We’ve heard this story before: A small church calls an inexperienced young man to serve as their pastor. The congregation patiently encourages him, bears with his immaturity, nurtures his gifts, sacrifices for his seminary education, and over time the young man grows into a capable minister. But one day, the church learns that the pastor has been called to a larger church for a bigger salary and greater influence. Before long, the small church is back to square one and the future is uncertain.
This is a story that has been told many times, in our day and throughout church history. As success-driven Westerners, it’s easy to admire pastors who leave small churches for wider spheres of influence. But is this the only model for a successful ministry? Why don’t we hear more stories of pastors who have chosen to remain in the small church for decades? For pastors who are contemplating a move, are there any examples of ones who stayed?
Let me introduce you to the story of John Fawcett.
CONVERSION AND CALL TO MINISTRY
Fawcett was born in 1740 near Bradford, Yorkshire, England. As a young man, he began reading books like Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted and grew in his concern over his own spiritual condition. Fawcett attended the Church in his town but never encountered a clear proclamation of the message of the gospel. But in 1756, he attended a revival meeting in Bradford where he heard George Whitefield preach on John 3:14. He would write many years later, “As long as life remains, I shall remember both the text and the sermon.” On that day, “the glimpses he had before enjoyed suddenly became clearer, and gospel light beamed upon his soul with resplendent rays.” (16) Like many others who were converted under Whitefield’s ministry, Fawcett would leave the Church of England and eventually become a Baptist.
Under the encouragement of the Baptist church in Bradford, Fawcett tried his hand at preaching. In those early days, he was often discouraged by his own fear and inexperience. Yet having preached a few times and demonstrated some gifting, the church approved him as a preacher. Soon a small congregation in Wainsgate invited Fawcett to preach in their village chapel. He records in his diary on December 1763, “When I had engaged six or seven times in public, the church agreed to pass their approbation on me; and an invitation having been sent from the church at Wainsgate, I consented to officiate, after many earnest supplications to the Almighty for his direction; being deeply impressed with a sense of my own unworthiness.” (110) By God’s grace, Fawcett was able to preach with power and was invited back to preach on future occasions. More importantly, Fawcett felt himself growing in his affection for the people at Wainsgate. Fawcett continued his preaching ministry in various places and grew in his ability so that a church in Liverpool invited him to serve there on a more permanent basis. However, Fawcett remained attached to the people at Wainsgate. He records in his diary, “I believe, if I have a call anywhere, it is to Wainsgate. The people there unanimously approve of my poor labours, and unweariedly press me to settle among them.” (110) Eventually, in the spring of 1764, Fawcett accepted the call to serve as their pastor:
Wainsgate, May 10, 1764 – Yesterday our goods were removed from Bradford to this place. A number of the brethren here came with horses; and having met us at Haworth, conveyed us forwards, and the goods we brought with us. I have no set my hand to the plough, and have made a solelmn entrance upon the work of the ministry. My partner in life and I have taken leave of our dear friends and brethren, with whom we had an affectionate and sorrowful parting. I would now apply with diligence to the work incumbent upon me. I am conscious of great weakness and inability; but the language of my heart is, ‘Lord help me!’ (111)
A DIFFICULT AND FLOURISHING MINISTRY
The transition from Bradford to Wainsgate was difficult. The Fawcetts left behind many of their dear friends and the church where he had been equipped for ministry. At the time, Bradford was a considerable manufacturing town, but Wainsgate was a small, remote village. Its residents were poor and largely uneducated, speaking in a dialect that was difficult for outsiders. One biographer provides a snapshot of that region when Fawcett arrived:
Among the inhabitants in general, ignorance and vice prevailed in a deplorable degree; there was little appearance of religion; their tempers, dispositions, and habits, partook much of the wildness of the country, so that an extensive, though unpromising field, presented itself before those faithful labourers who were raised up in these parts about this period. (121)
The Baptist congregation was also in poor shape spiritually. The previous pastor had been sick for a long time until his death the previous summer, so the church had effectively been without an active pastor for several years. Fawcett found the parsonage to be very small for his growing family and poorly constructed, “as those concerned in the erection were principally poor persons, every part of the work was done in the most economical manner; in one respect, so as to render the place uncomfortable, especially in the winter season.” (114)
These challenges notwithstanding, Fawcett threw himself into the labors. He began to correspond with other ministers throughout northern England, building the beginnings of a Baptist association in the region. Through his evangelical preaching, there was a considerable revival in his own congregation, and soon the place became too small to accommodate all those who traveled many miles to hear him preach on the Lord’s Day. Expansions and other improvements were made to the building in order to accommodate the growth. Fawcett had a particularly fruitful ministry among the youth of the village and many of them began turning to faith. With the growth of his ministry, invitations to preach abroad also followed and new missions were established in villages without churches. This meant having to be away from his congregation from time to time. However, during those trips, his letters written to his congregation reveal a shepherd’s love and concern for his people.
