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Working Together in Training

Gareth Russell was born in Suffolk but never heard the gospel growing up. After he was saved at University he trained for the ministry but always felt called to go back to his roots: now he’s pastoring a church in East Anglia as Phil Topham’s been finding out.

Working Together in Training primary image

I think Gareth’s story is fascinating.

Not only because we see God’s amazing grace in his life, but also because his journey into ministry is a great encouragement for local churches of all shapes and sizes. Here we have a man who trained in a larger FIEC church with the goal of serving Christ in a smaller one.

Gareth’s story is a great example of gospel generosity and churches working together. The church in Suffolk where he is now the pastor is benefitting from his ministry even though it was other FIEC churches that paid for his training.

Returning Home

Gareth was saved while studying at Nottingham University. He began attending Cornerstone – a large FIEC church in the city – after coming into contact with the gospel through the University Christian Union. After a year serving with UCCF Gareth began to explore ministry and completed the Cornhill Training course while attending another larger FIEC church – Trinity Road Chapel in Wandsworth Common, London.

After completing Cornhill, Gareth and his family stayed in Wandsworth and he spent a few years in secular employment, working for a car hire firm in Wimbledon.

During his time in work, Gareth was becoming increasingly convinced that the Lord was calling him into full-time ministry. Not in London, where he lived, but back in Suffolk where he grew up.

Gareth whilst at Trinity Road Chapel

Rather than burden a smaller church in East Anglia with the costs of formal theological training, Gareth began to explore the idea of training at Trinity Road Chapel. Even though the church knew that he would be trained up for gospel ministry in London but go on to serve elsewhere, they were happy to help pay for his training.

So Gareth studied at Oak Hill College – funded by Trinity Road Chapel and the FIEC Training Fund. Once his studies were complete, he served at Trinity Road as Assistant Pastor but always with one eye on his home county. He said:

“Ever since God called me to the ministry, I had this conviction that I wanted to serve him in Suffolk. I think it’s because I never heard the gospel when I was growing up so I felt really convicted that I wanted to preach Christ there.

So it was always my plan to return home – even though humanly speaking it would have been much more straightforward to stay in London.”

Ministry in Suffolk

Gareth was inducted as pastor of Westgate Chapel, Bury St Edmunds in January 2018 and he says he’s only ended up serving there because of churches working together:

“The early years of my Christian life were very formative. The larger churches were able to invest in me and train me for gospel ministry. Frankly, I needed room to fail. It’s far better to make mistakes in an evening service at a larger church than mess up Sunday by Sunday in a smaller church with nobody there to train and mentor me.”

Gareth's induction

Even informally, Gareth’s story gives us an idea of how Independent churches of all sizes are able to work together up and down the country. Gareth first attended a large FIEC church, then he was trained in an FIEC church in London before accepting the call to serve at a third FIEC church in Suffolk.

“The reality is that training opportunities mainly exist in larger churches,” Gareth said. “So the question we’ve got to ask is: where are ministers for smaller churches going to come from? This model shows how it can work, with larger churches training men for gospel ministry so they can serve in smaller churches.

This is exactly what Independent churches working together looks like. I am a minister in Suffolk today because of churches working together. Just because it isn’t always formalised doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”

Bury St Edmunds has a population of 100,000 people within a 10-mile radius. Westgate Chapel have around 50 people regularly attending on a Sunday morning. For Gareth, the harvest is plentiful.

“People equate small churches or a slower pace of life with ‘failing’. That is not the case. There are lots of opportunities and we have a pressing mission to reach Bury St Edmunds and the villages around it with the good news of Christ.”

Will you pray for them?

Phil Topham photo
Phil Topham - FIEC Executive Director

Phil started working for FIEC in the role of Head of Communication, but then became our Executive Director at the start of 2019. He is married to Kath and they live near Market Harborough and attend Christ Church in the town.