Young Leaders: Who Will Replace Eugene Peterson and Other Giants We’ve Lost?

Just a few days ago, Eugene Peterson died. Like you and so many others, I felt the loss quite deeply.

In the last few years, not only have we lost Eugene Peterson, but also Billy Graham and Dallas Willard among others.

When a giant voice in ministry disappears from us, the question that’s really on my mind these days is who will replace them? Do we have a younger generation of voices being forged who are able to offer the depth of wisdom, insight, grace and perspective that we’re losing when we lose a giant?

To be sure, age and wisdom are frequent companions. To expect a 30-year-old to say what 65-year-old Dallas Willard or Eugene Peterson would say is unfair.

Fast forward a few decades and imagine a world in which perhaps thinkers like Ravi Zacharias, Tim Keller, Barbara Brown Taylor,  N.T. Wright and others are no longer with us…and then what?

Of course, no one can truly replace the unique voices lost. But isn’t it our hope that every generation will have its voices?

Deeper, though, is this question: are the conditions even favorable today for producing men and women who can step into the void?

I fear the answer is no, or at least I’m not really sure.

Why? Well, for a voice to endure—to have real significance—it needs depth, not just breadth.

We live in mostly in the age of breadth. And that makes me worry just a little bit for our collective future.

If you want to get a sample of what living a life in the unforced rhythms of grace is like, listen in on the interview I was privileged to have with Eugene Peterson in the summer of 2017. He was 84 years old at the time, speaking from his home in Montana. I was in my home north of Toronto.

I was in awe of how he said what he said as much as I was what he said. There’s no question he had spent a lifetime drinking from a  deep well. His answers were unhurried, honest, unscripted and real.

My interview with him was also one of the last he ever gave. The week after we recorded, he announced his retirement from public life and interviews. A few months later, I received a handwritten letter from Eugene and his wife Jan thanking me for the way I did the interview. I will hang onto that letter forever.

You can listen to it below, or for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

So what does it take to cultivate a voice that has depth? What would it take for you to nurture a voice that speaks meaning into the lives of others during your lifetime, and perhaps beyond?

There are at least seven things I’ve noticed that the voices I admire have in common. I am not claiming to have done any well; these challenge me as much as they may challenge you.

But they’re real nonetheless.

For a voice to endure—to have real significance—it needs depth, not just breadth. We live in mostly in age of breadth, not depth. Click To Tweet

1. Your input should always exceed your output

Any of the great voices you admire, not only in theology and ministry but in any discipline or field, have spent their days reading, reflecting, listening, learning, processing, wrestling and in the case of Christians, praying, far more than they have speaking, writing, broadcasting or sharing.

In other words, their input exceeds their output. And that’s where the riches lie.

We live in an age where, I fear, in many cases, the output of many leaders exceeds their input. That’s dangerous.

In the financial realm, when your output exceeds your input, you go bankrupt. Your intellectual, emotional and spiritual life is exactly the same.

Because we now have media and an audience at our fingertips and in our pockets, and we can all be celebrities in our tiny universes, the temptation to speak out, broadcast and opine (see below) is constant.

If you want to live a life worth living and have a ministry worth following, your input should always exceed your output.

If you want to live a life worth living and have a ministry worth following, your input should always exceed your output. Click To Tweet

2. Your private walk needs to be far deeper than your public talk

In a similar vein, the private walk of almost every significant voice is far greater than their public talk.

As you watch the tragic and almost constant implosion of pastors, politicians, athletes and business leaders today, you have to wonder if at the root of it all is a private walk that couldn’t sustain the public talk.

Jesus had no public life for 30 years. He simply prepared for three decades, building a solid foundation that not even betrayal and death could shatter. (He was, remember, fully human as well as fully divine, so this wasn’t just for show.) Then he taught, fulfilling his ultimate mission in 3 years.

That’s a 10:1 ratio of preparation over accomplishment.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone today who spends 10 hours preparing for every hour leading or speaking. Honestly, most of us barely spend an hour preparing for every ten hours of leading.  Hence, the shallowness of soul we suffer from these days.

If you want to your public talk to truly resonate, deepen your private talk.

If you want to your public talk to truly resonate, deepen your private talk. Click To Tweet

3. Make the work the reward

We live in a culture that’s hopelessly motivated by reward. From the number of followers you have, to how much money you make, to the fame and notoriety more and more people seek, our culture is fascinated with fame and reward.

Most thought leaders never set out to be famous. In fact, they usually find the notion foreign.

Too many leaders today see the reward as the reward—the fame, the sale of a start-up to a VC firm, 70 bajillion downloads of your podcast.