THE DRAMATIC DECISION
In 1772, Fawcett was invited to preach in London at the Baptist church in Horseleydown, Southwark. John Gill had famously served as the pastor of this important church for over fifty years and had died the previous year. Now, they were looking for a pastor. Over the course of nine weeks, Fawcett preached over fifty times at Horseleydown and in other churches throughout London. His preaching was received so favorably that by June 1772, the congregation was ready to call Fawcett.
The decision to go to London seemed pretty straightforward. Ministering in London among Gill’s large congregation would mean a much wider sphere of usefulness in the work of the gospel. Not only that but the congregation at Wainsgate was not able to properly support their beloved pastor. His income as a minister never exceeded £25. The house he lived in was too small to care for his growing family of young children. When he raised the issue to his congregation, the people were seriously distressed at the thought of losing their pastor, yet they could not commit themselves to raise more adequate support. So, Fawcett agreed to the call and began to make plans for the move. But even as he prepared to move, he grew uneasy with his decision. He talked with his people and suggested that if they could only raise his salary to £40, he would be willing to stay. But even then, they felt that they could not afford to commit to such an amount. So Fawcett and his family carried on with their plans. He was going to be Gill’s successor.
Or so he thought.
He preached his farewell sermon to his church in Yorkshire, and loaded six or seven wagons with his furniture, books, etc., to be carried to his new residence. All this time the members of his poor church were almost broken-hearted; fervently did they pray that even now he might not leave them; and as the time for his departure arrived, men, women, and children, clung around him and his family in perfect agony of soul. The last wagon was being loaded, when the good man and his wife sat down on the packing cases to weep. Looking into his tearful face, while tears like rain fell down her own cheeks, his devoted wife said, “Oh John, John, I cannot bear this! I know not how to go!” “Nor I, either,” said the good man: “nor will we go; unload the wagons, and put everything in the place where it was before!” The people cried for joy. A letter was sent to London to tell them that his coming to them was impossible; and the good man buckled on his armor for renewed labors, on a salary of less than two hundred dollars a year. (Burrage, 80-81)
And so, Fawcett remained in Wainsgate. Amid health challenges, financial difficulties, family deaths, ministry challenges, and much more, he would go on to serve the same congregation for the rest of his life. From there, he would publish numerous books, sermons, hymns, and pamphlets, which were widely distributed and which even made their way before the king. In 1777, his congregation would construct a new chapel that could seat 600 people at Hebden Bridge near Wainsgate. He would open a boarding-school out of his home as a way to supplement his own income, laying the foundation for the training of future ministers in northern England. Fawcett would also play an important role in forming a local Baptist association and was a part of the larger network of Baptists through his correspondence with other leaders like Andrew Fuller, Samuel Stennett, John Sutcliff, and many others. In 1793, he was once again offered an opportunity to a new field of work when the Baptist Academy at Bristol invited him to serve as their President, but Fawcett once again turned down the opportunity to remain with his people. In 1811, he published his famous two-volume commentary on the Bible and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity by Brown University. But amid all these accomplishments, he was first and foremost the pastor of the Baptist church in Wainsgate, serving there for almost fifty years until his death on July 25, 1814.
What was it that drove Fawcett to remain with his congregation? Certainly, he had every excuse available to him to move to London: a sense of calling, an opportunity to serve God in a greater way, the stewardship of his ministerial gifts, the need to provide for his family, and much more. But in the end, what kept him in Wainsgate was simply this: a love for his people. His biographer writes,
Such a line of conduct as this may not be proper as a general precedent; prudence may frequently dictate a deviation from it; yet it exhibits many traits of character which are endearing in the man, the Christian, and the minister. It shows a delicate and solemn sense of the duties of the pastoral office, not to be deserted, except for the most urgent and satisfactory reasons; steadiness of attachment, compassionate regard, and disinterested love, where that love perhaps has seldom met with suitable returns. (174)
Certainly, Fawcett’s example will not be the right decision for every pastor. Indeed, God leads many ministers to new fields of ministry. However, even in such decisions, Fawcett’s example of affectionate love is a model for all of us. A pastor’s decision to leave should be a matter of great sorrow to him and to his congregation, and a faithful pastor will do all that he can to care for the church through the transition. But for other ministers, faithfulness will mean staying on for the long haul, even in light of other opportunities, loving the congregation God has given them. For those of you, let Fawcett’s example be an encouragement for you to persevere.
Several years later, Fawcett would commemorate his decision to remain with his congregation by writing his most well-known hymn. Here is a fitting tribute to the love between a pastor and his people.
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
Our comforts and our cares.
We share our mutual woes;
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.
When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.
This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.
From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free;
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.
All references are taken from An Account of the Life, Ministry, and Writings of the late Rev. John Fawcett, D.D. who was Minister of the Gospel Fifty-Four Years, First at Wainsgate, and Afterwards at Hebdenbridge, int he Parish of Halifax; Comprehending Many Particulars Relative to the Revival and Progress of Religion in Yorkshire and Lancashire; and Illustrated by Copious Extracts from the Diary of the Deceased, from his Extensive Correspondence, and Other Documents (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1818) and Henry S. Burrage, D.D., Baptist Hymn Writers and Their Hymns (Portland, ME: Brown Thurston & Company, 1888).