Transition: factors & fears

(This is part 2 to my last post: Is it time to transition?)

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At age 26, I was living my “dream” life. I had the type of teaching and coaching position I dreamed about at a well-known high school in the Philly suburbs. Beth was working nearby in higher education, and we were going on 3 years of marriage. But we also sensed a growing nudge and an unshakable curiosity that there was something else, another version of our “dream” life, for us to consider. Since we were both in education, we explored the possibility of working and teaching at an international school. One thing led to another, and we found ourselves signed up for a 2-year volunteer program with an international missions organization. We were enamored with that particular program because it meant teaching organized sports in a remote island village community in Africa. Up until that point in our lives, Beth and I both spent a fair amount of our lives playing sports, teaching and coaching. So, it sounded like a perfect fit for us. We quit our jobs, joined a team of 6 others, and headed to the island where we would spend the next two years of our lives (or so we thought . . . keep reading). At that point, we were eager to step into what was called “full-time ministry.”

I’m not going to lie. There were some exciting factors about this big transition: living in a new place, learning a new language, taking theology/missiology courses, being with a team we loved, teaching sports we loved, traveling all over East Africa, learning to live a simple life, and so on.

But there were also a ton of fears:

  • What if we’re not good at this?
  • What if we don’t make enough money to make this work?
  • What’s my/our purpose in this new place?
  • What if our marriage struggles as a result of this move?
  • Will we find a place to live?
  • Will we get along with our teammates?
  • Will we find new friends?
  • Are we ridiculous to give up good jobs here in the US?
  • What will others think of us?
  • Where is God in all of this?
  • What if this doesn’t work out?

Fear sometimes helps us ask really good questions–questions that accompany most major transitions. But fear can also paralyze us from taking the best next step.

For Beth and I, a few of these fears became our reality. After almost six months of living in Africa, we found ourselves back in the US with no money, no car, no jobs, a broken dream, a strained marriage, a confused relationship with God, and expecting our first child (the reason we had to leave where we were living). There were days it felt like we traded our dream of living overseas in for a nightmare.

We eventually recovered from this experience thanks to a supportive family, a loving community, a trained counselor, and a church where we could hide and heal for some time.

Plot Twist

Fast-forward five years, and I had another “dream” teaching/coaching position at a high school near Lancaster, PA. And then, I had another opportunity to jump back into “full-time ministry.” The church we were attending at the time asked if I would consider a position as the Community Life Pastor. So, once again, we processed many of the questions I wrote in my previous post (Is it time to transition?). We had many of the same fears and questions when we were on our way to Africa, maybe even more so this time because of the hurt and frustration of the dream we lost there. But we still had a sense this was the best next step for me to say yes to working at our church.

(Note: I use quotes around “full-time ministry” because I think wherever we are, whatever we do is full-time ministry)

But I was shocked when I starting sharing this news with my peers, the teachers and friends at the school where I was working. I thought they were be excited that I was joining the staff at my church, instead they looked at me like I was crazy. Their responses: “Why would you give this up?” “Who wouldn’t want to be a P.E. teacher and coach?” “You get paid to play games for a living! Why would you let go of that?” On the outside my enthusiasm took a small hit, but on the inside I still knew this was my next step.

The response I remember most clearly was the co-worker who said, “Wow. I’m actually jealous of you. I wish I could leave and go do something that I was really passionate about, but I am 10 years away from a really good retirement and I make decent money. I hate my job but I can’t leave because I have too much going on here.” This stuck with me for years. And I couldn’t help but feel bad for this guy because perhaps he was missing out on something more for his life. It made me wonder how many people settle for financial safety or job security and miss out on opportunities they are well-suited for and experiences they would love.

Beth and I would go on to make two more crucial transitions in the years ahead, a move to Southern California and then to South Bend, Indiana.

Transitions are like Subways

I’ve coached and mentored a lot of people through their own transitions, and in almost every single story is a moment of paralysis because of fears and “what if’s.” They’ve also somehow convinced themselves that there is only one “right” answer to their transition, believing “it’s either ‘this’ or ‘that.'”