If you’re seeking to be famous, you may find your few minutes here or there.

But for any legacy that lasts, just know this, the work is the reward.

So make the work your reward. Do the deep work whether anyone is listening, reading, watching. One day, you may look up and discover other people are listening.

And if not, no worries. You already got your reward.

In a culture that makes the reward the reward, make the work the reward. With any legacy that lasts, the work itself is the reward. Click To Tweet

4. Don’t offer your opinion on everything

Notice that many of the thought leaders you so deeply admire don’t offer their opinion on everything.

They’re not weighing in on every act by politicians, or every move by business leaders. As Eugene Peterson said in my interview with him, “I don’t read the newspaper much. I can’t find much about God and Jesus in them.”

Instead, he worked on translating Galatians from Greek to English during the race riots in Baltimore in 1968. Peterson says ordinary citizens arm themselves with guns and weapons, but Peterson said that while people were worried about what was happening in the city, he was worried about what was happening in people.

So he brought the Biblical text to them in a fresh translation. That was the origin of the Message. (And when the riots stopped, he didn’t stop translating the Bible. See point 3 above.)

During the 1968 race riots in Baltimore, people were worried about what was happening in the city. I was worried about what was happening in people. - Eugene Peterson Click To Tweet

We live in a reactive culture, where too many of us think we need to have an opinion on everything. You don’t.

No, giants will speak out on some major issues of the day (think of Bonhoeffer in WWII Germany, or Christine Caine on human trafficking), but mostly they’re not reacting, they’re following a different track.

In a world drowning in information, giants focus on meaning. Meaning takes time. Opinion doesn’t.

You know what our culture needs? Less opinion, more thought. Less information, more meaning.

You know what our culture needs? Less opinion, more thought. Less information, more meaning. Click To Tweet

5. Focus on the timeless, not the timely

One precept of publishing is that the more current a book is, the more dated it becomes.

If you’re talking about being on your Snapchat listening to Drake while sipping your cold brew coffee, you’ve pretty much located yourself firmly in 2018.

A timely word is almost always a timeless word.

A timely word is almost always a timeless word. Click To Tweet

What makes the voices we admire most is that their writing and meaning transcends time.

You can read C.S. Lewis almost 60 years after he died because he speaks into the human condition and eternity in a way that still resonates well into a world he never lived in.

The word that makes the best sense of the times always roots itself in what’s timeless.

So enjoy your cold brew, but stretch back and move forward far beyond it.

The word that makes the best sense of the times always roots itself in what's timeless. Click To Tweet

6. Work twice as hard on your character as you do on your competency

It’s so easy to work on your competency.

When I was in my twenties, I believed your true potential lay in taking the lid of your competency. Read some books, get the degree, hustle, network with all the best leaders and go to conferences, and you’ll develop your skill set so well that the sky’s the limit.

Well, over time I’ve learned that competency gets you in the room. Character keeps you in the room.

Competency gets you in the room. Character keeps you in the room. Click To Tweet

I imagine that one of the things you admire most about the thought leaders you follow is their character. And truly, the reason they had a lifetime of contribution to make was because they didn’t let their character disqualify them from public life.

Because you’re driven enough to read to (almost) the end of a blog post, I think you’ll do just fine working on your competency.

But if you really want to live a life worth living and have a message worth sharing, work twice as hard on your character as you do on your competency.

Leaders, work twice as hard on your character as you do on your competency. Click To Tweet

7. Choose purpose over platform

This has been a recurring theme of this post, but it’s because we are all so ambitious these days. In moments ambition can be godly, but it is also a deadly trap.

I love how Eugene Peterson explained the origins of the Message to me in our interview. The furthest thing from his mind was to write a Bible translation that would be widely used, let alone sell millions of copies around the world and change how a generation interacted with scripture.

It was the 1960s. Peterson, he told me, had a small group of men at his local church in Baltimore that he met with for Bible study. None seemed interested in the Bible.

So Peterson decided one day to go back to the Greek and translate a passage freshly, to move the ancient words into the idiom of the day. He brought his fresh translation to the men the following week, and they engaged. They’d never heard scripture like that before. So Peterson kept transcribing passages for that small study. 35 years or so later, the final version of The Message would emerge.

In an age of striving celebrity and instant internet fame, never forget that purpose can give you a platform, but platform will never give you a purpose. In fact, platform pursued for its own sake will leave you stunningly empty. It will betray you and consume you and spit you out, your body strewn about as the latest wreckage in yet another spectacular crash.

In an age of striving celebrity and instant internet fame, never forget that purpose can give you a platform, but platform will never give you a purpose. Click To Tweet

Purpose is different. It endures whether you have a platform or not. It endures whether you’re alone with your wife in a home in rural Montana or the author of a best-selling book, whether you are sought after or forgotten.

