In 2013 I moved to Western Pennsylvania after more than two decades as a pastor to teach at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The longer I am at it, the more I love my role as a professor of pastoral theology. I enjoy greatly the practical nature of my work.
I am honored to witness firsthand men and women growing in their application of the faith. Young men develop in their ability to proclaim the gospel. Men and women testify excitedly about learning to do visitation or discipling a young convert. Men seek counsel as they wrestle with calls to churches. Former students call and discuss their kingdom service. It is a privilege to stand on the train platform, so to speak, and watch the Lord conduct his people through life and ministry transitions.
When I came to RPTS, that's all I planned to do. Be a teaching professor who helped others go through transitions. I thought my life course was basically settled. Yet, as I recently wrote to some friends, the Lord had other unexpected plans for me:
I had no intention of assuming any greater responsibility than these. But in the providence of God, I have been asked by our seminary’s sponsoring denomination to serve as the next president beginning in the summer of 2018. As the last ninety years have only seen five presidents at RPTS, this call is one that comes to me with a great sense of heritage and weight. Our current president, Jerry O’Neill, will have served faithfully for twenty-three years when he retires next year. We have been working together and with others in planning for the transition.
So in both assisting others going through life changes and in navigating my own, I have thought a great deal about this subject. Here then are five propositions regarding vocational transitions.
**_Life is a pilgrimage; therefore, become a knowledgeable traveler. _**I grew up in a slow-moving part of the South where custom and tradition were the norm. Change was viewed as an unwelcome stranger. Yet it is inevitable.
John Bunyan was getting at this when he says in the playful preface of his classic work Pilgrim’s Progress:
This Book will make a Traveller of thee,
If by its Counsel thou wilt ruled be;
It will direct thee to the Holy Land,
If thou wilt its directions understand.
Believers are on a pilgrimage toward heaven, which will be the ultimate transition. So we should anticipate in this journey other, lesser transitions along the way to prepare us. We should expect the Lord to bring change to us. Reading the stories of people in the Bible or autobiographies, paying special attention to their journey's twists and turns, helps prepare you for the ones the Lord brings into your life.
_**Scripture should guide our paths through transition. **_The Lord brings counsel from his Word to make, as Bunyan says, “a Traveller of thee." Perhaps the verses of Proverbs 3:5-6 are too familiar to us. Yet we should never grow weary in life's journey to hear these comforting words. "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths" (KJV).
Note the plural word "paths" at the end of the text. As we journey through this world, we come to places like those captured by Robert Frost in "The Road Not Taken."
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,And sorry I could not travel bothAnd be one traveler, long I stood..."
When we come to places where two roads diverge, God's Word is to be a "lamp to our feet and a light to our path" (Ps. 119:105). Now, God's Word is not to be used like a talisman, where we randomly pick Scriptures to try to confirm a direction we want to follow. Rather, we believe the Scriptures contain "the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith_ and life_" (WCF 1.6). So we can trust God to speak into our situations with his Word.
For example, when I was being asked to consider this other position at RPTS, I knew it would require providing leadership. One of the Scriptures I was reading and praying through at the time was Romans 12. As I read about gifts we are to use for Christ's service, verse 8 lept into my heart: "the one who leads, with zeal." Simply and clearly I knew I had to have zeal in my heart if I was going to lead. When I determined that was indeed there, the Lord used this text to further confirm my direction.
**_Surround yourself with godly counselors who will pray for you. _**As an elder in the church, I am still amazed at how many Christians make major life decisions without consulting their God-appointed shepherds for counsel. As a result, often I have seen them wander off away from the church and its Lord, losing his blessing on their lives, families, and work. Elders are to be counselors (Hebrews 13:17) who provide guidance to God's people. Going to one's elders to seek the wisdom they can offer should be a first, not a last, priority. Others can assist us as well. Parents, older believers, and godly friends can give us guidance for life's journey.
Going to them with questions is so beneficial in determining a proper course. "Could you see me in this role?"; "Do you believe I have the gifts, training, and experience necessary to succeed in this area?"; "What are some of the sacrifices you think I would have to make to do this?"; and "What stumbling blocks or pitfalls could you see lying in this path?" are examples of good questions to ask. Yet it takes more than just asking the questions. Ready yourself also to receive their counsel, even if it is difficult and corrective in nature. "The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise" (Prov. 15:27).
**_Do not try to make another major transition when you are already in the midst of one. _**Often people are asked shortly after they have made a move to a new role or status to consider a greater opportunity. However, rarely are good decisions made when the ground beneath our feet is still settling. Sometimes we need some time before we are ready to make another decision.
In his work The Making of a Leader: Recognizing the Lessons and Stages of Leadership Development, Robert Clinton says, "Leaders tend to move ahead in major decisions before receiving with certainty a word of guidance…It is difficult to wait on the Lord when there are pressures for a major decision. Sometimes leaders feel that something, maybe anything, is better than waiting.” Yet, as he goes on to state, that is not the case. People can be hurt when changes happen abruptly and without clear rationale and explanation. Often it is in the waiting that matters become clear and the Lord's path certain. Patience is the testimony of the godly (Ps. 27:13-14) and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).
**_Assess what you will need to succeed in the transition and trust the Lord to provide. _**Transitions are where faith is tested and proven. Moving Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land, Moses learned to trust the Lord in the wilderness. Rebuilding Jerusalem's fallen walls, Nehemiah saw the Lord provide the materials, strength, and protection he and the people needed. By following Christ, fishermen became fishers of men.
Fear and anxiety can become a dominant force during seasons of transition. Yet what the Lord told Joshua as he was headed into the Promised Land we need to hear. "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go" (Josh 1:9). Our greatest need in transition is the Lord's presence. If he is with us, then whatever the changes and challenges may be, we can trust our ever-present Lord will provide what is needed to meet them.