When Holly and I planned to go to Alaska, we had no idea that our lives would be turned upside down. Our journey to the small community of Halibut Cove to consult with a brand new non-profit would turn into a much needed week of healing for our souls.
In the fall of 2018, our friends Dave and Linda Everly shared their vision for this endeavor and invited us to come and see what they are doing. As leadership veterans, Dave and Linda have seen and experienced the good, bad, and ugly of ministry and have walked their own “dark night of the soul.” They’ve leveraged their journey and the power of healing to craft their mission, which is to help pastors pursue their calling at a sustainable pace—something many leaders, to their own detriment, struggle to do, but something that I have been passionate about for many years. My masters degree is in Transformational Leadership, within which, Self-Leadership plays a major role. In fact, I had just finished leading my team through some self-leadership and self-awareness experiences that I have woven into my life for the last 26 years. These “sacred rhythms of grace,” as I like to call them (inspired by Eugene Peterson), among other essentials, have kept me centered, grounded, and deeply connected to Jesus and myself.
So, I was excited and saw great potential in this idea. I brought the vision back to the leadership team I was working with and was commissioned to investigate and give a report for consideration in becoming a partner with this ministry. I was also going to offer advice and feedback as they prepared to launch The Respite at Halibut Cove. We made plans, bought tickets, and I began to put together some initial thoughts on sustainable leadership. AND THIS IS WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED!
I thought I was on my way to contribute to the crafting of an experience and offer wisdom to this new place that would support rest, healing, and new life to couples and leaders in pastoral ministry. But, life is unpredictable. To my horror, I found myself as an unemployed, aging pastor with no clue about my own future. Instead of being the expert who had spent years leading, teaching, coaching, and guiding, I came wounded, disillusioned, and in great need of respite. As I choked back the shame of a very unanticipated and public dismissal, I tried to let Dave and Linda off the hook and told them that they didn’t have to host us any longer. They would have none of it—we were going to Alaska, period. Our tickets were non-refundable and we would no longer be able to take the sabbatical I had put off from the previous summer (don’t do this if you have a sabbatical—lesson learned!), so this retreat would be serendipitous.
Pastors (and their spouses) need coaching, rest, healing, encouragement, and connection, among other things. Holly and I have always received a lot of that, but we have also known loneliness and rejection—both inside and outside of the Church. I had just emerged, so I thought, from a long period of rebuilding and envisioning a new and beautiful future for the team I was on and had been helping to lead for several years. New teammates were added, new commitments were made, new prayers were prayed, new vision was cast, and new conversations were being had. I began to look forward to the fruit of years of labor. And yet, three days before Easter, I found myself without a job and Holly and I began to experience a wretched death while our community celebrated resurrection.
The rhythms I mentioned earlier have ALWAYS kept Holly and me anchored to reality and to the heart of God—both things we needed now more than ever. But many in leadership just don’t take the time to pay attention to their own souls or the condition of their hearts. Pastors have a way of teaching and leading with enthusiasm while ignoring an inner reality. Leaders learn to practice the “disciplines” of a devotional life and all the while live with blindness to what’s happening in their own souls. To complicate matters, most pastors have no significant friendships at all. Loneliness for pastors abounds and isolation is rampant. Leaders are expected to always be there, giving and giving, but secretly, somewhere along the way, they often lose the art of seeing themselves with clarity. Some call this “burnout” but in reality, it is a spiritual death.
To complicate matters further, most leaders fear vulnerability, which ironically, offers the most powerful pathway to connection, freedom, and health. Senior leaders that withhold their truth cascade this behavior to their teams and they unknowingly set an example that true vulnerability will be punished. There is a verbal ascent to “openness,” “being real,” or “sharing our last 10%,” but in reality, it’s not safe. It’s not safe because the leader is called to go first and create an environment where true vulnerability isn’t punished; when the leader cannot do these things, everyone knows (even though no one will admit it out loud) that things are not as they should be. Trust is never really built and like the unwise person who builds their house on the sand, the team is sunk when a storm comes. This also breeds a culture of artificial harmony, fake friendships, and chronic “niceness.”
One of the unfortunate failures of some in leadership is not recognizing when we’ve been given an impossible task. Like Sisyphus in Hades, we are tasked with rolling a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as we think that we have reached the summit. At times like this, we are not in a position to lead our team to the very top of the summit. Our authority and influence are simply insufficient for the task and we find ourselves in utter exhaustion, fighting against a brick wall of fear and rigidity.
Sadly, this kind of culture and these failings are not unique at all. They aren’t found in just a few churches or organizations. We experience these dynamics in all walks of life. Unfortunately, the longer one leads, the more challenging it can be to practice the kind of self-leadership and awareness that produces the sustainability and joy which leads to healthy teams and organizations. The isolation of leadership only compounds our struggles because ironically, we actually need others to invest in us to enhance our ability to lead ourselves well. If we ignore reality long enough, we end up like the emperor with no clothes—everyone else can see our struggle except us.
