There are two ways I could tell this story. The first would be to wait a little while longer until I have some more clarity around how this narrative will actually unfold. This is my preferred way of sharing anything personal: wait until things have worked themselves out, and only then drill down into my experiences for whatever I think might be helpful (or at least mildly entertaining) to others. Lessons learned, victories won, tales to be told.
I’m not alone in this. Most of us prefer to tell our stories from the end backwards. In the middle, things are too messy and too uncertain and, well, too raw. I had a conversation once with a friend who was in the midst of an unspeakably challenging season, and we wondered together what it would be like for him to tell his story right there in the middle of it—right there where he wasn’t even sure he would make it out alive.
And so the second way I could tell this story of mine is to do just that, to tell it from the middle, which is where I am right now. I’m tempted to wait, because that’s what I’ve always done, but as incomplete as my story is, I do have good news to share, and as the Hebrew prophet Isaiah once wrote, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.”
Anyone who’s been around this thing called life for more than a couple of decades knows that good news is almost always juxtaposed with bad news. In fact, sometimes the worse the bad news is, the better the good news will be. If a doctor gives you a clean bill of health when you went into the appointment thinking you were healthy to begin with, that’s all well and good, but if she gives you that same clean bill of health after you’ve just had your fourteen-hundredth scan for cancer, well that’s a whole other thing. That’s the kind of colossally good news that makes you want to burst out of your skin and explode into the atmosphere with joy unspeakable.
Just over a year ago, I had one of the most difficult days of my life. After twenty-three years of loving and leading a community of faith that I founded when I was younger than my firstborn son is now, I announced that I would be stepping down and making way for the community to move in a new direction while I moved in one of my own.
In the months that followed, I took up the task of gently and ever-so-carefully separating “who I was as a person” from “what I did vocationally.” I would try to explain this to the people who journeyed closely with me during this season by locking the fingers of my hands together to illustrate just how intertwined these two identities were for me. Then, I would slowly separate my fingers as I shared about the work I was doing to help get me to a place where a more differentiated self could emerge and where I would be free to pursue a new path where those two identities wouldn’t have to be woven together quite as tightly as they had been in the past.
Less than three months after my departure, two job opportunities presented themselves, and while I felt far from emotionally ready to pursue either of them, I pushed myself to engage the process, believing that it would be good for me to start imagining a different future for myself. The way I saw it, the act of writing a cover letter and preparing a resume might be just the thing to get the blood flowing into my soul again.
Keep in mind that the last time I submitted a resume for employment was the summer after my second year of University when I sheepishly walked into the garage bay of Frey Bros Construction in the tiny village of Hawkesville, Ontario in search of summer employment. I knew a grand total of zero about construction and had an equal amount of work experience in the field, but apparently none of that mattered. The only question I remember being asked was whether I could start the next day, and when I replied in the affirmative, I was handed a list of items that I would need to pick up at the local hardware store before arriving for my first shift at 7:00am the following morning.
As much as I ended up loving the summer I spent building a dairy barn with a group of rough-and-tumble Markham Mennonites, I was not looking to repeat that experience here in my mid-forties, so I got to work reading up on how a person goes about crafting a cover letter and resume that might open up doors to a new vocational path.
Over the years, my role on various hiring committees had exposed me to all manner of “sub-par” job applications, so in that sense, I did have something to draw from. But the straight truth is that it was terribly intimidating for me to try and frame my two decades of experience as a pastor in a way that would sound appealing to an employer in a different field, should I end up moving in a new direction. It required me to think about what I had done over all those years from an outside perspective, identifying the skills and experiences I had gained that would be, not only transferable, but genuine assets in a new field of work.
And so it was on the deck of a pool while our family was on vacation that I crafted my first job application on the other side of the only job I had known as an adult. It felt surreal, but also good, like I had taken the first and biggest step towards whatever would come next.
Nothing came of that first application, but when I returned home, I had a second conversation in an interview process with a local church that would end up stretching over a period of five months as we spent time together discerning a fit. During this time, I was also doing some intensive work with a career coach who was helping me discover the kinds of career paths that would be the best fit for me should I not have an opportunity to continue along the pastoral path that I knew and loved. Each of our children, like every other highschool student in the province, was required to take a “careers” course in tenth grade. This always made for some good conversation around the dinner table as they processed the results of tests that were designed to help them figure out potential career paths, and now here I was, taking the very same test on a thirty year delay.
