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The Vancouver ‘Adventure’

I have had a ‘dream run’ in terms of the churches I’ve been privileged to pastor. Narwee Baptist Church in Sydney was an ideal community to begin a pastoral vocation, and Blackburn Baptist Church (now Crossway) in Melbourne an ideal community to stretch my ‘pastoral wings’… And there were several interesting interim ministries along the way as well.

But my last full-time pastorate was another story. Here’s a letter I’ve just unearthed in a box of old correspondence, which I wrote to my subsequent employer about ‘the Vancouver adventure.’ It happened 25 years ago – 1981-2 – so now is probably a good time to release some of this information. (Harold Henderson was/is a good friend, and we’d known each other for many years…)


2484 Ottawa Ave., West Vancouver B.C. Canada V7V 2T1

To: Harold Henderson

World Vision

Melbourne Australia 3001

Dear Harold,

I am writing at your request to give you, as objectively as I can, details of our short ministry at First Baptist Church, Vancouver, and reasons for its termination after nine months. Feel free to share this with members of the World Vision Board, but I would ask that it go no further, out of deference to an agreement I made with the church’s executive about confidentiality.

Perhaps we could start with a brief history of the church. It currently has about 1,000 members (probably, realistically, we could say about 600 active) and was at a pretty low ebb when Dr. Roy Bell became its pastor about 13 years ago. Under his competent leadership – and particularly due to his outstanding preaching gifts – the church grew to its present size. He resigned (as did his two or three associates) about the middle of 1981.

The ‘pulpit committee’ first approached me in February 1981 (Roy had given notice of his impending resignation at the end of 1980), and Jan and I met with them in May. We had five days of very frank discussion, and the outcome of it all was a 3-4 page list of an Agreement or ‘understandings’ which was circulated to each of those 12 or so people. It was agreed that certain key items from these ‘understandings’ would be shared with the church – particularly those involving possible major expenditures staff-wise. Two key areas of ‘understanding’ were that I would come as senior pastor/preacher but have another senior staff member (John Schaper, who had been on the Billy Graham team, working with Dr. Leighton Ford) to look after the administrative side of things, and within one year we would call a further senior staff member to look after the pastoral care of the church. All this was very clear – to all of us.

I began a ministry with the church in September of that year. We had prayed earnestly about the venture, and all the signs pointed to our coming to Vancouver. I was very happy at Blackburn. That church had become Australia’s largest Baptist Church and was still growing, with beautiful relationships among the staff and people. One part of us did not want to leave, but another needed the challenge of a more ‘stretching’ ministry. Looking back, we believe more than ever we were meant to come to Vancouver despite all the pain, and that ‘BBC’ could have become too comfortable for us if we’d stayed. Let me hasten to add that many key people at Blackburn strongly felt it was still too soon for us to leave, and no one had initiated any move for us to go.

When I arrived in Vancouver, I soon learnt that there were several serious matters which had occurred which caused us to begin with severe handicaps. Perhaps these are best dealt with in subject-order:

[1] The financial implications of the ‘Agreement’ between the pulpit committee and us were (a) not researched at all and (b) not conveyed to the church. So when I began asking about certain aspects of this agreement the Finance Board of the church were non-plussed. Members of the pulpit committee backed out of the issue saying they had no power to make ‘agreements’ anyway – that was the prerogative of the church. But the church, I reminded them, was not given the necessary data. Well, we felt they were but they didn’t listen, I was told. Checking around, I found that there may have been some truth in this: perhaps the euphoria at finding a senior pastor caused people not to listen too carefully. But there were some fairly hard-headed, objective people at that meeting who assert they didn’t hear any of this at all. One key leader, an astute younger businessman, told me frankly later that the pulpit committee had simply ‘let out more and more line’ to catch this fish, and simply assumed that increased attendances and offerings would eventually pay for what might prove to be a whopping budget increase in the worst year economically and financially since the Great Depression! However, by that time (about three months into our ministry) offerings were up by about 20% anyway (whereas every other Baptist church in the area we researched saw their offerings go down by about the same percentage). You can understand how this sort of fracas is not the way to begin a ministry. I didn’t unduly press the points of our Agreement, to save embarrassment I was sensing around the place. In fact we were prepared to live with staff levels pegged if that was necessary due to financial constraints.

[2] The two key people on the pulpit committee – the chairperson and the vice-chairman – were not at the church when I arrived. One had been transferred out of the state, and the other had previously decided to attend a church nearer their home. These two gaps were filled by a couple of much more conservative people. The chairperson of the pulpit committee also happened to be the moderator of the church, so that other position had to be filled too.

