In the last year, God has been steering my wife, Brittany, and me into a new season for our family. As a result of that process, we have decided to move away from Champaign-Urbana, and have School of Kingdom Ministry enter a new season where it’s leadership will remain with the Vineyard Church of Central Illinois. Big changes! Because this is big news and I know many people will have different layers of questions, I plan to write a series of posts addressing different facets of this particular moment. You can get all the articles about this life update here. This first article is about the process leading up to this decision.
Throughout this whole process, Brittany and I have been aware that our decisions will affect thousands of people. Between the congregation at the Vineyard in Champaign-Urbana, and SoKM students scattered around the US and increasingly across the world, we have journeyed this process knowing that the end result will be felt by many. As a result, we’ve endeavored to be as thorough and responsible through the entire process. One of the strange facets of having a public ministry is that your choices ripple out and impact far beyond the direct circle of your life. Navigating that reality well is tricky but very important.
To that end, I wanted to share the process we’ve gone through for two reasons: first, so that any person who is impacted by this decision understands the process we’ve gone through to conclude that this is coming at God’s leading. Second, because I pray that some aspects of our journey may serve as a case study in decision making and following God’s leading. Doubtless there are parts we haven’t done well, but on the whole I feel good about the process of our discernment and I pray there are elements in this journey that may serve as reference points for others who may be navigating decisions of change in their own lives.
The journey that led us to this point today started over a year ago. When COVID landed on the US and every church in American ground to a screeching halt over the course of one week, we all had big pivots to make and adjustments to navigate. For me, this played out twofold: there was a layer of what I did that had to make the change to online and there was a lot to figure out there. At the same time, there was another big portion of my time and energy that just vanished as traveling ministry went to a full-stop for a number of months.
With this extra time, I was excited to have an intention re-sync with the Father. I was coming off two very busy years where SoKM had cross the thousand-students-per-year barrier, and was beginning to open up internationally. I also was traveling a lot more, doing a bunch of conferences all over the place. It was exhilarating, but also exhausting! I was pooped and I needed some time to connect with God, get rested up and filled up, and get re-envisioned for whatever God had next.
As I began to connect and talk with the Lord, I sensed him inviting us into a new season. This wasn’t particularly surprising: everyone in the whole world was being forced into a new season by the bizarre circumstances of a global pandemic. As I continued to interact with the Lord, I felt him saying that our new season meant I had to lay down my involvement with the Vineyard in Urbana. This was surprising and shocking to me; I was totally set in the mindset that I would be a part of the team in Urbana for the long haul. I wasn’t expecting or looking for this, yet it seemed to be what God was asking me. As Brittany and I talked, she didn’t shoot it down, but seemed to resonate with it instead. Yikes.
Just putting that option on the table scared me, honestly. What would that mean for us personally? What would it mean for the Vineyard in Urbana? What would it mean for the School of Kingdom Ministry and the partner churches, students, leaders, and alumni? Clearly this was a huge decision and possibly the one I’ve made to date that would have a direct impact on the most number of people. How could we journey that well? In the end we decided that if this was the decision we would make that would directly impact the highest number of people, then it needed to be the most responsible decision that we ever made. I began to pray about the decision making process and how to navigate it with wisdom. In time we decided the wisest thing we could do is evaluate a number of different streams of input over an extended period of time. To that end, we decided we would consider:
- Our personal conversations with the Lord and with each other. These would continue to be a processing and dialogue ground.
- Prophetic confirmations and inputs. If this was the Lord, we asked him to confirm it by giving us prophetic input from people who didn’t know we were weighing this decision. We began to record these when the Lord sent them our way.
- Coaches and counselors. We also felt it would be wise to get external perspective from people who could help us explore this from a life-arc perspective. We worked with three different coaches and two different counselors in this process.
- Discernment groups. We felt that it would be important to create an opportunity for a portion of the groups affected to process and pray with us through this journey. To that end, we formed groups of 4-6 from these three areas and asked them to pray with us and give us their input on what they heard God saying. These three discernment groups were from (1) our nuclear family, (2) leaders from our local church family, and (3) members of our extended Vineyard family.
At the end of the summer we had spent about three months engaging with all of these channels and found ourselves in a situation where we had dozens of prophetic confirmations, some of them remarkably clear, as well as all the people (nearly twenty) we had prayed and processed with confirming that this was indeed what God was saying. Needless to say, we concluded this was God. Before this point we could potentially waffle and suggest we hadn’t heard God, but after this process it was a matter of obedience or not; what more could we have asked for?
