Thrive

This article is an update of an article originally published July 2020.

Love Your Neighbor

James Paton’s ministry strategy has largely evolved around one simple biblical principle: love your neighbor. The church at which he is head pastor, First Alliance Church (FAC) in Calgary, Alberta, takes this strategy seriously. In 2020, they chose to shut their doors to the 4,000+ people who gathered each weekend one week before the government’s COVID-19 mandate. But their ministry didn’t stop. Instead, James and his innovative team developed a rallying cry for this season: “Thriving Today and Shaping Tomorrow.” In two weeks, they successfully transitioned to online services, opened their church as a homeless shelter, started delivering lunches to food-insecure children and became the South Calgary Food Hub.

“We have been blessed with very creative leaders, who saw the opportunity to do something different, and rather than try to figure it all out, ran full steam into the future, believing that God could use us if we’d say yes to it,” James said in 2020.

The impact of the pandemic initiative was significant with FAC housing 110 people experiencing homelessness each evening. However, simply loving those around him and empowering other leaders to do the same was already in James’s ministry repertoire before his time at FAC.

Originally from Scotland, James grew up in Northern Ireland, where he met his wife Gillian. He came to faith as a child and has a vivid memory of praying with his mother to accept Jesus. He sensed God’s call to pastoral ministry around 16 or 17, but he had no idea how that calling would look. After studying economics at the University of Glasgow, he began a successful career, qualifying as a Chartered Tax Advisor with EY. It was around this time that his calling began to pull him in another direction. 

“So it really became a very compelling sense of call that I really should quit that job, go back to school, and start all over, which is challenging with a wife and a young baby and leaving a job and trying to find your way through school,” James says. “But that really was the beginning of a journey for me. And next year will mark 30 years in pastoral ministry since that journey began.”

James studied at the University of Manchester before serving in his first church, a small Nazarene Church in Perth, Scotland. He jokes that he is grateful that the church survived his first pastoral experience, but he adds that the church is still thriving today. The church began to grow during his time there as he began to hone his passion for evangelism and reaching people. James recalls getting to know the manager of the hotel next to the church as he was continually going in to get his morning coffee. She eventually came to know Jesus and started attending the church. She even gave her staff time off to attend Sunday morning services.

“It was learning to understand, in a sense, where people were, what were the actual things that they did need or that they had a longing for,” James says. “It called for a lot of listening and… beginning to position yourself in response and the incarnational presence that replied to some of that. That was the easiest thing to do. Show up, be present, be friendly, talk with people, and listen to them.”

Buy A Plane Ticket and Go

He was soon assigned overseas to an international church in Switzerland, which he describes as one of the most formative periods of his life. This experience helped him to grow in many ways, especially through questioning new realities and putting on new lenses for how to do effective ministry. At the same time, learning German and getting to know the people living around him and his family led to more ministry opportunities.

“And then we discovered there were actually a lot of international people around there,” James says. “There was a language school for Chinese students that were coming to learn German, of all things. And we got to know the teacher. She came to know Jesus. She was bringing lots of these students in who came to know the Lord. Some of them went back to China. Some stayed in Europe or moved to the States.”

The move to Switzerland would also teach James another valuable lesson regarding answering the call of God: trust Jesus and go. At the time, he and Gillian had three kids, two under 18 months old. He did not know German very well and accepted the job as the pastor with the hope that he would quickly learn. “People say to me when they are contemplating a move like that, ‘How do you go to a new place? How can you move to a new country and a new language with young children?’ And my response has always been the same… You buy a plane ticket and you go. If you think you’re going to sort it all out before you leave, it won’t happen,” James says. “At the end of the day, you buy a plane ticket and you go and you trust Jesus. It became a kind of a way of doing life for me.”

While in Switzerland, James received a Beeson Scholarship from Asbury Theological Seminary. He began the D.Min. program in 2001 and graduated in 2005; during that time, he did one year residentially at Asbury in Wilmore, Kentucky. This program focused on Church Leadership and Biblical Preaching and was a very beneficial time of stretching for James as he entered a whole new level of understanding. Some of his most influential experiences came from living in community with his cohort group, going on several eye-opening site visits, learning proper exegesis of Biblical texts, and ultimately deepening his understanding of how to be a follower of Jesus and a leader in ministry.

While at Asbury, James first encountered the Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA), where Steve Elliott was pastor in Lexington. Steve’s wife, Marilyn, was in the same D.Min. cohort as James. The connection to the Elliotts would encourage James’s path to C&MA churches in Canada. After serving as Associate Lead Pastor at Foothills Alliance in Calgary for almost 10 years, he accepted the call to become Teaching Pastor at Crossroads International Church in Amsterdam, a flagship European church with a vibrant ministry in a post-everything culture. James continued to operate within the talents and skills with which the Lord had equipped him, but now he was also seeing the positive effect of his education at Asbury. He specifically mentions his cultural anthropology class teaching him to more effectively identify and reach out to people within the city on whom the church could have the most impact. 

“It really gave me both the curiosity and the skill set to interrogate a culture and begin to learn about it more than my just haphazard efforts in the past,” James says. “That was very insightful for me. There was a lot of work being done about, even in the States, understanding culture, what church would need to look like… to actually build bridges and be able to communicate; make sure the gospel was actually being heard as opposed to what we thought we were saying.”

Now and the Next Generation

James has most recently returned to Calgary as Lead Pastor of First Alliance Church. In recent years, FAC has been a rapidly multiplying church. One of James’s chief concerns since returning to FAC was to see the church shift in response to the growing cultural changes in the city. In response, he and the staff have worked to make the church more diverse and multi-ethnic. They have succeeded in doing so by adopting a multi-site model, allowing different expressions of the church to meet in specific places with specific concentrations. For example, there is a Spanish-speaking congregation that is soon to be joined by a Brazilian congregation and a Telugu-speaking congregation.

“We simply now call what we do joining Jesus, figuring out what he’s saying, what he’s calling us to, and just doing whatever he wants,” James says. “Instead of having a big guess for what we should do next, we kind of wait, and when something lands on our plate, then we’re like, Lord, is this it? And off we go…”

James and Gillian have three adult children, John, Callum and Eilidh, two of whom still live in Amsterdam. James says that the distance from the ones who live abroad can be difficult, but that his children and grandchildren love coming to visit Canada. In this latter stage of his life and ministry, James is very much focused on pouring into the next generation. Around 2017, he was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease. He says the reality that he may not reach retirement inspired him to think about his priorities.

“Most of our younger leaders that serve in leadership with me in our church are the age of my children,” he says. “They’re phenomenal preachers and campus pastors and leaders and doing some amazing things. And that’s been, for the past few years, the number one thing that I’m actually spending time on is nurturing and helping them to be all they can be so that one day when I do need to step out of leadership here, our church will not be bereft of good leaders. And our whole team of sites and venues will have strong leaders, strong preachers who love Jesus and love people and reach people with the gospel.”

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