Influence

 the shape of leadership

Making the Most of the Middle

How to navigate seasons of transition with grace and faith

Jay Newland on August 18, 2020

What are you going to do now?”

This was the question I heard most after I resigned my executive pastor role. My response was always the same: “I don’t know.”

Stepping into the unknown was a response to God’s prompting to step out of the boat and trust Him. With one big step of faith, we found ourselves trusting God would lead us quickly across the water to the new purpose He had prepared. We hoped and believed a door would open within a few months.

Instead, it took 16 months for God’s plan to unfold — with a pandemic at the end to boot. Although this journey through the middle was filled with many tears, the middle was an essential season of preparation and surprisingly rewarding.

Whether you’re safely in the boat, you’ve recently stepped out, or you feel like you’ve been pushed out into the choppy sea, the middle represents the space between where you once were and where God is taking you next. And God has a plan for this season.

For some, this season can feel like the halftime of a football game — the perfect time to recuperate and get ready for what’s ahead. But others may experience a middle that’s more like a long rain delay in a baseball game, leaving you wondering whether you’ll ever take the field again.

Regardless of its length, the middle is like the wilderness in the Book of Exodus. It’s a time of transition, and often a grueling test of faith. But that doesn’t mean it’s a place where nothing can grow.

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Our wilderness seasons prepare us to flourish in fertile ground. The growth God wants to cultivate in the wilderness is not visible. Rather, it’s an internal process of refinement that will equip you for what God has next.

To make the most of your middle, consider the following five lessons I learned from my season of preparation:

1. Start With a Refinishing

Early on in the middle, I realized I was not ready to serve somewhere new. My 20 years of ministry had taken its toll emotionally and spiritually. Before I started something new, I needed renewal.

Like an old wooden desk that needs stripped of its finish so it can be restored, we periodically need an uninterrupted season where God pulls off all the things that have tarnished His original work.

Once it became evident this process was necessary, I looked for times and places to get alone with God. It was in these spiritually intimate moments that God showed me powerful truths about myself.

In addition, I intentionally connected with mature Christ-followers for prayer and advice. Listening to their words of encouragement and wisdom helped sustain me during my wilderness season.

Spending time with God and listening to trusted voices were part of the process of allowing God to strip me of subtle impurities. All I had to do was position myself so He could work on me.

2. Embrace the Pace

After the excitement of stepping out wore off, impatience began to set in as I stressed about when my future role would unfold. This anxiety compounded into feelings of guilt for not being more involved in a church or working my normal 40-plus hours.

Believe for great things, and when you start to sink, reach up.

But then two of my mentors encouraged me to use this season as an unintentional sabbatical. So, I finally slowed down and embraced the pace of the middle.

This new pace helped me occupy the time more efficiently. Instead of stressing over when the door would open, I was able to focus on the present, which for me was working on my doctorate and refreshing with my family.

God doesn’t want you to waste the middle; He wants you to redeem it. So, the two best things you can do while you wait is rest and reinvest in yourself as a leader, because where you are going will require a rested leader who hasn’t stopped learning. So, redeem your time by trusting in His timing.

3. Find the Way, Not a Way Out

Because the middle is so uncomfortable, we naturally look for the first exit point. It’s like being really hungry on a road trip. There is a point where your desperate hunger will convince you to take the first exit that has food — even if it’s a notoriously bad restaurant.

The result? A lunch you regret and a road trip that just got longer. If you settle for the first available meal, you’ll probably miss out on a truly great one.

In the same way, where you are going is not the most important goal in your journey through the middle. It’s who’s taking you there. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and the middle is the best place for Him to remind you of that.

God reminded me of this three months into my journey when He answered my question of, “How much longer?”

During a worship service, God whispered, “Jay, it’s not how much longer — it’s how much closer can you get to me?”

From then on, I knew my primary destination and right where to find Him. 

4. Prepare to Grow and Groan

One of the main reasons God sends us into the middle is to grow our faith through utter dependence on Him.

Peter’s stroll across the water was this kind of experience, which is why Jesus called him out into the middle of the sea. Jesus knew water walking would encourage Peter’s faith. I believe He also knew Peter would fail and cry out for help. In a matter of moments, Peter became the first to walk on water and the first to be saved from drowning by Jesus.

Just like Peter’s experience, the middle will contain highs and lows. One moment, you will surf big waves of faith, and the next, you will crash into fear, discouragement, or worse. It is all part of the faith-building experience.

Following Peter’s example is a good faith-building plan. Believe for great things, and when you start to sink, reach up. Jesus wants both of these things for our faith — great faith and total dependence.

5. When You Arrive, Take a Moment

When your middle comes to an end, it’s tempting to race into your Promised Land. But it’s important to stop as you arrive and give thanks.

First, take a moment to thank all who prayed for you. Don’t be surprised if they celebrate just as much as, or more than, you do.

Next, give glory to God any way you can. Journal it, post it on social media, or shout it from your rooftop. God put you in the middle, and He also got you through it. Now, He deserves the glory, and you get to enjoy the blessing.

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