Interview with John Partington (Part One)
As the new year begins, we sit down with John Partington to discuss his new role at Bethshan International Church, and to reflect on leading the Assemblies of God in Great Britain. This is the first of a two-part interview, with part two to follow next week.
You've recently been appointed to the position of Senior Pastor at Bethshan International Church, Manchester. Can you share how this came to be, and how this particular appointment will compliment your current position as National Leader of AOG GB?
I think a lot of people have got this wrong actually, so it’s going to be great to rectify some misconceptions that have come about! I’m a local church guy, I believe in the local church, and taking on the role of National Leader some six years ago took me out of that particular frame to have a wider, more itinerant ministry. But I still want to be local-church based, and so on a couple of occasions over the past few years I’ve found myself taking on the headship and leadership of a church – just for a season whilst the church can look to get the right person into office as a pastor.
Perhaps the best example of this found during my time at Coventry: the pastor, having been there for many years, was planning to open a new facility but didn’t feel he could take it any further himself. So the [Coventry church’s] oversight asked if I could take the leadership of it. And for six months my wife and I tithed there, we went there as often as we could, and I took the governance of it and brought the vision of it whilst praying about who should take over as the pastors. And it was a great, very smooth process of finding Martin and Esther Storey [Coventry church’s current pastors] and the rest is history. They [Martin, Esther and the team] took the church from 300 to 800 people. And once a month I’ve continued ministering to the church, I talk to the eldership and deal with some leadership issues. But as far as the local church went, my role there after some three years’ involvement has now come to a close.
I then found myself doing exactly the same at Bedworth, the same at Leamington Spa, and even prior to that, I found myself working in a role of bringing leadership and governance to the International Bible Training Institute (IBTI) in Burgess Hill. In fact, [the IBTI] would have closed if I hadn’t taken the reigns of it and put a principal in, and they’ve now taken it from strength to strength.
Regarding Manchester, I was contacted by one of our senior ministers to see whether I knew of anybody who would go to Bethshan, which used to be one of our most prominent churches -- it seats 1000 people and has a history and legacy that’s just great. But over the recent years it’s gone down considerably. I was there a short while ago, and there was only 40 [people] at night-time in a 1000 seater building, so that’s quite interesting. I didn’t know of anybody but I said I’d pray about it. And it was my wife who said, “John, one of the little key notes for the AOG is that we’re apostolically led, relationally connected and missionally focused. Is it really good enough for you to say that you’ll just think about it? Why don’t you go and have a look, meet with the council running it, and that’ll give you a better idea of who to put in?” I said ok (I had one Sunday left in August), and so I went to Bethshan and realised that it was totally “leadership-less”. No one had any kind of Ephesians 4 leadership gifting, but it was held together by a committee of very good people. However, they were fairly elderly, and were wanting someone… and I realised that this wasn’t a situation that you could just put a novice into: I couldn’t call Mattersey and get somebody so I found myself saying, “look, if you let me really take the leadership of this, in terms of governance, bringing vision and direction… loads and loads would have to change, but by God’s grace I’m prepared to try to do the same as what I’ve done at Coventry and so on.”
A week later the council had a meeting and said that they unanimously wanted it to happen. Since then they’ve given me the keys to the place, and I’ve been appointed as the senior leader, but I’m not technically in a pastorate. It’s still secondary to my role as National Leader of Assemblies of God. I’ve still got some time left and some things I’d like to see come to fruition. So I’m going to pull together a team to bring a corporate leadership, who’ll supply the Sunday and midweek ministry. We’ll bring overall leadership and vision to an interesting part of Manchester -- the Longsight area. And so I’m not leaving what I’m doing to take on the “lead pastor” role in the normal sense of what people would think, although yes, the final buck stops with me. That’s a long answer, but I’ve sought to give you the full picture!
You seem to think highly of team leadership, throughout your history as a pastor, and from your answer to the previous question too. I wonder if you could elaborate on why that is?
Certainly: it’s biblical! Very simple. It was years ago, as a young minister, that I had a pastor come over from the states (Dick Iverson), and hearing his teaching on “team”, well it was one of those times when something went from the head to the heart. I grasped it. I knew I was very limited in my gifting -- I can’t do everything and need other people to compliment the lack that’s in my life -- but I also realised that I carry my own particular gifting that can complement others. And so from a long time ago I’ve been a massive supporter of teamwork and, I think, have a clear understanding as to what real teams are.
An eldership was always plural in the Bible, and God himself is a team: God the Father, Son and Spirit -- co-equal but different in function. Husband and wife -- they’re a team too. God has given teamwork to the church to perfect it: the apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher and evangelist. And so, I’ve recently released a book called "The Team Factor", which spells out quite succinctly my understanding of team -- it’s not a large book and It’s easy to read! -- and some of the beliefs and principles that I hold to regarding the recognition that all of us bring something to the table. I think that each church can only really enter into all that God’s got for them if they have the input of all of those five gifts mentioned in Ephesians: the apostle governs, the prophet guides, the pastor guards, the evangelist gathers and the teacher grounds. They all provide something, and if the church is just led by a pastor then they won’t fully grow -- they need the other gifts too. The area I function in the most is in the area of the apostolic, although I would still feel very much an evangelist at heart. It’s a mixture of those two gifts that I bring to the table.
Other than sheer scale, I wonder if you could share some of the differences between leading the AOG as a movement and leading a local church?
Yes… the problems just multiply [laughter]! I’ll tell you what I’ve found… It’s far more difficult to lead leaders than to lead followers. People in the congregation are generally there and want to follow a vision. Leaders are often visionary, and they themselves don’t like being led. And so I think we ought to be in relationship with others -- I submit myself to “team” -- and I’ve found certain frustrations in the autonomy of the local church. Every AOG church is locally governed, and so then trying to bring some direction [is difficult]. Elim are centrally governed but we’re not. By and large, people now, a younger generation, are clearer in their grasp of the need to recognise apostolic leadership. It’s in the older generation that I’ve probably had more of my frustration and difficulties. I want everyone to come on the journey -- I don’t want to lose or upset anybody. But at the same time, leaders lead!
I’ve got a tremendous team here, but the weight of leading the fellowship has been quite intense, in the early days particularly. The first few years were not the easiest in terms of people accepting the changes that I brought about. This is not the same fellowship as it was six to seven years ago. Before we had districts and now we have areas. We have people working full and part time and we’ve moved the offices from Nottingham to here [Mattersey]. We’ve combined the Bible College with the National Ministry Centre and we’ve changed things that relate to giving. Just about everything has changed! It’s been an interesting journey -- one I’ve enjoyed.