You & Who You Are: Rob Bell on Identity & Transition

"Before you say 'no,' you have to say 'yes."

With this provocative and confusing statement, Rob Bell began a talk on Identity to a roomful of learners---mostly pastors and church leaders---at his recent 2Days With Rob Bell event in Laguna Beach, CA.

Then he shared a parable...

It seems a first century rabbi was journeying home late from a dinner in a nearby village.  There was a fork in the road that led to his village.  If he went left, he would find himself at a Roman military outpost.  If he went right he would find his way home.  It was dark and he had drunk a bit of wine and he inadvertently took the left fork.  Some time later he found himself at the wall of the outpost.  A Roman guard called out to him, "Who are you, and what are you doing here?"  The rabbi didn't answer.  "Who are you, and what are you doing here?"  The rabbi called back to the soldier, "How much are they paying you to do this?"  The guard was silent for a moment.  "100 denarii," he replied.  The rabbi said to him, "I will pay you double that to come to my house every morning and ask me that same question.

The question of identity is one that plagues pastors.  So many of us struggle with our sense of call.  We struggle with what it means to have pastoral authority.  We struggle with our understanding of God's will and direction for our lives.  And we seem to do this more than most people.

Rob gave us some wisdom and some strategies to help determine our pastoral identity and the direction that God may be leading us.

At one point during our time together, Rob told us something very important:  "Scripture is full of people who have been broken into a million pieces," he said, "Apparently that's where God does his best work."

The fact that God uses broken and messed up people to be pastors to other broken and messed up people is both a miracle and slightly crazy.  But that is indeed what seems to be his modus operandi.

Now back to the first thing that Rob told us, which he returned to during our conversation...

"Sometimes you need somebody to hand you spine," he told us, "you need someone to tell you it's okay to say 'No!'"

He shared with us how he often employs a "Quaker Clearing Committee" to help him discern what God was doing.  He gathers a group of close friends together and then tells them, "This is the thing before me."  Then everyone sits in silence for a while.  After this, the group is allowed to ask non-leading questions---and to surrender their opinions.  During major decisions about his calling, Rob had his groups ask questions like:

"When are you most alive?"
"What is that feeds your soul?"
"What is the hardest work you do that is the easiest work you do?"
"What is it that you think, 'I could do this forever'?"
"What most energizes and exhausts you (good tired)?"
"What is it that when you are doing it, you lose track of time?"
"Is it sustainable?  Can you be more alive doing this next year than I am right now?"

These are awesome questions to ask---even if you don't have a Clearing Committee.

He told us that when you go through a discernment process, things arise that you have to face.  "Generally when you are moving toward your true self," he said, "you will have to face some assumptions."  Saying yes, he told us, will confront the assumptions of others---as well as your own.

Once you say yes, he told us, then you can say no.  What he meant by this is most of us spend far too much of our time trying to do what is expected of us.  We end up doing 10 things with partial energy instead of pursuing what Niebuhr called "the one thing," with all of our energy.  Until we commit to the one thing, Rob is saying, we can't begin to weed out the things to which we need to say "no."

Then he began speaking about the discipline it takes to pursue the thing to which you've said "Yes!"

"Build routines around the 'yes's.'" Rob said to us.  Then he quoted an awesome Flaubert quote, "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work."  I have to say, that quote was fairly awesome.  I love the phrase, "violent and original." 

"Once you have structure," Rob asserted, "then you can be spontaneous.  If you don't have structure, everything's chaos."  He talked to us about the disciplines that he has instilled in his own life regarding writing, his time with family, creative endeavors and the like.  He warned us that we need to make the most of each day.  "The day will happen to you, unless you happen to it."

Rob talked about the joy and the necessity of hard work and attention to the details.  "If you are relentless with the little disciplines," he said, "it's astounding what you will be able to accomplish."  He related this to the art of sermon preparation and how the discipline of a routine enables you to be more prepared and thus better able to be a more effective preacher.  Rob encouraged us to get our ideas together to know essentially what it is that we want to communicate during the course of our routine.  The adherence to a schedule, to the discipline of routine enables you to create with more ease than if you left it up to "inspiration."

