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January 28, 2011

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

Sahara01.jpg"The end of all our journeys will be to arrive at the place where we began and know it for the first time." ~ T.S. Eliot

In the previous post I shared the exciting news (at least for me!) that I will be returning to Jacob's Well Church mid-summer to take on the role of primary teaching pastor. The way this has unfolded is pretty amazing and I want to share parts of that story with you. But before I discuss the turn of events that led to this outcome, I'd like to first discuss the dynamics that influenced my decision to leave Jacob's Well in the first place.

I am motivated to do this for three reasons. First, I never took the opportunity to do so in this space and would like to now. Second, stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. To tell this story well, I want to give it some context. Third, I am passionate about local churches and their leaders. I spend a great deal of time talking with, reading and writing about, and coaching leaders seeking to be faithful to God and his purposes in their context. In best-case scenarios, this is a confusing and arduous task. I don't write that to complain or garner sympathy. To me, there is no greater privilege than leading a church. But there is no question that church leadership is fraught with challenges that often overwhelm and wear out its most committed practitioners. Perhaps this is not all that surprising. Every kind of work has its unique benefits and hazards. Men and women who follow Jesus into Christian service both follow a messiah who says that we find our lives when we lay them down and read scriptures that enjoin fortitude, perseverance, and long-suffering as we seek to live in the faith, hope, and love that animate God's kingdom. I believe that the struggles and opportunities that led to my resignation are not mine alone. In that sense this blog post is a narrative that operates simultaneously on a micro-level (my story) and meta-level (employing aspects of my story to make larger, systemic observations).

Thus, it is my hope that by sharing a few observations that illuminate the most recent chapters of my story, leaders might also have insight into the dynamics that could be impacting their own personal and communal stories. However, to do this I am going to have to generalize in ways that take very complex and dynamic realities and simplify them in fairly significant ways. I do this in order to make a couple of specific points in the clearest and briefest way possible. Though there are many different angles by which to approach this topic (e.g., organizational life cycles, stages of masculine spiritual journey, sustainable rhythms for people in helping professions, the necessity of leaders' ongoing professional and creative development, etc.), I want to focus primarily on the role that leadership plays in new communities and how it evolves (or doesn't) over time.

[Caution - this is a long post and will be an even longer series! I can't imagine too many people wanting to read on unless they are a) connected to Jacob's Well in some manner, or b) interested in the broader issues of sustainable church leadership that the rest of this post (and series) discusses...consider yourself warned! :-)]

In July 2009 I announced to Jacob's Well Church my decision to resign after eleven years of leading the community. Perhaps you can imagine how grueling a decision it was for me and my family to make. Being the founding pastor of Jacob's Well, a community I couldn't love more, made stepping away from the church the hardest thing I have ever done. Of course it wasn't just a job for me or my wife - or my kids for that matter. Jacob's Well was (and continues to be) family and home in a way that is impossible to describe. I don't think it is too dramatic to say that we experienced and grieved this decision the way we might experience and grieve the death of a person we knew intimately and loved deeply. I know it was hard for the community as well, though I don't presume to speak for anyone but myself.

At the time I resigned, I shared with the congregation that I had been struggling in my role off-and-on for about three years: trying to figure out what was going on, trying to make adjustments where possible, all the while continuing to love serving God amidst this amazingly faithful community of people - elders, staff, and congregation. Through conversations with people both inside and outside of Jacob's Well, professional personal and vocational counseling, not to mention a great deal of personal reflection, I discerned three overlapping and interrelated phenomena that helped make sense of my struggle. Before naming those, though, I want to place my particular struggles within the larger context of "church planting" - a phrase that means starting a church where one did not previously exist.

It has been a couple of years since I have seen the statistics but when I last checked, the survival rate of new church plants was not great: for every five churches started, only one will still exist after five years. Note that this statistic measured only for churches that survived, not necessarily thrived. (As an aside, I wonder how those statistics compare to any start-up venture?) Both my experience as a church planter and my research and work within the arena of church leadership has shown that while there are many factors that contribute to the "success" of a new church, one key marker is the presence of a leader who is able to facilitate the creation of a culture. That means they must be able to articulate and, in some sense, embody the vision of the community in ways that make it accessible to people who may not yet be able to "see" what is being imagined. Though some question the value of leadership in churches these days, that such a figure would be necessary makes perfect sense. Leaders in new communities must expect to be the primary means of proclaiming and demonstrating (and administrating), for a season, a reality that those under their leadership may or may not yet perceive. I also believe this is where most new churches are ill-served by the typology that frames church leadership primarily in the category of "pastor." While most church-planters are pastoral, it is usually the "apostolic" impulse that leads such people to found new communities. The inability to rightly name this role and structurally allow for this disposition can create confusion in later stages of the community's and leader's life - as we will see...

So, one of the characteristics of new churches that survive and thrive is the presence of leadership that incarnates, in a variety of ways both personal and structural, a way of living life together as the people of God that invites others to see and participate in it themselves. The ability to successfully navigate this challenge, however, opens up a different set of challenges - indeed, the very seeds of its future struggles are planted in this stage of the community's life.

