It’s an anniversary; 40 years since I was ordained to the ministry. Prayed for under the shadow of Aidan’s statue on Lindisfarne before going on to the formal ordination service at Castlegate Baptist Church in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Later that summer I was inducted as the Minister of the newly formed Portrack Baptist Church in Stockton-on-Tees.
I still find it quite ironic that somebody from an unchurched background ended up as a church minister. I struggled in the early days with some aspects of church life and if anything, the struggles have intensified through the years but it has been a remarkable privilege and joy to have sensed a call from God and to have given expression to that calling as a minister of the gospel, the Good News of the Life, Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s been a journey of blessings and buffetings; times of enormous joy, pleasure and satisfaction, challenges overcome, opportunities taken, and lives touched and transformed in both ordinary and extraordinary ways. There were also times of great difficulty, painful periods of pressure and failure and worse, the experiences of being misunderstood, maligned and misrepresented. There have been many seasons of hope as well as some permeated with fear; illuminating periods and the contrasting episodes of struggle.
Reflecting on the factors in the formation and the outworking of my ministry, I am thankful to God for Shirley who has been and is an amazingly supportive wife, and to have had an understanding and great family. I am also profoundly grateful for a whole host of people, places and experiences, that include:
Some brilliant lifelong friends, colleagues and Companions of the Northumbria Community. I am deeply appreciative of Janet Elizabeth my spiritual director, soul friends Rob and Gayle-Anne, the godly example of a former ‘abbot’ and close friend Trevor and the many wise mentors and inspirational people through the long haul of many years of ministry.
Going to Lebanon Missionary Bible College in Berwick-upon-Tweed, which was brilliant for someone who was fairly new to the faith. Although not the greatest academic institution in the world, it was there I learnt from the staff and some students what it meant to love God and allow that love to spill over into mission. This was expressed in carrying the compassion of God for his world and sharing the good news of the Christian faith, encouraging believers and opening the pathways and sharing life with all for whom an awareness of God and his love seemed closed or distant. Etched deep into my soul are the memories of Doc Rigby, our college Principal, who was so moved with compassion that when he spoke about the ‘least, the lost on the lonely’ tears would trickle down his cheeks, not for effect but flowing from a heart that cared deeply.
For the opportunity to do some postgraduate studies at Cardiff University when I was introduced to philosophy, sociology and psychology, alongside familiar theological studies. This laid a foundation for me to later do my Masters in Applied Theology at Newcastle University.
The gift, challenge and opportunity of what would now be thought of as pioneering with some amazing people in the urban, council estate culture of Portrack in Teesside in the 1980s. From small beginnings, statistically, we were the fastest growing Baptist Church within the denomination, seeing an increase from 18 members to 96 in 7 years, baptising over 50 people, sending 10 people into various forms of church ministry. We also initiated engaging with the local community in a job creation scheme, weaving the rich threads of social justice, charismatic renewal and mission into a Kingdom tapestry that created something beautiful out of brokenness. We were (and the church remains) a remarkably innovative and creative bunch, in a permission giving, risk-taking, down-to-earth and very adventurous community of people.
It was whilst there that my interest in politics became more focussed. Seeing unemployment rise from 18% to 52% in our ward over four years and witnessing the ravaging of Government economic policy, damaging good people, hard-working people, where many skilled and semi-skilled workers were discarded to the dole queue, resulting in dire consequences for peoples wellbeing. My belief was that to fail to engage with the institutions and political structures would have been failing as a minister of the gospel.
I had always felt slightly confined by a belief, still prevalent in many church quarters, of the expectancy that the pastor / teacher model of ministry would be the one adopted, whereas Portrack allowed my apostolic calling and prophetic edge to flourish and grow. A wider ministry, the forming with friends within and beyond Portrack of Northumbria Ministriesdeveloped. The wider ministry led to receiving a call to come alongside and succeed Frank Cooke at Andover in Hampshire, a church with a vision for planting other congregations from the town all the way down the Test Valley to Romsey. A large healthy, growing church, it was a natural step for somebody who was seen to be ‘successful’ in ministry. However, in considering my response to the church’s invitation, a journey up to my parents’ house in Northumberland, caused me to pull over by the side of the A1, shedding tears as I looked out over Bamburgh, Lindisfarne and the Northumbrian coast and over to the Cheviot hills and the realisation that not only was this the place of my calling to the ministry, it was to be at the heart of that calling to Northumbria.
In trying to work out what that calling would entail, the developing of a wider ministry continued but with a Northumbrian emphasis and an invitation to join the ministry team at Enon Baptist Church in Sunderland. One of the larger charismatic, evangelical churches in the north-east, its growth was principally from attracting people from other churches perceived to be less attractive.
