Meet Phil Gunn

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gunns d“What made you want to become a minister?’ Phil Gunn was asked when he was on placement at Inshes Church. ‘I’m not sure I wanted to become a minister,’ he replied, thoughtfuly. ‘In fact, I think you have to be slightly crazy if you simply “want” to be a minister in the Church. But I feel very strongly and very definitely called to it.’

Phil was born in Nottingham, and then lived in Yarm on Teesside between the ages of 18 months and 13. Then the family (Phil has two sisters) moved again to Kinross in Scotland. His dad works in the chemical industry and had taken a job at Grangemouth.

Phil’s parents are Christians: he attended that Anglican Church in Yarm regularly with them. It was a fairly traditional Church of England, and became more so when a new vicar arrived who introduced incense into the services. (Phil tells me he finds the smell of incense challenging, so I don’t think he’ll be experimenting with its worshipful aroma while with us at Hilton!) Though he tells me that he doesn’t ‘have a musical bone in my body,’  Phil  joined the church choir: ‘that’s where the teenagers were. There was nothing much else to do other than sitting with mum and dad.’ After the move to Kinross, the family attended St John’s Episcopal Church in Alloa.

Phil had been baptised as a baby, and in keeping with Anglican practice, he was ‘confirmed’ at the age of 13.  He suspects that in taking the decision to be confirmed, he was simply doing  what all his peers were  doing, rather than making a personal statement of faith.  He believed, because his parents modelled belief, but he had little sense of personal conviction.

‘My first realisation that I very much had faith came at university,’ Phil says. At the age of 18, he’d moved to Aberdeen to begin a BSc (Honours) course in geography. There, he attended City Church and linked up with a small group connected with the church. It met weekly, and on one occasion, for some reason, he didn’t manage to attend. In the days which followed he sensed that he ‘didn’t feel quite right.’  He was ‘a little emptier than normal.’

And it was through that sense of depletion when he missed the meeting  that he realised  ‘I have a faith of my own. It’s not just mum and dad’s faith any more, this is my faith as well!’

In the weeks which followed, he continued to ‘own’ this developing sense of personal faith. He read the Bible more; he chose to be involved in more Christian activities; he attended the Christian Union at the University, where he met a medical student from Ireland, Clare Calderwood, whom he was to marry.

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Phil’s sense of calling

It began with a sense that he wanted to work with children, but definitely did not want to teach! This instinct led Phil, having graduated, to spent a gap year at Scripture Union’s centre at Lendrick Muir. He helped with the house cleaning, was involved in outside activities with children, and received some training in youth work.

And  then Phil moved back to Aberdeen, where he and Clare were preparing to be married. He quickly found work with Arnold Clark, while he applied for other posts more in line with his growing sense of calling.  Within a month, he was appointed Youth Worker with Kintore Parish Church, and remained there for six years, from 2007 to 2013. This was his first involvement with the Church of Scotland.  Among much else, he ran holiday clubs, did chaplaincy work at the local high school and associated primary schools, and organised innovative mini-holiday clubs on school in-service days, so that parents did not have to take days off work.

He knew his contract would come to an end in the autumn of 2013. The church assured him that there was no need for him to work notice – he could leave whenever a job came up. But as the weeks and months went on, no appropriate posts were available. During these months some of those close to him were anxious about what Phil’s next step would be, but he himself was able ‘to trust that God had something in mind,’ and so was ‘never really worried or stressed about it.’

And then, just a week or so before his contract at Kintore was due to run out, Phil heard through a Scripture Union friend that a local Christian agency, the Samuel Trust was looking for a part-time worker. He was appointed, and worked with ‘the SAMS Club’ (as it’s known in Aberdeen) for three years.

The Samuel Trust, set up by local churches, exists to work with young people in St Machar Academy and some of its associated primary schools, sharing the good news about Jesus.  Phil wrote and delivered  material for the hour-long clubs held weekly in two of the schools in  less privileged areas, and began a lunchtime boys’ club in a church near the Academy.  The boys were given  lunch, played games, and worked through some of the Youth Alpha Course.

While he was with the Samuel Trust, Phil was also appointed to work time as a Parish Assistant, at Mannofield Church in Aberdeen.  Phil tells me that, when he saw this job advertised, he had ‘a strong sense that God was saying to me “You’re going to get it”’  But it wasn’t straightforward……

Discerning the call

I ask Phil what the sense of God’s calling of which he speaks actually feels like. ‘It’s very hard to put into words,’ he says. ‘It’s an internal feeling, simply a sense of knowing.’

And was this ‘knowing’ I ask, confirmed by specific verses from the Bible, or was it independent of this?

And Phil tells me that there are two passages from the Bible which have been particularly meaningful to him.  One is the assurance of Jeremiah 29:11 which ‘kept coming up time and time again’ while he was at Lendrick Muir. ‘The promise that God has a path laid out for us, that God has a good plan.’

