The Trouble with Moving On, Pt. 1: Before you jump ship

Last week I had the privilege of speaking to a group of returning overseas missionaries on the subject of transitioning after the end of a ministry role. Thanks to the organization that sent them overseas, instead of “jumping ship” they were entering into a healthy process of a planned preparation for change. They were beginning a major transition from an intense time of ministry and life in a foreign country, back to a stateside life. I was there to help prepare them for both the struggles and opportunities that come whenever we step away from something that once took up a big part of our lives.

The topic of ministry transitions (and caring for ministry leaders during them) is one that has occupied much of my personal and professional life in recent years. I experienced an extended period of “transitional distress” after I resigned from a fulfilling role as the pastor of a church that I led for almost eight years. I needed a lot of encouragement and input during that time. Later, I started noticing that other ministry leaders were experiencing the same kinds of trouble after an ending, and I became burdened for them. I decided to make the topic of Christian leaders in transition the focus of my culminating doctoral project, which led to an immersion in related literature as well as a period of practical application with leaders who were currently experiencing a difficult transition. All of these experiences have given me an understanding of the common kinds of crises people can experience when they enter into a major life transition, as well as ways to navigate them.

Ministry transitions certainly aren’t the only kind of difficult life transition. You might be reading this because you are facing a different kind of career or life transition. Transitional distress, which includes a whole spectrum of personal and situational problems, is common after significant changes in work, family, health, and even age, just to name a few. The late Dr. William Bridges wrote, “Change is an event, transition is a process.” Change is what sparks transition. It’s the part that follows change that gets most people. I like to say that the struggles of transition aren’t something you simply need to try and “get over.” Instead, transition is something you “get through.” Transition is or will be a huge part of all of our stories, regardless of our background or career. It’s the unavoidable process of moving on from something big that once marked our lives but has now come to an end.

Some endings that lead to a major transition happen outside of our control, and we are required to respond whether we want to or not. As I mentioned before, the missionaries I was with were experiencing a transition that was pre-planned and healthy. Supportive structures were in place to assist them in their journey home. Many of you reading this blog post will experience a significant transition of some other kind in a less caring or structured environment. Someone may have already made a decision to end something for you, and you have no choice but to figure out how to move on. Or perhaps there has been a crisis that has led to your need to make an ending. Others of us will experience a significant transition because of change that we initiated, of our own will and volition.

When you sense that a big change is needed

Eventually, it happens. You realize that your heart is moving away from something you once felt in tune with, called to, even blessed with. Perhaps this change of heart comes mysteriously and foggily, but you begin sensing that a major shift needs to take place, somehow or in some way. That “something” was heretofore a big part of your life story, but now it seems to be in the way of something else, yet you’re not quite sure of what, or how. When this happens, one of the questions we naturally begin asking ourselves is if these feelings are signals that we need to put that something behind us. Should I quit the position (or resign)? Do I need to end or change a relationship I have with someone? Should I move? Should I leave the group I once felt so at home with?

Before you act:

We’re all going to find ourselves in spots where either the urgency of our situation or a growing discontentedness in our hearts compels us to act in some way. Before you say or do something big, I recommend doing the following:

1) Consider whether or not your decision to make an ending is a good one.

When you have a say in the matter, I suggest that it’s crucial to step back and carefully examine the situation as objectively as possible. Give careful consideration to the outcomes, the risks, and the possibility of wrong motives or misperceptions you might have about the situation. It is important to carefully examine what’s happening inside of you because even good endings, done with right motives and supported by the counsel of others, have significant after-effects not only in our personal lives but also in the lives of others around us. Sometimes, the after-effects bring losses and upheavals that are hard to recover from.

Deciding whether or not to put something big behind us is one of the hardest choices we will ever face. The following questions need to be asked- and eventually answered with clarity.

  • Is it the right timing?
  • Am I ending/resigning/leaving for good reasons?
  • What are the consequences, and risks?
  • Am I going about the process in the best and healthiest way I know how?

2) Don’t make the decision alone. Ask for input from others you trust.