"As long as the furniture is in the room," he told us, "you can rearrange it endlessly.  But if you are still moving furniture in on Saturday night, you're in trouble."


Graciously, Rob and his wife Kristin agreed to share with us in greater detail what they went through when they made the decision to leave the church they founded nearly 12 years ago,  and move to California.   For those who may be reading this who aren't aware, Rob was the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI---a congregation of over 10, 000 members.

Rob related how after he wrote the book Love Wins he began to realize that God was stirring something in his soul.  His elders must have sensed it because they began asking both he and Kristin what their plans were for the future.  Rob didn't know what to tell them.

He said that he was telling himself, "I should give the answer I have always been giving to keep the system going."  In other words, the weight of responsibility for the future of Mars Hill felt as though it was resting squarely on his shoulders.

Rob began to have conversations with friends in California, with connections he had made in Hollywood and with his wife Kristin about a future that did not include being a pastor, that did not include the church he had founded.  He felt as though he was being called to reach a wider audience, to begin a new ministry to people who were not finding Jesus in the "regular Jesus packages."

Kristin admitted that when Love Wins was released, she knew that things were never going to be the same again.  She began to struggle to attend church because all anyone wanted to talk about was the book and the controversy.  They became aware that members of their church were being attacked and harangued by relatives and friends who were critical of the book and of Rob.

Then they had a baptism service.

Rob remembers being at the service, hugging people who were just baptized.  He wasn't actually participating in the service, he was just there celebrating in the joy of the newly baptized.  Suddenly a thought came through his head, "There is a church here," he remembers hearing, "and they're going to be fine."  He said that this thought struck his heart and he began to weep.  He quipped that the people who were getting baptized were probably thinking, "Wow! Rob is really glad I got baptized!"

"Calling begins with profound grief," he told us, "because you are leaving something."  He related how he would often find himself walking his dog and just weeping uncontrollably as he thought and prayed about the transition ahead of him.  They had told no one at this point, not even their children.

By the time they were ready to share the news with their close friends, elders and their children, Rob said that they had come to terms with their grief.  But the interesting thing about that, he said, is that you get to experience in a new way as you feel the grief of those you are about to leave.

"Yeah, it's hard," he said.  "Everything that matters is hard."

When they told their children, they had mixed responses.  Their oldest boy did not speak for an entire day.  They shared that they didn't couch the whole thing in a bunch of God-talk. In other words, they didn't say, "God is calling us somewhere else," or "God is making this happen."  He didn't want his kids on a couch with a therapist when they are 30 years old dealing with their God issues because they had to move when they were little.  They simply told them that it was his purpose to share Jesus with as many people as he could, and that they lived their life as a family with a sense of adventure.  They even told their oldest son, "We'll wait until you are okay with it."

Rob's son Preston actually wanted to talk to us about what it was like for him.  It was the first time he had ever shared anything in public.  What he wanted us to know, more specifically, was that when he came to California he got involved with a friend's church youth group.  On Easter Sunday this year he had a profound encounter with God.  "God was real to me all of a sudden," he share with us.  And so in this little congregation of only 300 members, he was baptized and declared his faith.  He told us that it would have been hard for him to do that at Mars Hill because he would have been crying in front of people who didn't know him.  But being baptized in the new church was different.

As he was sharing his testimony, Rob was misty-eyed and very proud.  I wondered how that must have felt for him to see his son experience God and confess his faith in Jesus---almost as an affirmation of their family's faithfulness to God and to God's will.

Preston left us with a word of wisdom that essentially wrapped up the conversation about transition.  He told us that if we ever had to make a decision like the one his family made, to tell our kids that it was going to be okay.  That we know it's God will for our lives when it works out for the best---much like it did for him.  "Unless it turns out terrible," he added, "and then you know it wasn't God's will."

The room full of pastors had to laugh because we all wished it worked like that.

And then again, maybe it sort of does.


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