A few months before his death, best-selling author Dr. Ted W. Engstrom invited me to spend a day together, just the two of us. His eyesight was gone, but his mind was still sharp. For hours, he told me about the things closest to his heart.
Among other things, Ted told me about a pact he, Billy Graham, and Bill Bright had made decades earlier, before they became famous. “We promised each other that we would finish well,” Dr. Engstrom told me, smiling. “And just think—Bill Bright did just that! Billy Graham assures me he’s going to be faithful to the end. And I fully intend to do the same!” Talk about an enduring legacy.
One of the foremost experts on leadership matters, Dr. J. Robert Clinton, has invested much of his career analyzing why people do—or don’t—finish well. Over the years, he’s done a comparative study of more than eight hundred Christian leaders’ lives. His conclusion: “Few leaders finish well.” (Dr. J. Robert Clinton, Focused Lives (Altadena, Calif.: Barnabas Publishers, 1995), 499-500.) Why? Clinton lists six barriers:
1. Finances—their use and abuse
2. Power—its abuse
3. Pride—unchecked, which leads to downfall
4. Sex—illicit relationships
5. Family—unresolved problems
6. Plateauing—because of sin or loss of vision
Thankfully, Clinton doesn’t stop there. He also lists five reasons why people finish well. All five can be seen in the lives of Bill Bright, Ted Engstrom, Billy Graham, and many others:
1. Lifetime perspective on ministry
2. Fresh encounters with God on occasion
3. Personal disciplines daily
4. Lifelong learning posture
5. Lifelong mentoring by a total of ten to fifteen individuals (Clinton, 1.)
When I asked Dr. Engstrom about that last point, he told me about how he had been mentored over the years, as well as about how he had intentionally mentored others his whole adult life. Even when he lost his eyesight, he happily continued to meet with others, talk with them by phone, and keep up an incredible amount of correspondence. He didn’t stop until shortly before his death. Like Paul the apostle, he could say, “I have finished well.”
I’ll never forget his joy. Decades earlier, Dr. Engstrom had made a promise, but somehow keeping that promise wasn’t a burden or duty. Instead, it seemed to be the secret of his enthusiasm and vitality (at least toward the end of his life). I’ve seen athletes flash that same smile after winning a major victory. To see it radiate from someone near the end of life, however, is even more moving—at least it was to me.
Still, Clinton’s words haunt me: “Few finish well.”