Dear Friends, Family, and our Treasured Team of Supporters,
Our hope in this letter is to join you in welcoming in 2023 - and to do that by giving you a detailed and transparent description of the roller coaster that was 2022 for the Dows. This letter is not meant to be a test of your friendship or commitment to us, but, as this is going to be more substantial and longer than other posts, it might turn out that way :)
I am going to start by sharing about my transition from the Superintendent role at Rosslyn to the Head of School role at BFA. Catherine will then describe the process of guiding our family through the biggest move of our lives, including the girls’ perspectives. And then, we’ll finish with some hopes and prayer requests for 2023.
Phil: Two years ago, almost to the day, Catherine and I made the initial decision to explore the Head of School opening at Black Forest Academy. We had no idea what was ahead, but we stepped forward with a conviction that, whatever the outcome, God was in this process (more on that story is told by Catherine here). Over the next year and a half, we experienced a rich and fruitful season at Rosslyn during which we invested ourselves fully in that special community - a place and people that we will always be deeply treasured. And then, on June 6th, we left our home of roughly twenty years to begin a new chapter in Germany at Black Forest Academy.
With treasured friends in Kenya at the Departing Staff Retreat
While I felt I knew BFA relatively well and had a very favorable impression of the school, I still did not fully know what I would find when we arrived - how I and the family would be welcomed, and what challenges might await me and the school. In broad strokes, here is what I found:
A well-established and quality school that understands its purpose;
A team of staff and school leaders deeply dedicated to the mission of the school, to the growth of our 250+ students, and to Christian families serving across the globe;
And a healthy Christian community wrestling with the challenges produced by two years of COVID lockdowns, four changes of leadership in five years, and the rapid changes in the moral and spiritual zeitgeist of the cultural “West”. (Please note the use of a great German word here:))
In the process of listening and learning that was my first semester at BFA, there were a number of highlights. Here are just a few:
Getting to know the BFA staff. In addition to the regular “up front” moments I have as part of my role, I set aside a series of individual 45-minute time slots near the start of school for coffee and pastries with whoever among the staff wanted to sign up. Outside of enjoying some great German treats, these times were a chance for me to get to know the individuals that make up our team: Why had they come to BFA in the first place and from where? What did they love about serving at BFA? What was hard? Over a three week period, I was able to meet with about half of our staff one-on-one and left each and every meeting inspired and grateful.
BFA Staff - Full Staff Conference - August 2022
Starting to be a part of student events/life. In my role, it is easy to become detached from the day to day life of our students. This will always be a challenge, but in my first semester at BFA I have been blessed with a number of significant touch points that have allowed me to get to know BFA’s amazing students - and for them to begin to get to know me. Here are a few of those:
I have had a couple key opportunities to speak to the student body (I gave the annual Head of School address at the Opening Ceremony as well as being the speaker at our International Day chapel).
I am a regular at school extra-curricular events (I don’t think I have missed a home game, and I have been able to see every concert and major school performance so far - with one notable expectation - I was out of the country on a pre-arranged and important school trip during Sophie’s performances as Susan in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Thankfully, I got to see two dress rehearsals).
I have been able to get into a number of our dorms and classes as well. (Joining the dorms for a meal or dorm activity has been a major highlight for me.)
However, if I had to pick a highlight so far, it would be the week-long Senior Trip to Italy. Overnight bus trips, seeing the incredible historical sites in Florence, Rome, and Venice, getting “baptized” by the Senior guys in the Mediterranean, and just generally seeing our students enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience, was incredible. I left that trip even more impressed with the caliber of our students and staff.
BFA Seniors and Class Sponsors in Venice, October 2022
Meetings. Really! As you might expect, meetings consume a reasonable amount of my time, but I have genuinely enjoyed time with the three main teams that I lead - the school’s Steering Team (a sort of executive team that meets weekly for about two hours), the School Leadership Team (which meets at least once a month for a couple of hours to discuss major school culture questions), and the Advancement Team (a new team that meets weekly and is tasked with ensuring that BFA’s mission is sustainable for this and coming generations of missionary families). In these meetings I have witnessed a deep sense of calling and commitment to our mission, a high level of competence, and joy! It is true that not every moment of every meeting could be described as “joyful”. As you would expect, hard things and challenging questions are part of the deal, but what has been encouraging is the level of joy that has been woven throughout our meetings - even ones that include harder things.
