Few of the congregation who turned up at the Thriving Life Church in Newtownards yesterday would have been prepared for the sad news that quickly unfolded.
Their first service of this new decade will be memorable for all the wrong reasons because, to their dismay, the worshippers were told that their lead Pastor Gareth Mills, who founded the church, had been having an affair with a young married member of their congregation.
For most parishioners, their church is rather like an extended family to them, as some of Pastor Mills’ church described it yesterday, and the sense of shock and bewilderment was palpable.
The new interim lead Pastor Philip Allen expressed the congregation’s shock when he said his heart was “broken”, and added that he had no interest in defending the “indefensible”.
He admitted that the leadership team had been “shaken to our core by this sinful and wrong behaviour”. However, his task has not been made easier by the claim that “currently Gareth is showing no signs of repentance”, or by the claim from the father of the husband that little concern had been shown for his son.
Two families are directly affected. One is the family of Pastor Mills (41), who has been removed from the leadership of his church, and the other is the family of the 22-year-old woman and particularly her husband. Pastor Mills married the young couple only 18 months ago.
This is a very sad and situation for the Thriving Life Church, not just for the families of those involved in the affair, but also for the wider congregation.
There is a particular burden on Pastor Mills, who’s life’s work has been to build up the church which has a significant practical community outreach in doing good works. His fall from grace is no doubt compounded by his alleged lack of repentance for what he has done in hurting so many people.
Sin and redemption have long been a central focus in Church teaching.
However, forgiveness is also one of the major teachings of the Church.
This is a very human situation in the Thriving Life Church but it is one which many others have experienced, and it is hoped that people can move forward — but for many the hurt will last for a lifetime.