Graham Fairbairn shares his story.
For many Christians, the desire to investigate full-time gospel service is probably most strongly felt in their teens, twenties and early thirties. This is a time in life when anything seems possible and a more settled period of life with weighty family, work and financial responsibilities has not arrived yet. My question is: Does God stop guiding people into full-time gospel ministry when they reach the age of thirty five?
Does God stop guiding people into full-time gospel ministry when they reach the age of thirty five?
My story: “God is not finished with you yet”
It was through a sermon in a country church in Northern Ireland that I was first stirred to pursue full-time Christian service. I was twenty and the prospect of becoming a gospel minister seemed daunting as I had missed out on attaining any educational qualifications due to dyslexia (50 years ago the problem was not understood and no help given).
I was working in industry and had been selected for management training. As time passed, the prospect of being able to enter ordained Christian ministry seemed less likely and I began to wonder if my sense of call had simply been the enthusiasm of a young Christian. However, there continued to be that niggle in my heart. My wife Liz and I were actively involved in our church in leading a teenage Bible class and leadership in Boys Brigade. We were also involved with Tearfund and I became a voluntary representative speaking in churches, groups and schools.
In 1979, Tearfund decided to appoint their first full-time coordinator for Ireland and I was encouraged to apply. I was appointed to the role and had a wonderful time speaking all over Ireland, seeing God at work in his people and through their amazing generosity. Two and a half years later I was asked to join the organisation’s Leadership Team in London and for the next twenty seven years I had various leadership roles in Tearfund with the last ten as Deputy CEO. I visited thirty developing countries and was always thrilled to see God’s Church active in compassionate response and gospel outreach. I was preaching regularly and often found myself pastoring staff, overseas partners and, on occasion, ministers in the churches I visited. Through these years I came to realise how lonely and at times discouraging life could be for some ministers.
I felt very thankful during this time with Tearfund – thankful to be fulfilled in my work and thankful that I was actually being involved in a lot of gospel ministry. However as I visited churches across the UK and Ireland to preach there was a continuing niggle to be involved in more full-time pulpit and pastoral work. A partial response to that was to train as a ‘Reader’ (lay preacher in the Church of England). Liz and I also started to think about retirement, or at least what we might do in that period of our lives. Given our experience of seeing the challenges some ministers face we felt it would be good to retire to a rural area and help in a church there.
When we started to think seriously about this it was suggested that I could be of more use in a setting like this if I was ordained. By this time I was 58 and felt that I was too old, but was assured I could train as a self-supporting minister. Three years part-time training led to a part time curacy (assistant minister) in a local church which included further ongoing training.
But how were we to find a church? We attended a conference in London and Liz prayed that we would meet someone there who would lead us to God’s choice for us. By lunch time on the first day we were talking to a young minister, who was tasked with serving three diverse rural churches, who really needed help and jumped at the possibility of having an older man to work alongside him as a co-worker. We moved home from southwest London to rural Essex and had the great privilege of seeing the Lord at work in people’s lives there. For several years there, my wife and I threw ourselves into the church community. I was involved in preaching, pastoral visits, funerals, one-to-one discipling and counselling but most of all I was simply seeking to be an encouragement to the minister.
As I look back over my life so far I can see the kindness of our God who does ‘more than ask or imagine’ (Eph. 3:20). It hasn’t all been straightforward, but the Lord has proved that he wasn’t finished with me at 35 and that, at every stage of our lives, he uses us in the present and equips us for the future. God got me into pulpit and pastoral ministry in my 60s and on the way gave me an insight into the rich diversity of his church locally, nationally and internationally.
The Lord has proved that he wasn’t finished with me at 35 and that, at every stage of our lives, he uses us in the present and equips us for the future.
A call to gospel ministry at 50 plus
If you’re 58, it’s not too late. God is raising up gospel workers for his harvest field among both young and old. Here are some encouragements, suggestions and observations as you think about the opportunities for gospel ministry in later years:
Greater financial freedom. For many in the fifty plus age range, gospel ministry through self-financed service can be a practical possibility. Early retirement or even not-so-early retirement can provide a window in our lives for active engagement in wider Christian ministry without requiring a salary (certainly not of the size we needed in our 30s or 40s).
Greater experience. A lifetime of experience in the world of non-church work can develop strong communication, leadership, administrative or interpersonal skills. Where this is combined with personal Christian maturity and a heart for the gospel it can be very useful to the church. I see now that the management training I had as a young man and the experience of supporting a CEO as his deputy for many years was a great preparation for later ministry in Essex.
Greater freedom to move. Often in our 50s and 60s we have greater possibilities of moving house than those in their 30s and 40s. We can move to where the gospel need is greatest. It will be good to think through the practical questions. Do you buy or rent? If you have a home to sell, this may finance your home in the new area, but do remember this may or may not be the last move in your life. Rather than buying, you may want to rent your own property (if you have one) and find rented accommodation in the area where you are going to minister. Also, you may find that in rural and urban priority areas, the housing stock for rent and/or purchase may be more limited. And remember that if you are married then the decision to move needs to be from both of you – this is going to be a major change for you both.
Supporting a younger gospel minister. One particular form of ministry is to support a minister who is working hard in a situation. We often hear of young pastors arriving in their first church in rural or urban priority areas and feeling overwhelmed by the situation in which they find themselves. They may have several churches to look after and have congregations with limited maturity or resources. They would love to be devoting themselves to the work of preaching the gospel but at times it can seem a struggle just to keep things together from one Sunday to the next. They lack friends, encouragers and comrades. This is where an older supportive co-worker can make a difference, someone who is prepared to labour alongside the pastor, to support and encourage, share the burden and work away in the background to free him up. For some the opportunity may be found reasonably locally – e.g. someone based in a large lively church who would be prepared to travel on a regular basis to help a young minister close to their home – but for others there will be the need to move home and settle in a new area to be part of a church or group of churches.
Getting training. To be useful in some settings, it may also be necessary to think early about training and plan ahead. For example: to do a ministry apprenticeship, followed by the Cornhill Training Course, then to go through selection for ordination and full or part-time theological training could easily take 10 years, and may need to start before retirement.
In offering yourself for gospel ministry in later years it is vital to have no illusions of grandeur. You are a servant.
Keeping humble. Finally, in offering yourself for gospel ministry in later years it is vital to have no illusions of grandeur. You are a servant. It’s especially important if you are going to be the co-worker of a gospel minister that you see yourself as the junior partner! The minister, although he may be younger and does not have the life, work and even church experiences which you have accumulated over many years, is the leader of the church and your job is to assist, support and encourage him. Using all your gifting to see his ministry flourish and a church or group of churches become more gospel-focused is extremely rewarding.