[3] Before I was interviewed, three other persons had also been called to fill staff vacancies. This, we all now believe, was a mistake. Pastoral staff-members should be involved in choosing each other. My ministry-description was very clear that I was not to be an ‘office-person’, but rather a people-person, working mainly from home reading and preparing for a rigorous pulpit and teaching ministry. A couple of the staff were quite outspoken, after a few weeks, that I ought to be around the church office much more than I was (which was about four days a week in the initial stages anyway). One of them seemed to develop quite an antipathy to me – wouldn’t speak to me or greet me etc. I had never in my life had any kind of response like this from any person I’d ever worked with professionally, and was not adequately prepared for it. I was always civil to this person, and we had some long talks, and prayed together about it all, but both agreed that it was unsolvable. This person, however, got some others on side, made submissions to the executive of the church, who apparently came to the conclusion that I was not able to competently lead a staff-team.

[4] After about six months – during which congregations were slowly growing, and the vast majority of the people were apparently in good heart – another issue rose to the surface which probably, in the end, proved to be the catalyst in bringing our ministry to a close. It was the ecumenical question. I happen to believe, in principle, that there is no justification for withholding fellowship from other Christians who also subscribe to a confession that ‘Jesus Christ is Savior, Lord and God, according to the Scriptures’. This is the key confessional point of the World Council of Churches’ charter. I may not agree with many of the radical pronouncements of WCC spokespersons in Geneva (I don’t), and also happen to agree with the position of the Salvation Army with regard to the Program to Combat Racism. But that said, I can’t, in conscience, withhold fellowship from other confessing Christians, and may, if humble enough learn from them, even if we differ theologically. With John Stott, I believe that we as evangelicals ought to be ‘in there’, dialoguing, rather than standing aloof.

Now I didn’t preach about this: I hope I’m experienced enough to know that what divides Christians from one another is generally not a fit subject for regular preaching, especially in the first year of one’s ministry. However, I did raise the issue once (and only once) at a leaders’ meeting in our home, a proper place I thought, for discussion and clarification (and for me, briefing) on such questions. I was honestly wanting an open, honest sharing of views with these people. Well, as soon as I innocently raised the issue I knew a hornet’s nest had been invaded. I was not aware of the deeply-help view of many Canadian Baptists on this point. It was not raised in my discussions with the pulpit committee – a mistake by both parties, in retrospect. Later, after some long discussions on this subject with Roy Bell, I understood a little both the history of the issue in Canada (which has some unique elements which an Australian might find difficult to comprehend, and Roy’s own deep convictions on the question. He and I had to agree to differ here… Anyway, the small group of people who comprised the executive of the church became alarmed when they heard my views, and this alarm was severely exacerbated by two other factors. One of them – and I think this was the ‘crunch’ issue – was the forthcoming WCC Assembly in Vancouver, of all places! Ours was the largest city congregation in Vancouver, and the largest Baptist congregation in British Columbia, and to have the senior pastor here being pro-ecumenical, whereas the whole denomination is not, was something they couldn’t handle at all. The other factor deserves another section.

[5] The executive of the Board of the church, in this congregation, exercises full and complete authority in matters of ultimate ‘hiring and firing’ of staff. These are five people, one of them over 80 years of age, another in the late 70s, another about 60 (the three key people), and the other two were slightly younger. Only one of the five was a native-born Canadian; the others were British emigrants (a significant factor, which I won’t elaborate upon at this point). [A current member of FBC tells me that ‘the composition of the church leadership has changed significantly in the 25 years since I left and is far less traditional and British minded.’] Their rationale for dealing with important matters staff-wise without much reference to the Board or the church was, in theory, a plausible one: it had to do with maintaining ‘confidentiality’. However these people had taken to themselves far more power than many in the church thought appropriate. The only discussion they ever had with John Schaper, for example, was when they met with him to fire him – about three months before I resigned. One of the difficulties this executive had with me was that they couldn’t give me any reason, theologically, for holding their anti-ecumenical stance.. It was only a question for them, of denominational loyalty and precedent, not of principle, and when I would innocently ask ‘But what do you believe?’ their only recourse was to excuse their ignorance of theology. As soon as I read the signals here I desisted from further discussion of theological matters – for their sakes.

[6] Although the ecumenical issue was the key one, and brought the whole question of the viability of our ministry to a head very quickly, there were a few other contributing factors. There’s ‘the way Canadians do things’. Better-educated and well-traveled Canadians are very critical of their compatriots, on one main count. ‘Canadians know what they don’t want, ie. anything that seems “American”. ‘ Marshall McLuhan said Canadians are the only nation on earth not to have an identity. That’s probably a bit hard. There are many aspects of Canadian life and culture which are highly commendable. It’s a beautiful country – both its scenery, and the disposition of its people. Canadians are more reserved than Americans. They are ‘background’ folks: the Amerians are ‘foreground’ people. I made a mistake when I handed around to the leadership and staff a book on Team Ministry by Lyle Schaller – which has some good insights into large churches. I received a lot of negative static about that book – less for its substance than for its American origins.

