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The Legacy We Leave

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

In our travels, we talk with many pastors and leaders. Several are in the last season of their careers and are contemplating retirement and transitioning from a life of full-time ministry. In conversations with these, and others I know who have already moved into retirement, I have heard some express concern over their life work, the churches or ministries they've built, and the legacy they will leave.

I'm also reaching the age where I have begun to think about things like inheritance and legacy. I have spent a great deal of my life in Christian ministry. Marie and I have planted three churches and served in several others. We have traveled extensively speaking and teaching. But as I grow older it is easy to question what has actually been accomplished. Is there anything that will mark my passing once I'm gone?

Here are some of the thoughts I’ve been working on.

1. The church (or organization) you lead is not your legacy

We have planted 3 times. None of those churches are still in existence. One did not last long... a few months. Another operated for over 8 years, and the other impacted its community for almost 20 years. They were all good works and impacted several hundred lives. The one thing they had in common was that they changed radically after we left them. Literally, they looked nothing like they did when we led them. That's not a judgment of better or worse, just that they were not the same church that we left. That is also the case with the one we led that was planted by another. It changed when we took it and it changed again when we left it. The point is, the churches were never ours… we were only custodians for the season that we were privileged to lead them.

As an interesting stat, small churches experience between 15-25% turnover in congregation per year. That means that within most churches there will be more people attending that never knew you as their pastor than those that do within just 3 to 4 years. The day we drove away marked the day that our legacy was no longer tied to that church.

Note to a transitioning pastor

Don’t saddle the incoming pastor with the responsibility of protecting your work or memory. Your work was good in its season. It is said of King David in the book of Acts that he “served the purpose of God in his own generation” (Acts 13:36) Those that follow you will certainly stand on your shoulders, but their primary responsibility is the same as yours was… to seek God and do as he leads. Humility demands that they honor those who paved the way, but your legacy isn’t their concern.

2. For that matter, our legacy isn’t our concern, either.

Our legacy is not something I think we should spend much time focusing on. It is primarily what will be spoken about us when we are gone and it is for others to write. I have found that it is unhealthy for me to spend much time thinking about how I might be thought of or remembered. I would do better to focus on the inheritance I will be leaving. The difference between legacy and inheritance, I believe, is that I can control, to some extent, the inheritance I leave while legacy is what others will say and remember once I’m gone. The inheritance I leave will be the values I live by, the people I invest in, and the faith I model.

3. It’s the people that make up our inheritance.

Every person we touched, cared for, and led in some way or another… these are the ones that will write our legacy. They will testify to what mattered to us. The buildings, structures, and organizations that we led will all eventually fade away. Our names may not be remembered within their walls even just a few years after we are gone. But the lives we impacted and the subsequent ripple through family trees will last far longer than our church or ministry.

One of the great joys of the travel Marie and I are getting to do during this season is that we occasionally get to connect with people we have worked with or pastored over the past 30 years. Many of these friends, even though we haven’t seen each other for years, feel like family, and reuniting with them is sweet. The time we shared life together is still bearing fruit in both, our lives, and theirs. Pastors are famous for reminding people that “we” are the church… not the building or the organization. We need to remember that as we weigh our life’s work in our final season. Let us finish well by leaving an inheritance that will last.

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