Here to learn: Lessons from a career transition

Personal and professional growth through changes in role and position.

Skip Bell, D. Min., is professor of church leadership and administration, as well as director of the Doctor of Ministry program, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Why did you leave your work as a conference president to teach at the Seminary?" One of my students suddenly turned our Sabbath dinner conversation to a question that made me pause and gave me an opportunity. A pause to reflect once again on a personal journey that has gone on within my own soul. An opportunity to share what I have learned about myself, my relationships, and my church in the process of transition in my calling, a process that has been challenging, revealing, encouraging, and disturbing.

The journey begins with processing a call to enter the academic world. It continues through adjustments to a new and challenging environment. I share here some very personal discoveries, in the hope that my story will help someone else understand his or her own a little better.

Who is at work?

First, I have learned how difficult it is for me to trust God's providence. If you were to inquire about my personal faith, I would describe the miracle-claiming variety. But all too often, God seems to do the unexpected!

In my dreams or plans I had never seen myself teaching at the Seminary. Years ago Gerhard Hasel, then dean of the Seminary, had caught up with our family as we were in the midst of a transition to serve the Ohio Conference. I had completed my Doctor of Ministry degree, and he invited me to join the faculty of the Seminary. I had a convenient reason to say No, as we had already committed ourselves to the Ohio Conference, so it would not be ethical to go back on our word.

The truth was, I had no interest. It was not something to which I aspired. I respected Seminary professors and appreciated their incredible contributions to our mission. They shape and prepare pastors, scholars, and teachers to serve the world church. But I liked the action on the front line. I considered myself a "doer." I needed to be "out in the field."

Then repeated conversations initiated by the Christian Ministry department of the Seminary began in the fall of 1999. I was polite and did not want to close a door arbitrarily. However, each conversation edged toward an invitation. I was afraid. I loved my ministry as president of the New York Conference. My respect for our members and churches had grown to love and attachment. The people I was serving were the most incredible Christians I had ever met. We had gone through difficult challenges together with united prayer and friendship. I enjoyed my work. I did not want to leave.

We had been in New York for nearly eight years. Was God leading us elsewhere? Was it time for a change? Perhaps the conference needed new energy and vision. Maybe God wanted us to go to the Seminary. Maybe He knew it was best for our children. I prayed over months that God would remove the initiative from the Seminary, but He did not.

When asked to interview, I declined. Instead, I was invited to engage in a telephone interview. Was I ready to close the door entirely by refusing even this, or should I leave it open in case God wanted us to make a change? It is hard to find a way to escape a telephone interview! I left the door open. The dialogue during the telephone interview stirred me, and I began to feel this was God's leading. The interview became the decisive, transitional point.

How does God work His providence? Joni, my wife of 32 years, believes He has a purpose for everything, that He works in the small matters, such as impressing someone to keep a decision before us. I am learning she is right.

Career over family?

The second lesson is the realization that I have prioritized career over family. It took me 29 years to figure that out. I would have denied it before this transition, just like many who are reading my story right now. In fact, in many ways, I would still protest the suggestion.

Throughout our marriage, when faced with a call, Joni and I have prayed earnestly and thoroughly dis cussed them, and we considered our children carefully. Even if interested in the call, I would not move until I was convinced it would be all right with the children and a constructive move for them. They were first.

Early in my ministry, a renowned Adventist leader was asked during a seminar at one of my churches, "With all the travel you do, how do you find time for your children?" He replied, "I have told God I will serve Him, and He must care for my children." I cringed with unbelief and disgust. No, I was better than that. I put family first!

At least that's what I thought. Sometimes we do not understand our selves until we are put to the test. Let me explain. While considering our invitation to move to the Seminary, the opportunity to have our youngest at home again was a momentous factor. He had three more years in the architecture program at Andrews, giving us the opportunity to be with him for those years.

Our daughter was about to be engaged, we felt, to a young man who would be a senior at Andrews. Perhaps they would end up there if he continued his studies at the University, as it appeared he would.

To be near my children was one of the desires of my heart, and it would be a perfect situation for Joni. Still I hesitated; I even resisted! Why? I realize now that love for my ministry sometimes seemed more important than what was best for my family. I almost said No, disregarding my family's needs. Recognizing and changing my priorities has been surprisingly difficult for me.

These discoveries, of course, are not the pronouncements of a perfect soul. You are seeing the rough texture of humanity; confessions emerging from quiet, yet at times troubling, reflection. There is something good about seeing ourselves without the masks we wear so constantly that we forget what we truly look like; even masks that some may consider respectable.

Power: A substitute for love?

Which leads me to the third lesson. My identity had become intertwined with my ministry as a church leader. There were small signs. Joni pointed out that I had lost my sense of humor. I responded that I was simply developing sensitivity. People, especially church employees, could take my word very seriously. Something said in jest, a moment of wit, or even the teasing I had learned as an expression of love shared with brothers in my childhood, could discourage some one. I simply needed to be careful for the sake of others. But losing my sense of humor was not "me." It was the conference president.

As I considered the invitation to join the Seminary faculty, I realized that my identity as a conference leader was similar to a "suit coat," a specific jacket I had worn. I could put it on and take it off. People "saw" the coat. I had apprenticed for years in church administration. I knew what I was getting into, but when I actually wore the "coat," I was still surprised by the response. Friends multiplied. People cared about me while another in genuine need nearby was over looked. The jacket made a difference.

I became so comfortable with the effects of the jacket that I forgot I was only wearing it, and that it would be taken off and put aside. Without realizing it, I had grown to enjoy the new identity the jacket provided.

Lest we consider my story too unusual, it must be emphasized that I am not unique or extraordinary. All this is very much a humanity we all share. I had thought I would be unaffected by my position of service; that my identity would not be influenced. But when I prepared to remove the jacket, I found myself wondering whether I could be as happy if I did not wear the jacket that seemed to give me so much.

When I removed the coat, people's attention followed the coat. My identity changed instantly. Curiously, a few who have personal baggage with people of authority people I had never met before still treat me differently because I once wore the jacket. Now they are free to tell me what they really think!

Celebrating and liking myself as I am is a better option than an induced identity. It is not easy. To truly love, or be loved, is harder than assuming an identity. Dare I say that power is a terrible substitute for love?

Who are we or what do we do?

The final lesson I learned was that we can develop a spiritual dependence on the experience of being needed, of being a "blessing to others." This is a genuine concern for all who serve in the name of God. Here is what I mean.

My spiritual gifts suited the ministry of leadership. My abilities complement those gifts. I believe God truly led and used my ministry during the past years. He enabled me to help the conference I served. People frequently expressed their genuine gratitude for my leadership. I experienced sincere relationships with those I served, and that's a good thing.

It's also a dangerous thing. My sense of acceptance before God, my peace with myself, was interwoven with my ministry. There was a real and tangible blessing. The kind of blessing I have always longed for. That we all long for. When I knew I was a blessing to others, then I could feel accepted, as though I had found my place. Their need of me provided me with a sense of personal authenticity. I came to depend on that realization and knew I would miss it terribly when it was gone; that is, when I ceased to be a conference president.

It was this realization that caused me to know instinctively that I should accept the call to the Seminary. God was reaching out to me for the sake of my soul.

So what of my decision? My years of service in the New York Conference will always be the high point of my ministry. They were filled with God's providence and blessing. But the challenges of today's journey are also learning ones. Life is learning, and what better place than the Seminary to continue to learn?

So my answer to a wonderful student at the dinner table that Sabbath could have been very short: "I also have come to learn."

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Skip Bell, D. Min., is professor of church leadership and administration, as well as director of the Doctor of Ministry program, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

December 2002

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