I think I’m an adaptable person, sensitive to others’ situations and histories and tastes. But I often come across to people as someone who know’s where he’s going. I am – and feel – fairly confident in most situations. That was my ‘fatal flaw’ in Vancouver. If you feel confident, my close Canadian friends told me, act as if you’re not, or at least pretend to be tentative. Otherwise you’ll seem to be too ‘American’. And that’s apparently how I came across to these good people. Why hadn’t they looked for an American pastor? ‘Americans don’t fit in here’. (They tend to last, on average, 1 – 2 years before heading south again, disillusioned, though there are some notable exceptions). One needs to understand the effects of the juxtaposition of these two countries – particularly from a cultural and economic perspective – to get a feel for Canadians’ defensiveness. It’s a very real concern for them that they remain ‘Canadian’, not American.

A note in passing: so what other criteria led the church to approach an Australian? Their senior pastor, besides *not* being American, ought to be a good communicator whose English was easily understood, with substantial academic/ theological credentials, ought to be ‘evangelical’ with openness to charismatic renewal (!), and have had some experience in leading a multiple-staff team in a large Baptist church. There were only half a dozen of us in the non-American world. I was, for better or worse, commended to them by two people who knew me and preached for them from time to time – John Stott and Leighton Ford.

[7] It’s a truism in churches – or in any human institution for that matter – that if a system has worked well, conservative mind-sets will have difficulty coping with the idea of changing it in major areas. When, after many hours of frank talks with the executive, we got to the point of my tendering a resignation (they insisted they’d never ask for it), we then had to wrestle with the question: what do we tell the Board, and the Church? The immediate, frank response from the strongest person on the executive: ‘It’s essentially a question of change: we’re too conservative here for you.’ My response: ‘But in our worship services, or administratively, nothing of substance has changed; it’s been far too early.’ Their reply: ‘Yes, that might be so, but we’re afraid of what *might* happen down the road.’ I asked a couple of people on the pulpit committee what they meant when in our initial talks I heard a dozen times ‘Rowland, we’re ready for change.’ They had two responses: (a) That was said by a couple of strong key people who subsequently left before you came; and (b) ‘We *were* ready for change – but only of personnel!’

Can I make a confession? I was very angry when I heard that! It was, to put the softest interpretation on it, deceptive.

As we’ve prayed and thought through all these issues, several learnings have been gleaned from them. Most importantly, God has been working through this situation for our good – and for the church’s, too. They’re a city/downtown church, proud of their tradition and recent history, not really a community in any real sense (this was previous pastors’ greatest disappointment with the church), and now they’ve called an English pastor who could serve them well. [He was principal of a Bible College in London, England, whom they’d approached earlier, before approaching me, but he’d declined. Now they got him – and he had a solid ministry there until January 2001]. I needed to experience a ‘dark night of the soul’ to learn many things, spiritually and psychologically. I’d never really failed at anything before – and that’s not necessarily good! This last year has been the richest, spiritually, of my life, and never could have been that rich without those experiences. As an important by-product, I feel more adequate in relating to clergy who’ve had a rough time with their callings. This is part of the reason I’m committed to serving pastors and church-leaders in Australia for the foreseeable future. Those who’ve had a hard time in ministry are terribly lonely people, by and large.

A few random notes:

* All of the seasoned Canadian pastors I’ve spoken to have had a similar experience to all this, at least once. One of them said to me ‘Canadians won’t be led. That’s why our churches are small generally. We’ve got too much paranoia in our culture.’

* Six staff members left within a six-month period, which suggests there’s been something wrong with the lay leadership of the church.

* I’d inadvertently made the mistake of somehow raising their expectations too high, and that’s something I’ll have to work on. (Conversely, that pulpit committee did the same with the church!).

* Another learning: I’ve always spent a lot of time in a new situation getting to know all the people. In this case we organized 20-30 home-groups where Jan and I could meet people (and they could meet each other!). I should have spent a lot more time relating to the ‘power’ people (which aren’t always, of course, the elected leaders, though in this case they were).

* The pulpit committee and I should have been crystal-clear about what was to be conveyed to the church in the meeting to discuss the call. A lot of our troubles could have been obviated if that had happened: I was too trusting on that score.

* I’m also more sensitive and, I hope, understanding of those whose insecurities lead them to trust in systems of one sort or another. Our faith is to be in Christ, not in our systems – ecclesiastical or theological.

* Finally, I was too self-sufficient, and for any Christian that tendency has within it the seeds of death. Again, our ‘sufficiency’ is to be in our relationship to Christ.

Harold, sorry for the rambling contents of this epistle. The final thing I want to say is that I was vindicated by the two local Baptist superintendents I insisted come in on our discussions. They got so angry (in a nice Canadian way) with that executive, that I’ve learned they insisted the church continue to support us financially – on full stipend – for six months after our resignation-date. (By the way, the ‘stipend’ cheque was sent in the mail each fortnight, with no accompanying note – not even with the last one!). That enabled me some breathing-space to do some Doctor of Misnistry studies at Fuller Seminary, in Pasadena (fees and airfares were paid for by a gift from a wealthy Canadian friend). (I’ve also been approached by a few Canadian churches to be their pastor – one with a stipend of $60,000 plus manse, all expenses and car!) but we’ve declined them all…

Love and peace,

Rowland Croucher

(There are more important dimensions to this story – including how all this affected our family – but they will be written up another time. May 2006).


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