The new Facebook trend is an automated Year in Review post. Each one begins with the caption, “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.” I enjoy scrolling through the memories of my friends. I find contentment in seeing the places they’ve been and the big moments they’ve had.
Inevitably, at the end of my scrolling, Facebook asks if I would like to see and share a recap of my year. I’ve looked through the pictures, and they simply don’t capture where we’ve been as a family. So instead, I decided I’d write a reflection.
THE BEGINNING OF OUR WILD RIDE
It might seem strange, but in order to reflect on 2014, I have to go back to the summer of 2013. Life has been a roller coaster for us. The ride began that summer.
In summer of 2013, I finished helping lead the charter school Wendy and I helped build through their charter first renewal. The project left me tired. It had been a tumultuous and emotionally draining four-year experience with the school. Wendy and I had helped pushed through initial opening construction woes, helped the inaugural principal leave, worked to a hire a new principal, helped that principal leave, then led the hiring of a third principal; and these were only the big projects. There were lots of smaller twists and turns that were equally as draining. By the summer of 2013 I was tired and growing cynical.
Also in summer of 2013, Wendy and I officially closed a church group we’d launched in 2009. The group was important to us. It was an experiment we’d launched out of deep frustration with contemporary forms of church. Sadly, by that summer it had dwindled to three couples. Wendy and I were the only original participants left. It was time for the group to end. Despite knowing that with certainty, it was difficult to see the group stop. I grieved its closing.
Also in the summer of 2013, I published my first collection of fictional short stories – my first real book.
Finally, in summer of 2013, I began my final year on staff with Valley. I’d joined the church staff to be a change-agent for five years. We’d entered the final stretch of the church’s transformation. The hiring committee for the new head pastor was operational and interviewing candidates, and the church was moving toward the standing head pastor’s retirement.
As you can see, the summer of 2013 was a big time of transition for us. It got Wendy and I talking about what was coming next for our lives. We prayed, and thought, and prayed. By the end of the summer, we’d come to three conclusions:
- After Valley, I didn’t want to go work for another church. At least, not as a change-agent. I’d seen three churches through seasons of change and I needed a breather.
- We needed to simplify. Since 2009 we’d been fighting for three causes: Valley, the school, and our innovative church group. We needed to choose one cause. With our kids growing older and developing interests of their own, three causes was too many.
- We needed a new place to live. Our rental had issues. Our kids needed a different neighborhood. It was time.
We began the 2013 school year with these three goals in mind. We didn’t know how God was going to bring them about, but we were without doubt that this is where He was going to take our lives. That was when the roller coaster began.
THE FIRST CRASH AT THE END OF 2013
In September we had a miscarriage. It was painful, and hard, and sad. Spinning and confused, we felt like life had delivered a surprise uppercut to our jaw. We staggered and stumbled around, trying to find our bearings and make sense of it all.
Not yet recovered from the blow of the miscarriage, at the end of September, we moved out of our house. We put all of our stuff in storage and took up temporarily with Wendy’s parents. The image of my oldest, Jackson, sitting in the front lawn of our old house, weeping as we all said good bye is scared into my mind.
Putting our lives in storage and leaving a home we loved was hard. Putting our lives in storage and leaving a home we loved in the wake of a miscarriage was devastating.
Unfortunately, there was no time to grieve. October, November, and December were consumed by Valley. A candidate for Head Pastor was chosen. A date for the retirement party of the sitting Head Pastor was set. There were lots of difficult conversations. People were unhappy with me. Being a change-agent is rough when the organization changing is in pain.
LIGHT ON THE HORIZON
At the same time, in October, we were given a glimmer of hope. Representatives from an anti-human-trafficking non-profit approached me. They told me they wanted me to join their staff in 2014 as their Director of Programs. The only catch was, they needed me to complete their four week volunteer training and join their volunteer on some of their teams until they were ready to hire me.
Once again, Wendy and I were driven to prayer and thought. The job seemed as if it would provide many of the things we hoped for: the initial salary discussed would be enough for us to live on and buy a house with, it would allow us to simplify by focusing on one cause – ending human trafficking, and it would provide me a smooth transition out of church work. On paper, it looked perfect.
