BIG READ: Presbyterian ministers discuss the challenges of leading a church

Going into ministry is unlike entering other professions where you scour the jobs pages, fill in a multitude of application forms and cross your fingers that you’ll get called for at least one interview.
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In the case of the church, it is God who gets the ball rolling when He calls you to faith.

Two Presbyterian ministers shared their accounts of receiving the Lord’s call and what that has led them to within the church.

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Reverend Graeme Kennedy is minister of Kirkpatrick Memorial Presbyterian Church in east Belfast, having been based in the Bangor area for more than 20 years at First Bangor and then Ballygrainey Presbyterian Church.

Graeme Kennedy at Kirkpatrick Memorial Presbyterian ChurchGraeme Kennedy at Kirkpatrick Memorial Presbyterian Church
Graeme Kennedy at Kirkpatrick Memorial Presbyterian Church

Graeme, who has a Masters in Theology and is a member of the General Assembly’s Council for Public Affairs, said: “My father-in-law was a minister, whenever I was exploring the call to ministry, I remember having a conversation with him about it.

“He always said, ‘if you can be satisfied doing anything else, then do that’. If you have this sense of involved ministry it will not go away until you pursue it.

“It’s not a thing where you say, ‘I’ll try this for a few years and see what else is out there’. It’s definitely something you say, ‘I need to follow this and see where it leads’.

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“The role of the church as a whole in that, both your local congregation you grow up in and the wider church as well in affirming that call is really important.

Jane Nelson at First Omagh Presbyterian ChurchJane Nelson at First Omagh Presbyterian Church
Jane Nelson at First Omagh Presbyterian Church

“You’re doing it because you’ve got that sense of call, there’s no other way to describe it, if you’re going into it for any other reason it probably won’t end well.

“At the end of the day, there’s a real privilege to being in ministry. Part of that privilege is being with people in some of the happiest times in life and some of the most difficult times.

“With that comes the reality that you are having to respond to situations sometimes quite quickly that are difficult and are draining for you personally to deal with.

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“There’s a cost to that. If you don’t count that cost, that’s going to be hard, you have to be prepared for that.”

Professor of Ministry and Director of Institute for Ministry David LeachProfessor of Ministry and Director of Institute for Ministry David Leach
Professor of Ministry and Director of Institute for Ministry David Leach

Reverend Jane Nelson is minister of First Omagh Presbyterian Church.

She left a job with the civil service after she was called into the ministry by God.

She said: “I’ve always been involved in my church, coming to faith as a young teenager, committing my life to the Lord at that stage.

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“At 25 I was elected as an elder at Rosemary (Presbyterian Church in north Belfast), that was in the early 1990s. It was a real honour and privilege to be ordained to that role. That was under the ministry of Dr John Dunlop.

“I’d no idea at that stage that God would then call me on into ministry, it wasn’t until my late 30s that I felt the call into full time Christian work, into the ministry or word and sacrament in particular.”

Jane, who is a member of the General Assembly’s Council for Congregational Life & Witness, said: “It was a challenging time because I didn’t fit the mould. I was older than most applicants and was female, I was secondary school educated, I didn’t go to university first time round.

“I felt very much – could this be right? I spent a few years exploring that call to ministry, through that time God kept affirming that this was the right path for me to take.

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“I had a very happy and relatively successful career within the civil service, so it was a call on my life and I felt I couldn’t ignore it. I was filled with excitement about being used in that way but there was also apprehension.

“I would say to people considering ministry to not rule themselves out because they don’t fit the mould.

God often uses those that the world would reject. King David himself was a young shepherd boy, he had strapping big brothers ahead of him but God chose the weakling of the pack.

”Old or young, male or female, well-educated or not, experienced or not, anyone should respond to that call and test it out.”

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Discussing the challenges of her vocation, Jane said: “The last two years have been challenging during the pandemic, and ministering here in Omagh with the impact the bomb had on the community.

“And of course it’s a challenge to be someone who follows Jesus and seeks to lead a church alongside a kirk session in today’s world which is predominantly becoming more secular.

“A minister’s day 40 years ago would be a lot different to a minister’s day today. And yet there’s still very much a call to draw alongside and pastor and support, as well as share the good news of the gospel in new and innovative ways, and try and connect with people.

“Reconnecting is a big thing now post-Covid, people’s habits have been broken.

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“Our wings have been clipped and it will take a while for us to feel fully able to live life again.

“It’s great to see people coming back to church, and people coming to church that hadn’t come before, making a commitment to faith.

“The joy at the moment is being able to marry people, without all the restrictions, helping to celebrate those joyous times.”

Graeme, who is married to Paula and has two sons, said ministers are not immune to nerves: “The nerves are always there, like anybody else doing anything in public, that’s a good thing.

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“Nerves can become a paralysing thing if you let them obviously, but in general it’s a good thing.

