Jack Haberer knew he would someday return to pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He just didn’t think it would happen quite this soon and quite so abruptly.

At the end of September, Haberer will step down as editor of The Presbyterian Outlook after nine years as leader of the PC(USA)’s oldest and most influential independent publication. On Oct. 26, he begins service as pastor of Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church in Naples, Fla.

He’s known all along, Haberer said in an exclusive interview with the Presbyterian News Service, “that one way or the other ― before or after retirement ― I had to finish as a pastor.

“I think this will come as a surprise to many,” Haberer said. “It came out of the blue.”

Haberer was first contacted by a search firm hired by the Vanderbilt church. He was steeped in preparations for the Outlook’s coverage of June’s 221st General Assembly, “but I’m Reformed enough to believe that if an opportunity comes your way it may be a God thing,” Haberer said.

“I DID say to them ‘I can’t consider anything until after GA, because I can’t see straight until then,’” Haberer continued. Throughout the spring Haberer and the Vanderbilt pastor nominating committee went through “a thorough and thoughtful discernment process,” he said, and on July 5 Haberer was told he was their candidate.

The Outlook board gave its blessing. “They told me, ‘We know you have a pastor’s heart,’” Haberer said, noting that when he was hired as editor nine years ago he told the board that “some day I would end up as a pastor again.”

He said what he will miss most about The Presbyterian Outlook “is the staff, these amazing people that I work with all the time.”

An unabashed extrovert, Haberer said he’ll also miss “traveling all over the country having such rich conversations with the diversity’s that’s out in the church. I’ve really enjoyed conversations with people who are still united in Christ.”

Just as he has frequently written on the editorial page of the magazine, Haberer decried the “separationism” plaguing the denomination. “I know I’ve riled people up by talking frankly, but I’m convinced that if you read Ephesians you see a story of grace reconciling very different people together,” he said.

And in Corinthians, he added, “We read, ‘Do not separate yourselves from others’ and in John, where Jesus exhorts his followers to ‘love one another.’”

Haberer said he’s convinced that “in an era where rugged individualism has run amok as radical congregationalism, I believe the biblical message absolutely goes in the other direction … unequivocally. So I have challenged all to avoid ‘separationism’ no matter how they go about it. Every ideology has been guilty of that. I really believe Jesus reconciles and God’s love is more than a cliché.”

The Presbyterian Outlook, Haberer said, “has always had a prophetic voice, but usually on the side of justice issues. By the time I was called, they said we need a prophetic voice calling the church to stay together, to promote unity in our diversity.”

Just before his departure next month, Haberer’s doing a webinar ― they have become an Outlook staple ― what he calls “the editor’s last shot.”  He said he will lead participants in a survey of what the Bible says about being the body of Christ. “We’re going to let the Bible speak on its own terms,” he said.

Haberer, author of the acclaimed book, GodViews, has another book in the works. To be published by the PC(USA)’s Westminster John Knox Press, Haberer said the tome will be about “discerning God’s will in complicated times. When we read the Bible on its own terms, which we just have to, we find that there are very few absolutes ― we’re called to live in wisdom, not as tunnel-visioned idealogues.”

The book, along with his provocative Outlook editorials and his pastoral ministry, add up to a  legacy he said he hopes will be “that he did what he could to keep us together with integrity and truly Gospel-centered conviction.”