The Rev Mairisine Stanfield is minister of First Bangor Presbyterian Church. She is married to David and they have two sons.
Q. Can you tell us something about your background?
A. I was born in Denny, in Scotland - seven miles from Stirling. I was brought up in a working-class family with a brother and two sisters - I'm the third of four children. We were happy and loved. Sadly, my dad died at 61 from cancer when I was 19. My mum passed away 29 years ago when I was six months pregnant with our first child Jonathan. She was 56 and had suffered from emphysema for many years - caused by her chronic smoking habit. She used to say, during the last couple of years before she died, that she wished I would take her in a wheelchair around schools to implore young people never to smoke because she was an example of what happens if you do.
I'm married to David, also a Presbyterian minister. We have two adult sons, one daughter-in-law (so far!) and a beautiful new grand-daughter!
Q. What about your education and early career?
A. I was educated in Denny High School, then the University of Aberdeen, receiving my BD (Hons) degree in 1987. I became President of the Faculty of Divinity student body and loved working with the students and Faculty members.
In our first class in Aberdeen I met David. He was beginning his degree and training for ministry in the PCI and then at the end of our first year I became a candidate for ministry for the Church of Scotland.
A dilemma ensued when we realised that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together! To stay in Scotland or to come to Ireland? The answer is obvious. In the summer of 1987 we travelled to Bangor, David's home town.
Just before that time I had to be re-interviewed to become a candidate for the PCI and once my call was confirmed, I began further study at Union College and became an assistant minister in Regent Street Presbyterian Church in Newtownards. My first charge, which lasted for nearly 21 years, was in First Ballynahinch. I've been in First Bangor for almost seven years.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. From an early age, I knew that Jesus was my friend. However, at 14 I knew that I had to make a public commitment to follow Him, and I became a member of my home church in Dunipace, Stirlingshire. I was heavily involved there as a Sunday School teacher and, with the help of some friends, began a youth club. I had great volunteer youth leaders, especially my Youth Fellowship leader. I believed that I was going to be a doctor but God had other plans!
At 17, people began to ask if I'd considered ordained ministry and initially I "ran away" from that.
I didn't know any female ministers and wasn't sure how my family would respond. I wrestled with it for months and finally one day, as I was home alone, ironing for my mum, I received what I can only describe as a "call" from the Lord. In my first year in Aberdeen I spent time with Prof Marshall, seeking to discern if the "call" to ministry that I felt was Biblical. I will be eternally grateful to him for his time and pastoral support as well as his expert Biblical knowledge. Convinced, I submitted my application to the Church of Scotland and they confirmed the sense of call by accepting me as a candidate. At the age of 19 my life and destiny were set. The rest, as they say, is history!
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith?
A. I've never had any doubts that God exists, but in 1999, when I was seriously ill and in extreme physical pain, while I took comfort from reading the Psalms and knowing that others had gone down this road before me, I remember clearly standing on a cliff top in Donegal crying out to Him, asking what was going on and why He wasn't helping me? I remember walking back to our house after this with a clear sense of peace and certainty that God was in control and He was calling me simply but profoundly to trust Him - something that is still core for me all these years later.
Since that moment, when I let my circumstances overwhelm me and then experienced such a profound sense of peace, I have never doubted - even though I've been through numerous health issues and live with chronic pain every day.
Q. Have you ever been criticised for your faith?
A. Most clergy have to learn to live with criticism. We live in a consumer society and consumerism has infiltrated the church. It's interesting that in a culture that is changing so rapidly, we find that most people hate change - particularly within the church.
It is very difficult sometimes for the pastor in me, not to try to keep everyone happy - many ministers struggle with "people pleasing".
But the leader in me knows that we have to discern the times we live in and minister accordingly - no matter if that means change has to happen.
Q. Have you ever been ashamed of your own church or denomination?
A. No I have never been ashamed of either. I have, however, been disappointed at times by attitudes and decisions we have made.
Q. Are you afraid to die? Can you look beyond death?
A. I am not afraid to die - I believe in the core teaching of Scripture that we have been created for eternity.
I'm not looking forward to growing old or the process of dying - as one of my elderly friends says "Growing old and dying is not for the weak."
As a pastor I have journeyed with many people through illness, suffering and dying. For many there is relief and peace that they are in God's hands so there is nothing to fear, even though for those who are left, there is such sadness and grief. But I believe that the new heaven and new earth that God promises will be the most amazing place to live - no pain, no sorrow, no tears... and being in the Lord's presence... wow!
Q. Are you worried about hell?
A. I'm not worried about hell because I've trusted Jesus, but the Christian doctrine of hell is not for the faint-hearted. Jesus himself spoke of it as a reality so we can't ignore it. I believe in resurrection because Jesus both talked about it and experienced it himself. It is a central doctrine of our faith.
Q. What about people of other denominations and other faiths?
A. I have always believed in working together with other Christian churches. In Ballynahinch six churches (both Catholic and Protestant) worked together to pray for the town and respond to need. One example was to minister to young people and, in particular, to help prevent them from self-harm or taking their own lives... our United Ministry was crucial at that time.
I would hope that I would never be arrogant enough to think that I couldn't learn from another person, no matter their background or culture.
Q. Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland ?
A. It has both helped and hindered. Christian leaders were at the forefront of enabling peace and churches during dreadful days, and local congregations sought to play an active role in helping communities, then and now. My experience in Ballynahinch was that the churches brought life, hope and practical help to that community. In Bangor, many churches are seeking to do the same today - we are at the forefront of food banks, Covid-19 helplines and youth/ children's ministries and organisations. However, religion has also hindered when there's been bigotry, division, competitiveness and judgmentalism.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music and why?
A. My favourite movies are Braveheart and It's a Wonderful Life. My favourite books are in the crime genre, which my sons always found hilarious considering the job I do! I love the Scottish author Ian Rankin. I love all sorts of music, and especially musical theatre. I've seen Les Miserables three times, and before the lockdown I got to see Hamilton in London.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. In those moments when I encounter His presence and He speaks clearly to me. Most often, when I'm in worship and praising with God's people.
Q. What inscription would you like on your tombstone?
A.'She truly lived and experienced life in all its fullness.'
Q. Any regrets?
A. That like my uncle Bill, I didn't get to play football for Scotland - I was born too soon!