With that clarity, Brittany and I began to talk with the executive team and explore what it would look like to make the changes that God was asking of us. As we did, one of the first questions that came up in the process was whether we knew what we were doing next (the answer was no, God hadn’t made that clear), and if we were planning on leaving Champaign-Urbana. A number of the prophetic words we received pretty clearly pointed to geographical relocation, but it wasn’t clear to us what the timeframe was on that. Was it the time to move now? It certainly didn’t make a lot of logical sense with the state of the world, but what was God saying on it?
Brittany and I prayed and processed it, and we came to the conclusion that it did not seem to us that God was telling us we had to leave then, and that it was important to us that if we were leaving it was because we were sent by God. We also had a major leader and prophetic figure in the body of Christ suggest he believed this wasn’t about moving away as much as restructuring our activities and creating more autonomy while staying in Champaign-Urbana.
With both of these inputs we dialogues with the executive team and decided to explore staying in town and refactoring my ministry activities into a new legal organization and so forth. (We also had to kick off the SoKM school year in there too.) The combination of these two focuses took up most of the time and energy for this fall. We were excited about this new trajectory and hopeful that we had hit the mark with the change God was asking of us.
As we came through into 2021, we felt a major spiritual shift at the top of the year. The spiritual winds had shifted, and it was evident to not only us, but our whole team. God was pushing something into the next gear, but I couldn't see what that meant yet. What I do know is that all of a sudden, things that seemed easy before were just plain hard. It was like everything that was keeping us connected to Champaign-Urbana just flipped around nearly instantly. Key relationships and friendships began to unplug and move away. All of a sudden this physical community just started to feel irritating. For years I've loved this city and really enjoyed it - for some reason that turned on its head and every time I would travel out of town and return I would find myself upset about being back in town. The relationships with our church leadership team - relationships that I was excited about exploring a new season with just a month or so earlier just seemed difficult to communicate in for no real reason I could point at. Everything was just incredibly difficult.
After a few months of this, Brittany and I began to really inquire of the Lord: what was happening here and what did it mean? As we did, we felt God say that we were planning for the wrong thing: we were working to continue to root ourselves in Champaign-Urbana, but that wasn't what he was doing. As we pressed in further, we felt God say that what he was doing was relocating us this summer.
Yikes, we (again) weren't ready for that at all! If that was the case though, we needed to hear confirmation from him, and quickly. We allotted some more time for the Lord to speak to us prophetically and to converse with some of our sources of input. In that time we had three clear prophetic confirmations, including a prophetic friend who messaged me out of the blue (without knowing the situation) and said, "Hey, normally I am very shy in doing this, but I had a vision this morning. In the vision it said “Your door opens to leave this summer.” I’m not even going to interpret it. I’m going to leave it to you to discern what that means for you." Talk about the Lord speaking when you ask him!
Once we were clear this was what the Lord was doing, we felt it important to be able to communicate with the team at the church. We had meetings with Mike and Julie Yoder (senior pastors) and a few days later Happy and Dianne Leman (founding pastors). Both of them graciously accepted that this was what we were hearing God say and blessed us for the next chapter ahead. They expressed their sadness in seeing us go, but wanted to fully bless our obedience to God's calling. We are so grateful to have leaders who want to get behind giving God our frightened "yes"!
On the far side of those conversations we started looking at SoKM and how that would work with going into this next season. This was difficult because there were a lot of tricky layers. First, God hadn't told us precisely where to go - we didn't know anything about what our next step would be (every time we asked he asked for our obedience without knowing the details). It's hard to figure out the future of a complex program like SoKM when you know nothing about where you'll be living, what church you'll be connected to and in what capacity, and so forth. Add to that the complexity of the fact that God called Brittany and myself to move away from CU, but he hadn't called anyone on the SoKM team to relocate with us. What did that mean and how was that supposed to work?
During the process of sorting through these layers, the Lord began to drive to the surface what he was doing here: he was preparing us to let SoKM go. His grace wasn't on us to lead it anymore, and in time that's what we realized; that our season with SoKM had come to a close. This was super hard for me to hear from the Lord. I'd poured a decade of blood, sweat, tears, and most of all prayer into SoKM, and now the Lord was asking me to give it back to him. Facing that reality was super painful, but I knew that if the Lord was asking me to release SoKM from being in my hands and I didn't, then SoKM would have been an idol to me, and the favor of the Lord would have lifted off of it. After more conversations with coaches and prophetic input, through deep grieving I reconciled myself to this high price the Lord was asking from me and asked our church leadership team if they would be willing to bring SoKM forwards into the future. We began to form a plan for what that could look like and what the transition process would be. And all of this brings us to this current moment! As you can see, this hasn't been a short or uninvolved process. We've taken every step we knew to take to journey this together with God and the family of faith.
