Growing up in the delightful town of Gunnedah in northeast NSW gave Paul Sampson an appreciation for the outdoor lifestyle of the bush and an affinity with country folk, while his seven years as a Bible teacher in Kenya underscored the power of the gospel to change lives. Now, the senior minister of St Swithun’s Anglican on Sydney’s north shore, is starting a new job as the NSW/ACT regional director for the Bush Church Aid Society, a role that will use his heart for mission and all his skills and experience to support and encourage the important part of Australia outside of the big cities.
As he prepares for this new season, Eternity asked Paul to reflect on some of the defining moments that shaped him and his life.
1. A watershed moment at 17
During 1980 whilst studying for the HSC in Gunnedah, I was accepted to become a Rotary Exchange Student. That was really a watershed for me, as a naïve 17-year-old country boy I went off to live in Sweden for a year as an exchange student. The first plane I’d ever climbed onto was a 747 to take me to Copenhagen. It was a defining moment in terms of my worldview and my faith.
I grew up Roman Catholic. That meant I knew I should go to church every week, typically Saturday nights. So, after a couple of weeks in Sweden I went along to a church up the road and, surprisingly, saw there were quite a few young people in church. I didn’t expect that. At that time, I didn’t understand much of the language, but noticed at the end of the service they all went forward and spoke to the priest. When I later enquired, I came to realise the only reason they were at church was to get an attendance card signed. And the only reason they wanted the card signed was so that they’d get confirmed. And the only reason they wanted to get confirmed was because confirmees got good presents, like a trip to the States or something like that.
It was seen as a real rite of passage. But I thought to myself, “this is just a nonsense that these young people come to church only on the basis of getting an expensive gift!.” And so, I didn’t go to church again for years as a result.
2. An invitation to go to church and a mindset shift
In 1988, I was doing another exchange, this time a university exchange, in the States. I had a girlfriend before I went to UCLA. And when I came back, I thought I was going to marry her. But she dropped me from a great height. My life went into a complete tailspin. I was so desperate that I accepted an invitation to go along to a church in Wollongong, near where I was living at that time.
I was invited along to church when I was feeling very vulnerable, but I could hear that the gospel was being preached each week and knew that I needed to respond to it. But there were two things holding me back. One was that all the Christians that I knew at that time were “good people”. I hadn’t been an axe murderer, but I hadn’t been “in the club” all my life. And so how can I be good enough to get “into the club”? I clearly didn’t understand grace then.
The other aspect was, I thought: “I’ve come to this church from a position of weakness. I need a crutch because I’m feeling so down. If I’m going to commit to this, I need to know it’s true, it’s valid, it’s credible.”
And so I started reading books like Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict and Paul Barnett’s Is the New Testament History? And, of course, the reality is the more you look into the evidence for the claims of the Bible, the more overwhelmed you are – for the simple reason that it’s true. And so, I was able to ‘tick that box’ and knew that it’s not an intellectual cop-out to commit to Christianity.
But then I still had this other issue that I wasn’t good enough to be a Christian. A Christian friend of mine from the church down there just cracked open the whole idea for me with one little expression. She said to me, “Paul, you don’t have to be clean before you get in the bath.” Suddenly, I understood grace. What I was trying to do was become good enough to become a Christian rather than come as I was and be made clean by faith in what Christ had done. It was just this ‘lightbulb’ moment. I decided on that day to become a Christian, which I did, and was baptised that night. That was August 1989.
3. Moving to the big city
At that time I was working as an Industrial Relations Manager with BHP Steelworks in Port Kembla but had just been recruited for a new job up in Sydney. On my first day, they gave me the opportunity to introduce myself to the whole staff team.
In my naivety, I said, “My name is Paul Sampson and last week I became a Christian” – not realising that you’re not supposed to say that kind of thing in a secular workplace.
One of my new colleagues came to me afterwards and said, “Actually, Paul, I’m a Christian as well.” And he invited me to come along to church with him in Maroubra, which I did.