Of course, the most significant meetings I take part in each school year are the Board meetings which take place over a week two times each year. The Fall meeting this year took place in October and was a wonderful opportunity for me to both report on what I was seeing in my first months, and to begin to work together with a talented and mission-driven Board towards our shared aim of seeing BFA’s mission expand in depth and breadth.
So how are things going? I think it was an afternoon late in October. The days were starting to get shorter and colder and I had just had a heavier than normal day. As I was walking through the town on my way home, I remember thinking, “This is the part when I am supposed to be questioning our calling and experiencing some level of regret.” But I wasn't. Of course, I missed (and continue to miss) many treasured friends and the school community we had left in Kenya, but on the walk home, I was struck with the awareness that I knew this is where we were supposed to be.
Kandern in early November, 2022
Catherine: Saying our goodbyes and packing up our home at times felt like we were packing up our hearts and sending them off into the unknown. So many memories wrapped up in every room and every item… Deciding where to go - not for “one last time” (too sad) but for “one more time”... Precious friends to spend as much time with as possible even though we knew it would hurt all the more to be parted from them… It was a bittersweet time and a period of life lived at a tension that cannot be sustained for long. Yet in all the tears of both joy and sadness, there was also a quiet peace undergirding us, for we knew we were following God’s leading and doing what He wanted.
Leaving Kenya,"Kwaheri" means "goodbye"
Living at that higher level of alertness was exhausting but it was also a blessing for it gave us eyes to see beauty where we might not usually have seen or appreciated it: the wonder of the constant bird song and the whisper of the wind in the towering trees in our back garden, big African skies, the baking heat reflecting off a dusty track onto my flip-flop-clad feet, the purple intensity of jacaranda blossom, the smile lines that light up a friend’s face, the relaxed and heart-felt laughter of dear friends in our home….
It also opened our eyes to glimpses of God’s abundant grace in ways we may not have anticipated. The provision of our own home in Kandern (a complex story that was truly only made possible by God’s direction) is a very significant gift to us, as was the ladies’ Bible study group I’d briefly joined during our sabbatical here reaching out to me long before we arrived to invite me to join them again. Equally meaningful was a handwritten note sent back with Phil after his whirlwind trip to BFA in April that welcomed the Dow ladies specifically to the community, as well as a few of the BFA girls emailing Emma ahead of school beginning and introducing themselves. Whether it was the opportunity to spend a life-giving weekend in the heart of Kenya's Rift Valley away from the stress of packing in order to stop and reflect and refocus on the Lord, or a quiet buffer period with our families between leaving Kenya and arriving in Germany that enabled us to get some much needed deep rest, or our beds already made and a meal waiting on the table for us the evening we arrived, our Heavenly Father has been graciously meeting our needs - frequently through His people and often before we realised we even had them. Perhaps His most meaningful gift to me during this whole period has been times when I am alone and can turn on my worship music and quietly sing along, and He has blessed these weak efforts to praise Him, when my heart is filled with too many emotions to be able to unscramble them, and has drawn close.
By the time we left Kenya, we were all physically and emotionally drained but hugely grateful - and humbled - by the incredible send-off we had. In multiple farewells that spanned the various sub-communities at Rosslyn as well as at our church and among our friends, we were blessed again and again by words of affirmation and encouragement, and we left with our hearts full.
Our first meal in our new home
I realise that I’m mingling my comments on ‘leaving’ with my thoughts on ‘arriving’, but I hope you’ll excuse me and follow along anyway. As I think about it, it makes sense that these experiences cannot be separated from each other, for we left knowing somewhat where we were going and we are settling in here knowing well where we have come from. Our ability to leave well there has set the foundation for us finding our feet here.
There is a different kind of beauty here. The trees look different and shed their leaves all at the same time instead of being staggered. They have different seasons (as ‘Kenyans,’ the winter here gets cold - we’ve already experienced snow and temperatures down to -9’C) so we have to dress differently, and yes, we need to wear shoes, thick ones. The town is quiet and beautifully cared for, the roads are crazily narrow. The town square is just a two-minute walk from our house (the campus gate was further away than that!) and instead of having multiple shopping centres on our doorstep, our nearest is now several kilometres away. We have exchanged Big City Africa for Small Town Europe and the two cannot be compared - except for the amazing communities in both places.