“I think the areas you get more nervous are when you’re dealing with a sensitive issue or you’re aware that people are going through a situation and this particular passage of scripture deals directly with that.”

He said the bigger Christian picture was more important than the “numbers game” at individual churches: “We do want to see people coming to faith in Christ, whether they join this church or go somewhere else what we really want to see is people coming to faith in Christ, that’s the really important thing.”

Graeme believes that ministers should be seen as equals with their congregation.

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He said: “Fundamentally ministers are people, ministers are sinners, we will get things wrong and we have to be honest enough to admit when we get things wrong.

“We shouldn’t be encouraging other people to put us on pedestals or putting ourselves on pedestals.

“We’re essentially, as ministers, walking through Christian life along with the rest of our congregation.”

Asked what he feels are the qualities that make for a good minister, he said: “I think if, as a minister, you demonstrate a love for the people you’ve been called to serve and a love for God then that really should mark who you are, and that’s hopefully what people should see in you.

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“People need to know that you’re there when they need you to be there.

“You do have to be prepared for when a phone call comes late at night and there’s an urgent need.”

Jane answered the same question, saying: “First of all what’s required is someone who is committed to Christ and seeking to follow Him.

“There needs to be a sense of leadership skills.

“It is a calling, it is a vocation, like a lot of things it takes commitment, you are on call 24/7.

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“It’s challenging, emotionally, when you are pastoring a congregation, drawing alongside people in a whole variety of difficult situations.

“The other thing about ministering here in the west is you do have big distance to travel – the two hospitals are in Enniskillen and Derry.”

Such are the round-the-clock demands on a minister that Jane and Graeme say it is important to have something to help them disconnect.

Jane said: “I love getting out and about, walking and nature. There’s a real need to have downtime and refreshment. During the lockdown people said to me, ‘you’ve discovered places in Omagh we never knew existed’.”

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Graeme said: “Like most ministers I like reading – it goes with the territory. In my forties I took up running, I do park run fairly regularly.”

In terms of encouraging others to explore God’s call, Jane said: “People are called at different stages in life. It’s no longer the traditional route of when you turn 18 you do theology and become a young minster at 27. It’s a much more diverse group that are called and I think it’s to the benefit of the wider church.”

Graeme added: “We’re always encouraging people to explore where God might be calling them – all kinds of different sorts of ministry, not just ordained ministry but people who work with other Christian organisations, mission organisations.”

After nearly 15 years serving in local congregations in PCI, David Leach was appointed Professor of Ministry and Director for the Institute of Ministry.

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In the role he has particular responsibilities in the training of our ministry students, alongside those serving as Assistant ministers and in the early years, post–Ordination.

David grew up in east Belfast and went on to become a primary school teacher.

He said: “During my formative years I was blessed by the work and witness of a boys–only bible class in Knock and greatly influenced by the commitment of the leaders and the time they took in what, we would call today, small–group discipleship.

“There came a point when I had to say I’m a going to give myself to a teaching career which was beginning to take off or was I going to go down the route into ministry.

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“Having grown up in a Christian home, where both of my parents had served overseas as missionaries, I resisted the call to ministry until my early 30s and following studies in the Edinburgh Theological Seminary and Union Theological College, Belfast, I was called to be the Associate Minister of Hamilton Road, Bangor where I served on a growing staff for nearly nine years.”

David moved to Magherafelt in 2015 with his wife Julie and three children to become the minister of Union Road and Lecumpher.

He said: “These were six, incredibly happy, years, when God taught me much about leading congregations through times of change and challenge, whilst watching Him work in the lives of members of the congregation.

“And so, I come to my role with a love for Christ’s church and a deep desire that our students are adequately–equipped and prepared to grapple with God’s Word, learning how to apply it pastorally and effectively to those in our congregations, in the context of ever–changing culture.”

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David said the search for people who could go into ministry with the Presbyterian Church is an ongoing one and not a response to a particular shortage.

David Leach: “Saturday’s Ministry Taster Day is about putting it out there, getting ministers and other leaders in congregations to be looking out for people, and saying – have you ever thought about ministry?

“If you ask most students in the college it was someone who said to them – would you ever think about? That’s where I see a bit of my role, getting people to explore that.”

He said: “We’re looking for people who have what I call, the two Cs.

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“People who have a certain degree of competence, they’re either good with people, or good in front of a crowd, or good at drawing alongside others.

“The other side it is the spiritual aspect - people of good Christian character. They’re not those who preach at people but live it out.”

Union Theological College will hold a Ministry Taster Day tomorrow to help men and women explore the career path of becoming ordained ministers in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Graeme said: “One of the keys things at events like Saturday is recognising individuals who you think might be the sort of people God’s calling.”

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Currently PCI has over 500 congregations, served by just over 300 ministers.

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