Rev John Dickinson has just laid down the reigns at Carnmoney Church after 19 years.
For one of the best-known Presbyterian Ministers in Northern Ireland, this marks the end of four decades of full-time ministry which took him to Bloomfield, the rural fields of Killyleagh, Seaview in North Belfast and of course, Newtownabbey.
John remembers inviting Jesus into his heart to stay as an eight-year-old. His formative years were spent in the Maidan City where his father was minister of Ebrington Presbyterian Church.
He also recalls how God first placed the ministry on his heart when he was a young teenager:
“I was about 13 when I told my mum that this was what I wanted to do with my life. As both of my parents knew what this would mean for me, they really encouraged me to reflect on it and perhaps think about alternatives.
“However, once they knew that it was a settled conviction on my heart mum and dad were over-joyed and really supportive.”
After taking a degree in Modern History at Queens’, John studied Theology at Union College. Two ‘fantastic summers’ with Rev David McGaughey at Mourne Presbyterian Church formed part of his training before John was assigned to Bloomfield where he served for four-and-half years as the Assistant Minister.
By then, he and his childhood sweetheart, Christine had married and were living near the Beersbridge Road, so this was their ‘home’ parish.
Four and a half years in First Killyleagh followed where the self-confessed ‘townie’ became well acquainted with the sounds of wildlife and even lived behind a barley field.
A move to Seaview in North Belfast brought a return to city life before the family relocated to Carnmoney nearly two decades ago.
John reflects: “Because Church was my life and ministry was what I always wanted to do location never mattered to me as much as people. Obviously, each congregation have their own characteristics and values, a bit like human beings in one sense. It would be fair to say that I, along with Christine and the family had good times in each of the congregations where we served.”
As one of the largest congregations within the domination, the move to Carnmoney brought its own set of unique challenges. John’s first task when he arrived was to oversee the rebuilding of the physical Church – something that brought a whole new dynamic to the life of the fellowship.
John’s tenure there also saw a concerted effort to make worship more relevant to people within the 18-35 age range in addition to the development of Vision 2020, a twelve-year strategy which saw Church life rebuilt around three key words – Worship, Community and Witness.
“All of this stemmed from a conviction that we needed to become relevant to the community that was around us, to meet the needs of that community and to win people to faith in Christ”, added John.
John and Christine were planning for retirement when life threw them a curveball last year. Christine was diagnosed with terminal cancer in March, just a week after she retired as a Social Worker and passed away just seven weeks later.
Understandably given the recent nature of his loss, John is uncertain about what advice he can give to others who have experienced an unforeseen bereavement.
“Worship has always meant so much to me”, he said: “One of the consequences of the pandemic has been that we are unable to gather in the way that we did pre-COVID and I have missed that. It is important to seek opportunities to be where you know the Lord is present because it is where He is that brings you into a situation of peace and joy, even if you don’t understand everything that is happening.
“As David said in Psalm 23: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me’ – seek opportunities to be in His presence and allow that to be the balm to your soul”, John concluded.