Best yet, it will give you a fulfilled life. Fulfillment alone doesn’t happen because you became well known, grew a church or organization.

Platform pursued for its own sake will leave you stunningly empty. It will betray you and consume you and spit you out, your body strewn about as the latest casualty in yet another round of victims. Click To Tweet

True success happens in the little things, which are really the big things: when your wife or husband loves you more today than they did when you got married. When you have a rich relationship with your kids. When your friendships run deep and when you wake up every morning in the steady assurance that you are loved and are caught up in a story so much bigger and better than you.

That’s the good stuff.

Can I give you one last current example? Yesterday, I got news that a bucket list kind of thing happened…I got invited to speak in a place where Christians, especially pastors, rarely get invited to speak. It was a drop-the-phone-kind of moment.

But as I sat down for dinner last night with my wife (it’s just us now in our home…the kids are grown and on their own), I told her how wonderful it is that we can truly celebrate this moment together. We’ve had our share of struggles over the years, and we’re at a place we never dreamed we’d be.

I have a friend who received an international award a few years ago and flew across the world to accept it…alone. His marriage had crumbled. (This isn’t judgment, I have so much empathy and affection for him.)

I was reminded once again that in life, it’s not what you do, it’s who you do it with.

My wife and I will head to that event together, happily, and that matters more than doing the event itself.

One of the things I’ve loved most about Eugene Peterson—it came out again in our interview—is the obvious closeness he had with his wife Jan.

It's not what you do, it's who you do it with. Click To Tweet

Go Deep(er)

So how do you cultivate a deeper life?

A big part of the battle is overcoming the things that get in the way. Talk to the giants you admire, and you realize they’ve had to battle cynicism, fight off or avoid burnout, wrestle down their pride, and stare the emptiness of a life devoted to self in the face.

I write about all of those things and how I’ve battled through them in my own life in my book, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences. 

In the book, I show you how to battle to the other side of cynicism and reclaim hope, how to move through burnout and figure out how to stay out of it, how to avoid moral compromise and find fulfillment in success rather than the emptiness so many leaders find.

Join the 12,000+ leaders so far who have picked up a copy of Didn’t See It Coming and are realizing the way it is isn’t the way it has to be. I’m praying this book does for your soul what the journey has done and is doing for mine.

What Do You Think?

What voices do you admire, and what do you think the ingredients are to craft a life worth living?

I’d love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment.

35 Comments

  1. Patrick Mitchell on November 11, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    I find number 2 especially interesting given the unique day where someone fairly young can become a celebrity. In addition to Peterson, I think of Tim Keller, who was quite unfamous prior to his 50’s. Compare them to guys who’ve catapulted into the spotlight, written books, filmed studies, written book blurbs, and then crashed or become motivation speakers…there was something being forged in Peterson and Keller (trying to think of others, Piper maybe) in those decades prior that was necessary to navigate the balancing beam of being known. We’d be so wise to consider Carey’s words here on this ratio. I’ve given in to wanting to be known and count it as God’s grace that it hasn’t happened.

  2. Patrick Halferty on October 31, 2018 at 8:32 am

    A truly inspiring post. Thank you, Carey!

  3. Fay Williams on October 26, 2018 at 6:09 pm

    I know what was meant by who will replace but twice when I have seen this I say we don’t want replacements but new leaders with their own gifts. I am so grateful for Eugene, He was unique, bring on the next generation of leader also unique. It’s like the current song these are the days of Elijah….I want to jump up and say “NO he is dead put your own name in there.”

  4. Kabugo E. Hope on October 26, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    IT MAKES SENSE,, THANKS FOR THE WORK

  5. Michaela Lawrence Jeffery on October 25, 2018 at 2:44 pm

    To your question
    “…are the conditions even favorable today for producing men and women who can step into the void?”

    I say, “Yes!” because I think the condition of human need for God is still as present as ever. But we need a long-haul approach that is SO difficult to sustain in a world of rapid and regular change.

  6. Steven Gobble on October 25, 2018 at 6:44 am

    I am sitting in the corner thinking of what my final bout must be like to win this match. I have lost some matches, not all mind you and I have won many. When the final battle is over and in the record book the only thing that will matter is will I have caused the one who replaced me to have more confidence, more stamina, more desire as I had to win. This fight is not about me; it is about Him, the One who won His first fight, and every subsequent fight and His record is unblemished. His royal robe bears His achievement for His train fills the temple.

  7. Dow Tippett on October 25, 2018 at 5:40 am

    Carey,

    Thank you. When I was in Bible College someone posted a similar question. “Who would take the place of these voices?” I felt a call to try.

