Mark & Stephanie Carroll have left Northwest to take up a new position as lead pastor couple at Whitehorse Baptist Church. Just before they left I caught up with Mark for an interview.
Tell me about your personal and spiritual journey:
I think the best summary of my spiritual journey would be running, then submitting, then running, then submitting, and on and on. It’s happened over and over again in my life where I would know what God was asking, but I would run away, then he’d correct me and I’d submit again. Eventually I realized that the “running” part isn’t very good and I needed to do more of the “submitting.” I’ve sensed a call to ministry in my life since I was young, whether it was academic, or pastoral, or whatever else. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to flee in fear of that call because of the sacrifices it requires—I’ve seen lots of pastors get hurt, and I didn’t want to put myself in the position to feel the same hurt. But I’ve realized through failure that running away is worse than submitting to God’s call, and ultimately his call leads directly to my joy.
Tell me a little about your family:
My family is amazing. My wife, Stephanie and I have been married for 11 years now. Theo is 7, Gavin just turned 5 and Amelia is going to be 2 in a month. So our house is busy, exciting, loud, noisy – all of those. I’m learning about the differences between girls and boys: My daughter, for example, loves shoes. She will go to the store, and go to the shoe section and she will start pulling shoes off the rack – trying to get them on her feet. She’ll get mad when she has to leave the shoe section because she has found all these beautiful shoes for herself. It’s so weird! Who taught her that?
You recently completed your master’s degree here at Northwest/ACTS. Tell me a little about your education and what brought you to Northwest.
The background story is that after high school I went to Simon Fraser University, again, as part of my running away. I knew I should be pursuing ministry, but decided instead to do a degree in science because it would open doors for me. But at Simon Fraser I realized that just “wanting to do it” didn’t make me try hard and it ultimately wasn’t where I was supposed to be. God brought me something good through my time there—it’s where Steph and I met—but it became clear pretty quickly that I was in the wrong place, so I left.
For about five years I spent time working in the food industry, working up to a management position, but the call wouldn’t go away, and eventually I decided to listen. I finished my BA at Prairie Bible College, and immediately knew that God was calling me into graduate-level education, but, again, I ran. This time I came up with excuses and rationalizations and ended up in pastoral ministry because I figured that God would like that just as much. Again, though, it became clear pretty quickly that I wasn’t following his direction, even though he did some amazing things in that time in spite of my disobedience.
Eventually I wised up and decided to pursue my MTS at Northwest. I’ve been a ‘Fellowship’ guy my whole life and love to be part of Fellowship Pacific, so coming to Northwest was a pretty natural decision. I did the MTS because I wanted to keep my options open for PhD work. I figured that I’d do my MTS, then move onto PhD, then get a job as a professor so that I could just be an academic and not worry about getting involved in people’s lives. Of course, that’s not an accurate picture of the job, but it’s what I was telling myself. Of course my plan wasn’t the way God had planned, so I worked on my degree for a couple of years until the scholarships and savings ran out, then started working in retail full-time to try to find some way to finish the degree. And that’s when Kent approached me and asked me to come and work at Northwest. I only finished my degree because of the opportunity provided to me in this job.
So much of your time at Northwest you have been deeply involved with Immerse. Tell me a little about that experience. What have you personally learned through the process? What does Immerse mean to you?
The experience of being involved with the designing of Immerse is like nothing I have ever done in my life, ever! I’ve had to play the role of middleman, negotiator, peace-maker, and sometimes even conflict-maker. It was such a unique opportunity to be able to have one foot in the ministry world through the ministry centre and one foot in the academy, but it was great because I realized that we all want the same thing. At the end of the day our mission is the same: we all want healthy churches; we want people to come to know Jesus; we want followers of Jesus trained as disciples; and ultimately we want that to grow and grow. Fellowship Pacific’s mission statement talks about leveraging our collective strengths to see a God-honouring impact in our region, and I feel like that’s what we did with Immerse. That God-honouring impact is more of a reality today than it’s ever been, and I think the process of designing Immerse has played into that.
What have I personally learned? I’ve learned the benefit of what Patrick Lencioni calls “productive ideological conflict.” When you’re all focused on the same mission, disagreement and conflict can be productive because they help you do that mission even better. And the mission that Jesus calls us to is worth conflicting about. A lot has been put on the line in creating this program—relationships have been tested, and friendships have been tried—but the program that’s come out the other side is unique and truly has the potential to transform our region with the gospel.
This is great news for me because I know that this movement that I know and love and these churches that I know and love will be effective well into the future because they’ll be well-led, and my kids and their kids will see the benefit of what we’ve accomplished with God’s help over these past few months.
How did taking a pastoral position come about?