We took a leap of faith. Even though I was still serving as the President of the school’s board and leading Valley through the final stages of their transition, I went through the volunteer training and added the additional teams of our schedule. Taking on another cause/organization felt like a step backward; but Wendy and I told ourselves it was only for a short time. I threw myself into the dark world of human trafficking. I attended the four weeks of training, I read the books, and I signed up for all of the organization’s volunteer teams.
At the end of 2013, I thought at the time that the roller coaster ride of our lives was settling down, but I was wrong. The ups and downs were just beginning.
UPS AND DOWNS, TWISTS AND TURNS
In January Wendy became pregnant again. We were excited and hopeful, but also terrified that things would go wrong. The first three months were filled with uncertainty and fear that we would lose this pregnancy as we had the last.
Also in January, I began to see problems with the organization I was volunteering for. Many of the teams they claimed were working during appeared to only exist on paper. Other teams seemed lost and wandering, without direction. I assured myself that this was why they needed me. “I’m a fixer,” I told myself. “I’ll get in there and fix it.” This moment of self-aggrandizement is one I regret.
In February, we welcomed Valley’s new pastor and my final months on staff with the church officially began. Seeing a five year project come to an end is an interesting feeling. It’s difficult to explain. I imagine it’s a little like sending your first-born off to college. I was excited for the future but longed for the status quo.
Also in February, we announced to our school that we would be leaving. We’d said only one cause and it was becoming increasingly clear that our oldest needed something different for middle school. This was difficult. Over the past four years, the school had been like family. We loved the staff and parents deeply. They were our best friends. It hurt to say out loud that we were stepping away.
With our decision to leave the school official, Wendy and I began house hunting. At first we were excited about prospects. By March, because of a bad experience with a frustrating realtor, we were growing hopeless. It seemed we’d ever find a place to live we could afford.
Then in April, we were at my brother-in-law’s house for his wife’s birthday. The kids were playing in the yard. The adults were sitting around the fire pit. Then, suddenly, the house was on fire. We all watched in hopeless terror as my brother-in-law’s house burned. No one was hurt, but everyone was traumatized – especially the kids.
I thought this was our bottom. I thought this was as low as it was going to get. We were homeless, still living at Wendy’s parents. We’d said goodbye to the school and friends we loved. And my job was drawing to a close. The life we’d known for five years was ending.
A NEW BEGINNING
In May, it felt as though things were going to turn around.
Wendy and I met two amazing realtors – Seth and Alyce Dailey. They gave us new hope. By June, they’d helped us find and purchase an incredible house we love.
Also, Valley’s leadership decided that, not only would they allow Wendy and I to stay on as members of the church, they wanted to hire Wendy as the new part-time music minister. We were thrilled.
Also in May, I launched a new website. Leaders from the organization I was joining asked me to stop writing non-fiction as I had been. It was an appropriate request. My blogging was often controversial in church circles. My new job would require me to speak in those same circles. I couldn’t have my personal opinions about church systems clouding the work of ending human trafficking. So I closed the blog I’d been building for five years and opened a new one for fiction only. To my surprise, it took off like a rocket.
Finally, by the end of May, even though I didn’t officially have the job, I was functioning as a full member of the staff team of the new organization.
With a new house, new job, and all our previous projects wrapped up, Wendy and I felt like our new life was beginning. The goals we’d set forth in the summer of 2013 were about to be realized. The pain and frustration of the last twelve months was over. We’d come through the rough times and everything was going to be different.
A CONFUSING SUMMER AND A MASSIVE CRASH
I loved my job with the anti-trafficking organization. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was being used to my fullest potential. I helped re-launch four of the organization’s existing teams, strengthened two that were in operation, and laid the foundation for two more to launch at the end of the summer. I started a monthly newsletter for volunteers, and championed the cause throughout my network. The work was amazing and the people were great.
At the same time, conversations with key staff members were confusing. Things I was told before coming on staff changed once I joined the staff. I felt that everything I said was scrutinized. Decisions I made were questioned. Issues I thought resolved were unexpectedly resurrected. After the first two months, the scrutinizing and questioning began to focus less on what I’d said and rather centered on my character. “What is wrong with you, Jeff, that you would think this way?”