At times I found it difficult to engage with the process, given that my heart was leaning more and more into the pastoral opportunity I was pursuing, but I put my shoulder into the work and was rewarded with a handful of reminders of the kind of leader I was and the kind of strengths I still had to offer the world around me, both of which I had long since forgotten.
The work I did with my career coach was challenging, prying into all kinds of questions around my identity as well as my hopes for the future, which were admittedly non-existent at that point. I don’t share that to be dramatic, but to be transparent about where my head was at. My wife is the kind of person who loves imagining things about the future, but in the past, whenever Melissa would ask me about my own dreams, I would come up blank. There was only one thing I wanted to do vocationally and I was already doing it, so when that chapter came to an end, I was left without the foggiest idea of what other shape my life might take on.
But some things did begin to emerge in the personal work I was doing, one of which was the realization that whatever I did would have to be centred on “helping people and organizations imagine new possibilities for their future.” That’s what I jotted down in my journal back in the spring, along with my observation that there was “a common thread of people-focused roles with transformation at the core.”
Reading back over my notes all of these months later, I can tell that while I was doing my best to expand my idea of what this life of mine could become, my heart was longing to be a pastor again. And those five months of dialogue and interviews and professional evaluations brought me oh-so-close to having another opportunity to lead a community of faith; but in the end, it wasn’t meant to be.
I’m not even sure what that last phrase means, because I don’t actually believe that our lives are carved out for us like that. There are plenty of well-meaning people who use that kind of language, but I can’t make sense of a world that is orchestrated that way. God is faithful, yes; God is with us, absolutely; but I can’t honestly wrap my head around a God who charts a course for us and pulls us along to some predetermined end.
Regardless of what I may or may not believe about any of this, the news that I would not be invited into this role was absolutely crushing. It would be futile to try and describe the weight I felt on my shoulders or the heaviness that took root in my chest when I got off that call at my dining room table. I collapsed my head into my hands and quietly broke down over the keys of the same laptop that I’m typing away on today, knowing that this “second chance” was no chance at all, and that my life was going to have to find a new shape to grow into.
That was mid-summer, but little did I know at the time that I had already started out on a path that would eventually become the container for all of the love and passion and creative energy that had been slowly building up inside of me.
As it turns out, this messy middle section of my life story began to take shape on the other side of the mountains that straddle the western Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. Six months ago, I wrote about an opportunity I had to attend what my friend and mentor, Tom, described as “a four-day personal development retreat designed to address the health and wellness needs of First Nations communities.” It was a profound experience for me, which I wrote about in a post named after the title of the retreat: Transformations.
Before I left the grounds of Ness Lake in early May, I took some time to wander around with my camera and snap some photographs. It seemed strange to me that a place where I had experienced something so beautiful and so powerful would be lost to me as soon as our white F-150 drove up the dirt road and down the highway toward the airport in nearby Prince George. I wanted to soak it all in, because I knew full well that I would not be back again, and I wanted to capture as much of that sacred space in my memory as possible.
Over the summer months, I stayed in touch with a number of the people I met that week, continuing to process the experience with Tom along the way, just as I have every other twist and turn in my life over the twenty-five years that we’ve known each other. He told me about a short-term writing project he had in mind that he thought I might be interested in, and I jumped at the opportunity to give back to an organization that had provided me with such a life-changing experience.
A week before Melissa and I left for Mexico to celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary with a group of close friends, the phone rang and it was Tom. He caught me during a particularly low moment when I was feeling especially discouraged about my prospects of securing meaningful employment. I proceeded to rant to him about the fact that I had just spent the entire morning searching job posting boards online and couldn’t find anything that felt like a fit for the person God had created me to be.
His response was typical of Tom, which is to say it was overflowing with a level of confidence that I’ve never quite had myself. “Well,” he said, “I think you should come and work for Transformations.”
Statements like these are just part of who he is—I’ve heard plenty of them over the years. I’ve told Tom numerous times that he frustrates me like no other person in my life, but that I don’t ever want him to stop. The truth is, I’m grateful to have someone who cares enough about me to shoot straight and call me out on things about myself that I am blind to, or that I thought I had successfully hidden away. So when he suggested that I come and work for the organization he had founded, I knew it was both a ridiculous idea—I mean, it’s on the other side of the country—and an idea that I would somehow have to take seriously.