The church succeeds in some measure because the identity of the leader and the church become intertwined - that is fused. While such a fusion is integral in the early stages of a community's life, it becomes unsustainable, and ultimately unhealthy, for both the leader and the church the longer it continues. The church must develop an identity independent of the leader just as the leader must find ways to differentiate himself or herself from the church as well. The fact that churches are communities that intentionally blend so many different aspects of life further complicates this. Nevertheless, the leader and the church must identify those habits within their culture that made them "successful" but have now become increasingly unhelpful. Then they must develop new stories, habits, and structures that retrain the community (and especially the leader!) in ways of being and relating that do not depend on the presence of that one person. This can be hard to enact for many reasons - the most significant being those behaviors that must be unlearned are often the very things that were integral to surviving the first several stages the new community's life.

Conversations I have had about this topic with other leaders have convinced me that this dynamic is one that is as common as it is intractable. (In fact, while writing this post, I received an email from a church planter In the US asking the type of "culture creation" question that illustrates the crucial ways leaders proactively engage their community - that then leads to the very thing I am writing about in this post!) "Fusing" and then "de-fusing" a leader and their community is one of the most complex leadership challenges any organization can face, sacred or secular. It is also one of the most critical for the long-term sustainability of an organization and its leaders. Different leaders and communities deal (or don't deal) with this challenge in different ways, some more successfully than others. Though their circumstances and contexts may differ in many ways from my own, the struggles many leaders face in this regard are similar to the three that I mentioned above and will return to now.

First, I felt that my presence in the community in some ways inhibited the development of other leaders for all kinds of reasons. For the community to mature in critical ways, I found that I needed to be intentionally absent or the institutional, relational, and emotional habits would either default back to me on the one hand or be seized by me, again for any number of good and bad reasons, on the other. And let me be really honest here - the feeling of being needed, even indispensable, is a currency that nearly all leaders like to regularly experience. Weaning oneself off this means of finding significance is not an easy thing to do. Second, over time fewer and fewer of my apostolic/entrepreneurial and academic/creative gifts and inclinations were engaged while the managerial and pastoral requirements of a growing church consistently demanded more and more of my attention. In the short-term, I was usually happy to give it, too. But that meant that the activities that gave energy to me were slowly marginalized by those that took energy from me. The third and final struggle was that the relational, emotional, and physical wear and tear of 12 years of church leadership, through multiple stages of community growth, slowly took their toll on my heart, mind, and body. I was thoroughly and deeply tired.

All of those things are understandable, I think, given the leadership dynamic inherent to the task of church planting described above. Yet understandable though it might be, I knew that for the long-term health and growth of the myself and the church, something needed to change. If I didn't love the community and the chance to work out our salvation together so deeply, it might have been a lot easier to make that change.That I struggled for three years to do so illustrates how hard it was for me to come to grips with what I ultimately felt we were being called to do as a family - allow ourselves to intentionally experience a kind of death.

In the next post, I will describe how the opportunity to come to New Zealand came about, why we seized it, and a bit about our experience living and working in this place.

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Dude you've no idea how many of us across the planet have missed being able to download (and occasionally plagiarise) your sermons from Jacobs Well website. I'm just glad we'll be able to hear you once again!

Grace & Peace

Steve in the UK


These are really good insights! We have seen this dynamic play out time and time again in churches and like you said, other start-up ventures too. We are excited to have you back in the teaching role with a healthier and more sustainable community/organizational structure. :)


love this, tim. can't wait to read the next one.

Laura Carlson

Beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing in such an eloquent way...although I would expect nothing less. I so look forward to the continuation of God's story as we journey down the path together.


Tim, thank you for being so willing to give of yourself in this way. One of your most profound sermon series, at least for me, was on "Walking in Weakness" with God. In being willing to share in the public domain that you were tired, challenged and in need of change, you are encouraging each of us to be more open and honest with ourselves, those around us and, (crucially) God, about our struggles and fears. And that place is where His power works best. This honesty is the opposite of what our culture teaches us - that we must always present the appearance of strength, even in times of weakness and brokenness. Your counter-narrative is truly inspirational, and one of the many reasons I'm excited about your return to Jacob's Well.

Tim Keel

Thanks all!


This is so interesting to read about, Tim.
We are excited to have you and your family back at the Well.
Maybe you can reference any LOTR experiences you've had in NZ in one of your sermons one day? Can't wait to hear that one!

Jill Johnson

The last couple years have been a great blessing to JW, though I know we were all a little freaked out about it at first. We've grown together as a community, learned to all come together even more to serve each other and Kansas City, and have taken some exciting next steps in our journey. Thank you for being with us till we were ready to walk on our own. Thank you for your courage and obedience and love to let us find out our legs are not wobbly, and we can actually run and skip and dance. Thank you for coming back and clasping hands with us for the next song!

Tim Keel

Hi Mindy - so far my LOTR experiences have been minimal, save a visit to Matamata where Hobbiton was filmed. It was incredible, surreal even. Unfortunately we had to sign non-disclosure agreements about posting photographs of the nearly completed set we saw. We are going to take a trip to Mt. Ruapehu, which stands in for Mt. Doom, in the next couple of months. Whether or not we make to the South Island where a good deal of the movie was shot remains to be seen. :-)

Tim Keel

Hey Jill - great to hear from you. Thanks for the post. I'm likely to write a bit about that very thing, as it has been my impression from a distance. It is so good to read about your first-hand perspective on it. Excited to dance along.

New Timberland

Thanks, I'm going to have nightmares tonight.

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