    But God has a way of gently leading us to become who he needs us to be. 30 years later, I hope I have more wisdom to understand that these voices did not rise up, they were raised up.

    Be encouraged, God will always raise up humble leaders who are close to his heart, but as you have encouraged, our goal is to draw close to Him and humble ourselves before him.

    By becoming, a man who pursues character over competence, you are becoming one of these voices.

    Thank you

  8. Rudy Schellekens on October 24, 2018 at 3:05 pm

    Not what he said, nor implied. He said IMITATE, from the word we use for MIMEOGRAPH… He was not looking for followers. He dealt with that very clearly when he rebuked people for claiming to be “followers” of Peter, and Apollos, and Christ, and Paul…

  9. Danielle on October 24, 2018 at 1:11 pm

    Thanks for this post, Carey! In a leadership world where many of my friends have large ministry platforms and it is easy to fall into the comparison trap, this is balm for my soul. Great reminders for leaders of all ages, and especially young leaders like myself, to stay focused on what is good and true in an easily distracting world. Grateful for your words!

  10. Rev. Ian Macdonald on October 24, 2018 at 12:32 pm

    Thank you for this reminder. Many important points made that often get overlooked by even the best leaders. But I think many of your points work equally as well as being just plain human goals. Glad your email stated this post was one of your most important ones written to date. I agree.

  11. Owen Hughes on October 24, 2018 at 11:18 am

    Enjoyed reading this Carey. As a young leader who has grown up in this world of internet fame I realise more and more each day the importance of a truly deep relationship with Christ as well as our spouse, family and friends.

    Thank you for unpacking this topic so clearly as it’s one that’s been on my mind recently.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 24, 2018 at 11:35 am

      So glad to hear it Owen. You’re on the right track my friend!

  12. Logan Lee on October 24, 2018 at 11:15 am

    Carey,

    This was very insightful, and exactly what I needed to hear in this season. As a younger leader, I’m often wondering what things will look like 10, 15, or 20 years from now. My generation needs older, wiser men and women to emulate spiritually intellectually and emotionally. I”m often concerned about the lack of giants around. You’re right – solid character is paramount.

    Thank you for your commitment to depth over breadth!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 24, 2018 at 11:36 am

      Thanks Logan. That’s such a great question to ask: what will I look like 10, 15 or 20 years down the road…

  13. Kiyomi on October 24, 2018 at 11:08 am

    Carey~ Thank you for your regular insightful contributions to ponder upon. Though I am not a Pastor, I have been enjoying AND SHARING you with my Pastor “friends”. To me, you are like Greg Laurie and Rick Warren in stature and impact. This article above made me reevaluate my life with my family and friends. THANK YOU!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 24, 2018 at 11:37 am

      I’m so glad Kiyomi. That’s great company. 🙂

  14. Roy Young on October 24, 2018 at 10:55 am

    Truth, well spoken. Thankyou.

  15. Christopher D Harrison on October 24, 2018 at 10:11 am

    Truly wonderful post! And, way to mine the moment for some really great insights. It reminds me that Peterson didn’t become a giant after seminary. His mother’s influence was giant incubating. His unique upbringing was a garden that nourished his whole life. It makes me ask, how am I raising giants? Are my kids growing in soil that will supercharge their faith? Do my wife and I have the courage to raise outliers (as it were) that will embody those seven points? Hmm…

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 24, 2018 at 11:37 am

      Great questions Christopher!

  16. Sam on October 24, 2018 at 10:09 am

    Carey, did you mean Barbara Brown Taylor?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 24, 2018 at 11:38 am

      Of course I did. Correction made. Thank you so much.

  17. Steve Wilburn on October 24, 2018 at 9:34 am

    Wonderful, wonderful post, Carey. I just recently discovered you after being called to a new ministry position, and your work and insights have been invaluable. This post is exactly what I need to hear as a young leader starting in a new context. Thanks for your faithfulness and commitment not just to expanding wider, but also growing deeper.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 24, 2018 at 11:39 am

      Thanks Steve. So glad you’re stepping into leadership. The church needs fresh, young leaders with hearts for God and a desire to grow deep.

  18. JoAnn on October 24, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Carey,
    Thank you for your words of wisdom. In a world where to often things become quick and shallow you gave some very thoughtful points on how to live a life that is deep and has meaning. I needed to hear it today and plan to write these points down and review them often.

    In reply to the above comment: I don’t believe we are putting men and women who live a life worth following on pedestals. All through the ages there have been people that we look to for examples. Some teach us courage, some teach us endurance, some teach us humility- all were flawed because they were human. If you need and example of God’s list of hero’s I suggest Hebrews 11.