Usually, we cannot sort through our deep inner longings, fears, and decision processes on our own. Resist the temptation to think that you can make the right decision on your own. Whenever I am sensing the need to make a significant personal or professional change, I ask for help from wise, trusted people who can offer caring but also careful and objective counsel, even if it’s not what I want to hear. More than 20 years of adulthood, leadership, parenting, marriage, and ministry have taught me that there are times when I am going to need to listen to the perspectives of others who weigh in on my situation. When I was pastoring, there were several occasions where I experienced intense feelings of wanting to move on to a different ministry. I sought counsel from people who had a proven track record of navigating the challenges I was facing. Each time, I decided to stay the course. Some of my biggest breakthroughs as a leader came on the other side of those tough seasons. Conversely, just before I resigned, I was struggling to understand why I was beginning to sense that my time at the church was done while at the same time attempting to uphold a commitment and loyalty that would prevent me from leaving. It was a confusing and emotional time, and a pastoral counselor helped me to see the situation more clearly as well as the rightness of the timing for my resignation.

You WON’T regret doing the following:

  • Pick two or three people you believe would offer you well-informed, experienced counsel.
  • If you are feeling hard pressed, call or email them TODAY. If they aren’t available right away, let them know what you’re facing and ask when they can meet.
  • Consult a family pastor or other church leader known for his or her wisdom and care with people and families. (If you can’t think of one, one of your Christian friends will likely have suggestions.) Christian leaders usually have lots of experience with helping people navigate difficult choices.

The Bible has a lot to say about choices. Here are just a few of its insights:

Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed. Proverbs 15:22 (NIV)

For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers. Proverbs 11:14 (NIV)

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psalm 37:4 (NIV)

I am convinced (from experience!) that God is at work in people who seek him. He can shape and mold your desires and make them more of a reflection of his, and his are always best. And thankfully, our desires are not always wrong, nor are our needs ignored. Those who seek the counsel of the Lord can expect help and rewards along the way.

Ultimately it is you that must decide, but you will do yourself (and many others) a great disservice if you make high-cost, high-risk choices based solely on the impulses and drive of your own heart. Certainly, I believe that our feelings and desires are important elements in our decisions, yet I also firmly believe we cannot trust them alone. Sometimes, we need to be protected from our own selves. Wise people who can speak into our lives are nothing short of divine gifts waiting for us if we have the courage to look for them, and make room in our hearts (and our pride) to trust and receive them. When an ending is necessary, this kind of help can go a long way towards an ending that is as healthy as possible for all instead of a “jumping ship” scenario.

Jumping Ship

3) Be willing to delay your decision.

Emotions are powerful forces, and when we’re feeling driven by them, we might want to hurry a decision just to get it over with. It’s better to delay major decisions, if even only for a little while when the situation allows for it (and many do). Wait long enough to 1) step back and consider all of your options, 2) get the counsel you need (including godly counsel), and 3) see how things pan out with a little time. It’s amazing what a few days of delay can bring as far as new perspectives. To help stave off feelings of anxiety about a major decision in front of me, I go to my calendar and schedule a day and time (or multiple times on different days) when I will sit down to look things over, and maybe jot down thoughts and ideas.

4) Remember that you process best when you’re feeling rested and refreshed.

Many years ago I heard someone say something that I always try to keep in mind when I am approaching a major decision: Never make a big decision when you’re overtired or discouraged. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, don’t trust the feelings and perspectives you have in that exhausted, negative-minded state! Wait until you’re having a good day, and see how you feel about it then. Write down your thoughts and perspectives when you have a sense of grounded positivity about your situation. You’ll be surprised at your new clarity, and hopefully, your willingness to listen to the input of others.

COMING SOON: Pt. 2: “The Pains of Transition,” where I will help you put words to some of the common struggles, or pains, you may be feeling if you are in the midst of a difficult transitional season in your life.

If this post has helped you in some way, or if you have something to add, I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below. Thank you for reading.

In the boundless love of Jesus, Nathan

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