I’ve known ever since I started working on my degree that God was preparing me for something when I was done. I wasn’t sure what that was, and I kept asking God to show me, but his answer was consistently, “no, because you’re going to be a bonehead and try to make it happen yourself, so you’re going to see one step at a time.” As I neared the completion of the program, two opportunities were presenting themselves: to continue into academia or to go back to vocational pastoral ministry. So I investigated both equally—I think I investigated every PhD program in North America and probably most of them in Europe, too—but I didn’t find one that seemed to fit my research interests and my skills. It felt like God was closing the door to the academy, but at the same time he was opening the door into pastoral ministry. And so I took a few tentative steps toward that route, and the doors kept opening, so I kept walking.
I knew from past experience that my next step in vocational ministry was into the role of lead pastor—that was what God had equipped me for and called me to. And I knew that I wanted to go to a place where I could conceive of staying for the rest of my life if that was what God called me to. I had a number of conversations about a number of different places, but none of them seemed to be “the thing.” Then one day, I think at a Fellowship Pacific staff meeting, somebody mentioned Whitehorse Baptist, and I had one of those moments where I knew God was saying, “That’s you!” Why? I’ve never been there! But the more we looked into it, the more God was arranging things to work out for us to go there. In fact, I said to Steph one time, “You know, God could use a 2×4 here and be more subtle.” That’s what I need because I don’t get “subtle” very well. It’s not that the road has been easy—every step along the way has been hard—but we’re settled in our sense of call, and we’ve never regretted it. We’ve never had a moment where we’ve said, “Oh, why did we do this? Now we’re in trouble.” Not once. It’s pretty amazing what happens when you let God work and just get out of the way.
What excites and what scares you about this new venture?
What excites me is the potential that I see in the city of Whitehorse. Young families like us are seeking out Whitehorse for its quality of life, and many of them are Christians who want to be on mission but there hasn’t been a place for them to connect. So I know of people who have been starting their own small groups, using video sermons from Village Church [where Mark previously attended] and the community group discussion questions—that’s how motivated they are! So right now there’s a whole group of people who want to get on mission for Jesus, but they need to be mobilized.
At the same time, many of the people moving to Whitehorse are moving there because they want a fresh start—a new beginning. To be able to step into that environment and to tell people that the thing they’re looking for, the fresh start they crave, is found exclusively in Jesus, that’s pretty exciting. There are 26,000 people Whitehorse, but the church attendance on Sunday morning shows me that thousands of those people will spend eternity apart from Jesus if we don’t tell them about him. That’s a massive opportunity for the gospel. I don’t know what God’s going to do, but if it’s anything like what I sense in my spirit then I think it’s going to be something incredible—I can’t wait to see what God’s going to do.
What scares me on the flip side is that I know how badly I can screw up that opportunity, especially if I start thinking that it’s all about me or the church. If God starts to work and I think it’s because I did something clever or special, that’s not going to go well. I’m also terrified by the significance of the call to preach the Word of God because I know how many ways my sin can get in the way of that. So this is a situation where I absolutely have to rely on God’s strength and God’s action.
How do you feel that your experience here at Northwest and especially your role in Immerse might influence your ministry there in the local church?
I feel like everything I’ve been doing in the past few years has been preparing me specifically for the task of pastoral ministry. Thinking about Immerse especially, I’ve basically had the opportunity to sit down with a lot of very wise, very experienced people and ask them what makes a good pastor so that we could build it into Immerse. I’ve learned so much through those conversations—more than I could learn through my own investigation—and now I feel like I have a blueprint for pastoral ministry effectiveness that I can use to develop my own skill base, whether it’s in preaching, leading, counseling, or whatever else.
I think this opportunity will influence my ministry primarily because I’ve learned that the number one task of a pastor is to lead the church to accomplish her mission. As a pastor, I don’t have to come up with the most clever plan, I don’t need to have all the skills, and I don’t have to single-handedly make mission come about. Instead, we, together as a community, accomplish the mission. This is pretty subtle, but it’s changed a lot in the way that I see the role of the pastor. I also have every intention of bringing an Immerse student onto the team at Whitehorse Baptist—hopefully soon—because I think it’s a great program and I’d love the opportunity to mentor someone through it and see them develop.
Speak also to the outcomes that are outlined in Immerse. How do you see those impacting even your ministry?
Having those outcomes is incredibly helpful. On the one hand, I’m encouraged when I read some of them because I see areas where God has gifted me and I’m grateful for them. On the other hand, some of them focus on areas where I’m not very skilled—at least not yet—and I’m grateful for the opportunity to develop them. The outcomes give me a clear path toward that improvement—they describe what it would look like for me to say that I’ve really understood the outcome, and they give a clear pathway to guide me down the path to greater mastery. I’ll probably even do a bunch of the assignments, even though I’m not going to get grades for them, because they’ll help me work out what these things look like in the specific context of Whitehorse Baptist and among the people there.