We'e all aware of the fact that transition can come fast and without warning. No matter how much we plan and feel like we can anticipate the future, sometimes, life challenges us and our faith in ways that we would not choose. As God loving, faithful people called to work with youth, we are not immune to these moments. In fact, they can become extra challenging because we are faithful, because we work with youth, and because we love God so much. One of our cohort members, Chris Gibson, found himself in one of those painful transitions shortly after joining our Cohort. He has agreed to document his journey through this time of wondering, questioning, searching, and innovating as he works to discover what is next for him. We hope that through his journey you can find some shared experience, peace, and a reminder that transition does not equal death and like Jesus being lead into the desert, we are right where we need to be.
Thank you, Chris, for sharing this amazingly honest and faithful words!
Today marks the beginning of “Sabbatical #2, Week #3” for me. Two weeks ago today I was called into an unplanned 8 AM Monday morning meeting with our executive pastor and the chair of our church’s HR team. The meeting lasted 13 minutes, and at the end of it I walked out the door and out of ministry at my church--for the second time in just 4 years. So this morning I’m sitting here looking out on the possibility of spring in my back yard and woods. With a fresh cup of coffee steaming next to my laptop and a freshly-lit fire in the woodstove, I'm wondering about life and the future and ministry, all at the same time.
I probably need to unpack a couple of things as I get started on writing this. Please know that I didn’t do anything illegal or unethical that could have led to be cut loose so quickly. And while that fateful meeting was unplanned, it wasn’t exactly unexpected either. When things begin to unravel in a church, there are usually some pretty clear warning signs. I saw those months ago. The really crazy part is that I’ve been down this same road before and at the same church. Exactly four years ago I resigned from this same church for eerily similar reasons. I ended up being called back 18 months later to jump back into that same life-breathing faith community. This is why I refer to my current situation as “Sabbatical #2.” I learned a lot of lessons during “Sabbatical #1” that I want to put into practice this time around.
- Leadership Transitions Can Be REALLY Hard. Over the past eight years, my church has had five different senior leaders: three senior pastors with two interim pastors sandwiched in between. In my 27+ year career in the church, I’ve been part of three senior pastor changes where I had already been solidly in place when a new pastor came on board. I didn't survive long in any of those environments. Senior pastors come into new assignments with all kinds of hopes and dreams for what they will do. And, they often come with the authority to jump right in and do it their way right away. For me, that combination of energy, vision, and authority outside the context of deep and trusting relationship has been really difficult and each time has been at the center of my eventual departure. There are a lot of stories I could tell about how tricky these transitions have been in my career. Bottom line: leadership transitions can be really, really hard.
- God Is Always Faithful. When I resigned four years ago, my wife had already been unemployed for six months with no new job on the horizon. Our oldest was in his first year of college and we had two teen daughters in high school. On top of that, we had recently adopted our fourth child who was four years old at the time. Things had deteriorated at church to the point where I literally walked in one day, submitted my resignation, and walked out the door. It's the only job I have ever just “quit” in my life. This was an incredibly hard decision, with no guarantees about our family’s financial future. We knew there was the possibility of losing our home and all kinds of income-related negatives for our future. It was a huge step of faith for us. I spent the first six months picking up side jobs like power-washing vacation homes along Lake Michigan and painting cottages. Ultimately I picked up a full-time job as a construction manager, building commercial playgrounds across Michigan and Indiana. Even though we often did not know how we were going to pay our bills, God always provided exactly what we needed, exactly when we needed it. When a mortgage payment was coming due, I would somehow pick up just enough hours at odd jobs to make that payment. Our aging cars miraculously went through that entire time without any significant mechanical disasters. When our family was without health insurance for about two months, we did not have any injuries or illnesses requiring a doctor’s care. And when I needed encouragement for future ministry possibilities, I would often get an invitation to speak somewhere or have a significant conversation with a former student or fellow staff-person. God was faithful every step of the way. Bottom line: God is always faithful.
- I Gained the Power to Choose. During my first sabbatical, I gained an incredible (and totally unanticipated) freedom: the freedom to choose. I had the freedom to choose which people I would stay in contact with, which people to go out for coffee with, which people to cut out of my life entirely. I had the freedom to choose what I would do with all the time I suddenly was not pouring into ministry. I had time for my family and for long-neglected projects around the house. I also had time for praying and asking God, “What’s next?” I chose to spend time with people who would breathe life back into me, to work outdoors as much as possible, and do hard physical labor because I knew that it was good for me (and because it paid the bills). I had an immense freedom to make choices that were good for me. I did things because I wanted to and because I consciously knew they would be good for me or for my family. I gained the freedom to cut out people and activities that sucked the life out of me. What an incredible blessing! Bottom line: I gained the power to choose.
- Gratitude Rose to the Top. I had a ton of poisonous stuff lurking deep down inside me after walking out the door to ministry in 2014. After being in full-time ministry for almost 25 years, there were quite a few “demons” that needed to be exorcised! I needed some healthy ways to get some of that deeply-buried stuff out. Certainly the hard physical work and time with good people were key factors in making a good experience out of a bad one. But in the midst of this time, I think I simply became a person who was much more grateful about life in general. When I would come home with a wad of cash from 40 hours of painting and it was just barely enough to cover the mortgage, I was consciously grateful to God for His providence. I was way more grateful for the simple things: $1 any size coffee at McDonalds, an ice-cold can of Budweiser at the end of a long summer day, sunset walks with my wife and kids at the beach, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out of a paper bag at lunchtime. These were things I would hardly have noticed – or worse, would have complained about – back when life was “normal.” This was a tremendous help in purging the poison from deep down inside and preparing me for future life and ministry. Bottom line: Gratitude rose to the top of my life and I am truly grateful that it did.
I started this post on Monday morning and am finishing it on Saturday morning. This past week I spent time with people who are good for me, preached at a friend’s church, did some chainsaw therapy (and earned a few bucks for my hard work and sweat), got outdoors for some incredible Michigan sunrises, celebrated my daughter’s 18th birthday, began building a tree house, and thanked God regularly for a growing list of things I love about this life. Sabbatical #2, Week #3 was a really good week despite my lack of employment and a future that is altogether unclear from my point of view. I intend to thrive during this time of enforced rest from ministry. I intend to surround myself with a faith community that will help me thrive and that will encourage me to follow Jesus’ example to serve everyone I come into contact with. I am grateful for the lessons I learned during Sabbatical #1 and fully intend to put those lessons to good use during this unplanned Sabbatical #2.
God bless any of you out there who can relate to anything I’ve shared here. May the God of all peace, fill our hearts and minds with joy in all circumstances, and bring peace to us and to the ones we hold most dear. If I can ever be of help or encouragement to you, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“From the rising of the sun, to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised.” Psalm 113:3