My life experiences taught me that transitions are like subways: if you miss your train, there will be another one that approaches in the future. If you get on the subway heading the wrong direction, you can always hop off and get on another one heading back in the direction you came from, and you’ll even have a better sense of direction because of it.

Hopping on one subway train of opportunity and moving towards living the life of your dreams might not pay well. It might require moving or letting go of some hard things. It might even require you to sacrifice your power, prestige, or position. But you’re not alone. There are countless others wondering and doing the same. And if you make a decision that doesn’t go well, you can always make a different decision. I’m convinced that our transitions, both good and hard, shape our lives in ways we can’t experience any other way.

Turning Points & Transitions

In 2017, Beth and I had the opportunity to go through the Paterson Center LifePlan experience. At one point over the 3-day experience, our guide, Doug, led us through a Turning Points exercise. Beth and I mapped out our life together in 10-year increments and marked our defining moments as individuals and as a couple. There were a number of high and low points of our lives together, and a number of life transitions along the way. Then we ranked the most-defining moments as “turning points” in our lives.

Here are few things we learned by looking at our turning points:

  1. When Beth and I commit to something, we are all in.
  2. We have had everything we’ve ever needed even in the midst of change, thanks be to God.
  3. It’s a strong value for us to live in the community wherever we work.
  4. Our small family of 4 is free to look different and make different choices than our extended families.
  5. I’m a relational leader who flourishes in an empowering & affirming culture
    (Matt).
  6. I have so much more to offer then my early story has told me (Beth).
  7. Our transitions represent opportunities and open doors. The choice to leave previous environments has been more about discovery vs. abandonment. It was more about what we were running to instead of running from something.
  8. “Ministry” will always be who we are wherever we are.
  9. We need a safe & nourishing community of friends & mentors, and will seek these people out in every place we live.
  10. We are values-driven as individuals, as a couple, and as a family.

Twenty years ago, I would never have imagined that I would be an Executive Pastor living in South Bend, Indiana. I would have told you I’d still be a Phys. Ed. teacher or a high school principal. While those are noble and respectable roles, those roles were no longer meant for me. But . . .

It’s not about what we do, it’s about how we live our lives while we do what we do.

For me, not making a transition out of teaching would have been a decision guided by fear. And even though some of our transitions were hard and a few of my fears came true in our transition to Africa and during our time in California, I wouldn’t take back those choices and transitions. I wouldn’t take back what we learned about God, ourselves, and each other as a result of those transitions. There were things we needed to learn, people we needed to meet, and experiences we needed to have.

Your Turn:

If you’re in the middle of a transition and full of questions, factors or fears, I believe the best way to overcome worry for wherever you are or doubt about wherever you are headed is to look back and see where you’ve come from. That’s why I recommend this Turning Points exercise.

Start with a blank piece of paper, online or in person. Make a row of columns from left to right, one for every decade of your life. (note: if you’re still in your 20’s, make a column for every 5 years of your life). Next, write down all the defining moments (highs and lows) of your life in each decade / column. Then rank your top 10 defining moments with numbers 1-10. Out of these top 10, which events created a turning point for you? Perhaps it’s only 4 or 5 out of the 10 events, or maybe it’s all of them.

Now answer this series of questions and journal your answers:

What did you learn about yourself, your family, God, your community, and your vocation as a result of each one of those turning points?

And when you’re done with this exercise, make a list of the factors involved in making this transition. I’ve found that’s helpful, too.

As always, I’d love to hear from you if you’re up for sharing about your own transition or turning points experience.

4 thoughts on “Transition: factors & fears

  1. inspired by the “full-time ministry” disclaimer because, YES, it is “full-time” when everyday is take your Jesus to work day. Even though he’s typically the undercover boss, I think he especially likes to just BE the usually surprising (in a good way) answer to the inevitable, “Why are you so different?”
    Doing these journal prompts this week as a practice for my present transition process. Also, LOVE a good SUBWAY system. Such a sticky Truth in that one!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so good. Heading into a big transition of our oldest headed to college in the fall I’m all about learning how to transition well these days. Thanks for sharing this! (And tell your wife I miss her!)

    Liked by 1 person

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