Anyway, this church wasn’t really what I was looking for. And if I can translate that for you: “there weren’t many girls there.” Okay, I’m shallow.
4. Meeting Cathy
He later took me along to a church called St Matthias, meeting at Sydney Girls High School. Rev. Al Stewart had just become an assistant minister there; we got to know each other well, and Al has been a good friend and mentor for me ever since.
Back in those days, we used to do little dramas at church. One night I saw a young lady performing in one of these dramas and I thought to myself, “Yeah, I need to get to know her.” 27 years ago, she became Cathy Sampson and Al preached at our wedding.
Cathy was very mission-minded, having grown up in a missionary family, and early on I realised that she would be a great match for me.
5. An apprenticeship and a scholarship
Around that time, Al started to speak with me about the possibility of using my gifts and experiences in a full-time ministry role. I wasn’t sure whether that was going to be the right way forward, but Col Marshall, then Director of the Ministry Training Strategy, started to speak with me about training with MTS. It was again a God-ordained defining moment. On the same day Col Marshall rang me and said, “Good news, Paul, we can offer you an MTS apprenticeship with full scholarship’, a recruitment agency offered me a new management position with a major multinational. Needless to say, there was an enormous disparity between the MTS scholarship being offered and the salary with the multinational.
I had a decision to make. Was I going to do what I thought God was leading me to do? Or that which would be the prudent financial thing and take the big money.
It was far from crystal clear. I wasn’t sure whether or not full-time ministry was what I should be doing, but I thought, if I could use this analogy: “How do you know whether you want to be a truck driver for the rest of your life? Well, go and drive a truck for two years. You work out whether you’re any good at it and you work out whether you want to do that for the rest of your life.”
And so, for me, MTS was ‘driving a truck’ for two years. I was getting some ministry skills and experiences, and I could work through whether or not the Lord was leading me to do that full-time. Through those two years, I came to understand that this really was the Lord’s plan. And I know if it’s the Lord’s plan, it’s a good plan. So I went to Moore Theological College in 1998 to begin a Bachelor of Divinity. During the 25 years since then, I have experienced the Lord’s rich blessings in many ways.
6. CMS Summer School
The next defining moment came at CMS Summer School 2009. Cathy had often been involved in leading the music at Summer School in Katoomba. Normally I would attend just for the days during the week because I was preaching on the Sunday. That year I had an assistant minister, so I was able to attend for the whole time. Because Cathy was leading the music, we ended up sitting in the front row. So, we got the ‘full blast’ of the talks, which was really wonderful. Rev. William Phillips, from the Tron Church in Scotland, was preaching on the passion narratives in Luke’s Gospel.
Each year as we then drove down from Summer School in Katoomba Cathy and I had the same conversation. I’d be driving. I’d look across to her and say, “So, anything? Have you’ve been zapped?” and she’d say “No, what about you?” And I would say, “No. Let’s come back in a year.” But as we came down at the beginning of 2009, I said, “Cathy, anything?” And she went “Maybe. And what about you?” And I said, “Yeah, maybe.”
We didn’t talk about it again for another couple of weeks and then decided we would knock on the door of CMS, just very gently. In God’s kindness, the door opened. Just six months later we found ourselves heading off to St Andrew’s Hall in Melbourne for missionary training in preparation for moving to Nairobi in Kenya. There I had the privilege of teaching the Bible to young men and women from across Africa for nearly seven years. An additional highlight for me was teaching the Moore College PTC [Preliminary Theology Certificate] courses to pastors in rural and regional areas of Kenya. I saw again during those years both the critical importance of supporting ongoing training and equipping of pastors, and the needs of pastors in regional and rural areas.
That’s part of the appeal for me of this BCA role, we have a mandate to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Some might think that Sydney is the end of the earth, but anyone who moves outside of the city realises there’s a whole lot more of Australia beyond Sydney. I long to see ministries encouraged and built up and facilitated in these regional and rural areas, and BCA is strategically positioned to do just that.
I am looking forward to being part of the BCA team as we strive together to reach Australia for Christ.