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