This past month I visited the Vineyard Church in Urbana, IL. As I was sitting in Happy Leman’s office, I paused to take a picture of this sign on his wall. It featured Nicky Gumbel and this quote, “I’m longing to see people ordained who have been trapped by ageism. Research shows the most productive decade of your life is 60 to 70. The second is 70 to 80. And the third is 50 to 60. The Church has not adapted to this. Caleb was still as strong at 85 as he had been in his youth.”
It reminded me of one of the most memorable and important words I ever received. Almost 30 years ago I sat at the bedside of Chuck Apperson, a Pastor and leader in the Vineyard and a spiritual Father to Marie and me. Chuck was leading a team in Colombia doing a large stadium event but, on this night, Chuck wasn’t feeling well, and I volunteered to stay back at the apartment with him while everyone else went to the stadium for the final night’s meeting.
Chuck was coughing in fits and was very tired but sat up with me for a while and talked. At some point, he began to reminisce. “Duke”, he said, “don’t get caught up in things like success and failure. Take the long view. Everything, until you’re 50, is just practice.” He went on, “I’m 60 years old and the past 10 years have been by far my most productive years.”
My first reaction when he said that was irritation. I’m a 30-year-old leader with big dreams and expectations and I felt like he was dismissing the possibility of radical success at this stage of my life. What I didn’t know was that it would be the last words Chuck spoke to me before slipping into a coma and passing a few days later.
Over the years those words have gone from feeling dismissive to being a powerful source of hope and courage. It’s easy in ministry, and life in general, to lose sight of the forest for the trees. The successes of the day that appear so permanent can and will be challenged by failures and setbacks that, themselves, are also temporary. It is very encouraging when facing difficulties to realize that whatever the outcome is at this moment, it is not the story’s end. The wins and the losses all are teaching opportunities that continue to build us into that which will be necessary for our next assignment.
I am now entering my 60s with more expectations than any other season of life. I watch people like Happy Leman doing mission work now in his 70s and it gives me courage. Courage to continue to grow. If I believe that my most productive years are still before me, I have the motivation and responsibility to not become complacent in my own growth but to keep responding to the invitation of God.
Now, a word for you who are younger leaders…
Don’t sweat success and failure, it’s all practice and training. You are still becoming the person that God will use in future assignments, so learn to enjoy the process.
We are for you. We celebrate your successes, but, even more, we applaud your attempts. In many ways, your faithfulness affirms and testifies to the investment we have made in our own lives, and we are grateful that you have picked up the torch.
Third, intentionally seek out those who’ve gone before you. Try to make a place at the table for them. They may have done it differently than you will, but they have wisdom born of experience and it’s foolish to assume they have nothing to teach you.
And, lastly, a reminder to those of us who are older…
I find that I often compare a young leader to my current self rather than to the young leader that I once was. I’d do well to remember that much of the wisdom I now have comes on the heels of some very poor decisions. Let's be free with our encouragement and judicious with our advice.
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. ~ Matthew 11:12