I first encountered the Southampton Navigator student ministry in 1999 when I joined a weekly breakfast and Bible study group that met in the home of Gez & Alison Perry. Since then the ministry has been an increasing part of my life. In 2004 we were asked to start a Christianity Explored Group whilst a number of the other couples who were also involved with the ministry moved onto new initiatives or moved away. Hence the current student ministry grew out of that small Christianity Explored group. Simultaneously the Perry’s began a process which would eventually lead to them a move to Strasbourg in 2o06 and we officially took leadership of the student ministry from that time. Why do I share this with you? I want to show how our involvement in this ministry became more than a job; indeed a big part of our lives.
Changing the subject for a moment, the worst week of my life came last September. We had just returned from a great summer in Norway but the transition back to Southampton took its toll on Debbie. The medical professionals who had been supporting her suggested that she spend some time in their Mother & Baby Unit (along with Jacob) and within a very short period of time it became clear that Debbie would not be returning home for some time. At the end of that week I was due to lead a training weekend in Solihull for our student team. The aim was to equip the team for the task of ministering to students over the coming year and in particular to try and help them think practically about the nuts and bolts of helping people. In the days before that weekend it became increasingly evident that I was not going to be able to either lead the weekend or lead the team over the coming term. I also recognised that I would find this less difficult to let go of if I was able to do so on my terms rather than have those decisions taken away from me. So reluctantly, but in hindsight clearly wisely, I decided that I needed to pass on these responsibilities to an interim leader and focus on caring for my family. Without doubt that was the worst week of my life so far because within the space of 3 days I felt as if I had lost both my wife (who spent almost 3 months in the unit away from me and the family) and the job which I had grown to love over the past decade of investment.
The coming months were very difficult on many levels but I recognise that I suffered from something I can most accurately call “ministry withdrawal.” I increasingly felt a huge sense of loss and might even go as far to describe it as a process of ‘grieving’. Of course I still heard quite a bit about what was going on in the ministry and still saw many of the people involved but I felt increasingly distant. The more focused I was on the family the easier I found it.
It was in this period that I began to think and cling to the notion of hope. As I look back my hopes were initially very focused on the ‘temporal’ rather than on God Himself. I hoped (as did many) for Debbie’s recovery and subsequent return home. I also hoped for a return to my job and therefore any challenge to this notion (however small or subtle) felt like a blow to the heart. A scene that summed up my hopes for the future was at the end of the BBC series “Spooks”. In that final season the spotlight is on Harry Pearce, the head of Section D, a fictional counter terrorism division of the British Secret Service, MI5. The season begins with Harry on gardening leave after trading state secrets at the end of the previous series. Yet the series ends with Harry back at his desk reflecting on recent and not-so-recent events his phone rings. He answers with the final line of the series: “Harry Pearce” and so Spooks ended with ‘normal order’ resumed. My hopes were similarly framed around this idea of getting back to my desk and former role.
I think we know that work is very important to us, especially for us men. Most will not have the opportunity to choose to step out of their roles when the storm hits; I am grateful for the opportunity to do so. Yet it is hard for us not to wrap our sense of identity and worth around what we do. Over the past few months I have been talking with our leaders about the question of “what next” and on each occasion the encouragement has been to think about options beyond student ministry. The team we have left in place have done a fantastic job taking up the reigns and the suggestion is that they now need the space and freedom to take the ministry forward. The ethos of the ministry is about people and helping them in such a way that they are also able to help the next generation. We are thrilled to see a number of those we have walked closely with over the past 10 years (and have continued to do so even during this past year) doing just that, both within the ministry context and further afield in other contexts.
Unlike those who have gone before us in this work, e.g. the Leafs (who went to Portugal) and the Perry’s (who went to France) our vision has always been to “send” rather than to move from one thing to another ourselves. The calling we had when got into full-time ministry was for people (in particular students) and for building community which is what we have always done in Southampton, Norway and Latvia where we’ve worked. I especially still feel committed motivated to making a contribution with this group of people.
What the LORD seems to be saying to me however is that ministry can so easily become an idol, something that becomes the focus rather than Him. Whether or not we return to student ministry God wants me to hope in Him and not in things that are temporal. In the words of the well known Disney anthem God wants me to “Let it go”. Through His grace God’ has given me the strength to step back this past year but it now seems like He also wants me to let go of my hopes in this area. No decisions have been made and there are lots of people to consult but what’s clear is that God wants me to give this over to Him.
So is this goodbye to student ministry? Only God knows. Would leaving student ministry ‘free me’ or ‘break me’? Again only God knows. Even if I do return, there will be an inevitable end somewhere down the line. If I don’t return, what is it that God has for me next either within the Navigators, within the wider sphere of ministry or back in the world of secular employment? God knows and in time He will surely show me but in the meantime my challenge is to trust God each day amidst the uncertainty, surrender my hopes and dreams and set my eyes on the Lord.