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February 17, 2011

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

fog.jpg"If place lends structure, context, and vividness to narratives, it is stories, whether fictional or biographical, which give shape to place. However, as stories of displacement show, it is the absence of lineage and memory associated with physical place that is just as critical as separation from the landscape alone.'" ~ Philip Sheldrake

In January, 2010, our family arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, where I was to begin work as "Senior Fellow for Congregational Studies" at Laidlaw College.

Though we had been planning to move since July, 2009, we were nevertheless shocked to find ourselves in this new land, beginning our life again from scratch. In the months before our move, I had a dizzying number of things to do to be ready to go by year's end: sell vehicles, prep our house to be sold or rented, close various accounts, navigate immigration channels to secure residency visas, arrange an international move with all of the various customs requirements, etc. There was always something needing my attention at that time. As a result, I had thought very little about what we would need to do once we arrived in New Zealand. Now here, we faced the immediate challenge of putting back together all the various things we had just dismantled. But rather than having four months to do this (as I had in the US), we had two, maybe three weeks.

We were alternately excited and shocked - and in both instances, highly adrenalized. Our emotions were raw and at any given moment, as least one person in our family was in crisis. It was an exhausting time. And at the same time it was incredibly...energizing? Powerful? Vital? I'm not exactly sure. But one thing is certain: as a family we had never depended on each other the way we learned to during that time. We had a lot of fun exploring the stunning new place we now lived. We also spent a lot of time grieving. Through it all, we were patient and avoided trying to fix each other. Instead we tried to simply listen and be present as each person worked through, in their own way and time, the full spectrum of their emotions.

Perhaps some of you reading this have closed a chapter in your life, packed everything up, and moved halfway around the world. You know what this is like. We did not. Obviously. Now we were immigrants living far from home. We knew virtually no one, had no mode of transportation, and only temporary lodgings. Furthermore, our possessions would not arrive for another four months. It was crazy. And good - an adventure unlike anything any of us had experienced.

In short order we purchased a car and found a place to live. We set up bank accounts, cell phones, and utilities. We purchased appliances. We enrolled our kids in school, bought them uniforms and supplies, and sent them into a completely different educational system. We were introduced to, and pleasantly surprised by, "socialized" medicine when one of our kids fractured his ankle just after we arrived. We borrowed furniture (camp tables and chairs, a few mattresses and a futon), basic kitchen items, and enough plastic plates, bowls, cups, and utensils to get by. We bought a second car. And then, two weeks after we arrived and most of the basics were covered, I began work.

When I arrived at Laidlaw to begin my new job, the college was navigating a number of transitions itself. That was challenging, but even so, I was warmly welcomed by administrators, faculty, and students. Everyone made themselves available and generously gave us as much help as they could while we adjusted to our new life here. One of the things that made our transition easier than it otherwise might have been was the near simultaneous arrival of three other families from North America. Having friends going through the same things we were - even new ones we barely knew - made navigating the many unknowns much less frightening. We regularly connected to share resources and information - as well as comfort. It is obvious that as individuals we all have moods. What I've discovered is that families have moods as well. In any given week, one of the four families might be struggling while a different one might be high on the adventure of it all. By regularly connecting to each other, pain and confusion that could have been terribly isolating instead became a means of building friendship through authenticity and vulnerability.

It was mid-February by this point. I wasn't to begin teaching students until March. In the time between, I prepared for my courses, participated in a number of meetings and retreats, and began to network with various leaders around Auckland. Those things, as well as a few others, became the basic components of my work life in the months that followed. I prepared and gave lectures. I interacted with students and their work. I attended administrative meetings of various kinds. I spent time researching and writing. I also had many opportunities to meet with leaders, do staff trainings, and speak in churches and at conferences around the country. I feel very privileged to have been given so many opportunities to connect with, influence, and be influenced by such an amazing and diverse group of people.

As I related, my attention early on was fixed on the day-to-day needs of my family and doing whatever was needed to settle here. As we slowly emerged from the crises associated with immigration, I turned to work and began to adjust to the new practices and rhythms of academic life. Navigating the week-to-week tasks of my new career took the better part of my energy. Though I had by no means figured out everything I needed to with regards to my job, by the end of the first semester I felt like I had a fairly decent handle on what I was doing. It was then that I began to consider longer-term questions about our future. Though brief, the months I had spent in academia persuaded me that I wanted to continue down this road - most likely in pursuit of a doctoral degree. We began to earnestly consider where we might do this and what other things would need to be in place for me and our family to thrive.