Putting healthy roots down has been our primary task as a family in the almost-six months that we’ve been here. Deciding how to decorate their rooms and learning the new rhythms of the school day have kept Emma and Sophie well occupied, and we have been delighted to see both girls connecting more deeply with new friends while also finding that balance between investing in these relationships and maintaining long-time friendships further away. Sophie got off to a fantastic start just two weeks into the BFA school year by being cast as Susan in the Middle School’s production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. As well as being a great theatrical experience, she was thrown in among her new friends in a way that grew those friendships quickly. Emma has also been getting to know her classmates and regularly comes home quoting hilarious comments, class discussions or notable anecdotes.
Sophie as Susan in C.S. Lewis's, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Our health has been a significant challenge to settling over the last few months. Coming from an environment with a completely different range of germs, we have picked up one virus after another. Thankfully, nothing has been serious, but heavy cold after heavy cold and another round of COVID has meant that so far I’ve had someone at home at some point of every week but one since school started. This has multiple knock-on effects, but one of them is that it’s been harder for me to meet and get to know other ladies as quickly as I’d have liked to. Still, I’m grateful for all the chats over coffee I have had, even the rushed ones. There is a wealth of warm and inspiring women here, both international and German, and I greatly look forward to pursuing these relationships.
So, in addition to tending ‘the sick’ (or recovering myself), life for me has been a blend of the usual (food shopping, preparing meals, laundry and house-cleaning, although everything takes a new twist when you’re doing it in a new language!), making our house into a home, arranging doctors and dentists appointments and chauffeuring the girls there, organising the numerous pieces of documentation that are required when settling in a new country, and, yes, taking German classes. It’s been unpredictable and busy and, at times, stressful, but I can see this is all a part of the ‘settling’ process; I’m tilling the ground where our roots will go down and this is time well spent.
I have to admit, I am looking forward to being beyond this stage where even the simplest task (picking up a prescription at the pharmacy, say) doesn’t have me standing outside first rehearsing how I'm going to ask! I’m deeply thankful, though, that many people here do speak English and are gracious as I practise my limited German with them. As we adjust, I - and the whole family - have taken comfort in our times together, reconnecting over the dinner table and especially as we continue well-known and deeply loved Dow Family Rituals, such as our Friday night Movie & Pizza and our candle-lit devotions each evening throughout Advent.
In the Kandern town square on New Year's Day
We’ve been attending Black Forest Christian Fellowship, which is a church connected to the school where the boarding students go, and we have also found strength and renewal in the sermons and by worshipping there along with our new community.
As I think about what is ahead for me, I believe the next six months at least need to remain open so I can continue to focus on the varying needs of our family. This will also give me flexibility to meet with other ladies more and, I hope, time to observe opportunities to get involved in the work the Lord is doing around here and prayerfully consider what else He may be calling me to.
Things for which we would value your prayers:
Thanksgiving - We have so much for which to be thankful. God has gone before us and journeyed with us as we have made this move to Germany. As you will have just read (if you made it this far), there are countless ways we have seen God provide and care for our family and the school community of which we are a part.
Increasing depth in relationships - for all of us, but especially for Catherine and the girls. (Our prayer is for just a couple people that each of us can connect with at a deep and life-giving level.)
Health, resilience, and courage for the girls - as they continue to face the challenges of a major move as teenagers, and for Emma in particular as she does so with what we are learning are some significant sensory processing challenges.
Wisdom and energy for Phil - as he leads BFA into the second half of the 2022-23 school year. (More specifically, BFA will be embarking on a critically important capital campaign in the months ahead that we hope will help ensure BFA's long-term sustainability as a school providing a quality and affordable education for the children of Christian "field workers" active in some of the world's most spiritually challenging regions.)
And thank you! One thing we haven't emphasized yet is how critical a role you have played in all of this. Whether it has been through thoughtful notes coming at just the right time, the awareness that we have a community of friends and family praying with and for us, or financial support, we have been greatly encouraged with the knowledge that we are not doing this on our own. Thank you!
Phil, Catherine, Emma, and Sophie