Is that news to you? It’s probably the worst kept secret in my tiny niche of the Interwebs, but I moved to Vermont late summer of last year.
I know this has been confusing for some people, especially as my profile (such as it is) has risen with the publication of my first book last summer. At the time of publication I was still the pastor of Element, a missional community planted by some friends and I a couple of years ago in Nashville, and that’s what my little bio says on the back of the book. As I was getting inquiries about Element and invites to lunch/coffee in Nash Vegas, I was packing to move to the great green north. But I couldn’t really tell anybody, at least not publicly.
In one of the weirdest experiences of my life, my family has had to basically keep my move off the public radar (for the most part) because my wife works/worked in the tumultuous world of Christian retail, and word of her impending vacancy would have caused some headaches for her and her superiors. Complicating matters was that we still needed her income until our house sold. And our house hasn’t sold. But we wanted our daughters to start the school year in their new home so they and I moved up and Becky stayed behind, and we have been painfully separated for going on 8 months. It sucks.
But that doesn’t tell you where I went and why. In the summer of 2008 I began searching God’s will on a variety of things that all seemed to have a common thread. I loved Element and the people in it, but I was becoming more and more disillusioned with ministry in the Bible Belt. I grew up in Southeast Texas and have lived in Nashville for the last 13 years, so the Bible Belt is in my blood. And I believe gospel-centered missional churches are the answer to the inoculation to the gospel that is systemic there. But I also began to sense that I was losing heart for the culture there. It wasn’t them, and it wasn’t me: it was both of us. At the same time, I was pastoring Element for free, scraping up some income with my writing work, but my dream and Becky’s since the beginning of our romance was for her to be a stay-at-home mom. I couldn’t give her that gift in Nashville.
Those were two big reasons to make a radical move, but the biggest was just trying to sort out where to go and what to do. I am called to preach and minister the gospel; I know this. Despite having planted a church and being passionate about church planting movements, I know I am not a church planter. I’m a pastor. I don’t have the wiring to plant. But I love planters and want to encourage and edify them however I can and I want to attract them and raise them up in my church and support them because church planting is vital and necessary and becoming more so every day.
But in any event I knew I was looking for an existing church that was in need of a senior or teaching pastor. But I don’t see myself as a product to be marketed, so in the end I sent my resume to only two churches. One in Michigan and one in Vermont. You should know that I had never been to Michigan. And not only had I never been to Vermont, I had never been to New England. The furthest “northeast” I had ever been was Chicago. But I don’t think it was a coincidence that as I was praying and thinking about where to seek out ministry, religious research was emerging showing New England as the least churched and least religious region of the U.S. And coming in dead last in nearly every survey was the state of Vermont. And that’s why I wanted to go there.
A friend told me I was going to kill my career doing this. That kind of emboldened me. There was something about the little ad from the little church that intrigued me, but I’m not quite sure what. Turns out that a hundred resumes had already reached Middletown Springs Community Church before mine showed up, but something about mine intrigued my friend Betty, who was charged by the search committee with screening incoming applications. In the fall of 2008 I got a phone call. That turned into multiple phone calls over a series of months. Lots of prayer. In February 2009 I took a weekend off of Element to fly to Vermont and preach and answer questions — the leadership of Element knew all about this — and a couple of weeks later I was told the vote had been voted unanimous (with one abstention) to call me as pastor.
It was tough to leave Element, especially knowing that my departure basically meant shutting the doors on it as an organization. But I believe together we built each other up into potent little gospel missionaries, and I am grateful most of them are now in other gospel-centered church plants in the area (Immanuel Church pastored by Ray Ortlund, who was exceedingly good to us, Journey Church pastored by Jamie George, and others). But I know God was calling me north, to a mission field difficult in ways different from the Bible Belt.
They wanted me. I wanted them. And God didn’t tell me not to do it.
So here I am.
Oh, also: My wife put in her notice at work and will be moving up in May. It’s a long time coming. If you don’t mind, you could pray that our house sells before then, so we are not a burden to our church family, despite their joyful initiative and willingness to bear this burden to reunite our family.
Why I Love My Church
Why You (Maybe) Should Move to New England