So, at the end of that first semester, we started to think about what might be next - even though we had only been in New Zealand for five months and were just beginning to feel settled. This was something we needed to be doing anyway, as I was here on a fixed-term contract. Though the college had informally communicated they would likely want me to continue here, a decision to stay in New Zealand beyond the original two years we had planned felt quite substantial. Our family needed plenty of time and space to make such a decision.

It was during this season that I began to get some perspective on the overall trajectory of my life. I wasn't as interested in a job as I was in getting a sense of the kind of work I wanted to be focused on in the next stage of my life. A couple of things were important for me in developing this kind of perspective. The first was honest self-reflection made possible by an abundance of time and space - isolation, to be honest - that our time in New Zealand provided. Another source of perspective were conversations with family, friends, and colleagues who listened, affirmed, and challenged me. Through that time I came to three conclusions about the nature of the work I want to do and each of them are fueled by love. I love to teach. I love to lead. I love to learn and write out of that learning. After twenty-five years of ministry in some form or another, I think I finally know who I am and what my life is about. I could be wrong, of course - and if I am that would be okay, too. The thing is...there is nothing really surprising or special about any of it - except that I now know it. Simply put, I believe that I am called to pursue that which I love: God, my family, my friends, and the three things I've just listed in whatever way I can.

In my previous role at Jacob's Well, I was able to lead and teach (and a whole lot of other things as well), but struggled to research and write. At Laidlaw, I was also able to teach. The opportunity to research and write was now added to the mix in a way that had not been previously possible. But it came at the expense of leadership - at least leadership in the way I had grown accustom to expressing it. I don't think it is reasonable to expect any single work environment to supply all of the things necessary to engage a person all the time, by the way. But that doesn't mean we should give up the hope that such a possibility exists, especially when such things have an uncanny habit of appearing in unexpected ways, places, and times.

In the final post of this series (okay, there will likely be an epilogue), I want to share the story of how just such an opportunity developed in New Zealand, what happened, and how it opened the door to return to Jacob's Well.

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Carson Swisher

Thanks for sharing Tim. It's been fun to learn about your Journey the last couple years. I'm excited to hear the epilogue. My hope is that Jacob's Well will be a place that will nourish your gifts of teaching, leading, and writing. That you will have space to be creative. That you will have time to love God, your family, and friends well. And finally that you will be able to avoid the expectations and burdens that burn out so many pastors. If there is anything I can do to help your family make the transition back to the states easier just let me know. We are so excited to have you guys back.

Dennis Jaeger

Thanks for documenting and sharing your journey, Tim. I was struck by your comments on the kind of work you wanted to do. I went through a perspective awareness in my mid 40s with my career. I came to realize I was chasing the next rung on the corporate ladder that my peers and superiors thought I should pursue not what I wanted to do. I came to realize I needed to do things I was good at and enjoyed doing. That gave me confidence to pursue assignments and jobs that gave me personal satisfaction and enjoyment that I almost missed trying to be someone else. You're right it is difficult to find the perfect work environment that balances everything but if you know yourself well you can decide what things are non-negotiable.

Tim Keel

Thanks, Carson. I really appreciate your words and your willingness to help us. What a blessing. We are very excited to be coming back.

Tim Keel

Thank you for your comments, Dennis. I really appreciate your perspective and your reflections on your own journey. It is crazy how close we come to missing these critical junctures in our lives by focusing on the things we think are expected of us. I suppose that taking responsibility for ourselves can be scarier than continuing to function in predictable and presumed ways. Thank God for crises, in whatever form they take, that wake us up and make us pay attention.


Tim, I think this would make a very good book. Just saying.

Tim Keel

Ha. Thanks, Josh. We'll see...


thank you for sharing your path. as one watching from a distance i have witnessed what the Lord began with you and continue with the leaders you trained. the last 2 years i have watched them work hard to truly follow God's will. they are good people! the Lord is good for sending you and your family back. (and the Lord winked:)


Oh, the anticipation!!!!!

Jan Powell

Arghh! Still no part seven? Do you know how many times I check this blog on a daily basis! C'mon you're not just telling your own story, you're telling the tale of ALL of us journeying through mid-life. Most of us have less dramatic details (i.e. moving across the world), but we're on the same path, brother. Please, how does it end?

Tim Keel

Thanks, Tina. I appreciate your perspective. They are good people! And I am happy to be going back to them. :-)

Tim Keel

Moe and Jan! You guys crack me up. Thanks for the encouragement. You should see something today or tomorrow - I hope! It's been a little crazy with a new semester beginning, other writing commitments, and a house full of people to laugh and play with...

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