Thirty-four-year-old Stuart Hawthorne is the kind of person who believes in doing something wholeheartedly, or not at all.
And when the Carrickfergus father-of-three (with another one on the way) decided to dedicate his life to Christ, he decided he “couldn’t not do what God was calling me to do.”
The trainee Presbyterian minister - he is about to enter his second year at Union Theological College, Belfast - surrendered his job as a teacher to train as a youth pastor.
“The only way I can describe what was happening in my life was that I couldn’t not do what God was calling me to do,” says Stuart, who is currently spending the summer working at an inner city church in Philadelphia.
“I felt absolutely compelled to leave my teaching post for a full time ministry post, even if it was against human rationale - less pay and much less holidays! But God had placed a call upon my life to preach his Word and pastor young people.”
Stuart is married to Caroline - the couple met when they were teenagers - and father to their three children: Caleb, six, Joel, 4, and Eli, 19 months. Life for the Hawthorne family is set to get even busier in December, as it will bring the arrival of the couple’s fourth child - whom Stuart says everyone believes is going to be a girl!
Stuart himself devoted his life to following Jesus during the early stages of his childhood.
“My mum and dad say that I professed faith in Jesus at a young age which I’m sure was true,” he says.
“I had the privilege - and I really mean that it was a privilege - to grow up with Christian parents. They have been and continue to be the best Christ-like role models for us and we are so thankful for them. I have always attended Woodlands Presbyterian Church (in Carrickfergus) and still do, serving as an Elder - until next summer - when I will begin my student assistantship. It will be difficult for me to leave Woodlands - it is a special church with very special people, a place where the Gospel has been faithfully preached and we as a family have been able to grow as followers of Jesus.”
However Stuart says that whilst he was young when he became a Christian, as he entered his teenage years, “there was very little evidence in my life of someone who was living for Jesus.”
He continues: “By the time I was 16 or 17, any faith I had was a mere flicker. At age 18 I met my now wife, Caroline. I believe that God brought her into my life. We fell in love straight away. One night we were both at a youth group meeting in one of our youth leaders’ homes. The speaker that night brought a challenge that impacted us both very deeply. We seemed to be at similar points in our lives and we knew that we needed to respond to what God had said to us that night. The way I think about it now is this - up to that point I acknowledged that Jesus was the Saviour of the world but I was not living with Him as Lord of my life.
“That night I surrendered to Him and I put Him in the place that He alone must occupy - on the throne of my heart. I began to live my life from that night onwards with Jesus as both Saviour and Lord. He alone was the one to whom I would give glory. This does not mean there have not been highs and lows since then but at that time in my life everything changed.”
And Stuart is honest enough to admit that he didn’t perhaps handles these changes in the best way.
He says: “I cut contacts with some people that I really wish I hadn’t. Some of it was definitely for my own good (for lots of reasons) but at the time I think I needed space to discover who I was in Christ. My priorities changed, my desires changed. Things that once brought me so much pleasure no longer did. Everything became less than the pursuit of knowing Christ in my life. I began to realise more and more that God was holier than I ever thought, that I was more sinful than I ever realised and yet, in Christ, I was more loved than I could ever have imagined. The grace of God became alive and active in my heart. The Gospel began to really take effect in my life. I also had a growing sense of mission within my life - a desire to join God in what he was already doing in the world.”
He continues: “I was a secondary school teacher for almost six years prior to being a youth pastor and I loved it. For me much of my teaching career was ministry - if you are a Christian teacher reading this, don’t ever doubt the impact you can have.
“Caroline and I had been involved in youth ministry leadership since we were 19/20 and over the years I was discovering how God had gifted me. He had placed a call upon my life to preach His Word and pastor young people.
“When the post at Woodlands came up it really was a no-brainer and I had the most amazing time as youth pastor there. That sense of call burned deep within me and still does to this day. After much prayer and prayerful conversations with key people in our lives, we made the decision that I would apply for ministry within PCI. There were many things that could have deterred me from this but again, my experience has been one of being compelled by the spirit of God into the position I’m now in.
“I really believe that God has work for us to do for His Kingdom, worked out through the channel that is PCI. Being a servant of King Jesus in his Kingdom building mission here in Ireland is what really excites me. You don’t have to be going into full time ministry to experience that.”
Away from his church work, Stuart has experienced the help and faithfulness of God in his personal and family life.
“The births of our three boys have all been moments where I have had to rely on God,” he says.
“In the delivery suite there is nothing you can do to make everything work out OK. We have the most amazing midwife but it’s God who is the author of life. For me, those moments have been the times when I’ve felt least in control, having to rely on God. Furthermore, when Joel was only six weeks old he was seriously ill and was in hospital for a short while. Again, that was a real test of faith. In those moments the truth remains that God is same, He hasn’t somehow changed or left our lives. I pray that in the darkest of days (which we all have to face) our experience as a family will be one of God’s absolute faithfulness.
“The ‘big moves’ that both Caroline and I have made in terms of jobs, ministry decisions etc. have also been testing times because of some of the uncertainty and doubt that creeps in. I would say this though - there is nothing greater than following the call of God upon your life. God is on mission in this world and He has work for us to do here. We’ve got to be listening for His voice with a willingness to be obedient when He calls us to change. For us, we have found such contentment and excitement when we have followed His call and we are excited about what God has in store for the future.”