The church invited me to help in their engagement with mission. I had hoped that this would have sat alongside my growing commitment and emerging vision for Northumbria. Sadly, things didn’t work out as I had envisaged and within 18 months, I became the Senior Pastor and found myself running the church, feeling the pressure, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, of trying to keep the customer satisfied. I also needed the space to ask the questions that accompanied my disillusionment with the power and control mechanisms, the narrow confines as I experienced them of a dominant combination of reformed and charismatic spirituality. This bordered on fundamentalism and certainly had traces of narrow, confined judgementalism which I found difficult to live with. I was respected as a Bible teacher and caring pastor but the apostolic gifts of creativity and innovation were difficult to exercise. I was good at what I did, and I could do the ‘stuff’ of ministry, but I had lost the heart of what faith is all about; relationship with God, self and others.
The discovery of monastic spirituality with its contemplative heart, the rediscovery of the Celtic Saints and the rekindling of friendships led to the merging of two groupings: Northumbria Ministries and the Nether Springs Trust, which formed the Northumbria Community. This was then and remains to this day, my place of vocation and up until recently has been the primary vehicle through which my ministry has been exercised. Embracing a Rule of life, of Availability and Vulnerability, has provided the foundation and framework for my life and faith, for my calling and ministry. I have never seen it as incompatible with the promises I made before God and the congregation assembled at my ordination service. For me there is no incompatibility between being part of a new monastic Community and being a nonconformist minister. The three questions that are at the heart of the Northumbria Community, our ‘raison d’etre’; Who is it that you’re seek? How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? and How then shall we live? remain as true for me as an ordained Baptist minister as they do as a Companion of the Northumbria Community.
Pioneering with the Community in those exciting, exhilarating days, when new ground was being broken were scary and thrilling at the same time. Many mistakes were made, but the joys of the journey far outweighed costly pains, so even with reserves exhausted and bank balances impoverished and our struggles compounded, we nevertheless, by the grace of God, saw something birthed that has gone on to bring life to hundreds and thousands of people now across the world.
My role and responsibilities within the Community have evolved over the years and I am no longer one of its leaders, having handed the baton over to three gifted successors, on this day last year at Old Bewick in Northumberland, a sacred, ‘thin’ out of the way place that holds so many special memories for us as a Community. For many years, people described me as the public face of the Community. This was because of my wandering for the love of Christ, speaking and leading teams throughout the UK and across Europe, networking and connecting and encouraging people beyond our Mother House to embrace and live out the Rule of life ‘in every place where they are.’
Alongside this apostolic, ambassadorial role, linking people and forging partnerships with the Community, my ministry saw me establishing the Renovare Board, with its founder and my good friend Richard Foster. I spearheaded a partnership with Bible Society and was very involved with another friend, Neil Crosbie, and people like Martin Robinson and Colin Greene, in seeing the Society moving from a Bible distribution agency to that of a missional organisation radically engaging within the public domains of the arts, politics, education and the workplace. Out of that partnership emerged the Telling Place, a storytelling initiative that was a remarkable creative way of engaging and sharing the Bible in schools, festivals, theatres, churches and communities, while at the same time bringing our Northumbria Community ethos to the project.
The unexpected invitation to stand for the Presidency of the Baptist Union of Great Britain was met with incredulity upon discovering that I had been elected! One year officially as President but in total three years, combining my role within the leadership in the Community with the apostolic / ambassadorial role of the Presidency. Seeing how the impact of the Community had touched the lives of so many people within and beyond the Baptist denomination was humbling and a privilege to see.
I loved the opportunity that the Presidency gave me of travelling through Europe and being involved in hosting the Baptist World Alliance Centenary Congress in Birmingham. Meeting and ministering among such diverse groups, preaching and teaching and working with BAME ministers and their churches is something that I have taken great pleasure in doing.
The partnership with the Community that we were able to forge with the International Baptist Theological seminary in Prague was delightful for both parties and deeply enriching for me. The partnership helped me personally to see the world from a European perspective and my annual lecture trips and a six week study break before the Seminary moved to Amsterdam, forged friendships with people across the continent. Many of these new friends, like me, have become disillusioned with events and happenings here in Britain and are devastated by Brexit and its implications for the United Kingdom and the European Union as a whole.
These European journeys enabled me to share something of the life of the Community with individuals and groups in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Ukraine, Croatia, Uzbekistan, Estonia, Russia, Kurdistan and Lithuania.
My connections with the Baptist Union have continued throughout my many years in ministry. Over these years I have received many invitations from churches, encouragement from others to teach at one of our Colleges or become a Regional Minister or apply for one of the various departments. I was able to turn them all down, even though some of them were appealing because I knew they would have diverted me from my calling and leadership of the Northumbria Community, where my spiritual home and true vocation lies.
Having latterly worked for the denomination part time as a coordinator, I’ve come to realise that I can best serve the Baptist movement from its margins, speaking and ministering as I do into the life of individuals, churches and missional communities, associations, colleges, council and the national core group.
