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January 31, 2011

There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part Three


"Blessed are those who trust in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the valley of Baka [weeping], they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, til each appears before God in Zion." ~ Psalm 84:5-7

As the previous post describes, our decision to leave Jacob's Well was not easily made. Rather, we wrestled for a couple of years to reconcile competing and conflicting impulses. If the Christian life is indeed a pilgrimage, then we felt like we were in that stage of the journey described in Psalm 23:4 as "the darkest valley" and Psalm 84:6 as the "valley of Baka," "baka" being the Hebrew word for weeping. There certainly didn't seem to be a simple or obvious solution to our struggle. Then, in the spring of 2009, a few critical things unfolded very rapidly. Though far from a quick or painless fix, through these developments we saw a path leading, if not up and out the valley, then at least further down the road we had been wandering along.

It began in April when I received a message from a friend I hadn't connected with in awhile. I first met Meredith Wheeler when he was the pastor of a large church outside Philadelphia. He had heard me speak at an Emergent conference in San Diego sometime in 2004 or 2005. Following that session, we visited for a bit. I was surprised to meet him again in the foyer of Jacob's Well one Sunday evening before our worship gathering a couple of months later. I believe he was on sabbatical at the time, traveling around the country to observe how different communities were seeking to be faithful to the gospel in our changing cultural context.

Meredith and I continued to connect periodically over the next couple of years. At that time, I was a member of the board of directors of Biblical Seminary outside Philadelphia. On one of my trips there, Meredith picked me up at the airport and drove me to the school an hour away. This gave us the opportunity to get to know each other beyond the brief chances we had enjoyed thus far. Because of that growing connection, I shared with him my fears about some health struggles my oldest son was facing when I ran into him the next year at the same conference in San Diego. Following that encounter, Meredith began to send regular emails asking after Mabry and telling me of his ongoing prayers for him and our family. Though it may not seem like much, those messages meant the world to me, reminding me that we were not forgotten. I am glad to say Meredith became a good friend. He is an amazing person whom God used to reach out to me at a couple critical junctures of my life. Eventually Mabry got better. As such things happen, though, Meredith and I slowly lost touch.

When I saw his name appear in my email inbox in April, 2009, I was thrilled. I learned that he had recently moved to New Zealand, accepting a position as the Head of School for Mission and Ministry at Laidlaw College in Auckland. Once there he added Vice Principal of Operations to his list of responsibilities. Beyond sharing news of his transition, he inquired whether or not I would be willing to come with my family to New Zealand to teach a three month course at the college. He also wanted to know if I could recommend someone to fill an open lecturer's position in the School of Mission and Ministry. True to character, he concluded that message asking about Mabry.

I was excited by the thought of visiting New Zealand with my family and reconnecting with Meredith, however it was mid-Spring by then and he needed someone in July. I gave my regrets, but told him that I would like to talk again. I was due for a sabbatical in 2010 and thought New Zealand would be a great place to spend it. We agreed to stay connected and begin planning for the next year.

The rest of April was a blur. Easter fell during April that year and I had a number of outside speaking engagements, including a slot at the Q Conference in Austin, Texas. While there I roomed with my good friend Ron Martoia. As a former pastor and church planter, Ron was an invaluable companion who had navigated some of the same terrain I was tripping my way through. The day after I returned from Austin, I left to speak at another conference at Morling College in Sydney, Australia. Graham Hill was a great host and in between speaking engagements and the surf lessons he graciously arranged for me at Dee Why beach, I had a lot of time to myself - which by then I desperately needed. I had some things I needed to think through.

I was one of two presenters at the conference at Morling. The other presenter was Steve Stroope, the lead pastor of a Willow Creek-style mega-church called Lake Pointe located outside Dallas, Texas. Steve and I could not have been more different. Our churches seemed to live in completely different worlds - if not galaxies. But Steve is a great guy and an incredibly wise man with years of experience leading a church. He shared a number of things that were really important for me to hear and later process. One of them is worth briefly elaborating on here.

I don't remember if what he shared was his own material or if he was quoting from someone else. Regardless, he described creativity as a cycle that moves through four different stages or seasons. This cycle operates for both individuals and communities. In the first stage of this cycle, something new is conceived. He named this the "dream" stage. If this dream is to become a reality though, hard work is required. Thus, he labeled the next stage "development" (that is, I think that's what he called it - it definitely started with "D" and was about work; I'll check my notes to be sure). The development stage is an intensive season of labor where a person works hard plowing ground and planting seeds. Following the development stage comes a time he called the "doldrums." Significant creative output is usually followed by a depression of sorts. The irony of the doldrum stage is that it actually appears to be quite productive. Why? Because the seeds that were planted in the development stage are now bearing fruit. In a very important sense, the doldrums mark the crux of the creative process. Most people facing the doldrums attempt to escape them by returning to the previous stage and getting back to work. This can be a fatal mistake. Instead of trying to reassert control and become productive again, the invitation (and opportunity) is to stay in the chaos of the current situation. If we allow ourselves to remain in this kind of uncertainty, we are led into the fourth stage - that of the "cocoon." We all know what cocoons are about. Though we may experience pain, isolation, and confusion, the darkness of the cocoon provides the environment required to gestate. The result of this gestation is new dreams that can animate the next season of our life. Harrowing though it may be, such a process is crucial if we want to avoid recycling the dreams of another time and living out of our past.