For some leaders, this isolation results in ineffectiveness. For others, the consequences are much worse and they face the long, hard road of recovery and healing from unhealthy or destructive decisions. Some will hold on, in desperation, hoping things will change; some will put their head down and work harder (but we all know the definition of insanity, right?), and finally, some will limp along on their way to a sad finish, leaving a shell of a legacy. Oh, what might have been….
Pastors need places and pathways to find rest and recovery from the difficultly of pastoral leadership. We need places like The Respite at Halibut Cove.
It’s funny how life works. After leading, guiding, giving, loving, and serving, we now found ourselves in need of care, understanding, encouragement, and hope. You see, when a pastor has to leave a church, they leave their community and are often forced, due to the nature of the vocation, to leave their friends and even their town. This “leaving” (and thus starting over) is experienced by every member of the pastor’s family. In our case, it will involve extended family members that rely on us.
Pastoral ministry isn’t just getting another job at the church 15 minutes away or quickly starting up your own church—it’s a long search for what’s right that usually takes an entire year (recovery often goes on for a few more). Healthy churches are rightfully methodical and slow in their hiring transitions and leaders are equally cautious in “taking the leap” again. Church ministry is “hook, line, and sinker.” It’s “all in” for the pastor, spouse, and family, so the goal is to find a church that will be equally committed to them. Ministry is so relationally intensive that I believe if you are not called to it, you should run the other way! But, if you are called, nothing else makes sense.
Are you starting to see the need for places of rest and healing for couples, families and teams in ministry? We need places like The Respite at Halibut Cove.
So, Holly and I showed up—wounded, processing, healing, adventurous, anticipating, open, vulnerable, and wondering. We’d been “doing our work” in the prior months faithfully. Many of my friends had loved us in many beautiful and tangible ways and we’ve made new friends along the way. I have a great spiritual director who is helping me listen to God’s voice and find my own, which I’ve often suppressed or used to fight for others so they could shine. I have a great therapist who is helping me gain perspective on my experience and untangle some of my own crap. Holly and I are best friends and we’ve only grown closer. But, we have been hurting, too. So, we were in the right place.
Alaska is a long way to travel. Why would anyone travel so far to get away?
After our first hike, 17 miles total, into the mountains and back, exhausted and blown away by the color and majesty of it all, we knew this was a worthy investment. There is a certain power in experiencing the beauty of God’s creation. It is healing for our souls. As we sailed around Resurrection Bay in the drizzly rain, I began to feel God’s presence in a different way. When we reached the little island called Halibut Cove in Kachemak Bay, we started to breath just a little slower. We sat on the deck and took in the jaw-dropping views, hiked to a glacier where the temperature dropped and we heard the enormous sound of a calving iceberg, explored the island community, traversed an underwater ecosystem at low tide, rode on a 20-foot boat looking up at near vertical, ice-capped mountain peaks all around us as we sped by oyster farms and adventured into coves and forests. It felt like we were visiting a combination of Norway, Switzerland, and a Middle Earth. On top of that, there were the sea otters, eagles, whales, porpoise, bears, and other wildlife. This really is one of the last remaining frontiers.
There is a reason why creation is spoken about so poetically in the Scriptures. I suppose we could have gone anywhere but this unique place offers experiences and a return to nature that you just can’t find anywhere else and there is healing power in that.
Sometimes God invites us to go far to get close.
It’s Moses on the mountain. Elijah in the Cave. The Disciples in Caesarea Philippi. It’s Jesus saying, “Come away with me and rest for a while.”
Why go all the way to Alaska? Because you may need what’s there.
And you may need who’s there.
Dave and Linda walked a well-balanced path of serving, silence, and engagement. They seemed to know when to simply sit with us and also when to engage our story. They were clear that we weren’t there to lead or to serve. We were there to receive. They would still pick our brains for advice, wisdom, and perspective on what they were doing (I mean, after all, that’s fun for us!) but we were also there to be present to ourselves and to God. They practiced incredible vulnerability with their own story and created a guided experience that I think very few are better qualified to create. There seemed to be space and time for everything necessary.
We went to The Respite at Halibut Cove not sure what to expect. We left having received more than we could have asked for.
We’re back now and real life was waiting for us right where we left it. I mean, where was it going to go? We got some bad news about what seemed to be the perfect position, even before we departed on our flight, and familiar tears welled up in my eyes. But, we didn’t go away to escape. That’s called isolation and it kills us. We went away for solitude, which revives us.
So go away! Go away somewhere to gain strength, healing, and hope. Go away so that you can be a gift to your community and yourselves when you return. A respite isn’t permanent life. A respite is a part of life. It’s the ancient practice of Sabbath that has been so misunderstood for so long. A respite is one way that we live out our humanity the way it was designed. It is one way that we do justice to what it means to be made in the image of God. A respite is made for us—to return us to the feet of the one who loves us more than we can possibly understand. To the one who invites us to come….
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:29-30 ~ MSG).