This post was originally the script of an episode of my short-lived podcast called
Not Your Ordinary Joe.
Rob Bell broke me. In the best way possible.
Everything Is Spiritual, his latest book, started me down a path I’m not ready to depart from just yet. So just nine days after finishing it, I started rereading it. Thank you, Goodreads. Slower this time. More notes and journaling along the way.
One of the highlights for me, is the section that deals with his transition from pastor to not-a-pastor, a journey I have also traveled.
I remember the day I heard he was leaving Mars Hill. I was working out in the Mount Juliet, Colorado YMCA early one morning listening to his sermon—I’m not sure how many of you will be able to relate to listening to sermons while working out, but that’s what I did.
At the end of the service, a leader at Mars Hill took the stage to announce that Rob Bell was leaving. Moving to California to find out what was next for him and Kristen.
It was surprisingly sad for me. I had been an every-week, virtual attendee of his worship services for years by then and I’d learned so much about how to put together a message for a seeker audience — tools I still use — and loved exploring some of these ideas about the Bible with him. I even borrowed from him from time to time.
Little did I know I would be going through a similar journey five years later.
It’s hard to describe when you know you’re done. For me, it is just this intangible sense that I’ve completed everything I can in this place. There’s even been a sense that somebody else is needed to move the work forward.
I want to be clear that it has nothing to do with people. I’ve never felt that I no longer like what I’d been doing or the people I was sharing my life with. To the contrary. That part, the leaving part is so difficult that sometimes I wonder if I stayed too long to avoid that part of it.
During every transition I’ve experienced, I have seriously second-guessed myself. What about that kid in the youth group with whom you have a special connection? What will happen to the band I started and love leading? I was just getting good at writing the daily devotions. What if where I’m going doesn’t work out? What if I’m wrong? What if I’m not done here?
In spite of all of that, even a risk-averse personality like mine, knows somewhere deep inside that it’s time.
The last time that happened for me, the transition was bigger than I anticipated. I was fulfilling a dream—becoming a full-time writer. Exciting! This also meant, however, that I was moving from local church ministry to a desk job.
I went from pastor to not-a-pastor.
It’s a weird feeling to love what you’re doing, living into a role that fits me like so well, and sense an unease with something. For the past six years—hard to believe it’s been six years already!—I’ve been a pastor without a church. Or simply not-a-pastor.
For more than 25 years, I had been living into my identity as Pastor Joe. Then, one day, that just wasn’t there anymore.
In some ways, I’m more than okay with that. I don’t do that anymore. Instead, I’m a writer. In fact, when I moved into the not-a-pastor role, I chose not to use any clergy titles in my work. I don’t want to be a pastor who writes. I did that for a bit as a freelancer. Now, I’m a writer who was also a pastor. Semantics, I know, but it matters to me.
It felt good to put a ribbon on that part of my life, but it opened up a new set of questions.
You’ve been here
So far this sounds very clergy-specific, but it’s not. My guess is that you’ve been here too at some point in your life.
For 20-plus years you were a parent to children living in your home. Now, the youngest is leaving for college or getting married. How wonderful to see them grow. You’ve been working toward this day for so long. You know you’re still a parent, but something is changing. You’re not going to attend PTA events or soccer games anymore as Jack & Diane’s mom. So, who are you?
Or you leave a job or get a promotion. Exciting! But you sense difference. You knew how to relate to your coworkers in that old role. Now you’re a supervisor. Or you’re in a new office, a new building, and you wonder, “How do I enter this space? How do these people see me? How does this change things?”
You graduate. Awesome! Time to enter a new phase of life! But this is a huge transition. You’ve been a student since you were five. You’re not anymore. “Who am I now?” you ask yourself.
Retirement is like a graduation. You’re done with that part of your life, and you’ve earned your reward. But I understand that first day you wake up without the alarm can be disorienting. What do I do? How long do you continue to introduce yourself as a former executive at the company from which you retired?
You’ve been there. Right?
Back in my old pastor role, I used to do a youth group lesson where I joked about how I could tell from what period in my life I knew someone based on what they called me.
When I was very young, my dad’s family—the Italian heritage side—had a name for me. See, I’m
I’m technically Joe Iovino Jr., named after my dad. I’ve always taken great pride in that and never felt it necessary to distinguish myself by using the ‘junior.’
My dad’s family, however, were apparently none too fond of having so many Joes around. So I was dubbed Baby Joe, a moniker I eventually hated, and had to ask for it to stop.
If anyone calls me Joey, it’s my dad. He’s the only one with permission to do that and he takes full advantage.
In high school, I was given the elaborate nickname of Jomo Ray. The Jomo part is a reference to a movie where a rotund person was better at basketball than anyone expected. It was a compliment… I think… that stuck with me throughout high school.
On top of that, some of my closest friends from during those days, simply called me Moe—a nickname from a nickname.
In college, I went back to Joe. For a summer in seminary, I was Chaplain Joe, serving Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center as part of my education. That fall, I became Pastor Joe.
