Yesterday I shared the exciting news that God has called me to serve as Lead Pastor of BridgePoint Bible Church in Houston, Texas beginning this summer. I will teach my final five biblical counseling classes at Boyce College this spring before we launch into a new season of life and ministry.
But this transition is not exciting for everyone. As a professor, my students were often in my mind as God continued leading us toward Houston. I knew it would be painful to leave them, and that many of them would find it painful to see us go. Now, I don’t presume that I’m some big thing at Boyce College, or that the students or the seminary will struggle without me. The seminary has stood and flourished long before I arrived and will continue long after I leave. Higher education, with its revolving door of students, moves on quickly. Southern Seminary is a launchpad for gospel ministers, so launching out is just what we do.
But I also know that there’s a special bond that grows between teacher and student, and between campus ministers and the students we grow to love so much. Having served for fourteen years in this kind of rich, intensive environment, I don’t take this bond lightly.
I remember being selected to serve as a Resident Advisor in Slight Dormitory for my junior year of college. I was so excited to serve under Scott Burns, the Resident Director of our dorm whom I’d admired throughout my freshman and sophomore years. He was the guy everyone in our dorm wanted to be like, and the chance to be discipled by him seemed like the greatest opportunity of my young life thus far. But shortly after I was selected, I heard the news that Burns was moving to another dorm. I couldn’t believe it.
But God brought Caleb Hagen to serve as our new Resident Director, and while Caleb had just graduated from the college and wasn’t much older than me, God used the next four years of our ministry together to forge a deep friendship and discipleship relationship. God taught me things through Caleb that still stand as pillars of my life, and I can’t imagine not having known him and served alongside him. Little did I know that God repositioning Scott Burns would open the door to one of the most needed and most impactful seasons of growth I’ve experienced in my entire Christian life.
For the students who may be disappointed to see the Gundersen’s go (and I’ve gotten enough criticism over the years to know that’s not everyone!), I want you to know first of all that the pain is a good sign. If it didn’t pain me to leave you, what would that say about our relationship? And if it didn’t pain you to see us go, what would that say about my ministry? At every transition point in our lives, God has retaught us that the pain we feel in these parting days is a sweet sign of the rich relationship we’ve shared. God does not owe us these bonds of friendship and mutual love, but he mercifully binds our hearts together during these special seasons of life whose length and sweetness we can neither predict nor control. If it hurts your heart, as it does mine, that hurt is a good sign.
Yet even while it may hurt, I want to say something to you in the simplest way I know how: God has a good plan for your life and growth. It’s not a plan he launched yesterday in response to us posting on Facebook about our upcoming departure. It’s a plan held firm in his bottomless and loving mind from before the foundations of the earth. It’s a plan mysteriously constructed in the infinite recesses of his sovereign and good will, a plan to work in you and through you and for you, to make you holy and loving and fruitful for his purposes, in ways that result in the spreading glory of his name.
Your plan will often be interrupted, overturned, and overtaken by his plan, but don’t be deceived by what your eyes see during these seasons. It’s not that your plan was winning the day until God decided to trump it. It’s just that his plan often runs in subterranean rivers beneath the stream of our consciousness, until it strikes some rising edge of providence and springs up with all the shock and blessing of a rock bearing water in the wilderness.
On January 10, 2016, Pastor Tom Douthit, Senior Pastor of BridgePoint Bible Church, stood before his beloved church and made an announcement that would disrupt his life and the church’s life. He announced that God was leading him to reposition himself within the church to pave the way for a new lead pastor to open the next chapter of BridgePoint’s life and ministry.
That same Sunday morning, 971 miles away, I sat calmly in the 10:00am worship service of Fellowship Church, our home church in Louisville. I had never heard the name Tom Douthit, never heard of BridgePoint Bible Church, and knew little about Houston, Texas. But my life, and our family’s life, was being silently disrupted at that very moment.
I love Southern Seminary, Boyce College, my students, my colleagues, and the rhythms and responsibilities of academic life. I love my pastors, our church, our Gospel Community Group ministry, and the ideal location of our house in east Louisville. We enjoy living in this city — its size, its parks, its restaurants, its people. But through a months-long process I have found that the engine driving God’s leading of us is not what we love but what he loves. What he loves ultimately holds sway, and then in his grace, he plows and plants and waters our hearts until we come to love what he has loved all along. He cultivates us tenderly, and though his caring hands may feel rough to our sensitivities, he is uprooting and replanting and pruning us only so that we might bear more fruit (John 15:2).
At the same time, despite the kind ways our God works with us, it’s not really about us, and it’s not really about you. It never has been, and it never will be. Just think about how this strategic wave of divine disruption will run. God disrupted Tom Douthit, who disrupted his church, who disrupted me, who disrupted my students. Someone will replace me as professor of biblical counseling, and God will have to disrupt them and their family and their ministry and their church. And in order to replace them and fill the gap where they minister, he will disrupt someone else. On and on the gracious disruptions will go, interwoven with many other movements of God among people and places and situations you and I will know nothing about, as the missional energy of God’s Spirit pulses through his people and moves us all into the fields in which he would have us labor.
Like the Israelites of old, I never know when the cloud and flame will ascend from over the tabernacle, telling me it’s time to go. I never know where he’ll have us camp the following night, and where the food and water and provision and protection will come from. But I do know that because we’re in Christ, we’re children of Abraham, heirs of the astonishing promise God made to bless the world through Abraham’s offspring. And I know that God always keeps his promises.
So I urge you to spend your lives doing what God has always called his people to do: staying when he says stay, and moving when he says move. Because ultimately, we’re all just soldiers of truth on a mission of peace, testifying to the gospel of Christ as we sojourn toward the Promised Land, following the cloud of God’s Word and the flame of God’s Spirit as we march upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.
Our paths are diverging, yes, and it will be painful to part ways. But if God’s big story is true, and I’m betting my life that it is, then our paths will always run parallel, because the paths of God’s people always lead to the new creation. I’ll see you there one day, and we’ll sit together at the feet of the one who was teaching us all along.