I’m hugely encouraged that as a denomination we have slowly come to recognise that there are ministries beyond that of a pastor / teacher that need to be encouraged and resourced. It is not the only model of ministry but part of the fivefold ministry as outlined in Ephesians 4 which is at last finding some mileage within our Baptist movement. In my opinion we have still a considerable way to go in renouncing and repenting of some of the attitudes that have discriminated against people, notably on the grounds of colour and gender. I’ve encountered people who are bigots, bullies, manipulative and abusive in their attitudes and behaviour; controlling people, lacking in accountability and humility. I believe it is a weakness of our system that we don’t deal sufficiently with such behaviour. Perhaps the recent debates and fallouts may precipitate some positive changes that truly contribute to our desire as a Baptist movement to create healthy churches.
I’m encouraged that we are more and more seeing the need to train and develop leaders, including missional leaders. It is right to acknowledge that we still have a long way to go, but we are beginning to recognise, for example, that pioneers are a gift from God, and have something to contribute by way of challenge, creativity, and encouragement, bringing much needed change and transformation to a movement ‘for such a time as this.’
Building on the above, I long to see a greater emphasis on missional leadership within our local churches, associations and in our colleges. Some of the most dynamic and fruitful people that I have met in ministry have been those that have trained outside of our denominations colleges, equipped in many ways more suitably for the changing post-Christendom context in which we find ourselves.
It’s been a joy to see organisations like Rural Ministries develop and play an increasingly significant role in the recognition and resourcing of significant ministries within rural contexts.
I’ve always enjoyed the company of people younger than myself. They help me to keep in touch with the world that they understand far better than I do. They keep me fresh and alert to the changes that we are undergoing as a society and as a church. Having pioneered the opportunity for people to train for Baptist ministry at Cranmer Hall, Durham in partnership with Northern Baptist College, I now have the joy of mentoring 17 pioneers and missional leaders, all of whom, (actually most of them) are considerably younger than me.
T.J. Russell-Jones, my amazing mentor when I was a student pastor at Bedwas in Wales, who was the preacher at my ordination service took his text from 1Timothy 3:16, Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young but set the believers an example in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity. I have endeavoured, not always with great success, but nevertheless with genuine aspiration, to embrace the challenge and encouragement of those words. It’s my prayer and hope to continue to impart to those who I am now privileged to mentor, even though I am no longer a young man myself.
In all these contexts I see the traces of our Northumbrian spirituality weaving its giftedness and life to individuals and the places where God has called them to be.
So in conclusion, as I reflect upon the past 40 years since that hot Saturday in the summer of 1980, I am indebted to God for his grace and goodness and the opportunity that people have afforded me to follow that calling.
For all those who I may have unintentionally hurt and offended, caused difficulties or any distress, I am truly sorry. For all those who have intentionally or unwittingly wounded or sought to undermine or destroy my ministry, I forgive you. Where there has been any malediction, in any quarters, I pray that God in his transforming grace will bring about benediction.
As I journey on into a fairly uncertain future, I echo the words of the hymn that was sung on the occasion of my baptism as a believer, back in Harrogate Baptist Church in 1975;
How good is the God we adore!
Our faithful, unchangeable friend:
his love is as great as his pow’r
and knows neither measure nor end.
For Christ is the first and the last;
his Spirit will guide us safe home;
we’ll praise him for all that is past
and trust him for all that’s to come.
I am currently furloughed by the Northumbria Community since lockdown began and my other part-time consultancy work includes a few days each month working for the Baptist Union as a Pioneer Ambassador. I also have some mentoring, advising, lecturing, spiritual direction, coaching and writing, all of which is now exercised within a very changing environment in a changing emerging new world era.
I’m delighted to be partnered by six churches throughout our denomination, north and south of the country, with whom I do some work and who in return support me. This enables me to offer mentoring to younger leaders and pioneers who cannot offer any remuneration for my working with them.
Coming full circle, one of those churches is Portrack, where Shirley and I have continued to keep our connections and in a limited way, our involvement. It is a church we love dearly and remain committed to. What I, with others, were privileged to serve, develop and shape in forming its DNA of welcoming hospitality, of being adventurously missional, and creatively imaginative, expressing an incarnational, generous community, is still evident. The child has grown up and flourished!
As I enter my 41st year of ordained ministry, I am still positive about ministry and whilst letting go and laying down a number of things in this stage of my life and ministry, I remain energised at those things that are becoming more clearly focused and are emerging as priorities for the coming years, not least an emphasis on writing.
On the same occasion as my baptism, we were presented with a verse of scripture, one that has become a life text for me throughout all the years of my ministry; Proverbs 3:5,6 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths straight.”
Roy Searle, Northumbria Community, Baptist Union Pioneer Ambassador and Free Church Tutor, Cranmer Hall, Durham, Associate Tutor, Spurgeons College, London.