    Thank you again Carey. God bless!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 24, 2018 at 9:25 am

      Great point Joanne. I think what makes Eugene Peterson so refreshing is I’m not sure he ever saw himself on a pedestal or put himself on one.

    • Rudy Schellekens on October 24, 2018 at 9:30 am

      And yet, in that entire list, there is no admonition to follow the example of those listed… I DO know, though, that there is an imperative to emulate God – Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect. Be holy, as God is holy. Imitate God.. (Matthew, 1 Peter and Ephesians 5).
      And yes, the people have been placed on pedestals – indeed not by themselves – but by those who admire them (and rightfully so, in many cases).
      So, maybe we should follow the other imitation statement then: Paul – Imitate me, as I imitate Christ…

  19. Jason Swan Clark on October 24, 2018 at 9:11 am

    Your best post yet. Thank you. Lord raise up some new giants who will go deep for us.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 24, 2018 at 9:14 am

      Thanks Jason.

  20. Chester Mitchell on October 24, 2018 at 8:56 am

    Carey: Thank you for your poignant post today. Sitting here thinking about the first time I read a book by Eugene Peterson (A Long Obedience In The Same Direction). I deeply appreciate your seven points. I plan to share them with my team.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 24, 2018 at 9:15 am

      One of the best titles ever, isn’t it?

  21. Rudy Schellekens on October 24, 2018 at 8:19 am

    With all due respect to Peterson, it is not right for us to place these men on such pedestals. Positive examples are good, but one does not need to be a Peterson, or Graham etc.
    Several reasons for my statement:
    Men, placed on pedestals, are looked upon as “special,” more special than the minister you see each week. The comparison between that person and those whom we consider “great” in the kingdom will cost.
    Men, placed on such pedestals, will be a greater negative impact when they do commit sin (The list is too long to place here). History teaches us that, if nothing else.
    Men, placed on pedestals, can become power-hungry (Again, the list is too long). I will mention one example, because it’s the “anniversary year.” Jim Jones. Although he was a good man in the early years, the final outcome is still unbelievable for many people.
    Let’s follow the Biblical imperative: Be imitators of God…

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 24, 2018 at 9:15 am

      I mostly agree with you. Hence many of the points above. Thanks for using your real name too Rudy. Appreciate that.

    • Gill on October 24, 2018 at 11:23 am

      Replying to Rudy: I agree, but I think that’s the point Carey is making… When the pedestal (aka platform) is more important than the purpose (see point #7), then people go astray. Points #2 and #6 speak to this also — when you’re all about the pedestal, you’re missing the point.

      These points together are a great way to keep grounded and inspired, to focus on the why, and to make it home for dinner! Thanks Carey.

    • Jan Gregory-Charpentier on October 24, 2018 at 11:38 am

      Which is why we need more WOMEN on pedestals (she says with only half a tongue in cheek). Thank God- literally- the women are getting there. They are not seeking the pedestal, they’re seeking to be authentic (most of them/us) in their leadership, and finally the world is recognizing their gifts, like Barbara Brown Taylor’s. Which leads me to thank Carey mightily for his post above. His is the wisdom that (many, many) women leaders have known and lived for a long time. And praise God, the menfolk are seeing and acknowledging its worth and effectiveness. Depth, humility, authenticity, interiority, compassion, connection. Your post is so refreshing to me as woman pastor not because it’s new; women leaders have known these truths for a long time (I know I’m speaking in vast generalities here and there are glaring and glowing exceptions to these “broad brush” portraits). Your post is refreshing because the deep gifts of authenticity, connectedness and humility are finally being acknowledged in settings and arenas that often spurned these gifts, arenas where dominance, competitiveness, comparison, and “success” were king; and sadly, those arenas often included pulpits. I too think your post is important and timely. Our world is crying out for leadership like Jesus’ – the type of leadership you describe above. My humble advice is, learn from the women who’ve been doing for years.

    • Jamey Stuart on October 24, 2018 at 2:55 pm

      The Apostle Paul DID say, “follow me as I follow Christ.” In a way, he placed himself on a pedestal. Having examples in our lives who inspire us to follow Jesus more closely by their own example, in my mind, doesn’t make much about them, if they spent their lives making much about Jesus. You point out some of the obvious negative scenarios, and they do happen, but isn’t that more of an indictment on us for holding people up on a pedestal before it’s actually warranted? In the case of Graham, Lewis and Peterson, they have all gone on to receive the reward for their faith. I think it’s fair to evaluate and learn from their lives. Thanks, Carey for a great and thoughtful post!

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