GOOGLE the words ‘Ken Lindsay’ and ‘Methodist Church’ and you will find an array of articles about the outgoing President Designate visiting churches all over the land.
“You’re the visible face of the church, and you are invited to visit as many of the churches around the country as you can,” he tells me as we chat, just a few weeks before his role at the helm of the Methodist Church in Ireland is due to come to an end.
“I’m in a different church every Sunday morning and sometimes it’s the same church in the morning and in the evening.
“I’ve probably been to about 60 different churches throughout the year.”
Added to this host of ecclesiastical duties are those involved with Reverend Lindsay’s other role as minister at Ballinamallard Methodist Church, so it’s apparent that he is one busy man.
The 65-year-old is married to Patricia and father of two grown-up children, 30-year-old Jane, and 26-year-old Robert.
He is originally from Newtownards, where he “grew up in a very devout Christian home”, attending both Sunday School and the Boys’ Brigade.
“When I was 12 or 13, most of a Sunday was spent around the church, as was the case for many young people in those days,” he recalls. “I would have had a BB Bible Class at 10am, Bible Class at 11, Sunday School at 2.30pm and evening worship again at 7pm, so it was a busy day. As a late teenager, it all changed as I was a Sunday School teacher, so had Sunday School at 2.30pm and Youth Worship at half past eight.”
Both sides of Ken’s family belonged to the Methodist church, and he attended Regent Street Methodist in Newtownards when he was growing up.
When he was in his early teens, both his parents sadly died, and he was raised by an aunt and uncle. At the age of 15, he was sent to Methodist College in Belfast to board.
Within the Methodist Church, similar to the Church of Ireland, confirmation is practised i.e publicly affirming your maturity as a committed Christian and witnessing your faith.
Ken says however, that even though he had been confirmed, he had never been asked the direct question - are you a Christian?
He believes that for this reason, he “continued to drift along” in his faith, and whilst the confirmation service had been “meaningful enough”, it was not as significant to him as it could have been.
The first time he was directly asked if he was a Christian, he says, was in 1964, when he “was just short of 16 and was at a BB camp in Scotland.”
“The leader said, ‘how many boys in this tent are Christians?’ That was a question I just needed to be asked.”
What’s interesting are the circumstances which led to this confidence on the part of Ken to be able to make such a declaration about his belief.
“There were a couple of boys in Methody who were really very bad boys,” he recalls.
“They used to go around together and they were really difficult, they were just quite horrible to students.
“I was reading the Bible one day when one of them came to me and said, ‘you’re not a Christian, you only behave like a Christian, and it’s only because your parents are Christians - and they’re dead and gone and it didn’t do them any good.’
“He had said two things, and one was absolutely false and the other was quite true. The true thing was that I was going through the motions of Christianity, certainly, and I was following the example that was being set.
“The other...about my parents - was absolutely wrong because I knew that for my parents and family, their faith had been everything to them.
“What that did then was put me on a real search, because I said that I had to find out what they had or what my family had that I didn’t have, because I wasn’t going to be caught this way again - I couldn’t answer the guy.”
And over the next few years, the young, inquisitive Ken went on something of a search for answers to some of his more pressing questions about God and the church; by this stage he was attending church with his aunt, and each week he would ask her about the sermon they had heard - the point, he admits himself, where he was actually almost spoiling her own enjoyment of the experience of worship!
But when the BB leader asked that pertinent question in the 1990s, Ken was ready to answer out loud that yes, he was a Christian.
“I thought, ‘if I don’t put my hand up here I’m like Peter, I’m denying Jesus and I really can’t do that.’ Then of course when you do take that stand, the Holy Spirit works and He takes over. That’s what really happened that night so that was quite a turning point, and that was kind of a conversion experience.”
Rather than go straight into ministry upon leaving school, because he came from a farming background, Ken went to Queen’s University Belfast to study agricultural chemistry.
He finally made the decision to pursue a career ministering when he was 21, and tells me that unlike his declaration that he was a committed Christian, “which was very public”, this one was intensely personal, made in the private surroundings of his own bedroom one evening, while his aunt and uncle watched TV downstairs.
Indeed, he can’t even remember the exact date, save for the fact it was during the summer of 1969.
“My mother had taught me about senses of call, and about people being called into different areas of life, so it wasn’t a foreign expression for me, it wasn’t that far off the radar,” he says.
“This particular night the rain had come on very heavily, and I thought to myself, well, there are plenty of days left to do what needs to be doing. I just went into my bedroom and started to read my Bible, and that’s
when the call came to the ministry, just as simply as that.
“I don’t remember what passage of the Bible I was reading. I just felt the Lord saying, ‘I want you in the ministry.’”
By this stage, Ken was halfway through his agricultural degree, and “wasn’t doing as well as I could be.”
He says that a lack of natural prowess in maths meant he struggled with the biology and chemistry aspects of it.
“At that time the academic requirements for ministry were actually quite low, and I knew would have had no trouble getting in,” he adds.
However Ken was concerned that people would believe he had chosen to leave his degree because he wasn’t making the grade and so wanted to “take a softer option.”
He goes on: “So I thought like Gideon, I would put my fleece out to God, and I said, ‘right God, if you want me in the ministry, just help me to get through this course and complete it.’ And I did complete it in 1971.”
Ken says that he would go into the ministry “sooner or later”, and felt that perhaps it would be a shame to have done four years of studying only to walk away and not utilise it in any way.
“So I thought - how could I use it most meaningfully?”
That proved to be through a post overseas - as a science and agriculture teacher at a Methodist Secondary School in Sierra Leone.
“In order to take that I needed a Diploma in Education, or a PGCE as it’s called today, and so I needed to go back to Queen’s for another year.”
Ken says that coming from a science background, he found the arts-based course quite a stimulating one, and in 1972 he headed off to Sierra Leone on a two-year contract.
“I thought I was too much of a home bird and would only last a year, but when I got there it was totally different,” he says.”
But he actually ended up staying at the school for a further two years.
In 1976, he finally returned to Northern Ireland and taught science for a science in Glenlola Collegiate in Bangor. The following year he went to Edgehill Theological College in Belfast, graduating in 1980.
His first posting was at Cregagh Methodist Church, and he was then appointed as an assistant minister to Dublin Central Mission, where he stayed with wife Patricia for eight years. In 1998, the couple moved to Bangor, where he was minister of Carnlea Methodist Church. He remained there for eight years as well.
“I came to Ballinamallard and Trillick in 2006 and I’ve been here for eight years, so I’m almost unique in that every post I’ve been appointed to has been for a full term – our maximum is eight years,” says Ken.
I ask him if he can think of any high points of his long career, and particularly during his term as President Designate?
He says that he has been asked this many times but it is only recently that he can think of a suitable appropriate answer.
“I attended the Church of Ireland Synod 2013 last week,” he says, explaining that both the Methodist and Anglican traditions had been “growing together” over the last 11 years or so, following the signing of a Covenant on September 26, 2002, between the then President of the Methodist Church and Archbishop Robin Eames, promising that, as Ken outlines, they “would grow together, get to understand each other better and... never do separately what they could reasonably do together.”
He adds: “That process has been progressing and of course there have been a few theological stiles to get over, but the one big difficulty that we have had is the recognition of each other’s ministry.
“What happened last weekend was that they have agreed to recognise each other’s ministry,” he says, adding that a vote had been taken, and an overwhelming majority voted in favour of such an approach.
A fitting way indeed, for the Rev Ken Lindsay to end his year at the helm.