Carey Nieuwhof: Present Hope, Future Strength—Part 1

Carey Nieuwhof likely needs no introduction. A significant voice in Christian leadership conversations for years, Nieuwhof’s work to support leaders through his popular podcast (with over 20 million downloads to date) and books, most recently At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy and Priorities Working in Your Favor (WaterBrook), is grounded in his personal experience of pastoral ministry in post-Christian Canada after founding Connexus Church just north of Toronto, Ontario.

We sat down with him to talk about the big challenges and opportunities of post-pandemic ministry, and how we can build “future proof” resilience into ourselves and others during the difficult days that realistically lie ahead for church leaders.

For readers not familiar with your story or your present work, can you bring us up to date?

We all dream of things we want to do when we’re kids. When I was eight, I remember coming home from Cub Scouts one day and telling my parents, “I’m going to be a lawyer when I grow up.” I don’t know what the catalyzing moment was. I don’t know whether a lawyer came in to talk to us, or if one of my scout leaders was a lawyer, but I knew then that I wanted to be one, and it never really left my mind.

I had a few left and right turns on the way. I ended up doing radio in Toronto for a few years, which turned out to be good practice for all that was to come—the law, ministry and podcasting. Radio is all unscripted just like those fields. You have to think on your feet.

Anyway, I had a chance for a career in broadcasting, but decided I would rather go into law. I got into the school of my dreams—Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. It was good, but the best thing to come out of law school was my wife. We met in first year law, and I fell in love at first sight. We started dating and were married before we graduated. After that—I’m moving quickly here—I did a year finishing my articles of clerkship in downtown Toronto; got called to the bar; then promptly resigned and went into seminary.

That’s a sharp final turn. What prompted the move to ministry?

Well, I had been Christian growing up, but then rediscovered Christ in my early 20s. I started thinking, OK, I’ll be a Christian lawyer, whatever that is. Then it was between first and second year law that I really felt a call to the ministry. I have a lot of respect for Charismatics, but I’m not Charismatic by nature. Still, in that period of my life, I had a series of supernatural moments reinforcing that call. They were shocking. And I had enough Calvinist in me to doubt it. But God kept confirming it both internally and then in the people around me. And so, though it had been my dream, I resigned from the bar and went into seminary.

I never thought I would do pastoral ministry. I didn’t think I had the gift set. I’m not a touchy-feely guy or a natural at pastoral care. I’m a lawyer, right? So, to be a pastor in the traditional sense didn’t make a lot of sense. But again, God was speaking quite actively in that season in my life. Through a series of events I felt a call to three little churches an hour north of Toronto. They were just barely hanging on. I would do the circuit of the three churches on Sunday morning, and the small one had six in attendance—almost dead. The second had 14, and the “megachurch” had 23. Here we were, in 1995, when I was still in the middle of seminary, and I thought, OK. I’m going to sample congregational ministry. Probably rule it out. I had a scholarship lined up at Princeton. I thought, Maybe I’ll get my Ph.D. in homiletics, and I’ll just become a professor—that seems to be a better fit, and that’s ministry, right?

“If members of Gen Z are in church, they’re very passionate. So perhaps we will see a spiritual renaissance in the next generation.”

Well, we came up here 27 years ago and fell in love with the people. The churches started to grow. I was still a student at the time—they couldn’t afford a “real” pastor. But by the time I graduated 18 months later, we had grown to the point where they could afford a full-time salary for the first time in four decades. It wasn’t much. But they were used to getting by on bread crumbs and volunteers. So I stayed. In ’97 I was called to those churches, then by the late ’90s we had outgrown one building and were starting to really see some pressure in another. The buildings had been built about 100 years before. So, we said, “Let’s just start over again. The car has been invented since they were built, so we should note that.” So we started over again. We formed a new church and amalgamated our ministries. If I remember my details correctly, we became the fastest-growing Presbyterian Church in Canada, and the third largest of all churches nationally.

We had gone from these three tiny backwater churches to in the top three nationally and the fastest growing. So we garnered a lot of attention. By around 2005 to 2006, I had gotten to know Andy Stanley, Reggie Joiner and the folks at North Point (Ministries in Alpharetta, Georgia), and felt a kindred spirit there that I didn’t feel in my denomination at that point. So, in 2007, we broke off and replanted, becoming Connexus Church. Then about seven years ago, I stepped out of the lead pastor role when I turned 50, and handed it over to the next generation. I had been very concerned about succession. I had almost never seen it done well, and the church had gotten a lot bigger than I ever dreamed it would. We were at about 1,100, which is not big in the U.S., but was still in the top 100 churches in Canada by size, and I just kept thinking, I don’t want to blow this. Let’s hand this over.

