My city, though only a half-million in population, has the No. 1 Subaru dealership in America. Here in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, the all-wheel-drive feature means they sell a ton of Legacy models (plus Imprezas, Foresters, Crosstreks and especially Outbacks) to wannabe off-roaders.
Allow me to wander off-topic, however, to a different kind of question: What’s your idea of a good legacy? Not the kind you drive, but the kind you build. To put it another way: When someone sits down to write your obituary someday, what achievements of yours will they include? “John Doe is remembered for having done …” what? Started a business? Set up a foundation? Put three kids through college? Served on a community task force or church board? Received such-and-such an award?
What is truly going to count in the long run?
When I think about my own legacy, should it be measured by how many books I’ve authored or coauthored (46)? By how many Christian magazines I’ve helped to shape (13)? By what offices I held in the Evangelical Press Association (EPA) or the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA)? By what academic degrees I collected?
The thing is, a majority of those books (dating back to the 1970s) are now declared “OP” (out-of-print). That’s the tough verdict a publisher announces when sales have slowed to the point that another print run or warehouse space is no longer justified. (The new “print-on-demand” technology is changing this dynamic now, much to the delight of authors; our books can be reprinted even one at a time if need be without driving costs through the ceiling.) But does low sales mean little legacy?
More painfully, only three of those 13 periodicals into which I poured heart and soul are still around (Leadership Journal, Clubhouse, and Clubhouse Jr.). The other ten are no more. Yes, times are tough all across the magazine landscape these days (witness the demise of print versions of U.S. News & World Report, Teen, Sporting News, Nickelodeon, Country Home, Gourmet, and many others). But every death hurts.
When one of my most exciting launches (Brio, a magazine for young teen girls, in 1990) was shut down 19 years later despite impressive subscription numbers (… still haven’t figured that one out), I phoned the marvelous editor I had hand-picked long ago. After all, I had talked her into leaving a safe teaching job and moving halfway across the country to chase an unproven dream. She had done an amazing job, building passionate loyalty among girls everywhere.
We commiserated for a while about the vagaries of magazine work. But then I said something that related to legacy: “You know, Susie, I somehow think that God isn’t as concerned about institutions as he is about individuals. Granted, there’s no longer a glossy, colorful publication each month with the name Brio splashed across the front cover. But over these past years, you and your team have influenced the minds and hearts of hundreds of thousands of girls just heading into adolescence. You’ve explained God’s ways to them, you’ve helped firm up their moral foundations, you’ve set them on the road to wise decision-making—and nothing can take that away. No corporate decision can erase those achievements. Many of those readers are young adults now, and your legacy lives on in the lives they lead all over this country and beyond.”
Reflect for a moment: If your house is never chosen for the annual Parade of Homes in your city … but your kids’ friends keep asking to hang out at your place, you’ve succeeded.
If you never make Teacher of the Year … but you get Mikey and Kirsten and Juan to enjoy reading, you’ve enriched their lives permanently.
If you never set foot inside a recording studio … but listeners say they’re drawn closer to Jesus by your singing or playing, you’ve made an eternal impact.
Legacy is something to be measured in people—not dollars, not plaques on the wall, not bricks and mortar. That’s what I hear echoing in the words of the apostle Paul, when he wrote to the Thessalonians believers, “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy” (1 Thess. 2:19-20). He said nothing about the longevity or prosperity of their church (institution). He was taken instead with the individuals.
Even the Corinthians—who gave Paul more than a few headaches from time to time—must have smiled when they heard him say, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:2-3).
Peter Drucker, the esteemed management guru who influenced an entire generation (or two) of business leaders, once said, “My definition of success changed a long time ago. Making a difference in a few lives is a worthy goal. Having enabled a few people to do the things they want to do, that’s really what I want to be remembered for.”
If your goal instead is to build a great organization, and if you achieve that goal … there’s still the risk of what your successors will do once they move into the corner office. I can think immediately of half a dozen pastors and parachurch leaders who have retired—and are now shaking their heads at what’s unfolding at their former places of ministry. They thought they had everything on solid footing. They thought they had installed the perfect person or team to continue the work. And now, in just a few short years, the institution is seriously off track.
Isn’t that what happened to King Solomon? He made his nation larger and richer than it had ever been, the envy of the Middle East. But then, his successor (and son) Rehoboam promptly botched a key political issue, alienating most of the population and producing a nasty split into two smaller, weaker countries (see 2 Chronicles 10).
The same thing happened with King Hezekiah, who bravely led his people to follow God, purify the Temple, and celebrate the Passover once again. But once his son Manasseh ascended the throne, he undid all the good his father had labored to accomplish. The young man “shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end” (2 Kings 21:16).
We cannot guarantee that the people we seek to influence will stay on track. Even Jesus was disappointed by one of his Twelve. But the other eleven went out to “do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12). They took his message far and wide, changing the world’s course forever.
Look at your own life today. The question is not “What institution (organization, business, church, school) are you building?” It is rather “Who are you building?”—in your own family, and beyond. If this is your focus, there will be much to talk about when it’s time to write your life story. Your legacy will shine on for time and eternity.