Stand-in pastor at scandal-hit Ards church confident it will 'weather storm' caused by his love cheat predecessor
The interim pastor at a Co Down church rocked by an affair involving his predecessor and a married female member has insisted it will weather "the storm" sparked by the scandal.
Pastor Philip Allen was speaking at what was the second time church members had gathered at Thriving Life Church (TLC) in Newtownards since the affair emerged earlier this month.
Pastor Gareth Mills (41) stood down from the church he had helped found after it was revealed he had conducted an extramarital relationship with a 22-year-old woman who had started attending TLC around four years ago.
She and her husband had been married by Mr Mills, who has been described by the church as being "unrepentant" after his actions.
Mr Mills' wife Melissa has also stood down from her role at the church.
Meanwhile, the father of the man whose wife had been conducting the affair with Mr Mills had told the Belfast Telegraph the church's focus was on paying the "mortgage on its new building", rather than on his devastated son.
At the weekend it was reported by the Sunday Life that TLC - a registered charity - has assets worth £3m, and has received £500,000 from its members.
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On stage yesterday Pastor Allen welcomed the congregation, and acknowledged it had been a difficult week for all concerned, comparing the scandal to that of a biblical storm.
"When I left here last Sunday I felt strengthened, not because anything in the storm had changed, but because where I was looking was different, my perspective, my focus was different," he said.
"But I have to be honest with you, by pretty soon late Sunday night into Monday morning I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the storm again."
He revealed this led him to seek counsel from the Bible, where he read from Gospel Mark chapter 4, verses 35 to 41. The passages tell the story of Jesus calming a storm while crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat with his disciples during a fierce storm.
Comparing the affair and its fallout to the storm, and the boat to the church, he said God had told him "to stop focusing on the storm" and get his eyes "back on the boat".
"The storm to me represented lots of things. It represents the families that I love that have been ripped apart, it represents the pain that I can't fix, humanly.
"It represents to me many levels of fear, many levels of feeling inadequate of the task that I have ahead, and that we as a team and church have ahead of us."
Pastor Allen explained he had felt "the weight of everybody involved", adding: "I have an overwhelming amount to do, is what the storm looks like to me."
"The Bible talks about the body of Christ... Jesus' Church is known as the body of Christ. And I feel so much stronger when I'm connected to and surrounded by the body of Christ."
He revealed he had also drawn strength from his wife Kara, as well as his church team, staff and its members. "The hundreds and hundreds of your messages that have come our direction, to just say, 'We're standing with you, we're encouraging you'," he said. He added that those at the centre of the affair - "whose hearts have been broken" - have also been "strengthened and encouraged by God's Church". Pastor Allen said the wider church community had also reached out to them with messages of support, with local church leaders and pastors meeting with them directly last week, a remark which was met with loud clapping.
"On Thursday we spent lunchtime with all the other ministers and pastors from around Newtownards who met with us, who provided lunch for us and prayed with us and stood with us," he revealed.
"And for the sake of clarity anyone who is listening on, and who wants to turn my words or hear something in it, not one of them was standing in support of the sin or the brokenness in this, but in the fact that this is God's Church and they stand with us, to encourage us and to reflect Jesus to the world around."
The pastor told members: "You're not in this storm in a one-man dinghy and neither am I. We're in a large boat, with a large group of people.
"So don't allow the enemy - and there is in this an enemy, people. There is an enemy and it is not flesh and blood, that wants us to believe that we're done, that nobody's for us."
Revealing it had been "God's power and strength" that had got him through the last week, he insisted TLC would emerge from the scandal stronger.
"We can't control the storm; let's not look at it, let's not focus on it," he said.
"Let's keep our eyes on what's in the boat, because what's in the boat is way more powerful than the storm around us."