When we returned from our anniversary trip, Melissa and I started to talk more seriously about what it was that Tom was proposing. I continued to pursue other employment opportunities as well, but I was starting to believe that this crazy notion might actually be the path I should follow. I once again opened myself up to a new possibility, and in mid-September, I returned to BC to experience the retreat again, but this time, with an eye on discerning whether or not this is something I could see myself doing vocationally.
Back in the spring, when we were driving away from the camp on the other side of my nostalgic photo shoot, Tom’s wife, Carmen, turned to me and said, “Brandon, you could totally do this work.” I politely rebuffed the suggestion, laying out a clear-cut argument for why Tom was uniquely suited for the facilitation work he did, and why my skill-set, while similar to a degree, simply would not translate. But four months later, as I sat at the back of a room filled with twenty-seven new retreat participants with my heart wide open, I had a flash of knowing during one of the sessions that found expression in a quiet whisper under my breath: “I would give my life to this work.”
Internally, I was struggling with letting go of my pastoral vocation, but as I listened to the participants’ stories and watched Tom facilitate the retreat, I recognized that this work was doing many of the same things that had captured the heart of my twenty-year-old self on the night I first decided to pursue the pastoral path, drawing from Jesus’ words in the synagogue at Nazareth when he opened the scroll and read from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free”
The work of Transformations is not faith-based as I would have defined it in the past, but what I know without a doubt is that good news is being announced, prisoners are being set free, the eyes of the blind are opening, and the oppressed are shaking off shackles and embracing a new kind of freedom to live life the way it is intended to be lived. As a good friend pointed out to me after I’d described the work to him, “So basically, you’d be doing the things Jesus did instead of talking about the things Jesus did.” Ouch, James. And thank you.
At the end of the summer, Melissa and I had agreed on a path of discernment which would include this September trip followed by both of us attending the retreat together in October. This would have given us enough time to truly process the significance of what this meant for our family and to figure out some of the practical details we had not yet discussed in detail, like how this work was going to help pay the bills. But I wasn’t even home for a week after my September trip when she called an audible and encouraged me to acknowledge what was already quite clear to her: that I had found my path.
No need to wait. No need to discern. No need to nail down all of the details to make sure we were being wise/prudent/responsible. Just take the leap and trust that God is with us in this.
So I called Tom and Carmen and told them I was in. Something about the email I had sent them the night before had them thinking I was going to back out, so they were legitimately surprised and maybe even something like overjoyed, and it felt so good in that moment to finally know that I was back.
It’s not easy to find the right words to explain just how doubtful I was that I would ever find my way back. All along, my friends and family had been telling me that it was only a matter of time, something they could see every bit as clearly as I’m sure that I would have if it was anyone other than myself who was in my situation. One of the many things I’ve discovered over the course of this year is that when you are the one who has been dislodged from the only reality you’ve ever known, that feeling of disconnection is every bit as real as something you can reach out and touch with your hands. It may not be easy to find the right words to help people understand what you’re going through, but it’s there.
Then again, ‘disconnection’ isn’t quite the word I’m after. It was something deeper than that; more like dissociation—as in, somehow who I was at the core had been separated from the life I was living day in and day out. Whether that makes sense to anyone else is beside the point; that’s what life has felt like for me for a long time.
But that’s not how it feels any more.
So what am I up to these days? My primary focus right now is training to become a retreat facilitator with Transformations, which will have me working remotely and “commuting” to Northern BC as required. I’m currently spending time helping the organization scale for growth in order to expand the work we’re doing, first in BC, but then in other provinces as well. I’m taking the lead on developing new projects, like a Youth Camp and a Youth Leadership course where we will be investing in an emerging generation of leaders. I am also training to lead Team Development sessions with First Nations communities in the same region, working with band leadership teams to help inspire healthy organizational growth as they support their local communities.
To be clear, this is radically new territory for me, but I had a realization a couple of months ago: If my twenty-one-year-old self could decide to plant a church on campus with zero experience as a pastor, zero experience speaking to students, and only slightly more than zero knowledge of any kind of theology, then certainly my forty-five-year-old self could also decide to do something way outside of my comfort zone that I have equally limited experience with. Right?
Here’s the thing: I am committed to learning how to do this work and to doing it at a high level because it’s good work and it’s needed work, but most of all, I’m doing this because I have come to know and love so many incredible people as a result of being part of this expansive community over the past six months of my life, and I cannot wait to experience more of the same for years to come. So even if this is only the middle of my story, and even if there are all kinds of ways things could still manage to go sideways, it’s a story worth telling now because, to be honest, I couldn’t keep it in if I tried.