At the heart of Damian and Suzanne’s leadership is a deep love for people. Photo: By Tom Fewchuk
By Emily Ferguson
There is a long pause while Damien Parks recounts his recent experience of transferring a deceased four-year-old girl from her family home in preparation for her funeral.
“That’s at the very pointy end of why my call has always been to bi-vocational ministry,” he says, deeply moved. “All the family’s a wreck and I’m the one who gets to take care of them in the worst moment of their life. Without being a pastor, how do I do that? And how could I ever experience that just being in church all week?”
Damien is a full-time funeral celebrant with Pettigrew Family Funerals in Newcastle, NSW, and volunteer Lead Pastor at Grace Community Church, Thornton. For him, life is about making a difference in people’s lives.
Bi-vocational ministry has been the result of God’s circumstantial leading for Damien, rather than his own deliberate choice. The churches he has worked in have not been able to pay him, and he has felt a simultaneous call to be there for people in other settings like hospitals and funerals.
“I’ve actually prayed a lot about being a full-time church pastor – my heart was always to have a group of people to care for – and that prayer has never been answered how I wanted,” he said. “Instead, God has continually impressed on me that your community is wherever you are.
“I guess the irony is that as much as I wrestle with that, if I hadn’t gone through this I wouldn’t be the person I am. It would have been a much less enriching Christian walk if I wasn’t bi-vocational. It’s really God’s will for me to do both – I’ll be 56 this year and I can’t see that changing before I retire.”
Damien starts each day at 5am with sermon preparation and other church tasks before he goes to work. Once home, he works on other items for church.
“The wrestle is: ‘God, can I do both?’ But I have done both for a long time now. After all these years I’m very clear on my boundaries … when I’ve given all I can and when I need my alone time. But I do love being able to be there for people. That’s what’s driven me for 20 years.”
Damien’s road to bi-vocational ministry started with his long-term dream of being a cook. In 2000, he and his wife, Suzanne, opened a successful café in Newcastle, yet it wasn’t long until it became more about people wanting to share their stories than about the cooking.
It was clear that a calling was starting to emerge, so they sold the café and Damien moved into hospital chaplaincy after working as an assistant pastor for a time.
“I needed to be humbled and I needed to learn how God loves people,” he recounts. “I felt God took me on a journey over many, many years to learn about where he was in suffering and loss and death. All of it has been preparation now to do funerals with people dying in terrible ways. And I think it’s completely formed how I see ministry.
“We’re here in Thornton because there’s a lot of broken families, a lot of hurting people; it’s quite disadvantaged in a lot of areas, and there’s great needs here. I think God specifically called Suzanne and I to this area that can be very difficult at times.”
Grace Community Church is mission-oriented because of the philosophy of ministry that has been forged through Damien’s many years of bi-vocational ministry.
In the seven-and-a-half years Damien has been leading the church, the town of Thornton has shifted from asking, “There’s a church in Thornton?” to having many locals volunteer at the church simply because they believe in what they’re doing – like retiree Graham who comes at 6.30am every Friday to help maintain the grounds. About 600 people are connected with their Friday playgroup, which 50 of them attend each week – a group the same size as their church.
“For me it’s always about meeting people where they’re at, getting to know people, seeing where their need is and how we can help, and [ministry growth] just organically happens. People know that we’re not trying to get anyone to church on Sundays and I think that’s a big thing, but most of the church now have come out of some ministry.
“I’m incredibly blessed and enriched by what I do. I’m incredibly challenged, I feel very humbled by the responsibility and influence I have. It’s all undeserved – it’s just a gift that I get to do what I do and I’m very privileged.”
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