Whew...what a saga this year has been! In case you're facing discerning a life transition, here are a few of my overall reflections on this journey:
- Following God is hard sometimes! This whole journey has quite possibly been the hardest thing I've ever done, and yet I can look over my shoulder and feel great confidence that I've journeyed it with the Lord. I've done it far from perfectly, but I don't at all question whether I've been following the Lord through it. In transitions, make your goal that you have confidence you did it with God, not that it is easy. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that if it was easy, you may have taken a shortcut and not done it as well.
- Open the process up. One of the decisions I've been very glad we did was to navigate this process with high amounts of input from outside voices. I've spent dozens of hours with coaches and counselors, and we've had lots of prophetic input as well. Including lots of others wound up being very helpful as they could at times see something God was doing more easily than I could. At each step along the way, Brittany and I have taken responsibility to make our own choices, but we've done that with our thumb on the pulse of a lot of outside input. If this had been something Brittany and I had been talking about and sorting out solo, I'm not sure how it would have played out.
- A variety of input streams helps. I'm really glad that we elaborated and interacted with the four input streams. The way the process played out, different input streams wound up being more critical at different points.
- Keep it relational. One of the hardest things about transition is continuing to protect relationships through the process. The tensions that transitions like this present on relationships can be really significant, and it requires a lot of intentionality to keep open conversations with whomever else you are navigating the transition with. Both the Vineyard's exec team and myself have worked hard to try and keep relational lines open and flowing through this process. It would be much easier at times to not do that, but that is trading short term comfort for a long term cost (in fractured relationship).
- Sometimes God asks you to do something that looks stupid. One of the hardest elements of our journey is that God didn't line things up for us in a way that we could tell a clear story. Where are you going? We don't know. What are you doing? We don't know. So you're walking away from all of this....for nothing? Well, we trust God has something he hasn't really shown us yet. It's great when obeying God makes logical sense, but it doesn't always play out that way. Sometimes obedience means saying a "yes" that for all intents and purposes, looks like a really dumb choice. Doesn't mean it's not obedience.
- Do your best to not fill in the map ahead of you. There were a number of steps along the way where I can look back and see that I assumed I knew what God was doing and kind of tried to fill the gaps in on my own. I didn't realize it at the time, but the discomfort of the change prompted me to try and shut the process down before God was done with it. At a few steps along the way I assumed on how the process would go, and then it took more disruption to open up my thinking to what God was actually doing. If I could do it over, at each step along the way I would have held any future expectations much more loosely.
To clarify more specifically where we are at in this moment, Brittany and I still really don't have much clarity as to what God is doing next with us yet, but we're not going to wait to obey what God is asking of us. We know that there is a new season coming, but sometimes you wind up giving up what the Lord asks of you before you see what he is bringing you into. Those times are hard (don't I know it today!), but also critical times where we have the chance to step into a new place of faith where God can come through and prove he is as good as he says he is.
One of my favorite, and increasingly meaningful, John Wimber quotes goes like this:
The economy of the kingdom of God is quite simple. Every new step in the kingdom costs us everything we have gained to date. Every time we cross a new threshold, it costs us everything we now have. Every new step may cost us all the reputation and security we have accumulated up to that point. It costs us our life. A disciple is always ready to take the next step. If there is anything that characterizes Christian maturity, it is the willingness to become a beginner again for Jesus Christ. It is the willingness to put our hand in his hand and say, “I’m scared to death, but I’ll go with you. You’re the Pearl of great price." - John Wimber
A little over a decade ago, the Lord asked me to pay a high price: to give up a successful trajectory in physics and follow him by spending my time in ministry instead. I had no idea what all that would mean at the Vineyard and that School of Kingdom Ministry and all the other exciting things I've had the chance to be a part of would be coming next, I just knew I had to follow Jesus as he asked me to take a new path.
Now here I am again. The price feels higher this time, but it's about the same thing: complete obedience, even when it's confusing and hard. To give everything in our lives to Jesus, and to allow him to take us where he will. As Wimber said, this is what discipleship is about. There is nothing unique about this moment with respect to me: Jesus comes to each of us and asks for our everything at one time or another: the only unique element is that ask is more visible to some of the people around me. I pray he finds in my heart and in all of our hearts a willingness to sacrifice whatever he asks and a trust as we wait on him.