reluctant to approach prospective clients with a proposal to buy life insurance—a motivator for the agents and a potentially great blessing for their clients.

But the greatest change for me came in knowing I needed to be more attuned to, and listen more carefully for, messages from God. His message was one I desperately needed to hear, and as He always does, He found the perfect way to deliver it.

For Reflection

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
— Psalm 139:1–10


The experience in Chicago was one of the most moving of my life. It came at a time when I needed vocational reassurances. It not only reinforced my faith but it also reminded me of the profound value of my profession and the efforts of insurance industry sales representatives and employees. Sitting in an audience of 7,000 people, I palpably felt God’s presence. I had no doubt that God was speaking directly to me, as I was the only person in the massive audience who knew the “rest of the story.”

Certainly there have been many times in your life when you struggled with tough decisions or you questioned your purpose. We all face those moments. And it is equally certain that there will be many more moments like that in your future. As you reach out to God for guidance, take comfort in knowing as the Psalmist wrote, “Even before a word is on my tongue, oh Lord, you know it completely.” If your answers to prayer and messages from God are like mine, you probably won’t audibly hear God. So you need to be tuned in for His nonverbal communications. Watch for those highly improbable but well-timed experiences that prove to be providential and not coincidental. It just may be His hand leading you and holding you fast.