When I returned from Australia in mid-May, I had a message from a pastor on the west coast wanting to talk about a transition his community was navigating. He had read my book and had some questions for me. He asked if we might talk and I agreed. When we connected the following week, we exchanged typical "get-to-know-you" pleasantries. Then I asked him how I could be of help. I thought I knew what was coming next. Having written a book about leadership and transitioning churches from a certain kind of orientation toward God, themselves, and the culture, I was used to helping leaders think through the implications of what such a shift might look like in their own context. But that was not what he wanted to talk about. The transition he wanted to discuss was about the church planter that had just left their community to pursue a variation on his calling. He wanted to know if I would be open to taking on the teaching role at his church. To say I was surprised does not begin to do justice to what was now happening inside me. I was blind-sighted. So what was happening inside me? Something very unnerving.

I am not a person that "hears from God." It has never happened to me. I wish it had. I have had strong intuitions that I would label impressions or urgings from the Holy Spirit. But before acting on these impressions, I have learned to measure them against the teaching of Scripture, the godly counsel of trusted and mature friends and advisors, and the peace that comes when such urges are thoroughly worked out before God in prayer. Though many people do so, I am not one to claim "God told me..." I don't think it works that way most of the time. However, when this man asked if I was willing to discuss leaving Jacob's Well to teach at his church, I distinctly and clearly sensed - what? I am not sure how to describe it except to say that I heard or felt a gentle sentiment along the lines of "You are released." One moment I wasn't open or free to think about such a thing and the next moment I was. Somehow, in that momen, God released me - and I was released. I was so freaked out I immediately left my office and drove to a see a friend at his recording studio 15 minutes away.

It turns out that that phone call was the means that God used to release me. At least, that is what I believe. To be honest, I'm not sure I could have let go otherwise. I didn't end up taking the position on the west coast, obviously. I didn't even interview for it. But that surprising call cascaded into a series of conversations with close friends and family intent on helping us to discern what might be next. As Mimi and I sat on the front porch with some friends processing through possible options one night near the end of May, someone asked me what I wanted to do. Meredith's email and the invitation to come to New Zealand came rushing back to me. I told them that I would like to contact Meredith and see if the opportunity to go to New Zealand for a semester was still open. I thought that the time away teaching would be a good experience for our family that would also allow us the space to discern possible next steps. Everyone seemed to think that this was a good idea so the next day I emailed Meredith and asked him if the invitation to come and teach for a semester was still open. And he replied, "Let's talk."

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Erik Leafblad


I have loved reading these posts. I especially like this one, in particular the four-stage process described above. I'm excited about the cocoon from which new dreams will be born for our church. So glad you'll be back with us soon.

Ken Cardell

Tim, greetings for Kansas City. Love your blog. Your scripture is especially touching to us today and we have found Connie's leukemia has returned. We are walking thru the valley ...even as I write. God Bless you guys. Cards

Tim Keel

Erik - thanks for the message. Excited to reconnect with you and the community. By the way, I just noticed that you left the 2000th comment on my blog! I wish I had a prize for you, bro. ;-)

Tim Keel

Dear Ken - thank you for sharing this really hard news with me. The way that you, Connie, and your girls have battled this disease has been inspiring to witness - if only from afar. I know how deeply you are loved by the people who surround you. We love you guys, too. Most importantly, you are known and loved by God. I pray that are you are able to engage this next season of your struggle aware of and awash in the love that enfolds you. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers, my friend.


i still remember when you shared that 4-stage cycle at our staff retreat; i loved & hated it. i see its truth more and more, and there's strange comfort in it, but it doesn't make it any easier.

Tim Keel

Yes, that is true, Beth - it is challenging, but what is the alternative? The strange comfort to me is that it calls out to something deep inside us, something that our culture constantly struggles to defy: death. Like spring and the new shoots of life that appear from the ground after the long winter has come and gone, such new life is so sweet, I believe, because when it arrives it feels like we have participated in something miraculous.

Without death, there can be no resurrection - in their own way, each supply some of the raw material for living life in the kingdom...

Erik Leafblad

How about a complimentary copy of your commentary on Ecclesiastes when it's available? :-)

Tim Keel

I like how you think, Erik. Let me get it written first, then we can talk. Hopefully that will happen before I reaching the next commenting milestone!

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