Here is what my friend said:
(1) Before we even said 'yes' to employment, we asked 'who' rather than 'where.' That is, rather than focusing on where are we moving to, we focussed on who we have existing relationships with. In this last instance, we had several employment opportunities but settled upon [our current city] primarily because of the relationships we had here. (I said 'yes' to being an Assistant Pastor over a solo and a senior pastor role; and I did this because I valued what these relationships would mean for me more than what a different title or role might mean). (2) Once we arrived, we immediately plugged back into active relationships -- even although the majority of them were not at the church we came to. Obviously we built new relationships with our new church family, but having some other prior relationships took a lot of pressure off and enabled us to function well as a family.
I think this is a fundamentally different approach to decision-making in pastoral candidacy and transition than most take. It certainly is different from the one I took. And that betrays a couple of things about my thinking:
The importance of Kingdom-relationships. I overestimated my (and my family's) capacity to adapt relationally to wherever we moved. In His grace, God has sustained us in west Tennessee in spite of my overestimation, and in spite of the distance to any of our family and/or existing friendships-- but that doesn't change the fact that existing relationships matter greatly. My friend's approach to his decision is a real challenge to me, because I've seen the struggles that I and my family have sometimes had relationally, yet I wonder whether my pride could forsake role or title in favor of meaningful relationships.
The unimportance of cultural or geographical boundaries. Let's return to basic New Testament redefinition of what it means to be a part of the Church-- the new Israel-- and see how flawed my thinking has been and is: I still think in terms of the cultural differences that I embody as someone who grew up in the American South, or the geographical issues that arise when I think of what it means to live in one part of the country (or the world) or another. But my friend, whose move to his current congregation was even further from his home country than he already was before, exposes the spiritual lie in my thinking.
As I've been mulling over my friend's response for a week or so, I wonder if this paradigm-shift in the starting-point question (who instead of where) doesn't have even broader implications than what his response suggests. I think the "who?" question should ALWAYS be asked--and answered-- long before the "where?" question comes into play.
What does this look like? Perhaps it means setting aside questions such as, "is the geographical/cultural context one in which I believe I can effectively minister?" or "how far away from my parents/siblings is this ministry context?" While vital questions, and worthy of asking, these might begin to lead a candidate in a direction that commits him to a certain opportunity (or rules one out) prematurely.
Instead, the candidate might ask "who?" in this way: "are the people in this congregation those to whom I can have a fruitful and effective ministry?" Or, "do my core values and ministry gifts serve and shepherd these people in the manner that they need to be served and led?" Or, "what kind of pastor does this congregation need to lead them to the good pastures and still waters of the next season of their congregational life-- and am I the pastor to shepherd them there?"
I consider this a major breakthrough in my thinking about pastoral transition, and urge candidates everywhere to ask and answer "who?" before you begin to ask "where?".