And the other passage is Psalm 119:105 – ‘your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path’ – which his godfather wrote inside the youth bible he gave Phil when the latter was confirmed.

These signpost verses helped Phil as he moved through his various posts in Aberdeen. ‘God has this plan in place.’ God could be trusted to make the way ahead clear.

And then came that post at Mannofield. As soon as he saw the advertisement, he knew instinctively that there was something different about this job. A  sense of energy, of peace, of ‘Yes!’  ‘This is for me!’ Phil was sure.

And then he was interviewed, and was unsuccessful.

By this time, he’d been planning to attend one of the Vocations Conferences which the Church of Scotland holds regularly for people exploring ministry in the Church in the broadest sense of the word. Phil’s plan had been to work at Mannofield Church, see whether  he felt he was a good ‘fit’ for the job, and then go to a Vocations Conference at some point in the future.

Having been turned down by Mannofield, Phil though disappointed was not put off from exploring the sense of calling he felt. He went almost immediately to the next vocations event, and left it with the conviction that ministry, perhaps full-time ministry, ‘in Word and Sacraments’ as he put it was his destiny.

Back home, he had a call from Mannofield Church. The person who had been offered the Parish Assistant post had first accepted, and then turned the job down. The post was Phil’s.

Phil felt that God had been saying to him ‘I want you to follow this call I’m giving you by going to the Vocations Conference first, and then the job will be yours.’  This insight reinforced Phil’s conviction that ‘God had this plan, which I wasn’t fully aware of, and perhaps wasn’t following in just the right way.’

As he followed the ‘discernment process’ for becoming a minister, Phil sensed God saying he should study theology at the Highland Theological College UHI in Dingwall. (Although he applied to Aberdeen ‘as a backup’ – not doubting God, but questioning his own grasp of the particulars of the plan.)

He was accepted, finished work with the Samuel Trust and Mannofield Church at the end of June 2016, and moved to Alness with Clare and their young family, Anna and Ben. Clare works as a GP in Alness.

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Family Life

One of many things Phil and Clare have in common is that their families have both relocated overseas. ‘If you wanted to avoid babysitting you didn’t have to move so very far away!’ Phil quipped.

Work has taken his mum and dad first to Singapore, and then to China.  Clare’s parents, her three brothers and her sister emigrated to Canada.  Their father is a dairy farmer, and had they stayed in Northern Ireland only one of Clare’s brothers would have been able to work the farm because of its size. In Canada, they have a farm on such a scale that father and sons can all farm together.  Phil tells me that Clare’s family ‘tested it a lot with God’ before relocating.

At times, despite the miracle of Facetime, they feel very far away.

Challenges to faith

I ask Phil if his faith has ever been challenged. ‘Yes,’ he replies. One of the biggest challenges is simply accepting that he has been called to ministry. He feels, constantly, ‘You can’t really mean me God? Do you really think I could do that? I don’t think I’ve got what it tales.’ But ,he continues: ‘Every time I have had that sense of doubt, something has happened – a word, an encouraging conversation, a Bible reading  – to reaffirm that God is saying “I want you to do this”’

I ask if there have been any situations where he has begun to question his beliefs? ‘Interestingly, no,’ he replies.  And then he tells me about a very difficult time he and Clare went through, when many friends were praying for them, and explains that these circumstances, far from challenging his faith, in fact strengthened it. Again, no particular Bible verses or passages were involved – unlike in Clare’s case: she found Psalm 42 very helpful, and kept returning to it. But, says Phil, ‘What I ended up with was a greater sense of God’s peace – almost to the point where I felt guilty because I wasn’t experiencing more grief.’

Phil’s faith has never been fundamentally shaken, but his time at Highland Theological College UHI led him to deep reflection about his beliefs.

Theology student

Phil studied at the Highland Theological College UHI for three years, and graduated this summer.  He appreciated the friendship and support he found there, both from lecturers and fellow-students.

But studying theology was challenging for him, despite his previous experience of academic life. One of the subjects he tackled in his first term was Systematic Theology, which he describes as a ‘tough, tough course,’ with so many new words and concepts to learn and remember. A more fundamental challenge was the sense that ‘academic theology kind of sucks the joy out of faith.’ Phil found himself asking ‘Where has all the hope and joy gone?’

And he became aware of disagreements among scholars about the precise way a particular word in the original language of the Bible is to be understood in a given context.  He realised that in the past, disputes over ‘the interpretation of one word’ had ‘such big and often catastrophic impacts on the Church.’

We look back from our 21st century perspective, Phil says ‘and say “How have we got it so wrong?”  Jesus sad “love one another” – that’s the basic tenet of our faith and yet we have managed to turn it into so much more!’

And how, I ask him, did he work through these challenges?  He says that the bottom line was that if he was to service God in the ministry, and fulfil the sense of call which motivated him, then he simply had to persevere.

