Folks at First – Joel Russell-MacLean

An interview with Pastor Joel Russell-MacLean by Esther Wiens

  1. For years we at FBC knew you as our children’s pastor, but your ministry has broadened greatly since then. Now that you are our lead pastor, we would like to know more about you. Tell us something about your background, particularly your childhood and your growing-up years.

My childhood was split in two. My early years were in Toronto’s suburbs, its rows of small new homes and lots of children, playgrounds, and people new to Canada. Later we moved out into cottage country. My folks found an idyllic, scenic spot and built a home along a small river valley. I, along with my brother and sister, could fish, swim, and canoe in mild weather, then skate and toboggan in the winter. But I was pretty lonely there for a few years. We were a close-knit family of faith and went to church to worship several times a week.

  1. I know you came to Canadian Bible College as a young man. Tell us about that experience and about the education you have received since attending CBC.

Despite my parents’ genuine faith and my years at church, I still wondered if there really was a God. I wondered how I could ever sincerely say that I loved God as Jesus demanded. I knew what it meant to love friends and families, but how could anyone love an invisible, silent being? I came to the Bible College in Regina. I imagined there were bound to be fewer distractions in Regina than Toronto. If their God was real, this could be a chance to hear God speak.

I was particularly impacted during my first year. What I learned in the classes seemed so beautiful and profound. And in hours of silent prayer, God condescended to answer my doubts and longings and met with me. One year at Bible College changed my life. I continued my studies and graduated with a Bachelor of Theology degree and then took some classes at the Seminary. More recently, as I’ve had time, I’ve been taking classes towards a Master of Divinity degree at Carey Theological College.

  1. When and by what means did you hear the call of God into pastoral ministry?

After graduating, I knew what I cared about: encouraging people in their relationship with God and providing pastoral care. Wherever I worked, I often found myself in conversation with people around faith or care. I was also in a church without a pastor, and several of us shared all the responsibilities.

  1. How did you happen to become the children’s pastor at FBC? What has been most significant to you about that ministry?

Rev. Jennifer Holtslander was on staff at the time. She asked me to apply to fill in for her while she went on maternity leave, and I was given the chance. Mind you, Jennifer is so gifted, I couldn’t really make up for her absence. I tried to tackle some tasks she didn’t like, so they would be done when she came back – such as getting Godly Play and Oasis started.

Since then, we’ve had the church picnics, retreats, Faith and Culture events. It has all been fun. The best times for me are when I know the children are engaged in a Bible story or prayer. Those moments are precious. God speaks to them and through them to me. I’ve heard insightful questions and insights from them that have amazed me.

  1. You now wear the mantle of lead pastor, a garment that is known to be sometimes light and sometimes heavy. What is your experience of this?

Well, it has only been a year and people are being patient while I learn. I know that the past few years in our church have been confusing and hurtful. The hardest things have been seeing no perfect answer in some dilemmas and knowing good people will be affected.

  1. You have encouraged us all to cultivate the habit of Bible reading and prayer. What are your own devotional practices?

There are a few things that mean the most to me. Setting aside time for silence and listening in prayer has continued to be important for me since my days at Bible College. Walking outside in forests or parks, I often think of God walking in Eden, or Jesus walking in Galilee, the Spirit hovering over the water. I’m never alone. Heaven is all around us.

Some evenings with my sons and my daughter, we sing and pray together, and I enjoy telling Bible stories. We list the things we are thankful for. Prayer transforms already good moments into the most special and memorable times.

I’ve really come to enjoy the Book of Common Prayer; I know it isn’t for everyone. A close friend and I have met once a week for 8 or 9 years now to sing morning prayers together. And then Rob Sentis gave me his grandmother’s 19th -century copy of the Book of Common Prayer! So, I pray with it most mornings and read the daily scriptures assigned.

Also, a few friends and I have met every Tuesday for five years to meditate on scripture, to confess, and to pray for each other. This has also been life changing.

Dr. Barbara Mutch, who was a pastor here in the 1980s and 90s, encouraged me to take up prayers around daily activities. I’ve found praying for others while I’m doing routine tasks and chores is great.

  1. In your daily work, and particularly in situations that are intense and even critical, you need to be prepared to give counsel and encouragement. I know this can be draining. But do you ever experience the opposite: having entered into a pastoral situation, you come away strengthened and encouraged?

Almost all the time! I’ve lost track of the number of times God’s grace has come to me through the person I’m visiting. Of course, if I were to name names here, I’d be scolded by those people!

  1. When you walk about the church before Sunday worship, you habitually exude a positive energy. What fuels that energy?

I have thought on occasion that Lead Pastors should all have to spend a few years running children’s programs. When you have several busy programs with people to coordinate, rooms to organize, questions to answer, children tugging at your sleeve, and the worship service approaching on top of the programs, you have to have energy!

But my friends could tell you the greatest part of my week, without fail, is talking with people and listening to them. Sunday morning is a joy. I get to see lots of people I care about and enjoy. And what’s more, together, we get to share the experience of God speaking to us in worship.

  1. What is the most challenging for you? How can we, as your flock, support you better?

There is no more supportive congregation than ours. Period. I mean it. We have been transitioning over the past year and that always means lots of work – but it’s been work shared among many people.

Still, I am aware that I need to continue to grow in my new position. This means many things: although we have programs for the youth, for children, for seniors, I don’t want to be driven by them. As pastors, we need to focus on praying together, on sharing responsibilities and inviting the congregation into a prayerful relationship, each responsible for his/her own personal walk with God. Also, I want to grow in my preaching. And finally, I want to do my part in keeping our finances in order.

  1. I know you have a lovely family. How do you balance the work of the church with the responsibilities at home?

Not as well as I would have liked over the past few years. Heather’s work keeps her busy too. She has done very well and is in demand! We have a cabin now where we retreat and we also enjoy our annual road trip. I try and watch my own moods and my children’s to gauge when it is time to slow down for a bit.

  1. When you think about the coming months and years at FBC, what do you hope for? What is your dream?

First Baptist has played an important role in our city and our denomination. There is still so much we can do. We can continue to lead the way in music, children’s programs, liturgical worship, missions and service projects, and adult teaching. We can work at embracing our increasing diversity and look for ways to be witnesses downtown and in our communities.

I think churches that can provide teaching with depth, churches that have lots of prayer resources, live out genuine love and find ways to serve others will always be havens for people in our world. We have all those pieces, so I’m excited about the coming season at First!

  1. I have noticed that you often sign your notes/letters “with love.” That gives me, and I suspect many others, a warm feeling. According to I Cor. 13, love is the greatest gift of all. In closing this interview, I would just like to say to you that love begets love and has already done so.

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