By the grace of God, we had a great successor in mind. He took over, and I retired at the end of 2020. I’m still involved. We still give. But it’s totally next generation now.

Meanwhile, I had this little hobby of blogging as a side hustle, and started a leadership podcast. As I was winding down at the church, I started scaling that up. I’m trying to help people thrive in life and leadership. We have a small team of about nine of us who work at this, and we have the privilege of serving millions of leaders a year. It’s a real shock, honestly. You think you have a plan for your life and know what it’s going to look like, and it turns out entirely differently.

What are some of the big storylines you see at play in leadership right now?

All my hands-on ministry has been in the Canadian context. But most of my audience is American. And I’ve noticed that Canada is sort of a voice from the future. A lot of the issues I was dealing with in the ’90s and early 2000s of postmodernism and post-Christian culture with its hot-button issues, we navigated much earlier than the States did. So when I talk to a pastor in the Bible Belt who says, “Uh, things aren’t the way they were,” I’m like, “Yeah, I know. Let’s talk about it.” I have two decades under my belt of what that looks like. Present dynamics of deconversion, declining attendance, even some of the human rights issues that have emerged in the U.S.—those are issues we had to face in Canada a long time ago. Now America is finally tipping into an undeniably “post-everything” culture. That’s a big theme.

Another is that life has shifted online. That happened long before the pandemic, but I think the church woke up to that during the pandemic. There were very few pastors who didn’t have the latest smartphone prior to the pandemic, but at the same time churches in 2019, for the most part, were operating like it was 1999. A website, streaming services if you’re lucky. Well, the last two years have convinced people that Oh, this internet thing is real.

Another storyline that’s becoming clearer by the month is the talent scarcity that we are facing in the church. There’s an intellectual scarcity that I’ve been a little bit worried about for a while. That’s probably intensified. But things are about to get real as the Great Resignation that everyone’s talking about begins to really impact churches. Early research on this that I’ve seen is extremely concerning.

What you want is an abundance of great leaders in the church. We have a scarcity. In terms of sheer human power, there are just not enough leaders left in the church. It’s not a good scenario.

There is so much contained in that issue—including significant pastoral burnout. Where do we go from here?

Well, there are always possibilities because we are talking about the church. In the most optimistic scenario, the church goes into a period of renewal and rebirth. What we know about Gen Z from the data is that the small percentage that still go to church are very engaged. If members of Gen Z are in church, they’re very passionate. So perhaps we will see another awakening, a spiritual renaissance in the next generation. That would be a very optimistic scenario.

Optimistic, because we have some real challenges. You have a lot of moderately sized churches that will have difficulty finding people who want to come in the same way that they did. The reason I got to pastor our three little churches is that nobody else wanted them. They were the runt of the litter. So they got some kid who didn’t know which end was up in pastoral ministry to come lead them.

This is one of the reasons I moved to succession at age 50 when everybody said I was really young. Yeah, but I had a guy lined up that I knew could do the job, and if I waited much longer was that best for any of us? No. So I moved forward. I expect that everything we’re seeing is going to accelerate succession. I would say that if you’re an older pastor, hanging on by a thread, try to work with your board or a search team to find someone a decade, two decades, three decades younger than you.

You know, God is not surprised by any of this. And he’s going to figure it out. But I think there could be some very lean times. Then, among the “available bodies,” we have problems of quantity, but also of quality. I don’t think the church has been winning the intellectual debate in the last 20 years. You know, I’m not sure that we’re really doing that great at all on the intellectual front.

“There’s an intellectual paucity in the church that we are paying about now in a wave of deconversions. Too many pastors are used to having a captive audience.”

When I first heard of Tim Keller’s cancer diagnosis (Keller was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in 2021), I thought, Oh Lord, please leave him here for decades more, and please let him keep writing great books. We have a handful of people alive today who will be read 100 years from now. Maybe every generation gets a C.S. Lewis or two. There’s an intellectual paucity in the church that we are paying about now in a wave of deconversions. Too many pastors are used to having a captive audience. People listened because you were the expert, or should have been. Not anymore. People have the world at their fingertips now.

