There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part Four
The previous two posts in this series describe some of the background, as well as the discernment process, that led me to resign my position at Jacob's Well. I shared how reconnecting with my friend Meredith Wheeler created the opportunity to come to New Zealand. What happened between deciding to pursue that possibility at the end of May 2009 and my acceptance of a position at Laidlaw College six weeks later is a story full of crazy drama. No kidding. I am going to resist sharing that part of the story for now, though. Instead, I would first like to highlight a few things that Meredith shared with me as we processed through my struggles and discussed the opportunity to do something different for a season. After that I want to describe what that something different was and why it appealed to me.
You might remember from my last post that Meredith was the pastor of a large church outside Philadelphia. Over the last several years of his pastorate, he was also doing doctoral work at Temple University and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focused on conflict in leadership, particularly how institutions, like congregations, handle leadership transitions. As a result, Meredith was a great person to interact with, bringing to our conversations both a pastor's heart and a consultant's perspective. He also brought his personal experience, having navigated his own transition out of congregational leadership just as his research on that very topic was being concluded. As I talked to Meredith about my struggles, he was able to contextualize them within the dynamics of institutional change.
Meredith shared that leaders often sense two to three years before making a transition that their life is not working and change is needed. He told me that a several factors make such changes complicated, though. The first is that leaders who think about leaving often feel like they are betraying people they care about deeply. Most leaders love what they do and a large part of that is due to the significant relationships they have formed with the people of their community. They are not just leaving a job; they are saying goodbye to people with whom they have shared life and love very much. This reminds me of the confession the Apostle Paul makes to the church at Thessalonika: "Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well." It is not surprising that such a decision can and does feel like a sort of betrayal.
Another challenging issue is that many leaders immerse themselves so thoroughly in their work that their identity becomes synonymous with their role - a reality I described struggling with in an earlier post. As a result, they have a hard time imagining themselves doing anything different: "Even if I wanted to leave, what would I do?" Further complicating the process is the question of how a leader in transition supports themselves financially. Meredith's description of each of these factors helped me to understand my own turmoil and why this process had been so confusing and protracted. With these insights I was also able to make sense of struggles I had witnessed other leaders having from afar.
After that initial conversation, Meredith and I began to talk about the specifics of moving to New Zealand. It was now too late to take advantage of his original invitation to come in July and teach for a semester. He suggested instead that I consider coming for a year, leaving the US sometime in late autumn/early winter and beginning to teach at the start of the college's new semester in 2010. Working through the many details connected with this possibility, we realized that making such a big move for such a relatively short amount of time did not make sense. We discussed coming for 18 months, finally settling on a two-year, fixed-term contract. I was hired to be the Senior Fellow for Congregational Studies at Laidlaw College. I would have three main areas of responsibility. I would create and teach a couple of courses (called "papers" here) in the School of Mission and Ministry. I would work with Meredith and others in the school to evaluate and redesign the Bachelor of Ministry degree. Thirdly, I would join Meredith networking and resourcing church leaders around New Zealand.
This opportunity appealed to me for a number of reasons. I was excited for the chance to work with leaders in local churches as well as in the classroom. During my years at Jacob's Well, I spent a lot of time engaging with leaders in local, denominational, and seminary settings. I love interacting with practitioners about the dynamics of leading missional churches in our contemporary context and was excited to continue doing so in a new place. I was also excited about the opportunity to help re-conceive how leaders are trained for ministry. This is something of a passion for me that overlaps very naturally with the work I was doing as a coach and consultant. Finally, I was curious about the world of academics. It had now been over a decade since I graduated from seminary. I was hungry to explore academic life again. With the day-to-day demands of church leadership, I had struggled to have time to think and study at the level I felt called to. After 12 years submitted to the weekly discipline of preaching, as well as the outside speaking and writing as I was doing, my creative well felt dangerously dry. For a season, I needed the freedom to pursue ideas and learn - not in order to speak about them later that week, but because I found them compelling for their own sake, regardless of their immediate usefulness. Being surrounded by scholars in an academic environment seemed like a great place to hole up and go deep for awhile. And did I mention that it was in New Zealand?
So we made the decision to come to New Zealand. I looked forward to teaching and studying and connecting with leaders. I would also take the opportunity this next season of life provided to discern what might follow this and whether or not academics might be a part of the answer to that question. I served at Jacob's Well through August, then spent the next three months preparing to immigrate to a country on the bottom of the world, 7800 miles from home. I was alone most of those next three months, recovering from the fatigue I had been struggling with, trying to come to grips with the decision we had made, and grieving the significant loss I felt. Then, in January 2010, we received our permanent residence visas and moved to Auckland to begin a new life.