A few years later, I became a husband and answered to Hun. In my wife’s family there were nieces and nephews who called me Uncle Joe.
Five years after that, we became parents, and two people call me Dad.
Who I was is who I am
Each name represents a role, an identity, a marker of who I was at that time with those people.
You’ve been through this journey too, right? You’ve been mom, uncle, boss, doctor, the dude. Some of them we are very proud of. Others, maybe, not so much.
There’s this sense that while some of those yous continue—you’ll always be a parent, for example—other we leave behind.
Some intentionally. From student to coworker. From significant other to spouse. From supervisor to manager. Good stuff.
Others might feel as though they were ripped from you due to death, divorce, downsizing, or the deterioration of a relationship with a friend.
Like an archaeologist can date a fossil based on what strata of earth it is buried in and infer something about it, we can sometimes fill in the gaps of the person we were based on the name we are called, the old business card we find in storage, the label we put in that journal so people would know it was ours.
Like that fossil it’s fun to gaze upon it, examine it, marvel at it. I recently rediscovered a business card I made myself more than 20 years ago, and it brought a smile to my face. It’s something for the keepsake box.
But unlike the fossil or that old business card I no longer carry, those old roles are with me all the time. All of them. Consciouly, subconsciously, or unconsciously, they are part of who I am. Then don’t just tell us who we were back then, they are part of who we are today.
You would not be the you you are, if it weren’t for all of those previous roles you had.
Bell writes in Everything Is Spiritual about a jarring moment that occurred some five years after his transition from pastor to not-a-pastor.
He and Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, were answering questions outside a tour event they were participating in when someone in the crowd asked what he calls “a particularly heavy, personal question.”
Gilbert, acknowledging the importance of the question, turned to Bell and asked through laughter, “Well, Pastor Rob, what do you have to say to that?” (Kindle location 2332).
“Did she just call me Pastor Rob?” Bell writes. “I haven’t been called that in years. I left all that behind, in my previous life.”
I’ve been there. Have you? You’ve done all the work of the transition, felt like you’ve moved on, and then…
Someone calls you Pastor Rob. They use that old title. They make assumptions about what you do. They think they know who you are, but they really only know who you were.
You get that message from the old college buddy on Facebook, and your first gut reaction is feeling as though they are trying to drag you back to that place you worked so hard to move on from. It’s pretty frustrating. And pretty normal.
We move, change, grow, transition. And people from the past have us frozen in time. And sometimes, that’s a place we don’t want to return to. Maybe we’re are very disappointed at who we were back then. How could I have believed that? Said that? Thought that?
Or maybe, there’s a lot of hurt there we’ve been trying to heal from. Sure, they don’t know that when they knew us back then, we were going through a difficult time, but when they try to bring us back to be that person or even to reminisce, we bristle. Dig in our heels. I’m not going back there.
Bell could have done that. There is a lot of hurt back in those pastor days. He chooses instead to do something else.
“You see me like that? Fine,” he writes. “You’re going to put that on me? Okay. Me being that helps? Great… I’m all of it. What I was, What I am. All of it” (location 2372).
I love that response. He’s not allowing that title to be an identity. And he allows the other to identify him in the way they are most comfortable doing so.
To put a finer point on it, this exchange is not about who he is—he’s not internalizing it that way.
All the questions he asks and answers in the moment, are about the other person. That’s how you see me? That helps? That’s what you want to put on me?
Often, who we are is dependent on how we are seen. I’m parent to my kids and no one else—and child only to my parents. Husband to my wife and no one else. Coworker to many—but even that’s nuanced. I’m supervisor to some, colleague to others, and direct report to my supervisor. All slightly different roles within a role.
Am I those things? Yes but I don’t have to own all of them as ‘identity.’ For example, I wouldn’t introduce myself as Sally’s coworker (unless Sally is the one introducing me to this person). That’d be crazy right, especially if the new person has no idea who Sally is. That would be ridiculous, and a little bit fun.
But when I think about the roles I have had over the years, while all of them have shaped me in some way and colored the ways people see me, I don’t have to internalize all of them.
This is an imperfect analogy, but I think of some of these roles as a rental tuxedo. They fit when we need them to, but none of them full represents who I am. None represents the skin I live in.
There are others, however, I want to own. Dad. Husband. And professionally, writer.
I wanted that role for a long, long time before I felt I could own it. I was a podcaster for two or three years before I put that title in my signature line on my emails. I own those. At least for now. Who knows what’s next?
As for Pastor Joe, I thought I had left that behind. A remnant of my past.
But there are people who still call me Pastor Joe and that’s awesome. I like it. I don’t really do that anymore, but it’s part of who I have been and who I have been as shaped who I am. I am Pastor Joe, even though I don’t use that title anymore.
I am who I am because of who I’ve been. The success and failures. The celebrations and the scars. The events that fill me with pride and those that embarrass me to even think about.
All of it, ALL of it, is what makes me, me.