Availability and vulnerability: Ian Stackhouse’s advice for pastors in 2022

Every pastor is only too aware of the limited resources of time, people and finance compared to a world of unlimited possibilities and challenges their church faces. So how do you choose what to focus on? Why is hospitality such as important part of church life? And how can we help church members process difficult experiences?

Ian Stackhouse, senior pastor of Guildford Baptist Church, sat down with OMF’s Reuben Grace to discuss these questions and more. This was part of a longer interview about how the church has welcomed around 30 families from Hong Kong in the last year, which you can read here.

An inspirational metaphor for ministry
Ian recalls studying Luke’s Gospel as a church one year. As Ian says, hospitality is a major theme of the gospel, ‘from beginning to end’. Jesus is always eating with people. Ian reflects that evangelistic courses such as Alpha and Christianity Explored are popular because they help uncover ‘the ancient art of eating together, talking together, sharing our lives together.’

You might say, ‘you are who you eat with,’ Ian smiles. ‘For me, it’s been a really powerful inspirational metaphor for ministry … it’s not just a means to an end, [hospitality and eating together] is actually an end in itself’.

Learning to receive
Ian says it’s vital to continually learn from one another as Christians. And especially for British Christians to be willing to be taught by followers of Jesus coming from other lands. He reflects on how the arrival of Christians from Hong Kong is helping his church learn to be bolder in evangelism – the Hong Kong Christians ‘don’t even think about it. They just do it’ – and in their passion for prayer.

Getting to know new arrivals as individuals is essential. Guilford Baptist’s greatest aim is to help Hong Kong families to integrate into church life. They have names rather than being a ‘block of people’. They are getting to know other families across the church. Ian points us to ‘those lovely interactions’ Jesus has in John’s Gospel where he seemed to see through ‘categories and saw actual individuals’. Such as the woman at the well in John 4, or Nicodemus a chapter earlier.

So Ian tells me the ‘key is to work really hard at relationships, not programmes or activities’. It’s these relationships that truly matter. They last far beyond whatever course your church may run. As Ian observes: ‘You can put on these things, but if you’re not actually building relationships, then they just don’t mean a great deal.’

Taking the next step
Ian explains the church is considering how to form deeper relationships across the congregation. So that everyone can feel part of the community, able to share experiences and hardships openly and honestly. That means creating space for sharing stories. For rejoicing with those who rejoice. For mourning with those who mourn.

Elizabeth, another member of the staff team, has been creating opportunities for this to happen in small groups. This space to share is particularly significant for new arrivals from Hong Kong, but members from across the church have benefited too. ‘For our wider community’, Ian says the church have been asking, ‘what do you do when you feel a sense of injustice?’ Or when you need to grieve the losses of the pandemic? Where do we take these things? At the OMF (UK) National Conference in March 2022, Filipino theologian Rico Villanueva took us through the book of Lamentations, exploring its radical honesty, and showing how we can take all our experiences to the Lord. You can watch his talks on the theme of lament – or pick up his Langham commentary on Lamentations.

Available and vulnerable
I close our interview by asking Ian what advice he has for other pastors in this season, welcoming new arrivals and coming out of the pandemic. He points me to his’ watchword for ministry’ taken from the Northumbria Community’s Rule of Life: to be available and vulnerable.

The Northumbria Community highlight Christians’ calling to be available, first to God and then others:
‘Firstly to be available to God … then to be available to others in a call to exercise hospitality, recognising that in welcoming others we honour and welcome the Christ Himself.’

Ian reflects on how the COVID-19 pandemic helped their church become more available and adaptable to changing circumstances and the congregation’s needs. Openness to the new things God is doing is an essential ingredient in church life in this new period. In the last couple of years, we have seen new arrivals in the UK, not just from Hong Kong, but also from Afghanistan and Ukraine. This is not the end. There will continue to be new people from new places coming to our churches. How will churches continue to adapt and respond, extending a lasting welcome?

Intentional and deliberate vulnerability – an openness to being taught by others, prioritising relationships, and living as a church without walls is the other mark of the Northumbria Community.

As Ian mentioned in our main interview, being willing to ask ‘what can we learn from our new members from Hong Kong?’ is an important question.

Ian also reflects that his large church of around 500 members has ‘an embarrassment of riches’. In conversations with other pastors, he is very aware of his privileged position. He highlights the importance of pastors knowing what God is calling their church. ‘You can’t do everything .. find out what you’re about and get on with it.’ Getting involved in the UKHK initiative fitted with this sense of calling for Ian: ‘To use a big word … it’s congruent with a lot of the stuff that we’ve been doing over the years.’

‘We’re all called to be hospitable, and we’re called to be in mission. But that looks different in different places, doesn’t it?’, Ian says. Part of that is working together with other churches. Earlier on the day Ian and I chatted in April, church leaders in Guilford met to discuss how to collaborate on their response to the situation in Ukraine. How we work together better as churches is one of the ‘big questions we need to explore’ more, Ian says. ‘So we’re not all just doing our little thing’, but can be part of what God is doing.

‘As churches we’re not closed off … [you can] be open to the opportunities that God sends your way. And then just pray like mad!’, Ian advises.

May we all be available to God and those he brings to our churches, ready to listen and learn together.

Next steps