Then suddenly, in August, it was over. On Thursday, I was telling two leaders how much I loved the job. On Friday, I was asked to resign. I was told it wasn’t because they didn’t appreciate my work; rather, it was because they didn’t feel my personality was a good fit for the staff team.
I’ve reflected a lot on what happened. In August and September, I spent long, sleepless nights questioning everything I’d said and done since November of 2013. Wendy and I shed a lot of tears. We wrestled with the “will of God” and our perceptions of things. We had been so sure this was the right next step, to have it all crash down around us so quickly was shocking and confusing. Again, we felt like we’d taken a punch to the jaw and were struggling to keep our balance.
A friend asked me this weekend, “If you could go back and do it over, what would you do differently to make sure it ended differently?” This is a hard question, one I’ve wrestled with a lot. The truth is, I never should have taken the job. Once in the job, because of the type of leader I am, I believe the conflict was unavoidable. Sadly, with hindsight on my side, I can say that I saw the warning signs before I was hired. I knew. I knew what I was getting into; but I convinced myself that this job was the answer to my prayers.
OFF THE RAILS, LOST AND WANDERING
I resigned on Monday, August 11th. Suddenly jobless, I had a new mortgage I couldn’t afford and a new baby on the way in five weeks.
Without the love and support of my amazing wife, I’m not sure I would have survived the weight of the circumstances. She came alongside me and kept me from spiraling into sorrow.
Without the love and support of our incredible family and amazing church, I don’t think Wendy and I would have made it. People rallied around us. They supported us when we needed them most.
Every morning I got out of bed, got dressed, took my lap top to the church, and applied for jobs. I applied for anything and everything I could find. I applied for seven to ten jobs a day. I submitted over 150 applications.
(The current job market is a fascinating place. I’ve held off writing about it to date. I’ve got several thoughts and stories churning. Maybe I’ll say more about that process in the future.)
STARTING TO FIND OUR FOOTING AGAIN
In mid-September an old friend reached out. She’d heard what’d happened. She was hiring. She offered me a safe place to land. The spinning of our world slowed.
On Thursday, September 18th, Riggs Holden Elkins was born and new life entered our family. I’ve never seen a baby smile like he does. He is exactly what we needed – fresh laughter to chase away dark clouds.
On Friday, October 3rd, I went back to work. It’s an entry level position as a writer, so it doesn’t pay a lot, but the people are amazing, the work is interesting, and our world is moving forward.
For the first time in my life, I’m leaving work at work. My weekends are free to focus on the kids. When the weather is good, I take my lunch break at a local lake across the street from my office. It’s nice. I’m healing.
This month, we put up a Christmas tree. We bought presents for the kids. Last week, Wendy sent out Christmas cards for the first time in two years. It’s all regular, small things, but this year they feel like huge victories.
A weekend ago, I found myself standing in Chad and Callie’s house for a house warming party. He is the new pastor at Valley. I was in the corner of their kitchen, chatting with some of Valley’s deacons. After five years of debate and struggle, I trust them more than any men in the world. It occurred to me, as I sipped my punch, that 365 days earlier, at almost that exact time, I’d been at Valley’s previous pastor’s retirement party. It was strange to ponder how much has changed in 52 weeks.
We aren’t on firm ground yet. There is lots of uncertainty. There are lots of unanswered questions. I know there may be more crashes ahead, but the last two months have been better, and I have hope that things will continue to improve.
I’m different now. I can see it when I look in the mirror. It’s behind my eyes. The past 18 months have exacted their toll.
I’m less confident, but more at ease with my faults.
I’m less ambitious, but more alert.
I’m less idealistic, but more compassionate.
I’m slower, but more thoughtful.
I’m less vulnerable, but more understanding.
My innocence has decreased, but my love has grown.
And this Christmas, I’m beginning to understand something I thought I already knew – peace.
Life is finally simple. There are no late night, brainstorming meetings. There are no difficult, change-agent conversations. There are no big, school-transforming projects. We’ve gone from balancing three causes to the stillness of none.
I’m working. I’m writing. I’m enjoying my family. And I’m watching for what God has in store. I don’t believe He’s going to let the Elkins retire.
Thus, while I’m not comfortable with Facebook’s statement, “It’s been a great year!” I can say with a full and honest heart:
“It’s been a transformative year. Things are different. Thank you for being a part of it.”