In addition, however, exposure to a range of different scholarly opinions led Phil to ask ‘What do I actually believe myself?’ In some areas, such questioning has clarified and deepened his faith. In other areas, however, it has left ‘perhaps more doubts and confusion.’ But, he concludes, ‘that is not necessarily a bad thing.’

He explains ‘There are some things scholars argue about where I don’t think there’s an answer, or at least an answer we will ever know. It’s just too much for us to comprehend.’ And this has shown him what I think is a priceless lesson for a young minister, seen only by those of a humble spirit: ‘You know what? It’s OK to say “I don’t know. This is beyond our understanding.” This is an entirely acceptable answer in the context of a faith which sometimes allows you to trust without comprehending, without knowing the answer.’ And, he adds, ‘I think coming to that realisation has been a big help, and will continue to be helpful as I go on.’

Phil’s greatest  joy, while at College, came from studying the books of the Old Testament. The Church focusses a lot on the New Testament, and rightly, but this should not be at the expense of the Old Testament. Otherwise, Phil illustrates, it would be like reading the second two volumes of a three-volume novel, and missing out the roots of the story. ‘We saw in our course,’ he says ‘how everything in the Old Testament points towards Jesus, if you look carefully enough. There are all these wonderful truths which are sometimes lost to us because we focus so much on the New Testament.’

Phil wrote a 5,000 word essay on ‘The Concept of the Messiah in Zachariah 9:9-10.’  His draft ran to 14,000 words including references to all the books he had read on the theme. Phil mentioned doing 50 hours reading a week for the duration of his course – only hope, joy and a sense of calling can sustain you through such intense study.

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Phil at Hilton Church

I ask Phil what he hopes to gain from his fifteen months as a Probationary Minister at Hilton.  He mentioned honing his sermon skills, and harvesting ideas for mission, and for events which he might run in the Church which ultimately calls him. He’s being inducted by Duncan into the workings of the Church of Scotland, locally and nationally, and into the range of activities involved in ministry. Chairing a Session meeting; taking funerals; preparing people for baptisms and weddings; devising the teaching pattern you plan to follow in the year ahead, and all the background administrative work.

Phil will also be ‘making his own way’ – doing visiting for example, asking himself ‘Who needs a visit?’ and checking out with Duncan the system for managing the programme of pastoral visits.

The future of the Church

I wonder out loud what Phil’s thoughts  are about the future of the Church (not Hilton Church in particular, but the Church in Scotland in general) at a time when, nationally, church attendance is falling and there is emphasis on being ‘spiritual but not religious.’

He thinks there will remain a need for church buildings, highlighting instances where after a community tragedy people seek a place to go, to be still, perhaps to pray.

But he also thinks it’s vital for Christians not to limit their Christian activities to within the four walls of the church building.  We need, he suggested ‘to go out to other places – a school, a coffee shop, a pub even – and become involved in activities such as Foodbank where we will meet people who wouldn’t otherwise have contact with the gospel.’ There we can share the gospel whether in our words or through the way we are living and the things we are doing.

In this context, Phil singles out the Street Pastors for praise: ‘That seems to me to be really meeting the need, and doing what Jesus did which was going out and meeting the people where they were. If he were in the crowd, he’d stop next to the blind man and the lame man, and heal them in the here and now. It wasn’t a case of “You come to me and I’ll help you!”; rather it was “I’ll come to you!”’

Despite his views on the importance of church buildings in the community, he realises that change is under way.  Attendance figures are dropping. ‘If Church is to be maintained as God’s church, then it needs to look different,’ Phil said. He mentioned having heard a talk at Presbytery from one of his lecturers at Highland Theological College UHI, Bruce Ritchie.  Bruce had spoken about times in the history of the Church when churches were more tight-knit communities, comprising of just twenty or thirty people – almost a family group – and that he could envisage this happening again in the future. Perhaps there would also be ‘hub’ venues where people in these smaller church groups would periodically meet together.

Phil feels that in the future close co-operation between churches will become even more important. He gave an example from his time at Kintore Parish Church.  The church collaborated with a ‘house group’ meeting locally which was part of City Church in Aberdeen. The house church decided to run an event in the community hall called ‘Story Spaces’, similar in approach to Messy Church, and the Parish Church joined in, recognising that the new initiative was more effective than similar activities they had run in the past.

Phil is convinced. ‘We need to work together,’ he says with passion. ‘We are all worshipping God and Jesus. In the past, we’ve had fallings out, and that has led to different churches with slightly different emphases. But apart from minor doctrinal differences, what we believe is the same. The more we come together and work together, the more people will see that there is a fundamental unity.’ And there’s an added benefit, Phil thinks, in that through working with people in other churches, Christians realise that they are not the only people in town worshipping God.

Phil says that he’s not sure he ‘wanted’ to be a minister, but is sure that he has been called. Speaking to him you see his commitment and zest for the challenges which lie ahead. I suspect that with such a call  comes a sense of God-given wanting, a zeal for the task, an awareness that the God who has accompanied him up to this point will continue to accompany him, Clare and the family in the future.

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