Jesus gave us the Great Commandment to love the Lord with all our heart, mind and strength. He was serious about the mind. Some of the greatest works in human history have been written by Christians. But I’m not sure we’re appreciating or carrying on that tradition particularly well. So I’m praying, not just for a next generation of quantity, but also of quality of intellectual and spiritual life.

Will the coming changes over the next one or two decades offer an opportunity to reinvigorate the life of the church? What’s the silver lining here?

Well, rapid, radical change is inevitable. Look at how quickly we had to adapt in 2020. Now we’re seeing war breaking out in Europe, inflation. All of the futurists are saying the world is heading into an unstable period. Some people map that out in months, maybe two or three years. Others see it covering the decade or more. But I think we’re gonna look back at 2018 and go, We had no idea how easy we had it back then. Who could have predicted this three years ago? None of us. But here we are. I think the uncertainty is going to make it harder for the church, but I’m with you—there is opportunity. This could be the groundwork for revival.

This is the opportunity for the church to say, “You know, what? We haven’t got certainty, but we have clarity. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but can I introduce you to someone–not something, not just an idea–but a person who has held human history, from the very beginning.” I think the culture is getting ready for that.

Those are inspiring words. However, they also demand great things of us. How can we work to be people of resilience and adaptability?

I don’t really love the term, but we need to build the “future-proof” quality into people. Particularly younger people. We need to help them exist in such a way that resilience and adaptability and strength become part of their character in preparation for what is coming. My heart for leaders is to build resilience by finding a baseline of rest. I’ve found one, I’ve written about it and I’ve taught leaders how to find theirs. Many of us learn resilience the hard way—we run at a pace that is unsustainable until we hit some kind of wall.

That’s what happened to me. When I was about 41, I burned out. I had been pedal-to-the-floor through those rapid growth years of my first decade of leadership, and one day my body … just quit. It just said, Yeah, we’re not doing this anymore. Some people don’t come back from burnout like that. I am thankful every day that I did. One thing I’m committed to helping leaders do is to figure out how we can move at a sustainable pace, because many of us are not.

When I burned out in 2006, we had the internet, but it wasn’t the deluge that we have today. It often feels like a deluge of bad news. Today’s “doom scrolling” is a very different world than the news cycle of yesteryear. It can be very hard on our mental health. We used to have one inbox, and now we have so many more, which means that the average church leader can be accessed truly 24/7 by their congregation as people are texting, emailing, calling, messaging on any number of platforms, day and night. So the question we need to ask is, How can I live at a sustainable pace? Sustainable spiritually, emotionally, relationally, physically and even financially.

“If your ‘busy season’ has no end, it’s not a season, it’s your life.”

Let’s just take finances as a practical example of this principle. I’m not saying we should get rich. That’s not what I’m saying at all. But financial stress is stress, and a lot of people in ministry are underpaid. If you have student or credit-card debt, or anything like that, or the budget isn’t fitting together like it used to because of inflation, in the world that we’re in, that is unsustainable.

Or the physical. Maybe we’re not getting enough sleep, not working out, not eating properly. A lot of church leaders seem to think that taking care of yourself is selfish. But that’s not self-indulgence—it’s self-preservation. And if your body is depleted, and you have nothing to give the leaders around you or the people you serve, you’re not really leading them. Look at Jesus: 33 years on this earth, three years of active ministry. And even during those three years when the disciples can’t find him, he’s out praying and resting, or he’s asleep in the boat. He knows this stuff is draining.

When you’re exhausted, you can make terrible decisions about your leadership, about your marriage, about money. I think exhaustion is behind a lot of the moral failure we see. If you’re leading from a place of wellness, you can help your congregation discover the same for themselves. On the other hand, if all you’re doing is teaching it, and they look at you and think, Wow, your family is falling apart, and you’re tired and keyed up and irritable, and no model of all this, then you lose your credibility.

I know that people feel they need to hustle, hustle, hustle to make it in this culture. You can run under a certain amount of stress or at a fast pace for a while. But if your “busy season” has no end, it’s not a season, it’s your life.

Check out Part 2 of our interview with Carey Nieuwhof where he talks about letting the gospel permeate all of our lives, why pastors should read deeply, and how we can be faithful in the next season of ministry.