Thrive

Last updated: June 27, 2024

Call to Ordination

At the age of 15, Stephen Hance began to discern a call to ministry. Having been born and raised in the Anglican Church in the U.K., he was already leading the youth group at his local church in Salsbury by age 17. During that time, he preached a sermon at a youth service and caught the attention of an older minister who happened to hear him preach. The man asked Stephen if he was called to ordination. “He came up to me after the service and said, ‘Has it ever occurred to you that God might be calling you to ordination?’” Stephen says. “And as he said that, I hadn’t thought that before. I knew God was calling me to something, but I didn’t know what it was. As he said that, I felt like the scales came off. And I said, yes, I think he is.”

By happenstance, the older minister mentioned Stephen’s newfound calling to the rector of his church before Stephen had a chance to do it himself. By the time he got home, Stephen’s parents had already received a note from the rector wanting to talk about this calling he was supposedly sharing with others. However, instead of discouraging him because of his age, his rector affirmed this calling.

“He said, ‘Well, I’m really glad we’re having this conversation because I think that is what God is calling you to. So what do we do about it?’” Stephen says. “So that began quite a long journey. I mean, the Church of England did not really know what to do with a 17-year-old who felt that they were being called to ordination.”

Stephen began his long journey with a first step into education. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology from the University of Portsmouth, where he met his wife, Jacqui, at 19. He then went to Seminary at St John’s College, Nottingham, earning a Bachelor of Theology degree and Master of Arts in mission and ministry. Following his seminary education, Stephen was ordained as a deacon at 27 and a priest at 28. The calling he had felt more than 10 years before was just beginning to be fulfilled.

From Churches to Cathedrals

The first several years of Stephen’s full-time ordained ministry were spent serving in a few different parishes. In the first parish in Portsmouth, Stephen served for three years as a curate, a kind of minister-in-training who assists a more senior minister. His first role as sole minister was at a small parish in London. Returning to the city seemed inevitable to Stephen. “I’m not a Londoner by background, but very much a kind of urban person who’s drawn to the big city,” he says. Urban ministry would prove to be a mainstay for the remainder years of his ministry. 

Stephen then moved to a parish in South London called Church of the Ascension, Balham Hill. The ministry of that church thrived during his 13 years there with many people coming to the faith and many fruitful outreach efforts. During this time, Stephen started and completed his Doctor of Ministry degree from Asbury Seminary. He came to the Seminary as part of the Beeson International Pastors program which, at the time, was a part-time program over four years with one 6-week long residential visit to the Kentucky campus each year. At the time, the program had never received an applicant from Britain and was primarily designed for pastors from Africa and the Far East. Stephen was the only native English speaker in the program at the time, which he saw as a great experience.

“One of the things I’ve noticed… I think Asbury is unique. I think it’s unique in its global perspective,” Stephen says. “And I very much hope that that will continue into the future.” When he finished his program at the Seminary, he had gained a greater sense of the global church.

The other thing he discovered about the Seminary was its commitment to spiritual formation. “I think it’s also quite unique in terms of its approach to formation,” he says. “Asbury has never been about giving people skills and knowledge to go out and do a job of ministry. Asbury has always been about forming ministers and disciples in the broader sense as part of a worshiping community and its reach runs beyond the Wesleyan tradition.”

He didn’t expect that he would still be connected to Asbury Seminary some 20 years after he started his program, but the time he spent in the D.Min. program shaped his ministry vision and birthed a desire to continue investing in the Seminary’s mission. In 2020, Stephen was announced as the first international president of the Alumni Council, a role that he still holds today. In 2024, he was chosen to represent alumni on the presidential search committee to find the Seminary’s 9th president. He’s convinced that the Seminary is “a very special place.”

While serving at the Church of Ascension, Stephen felt he could stay there for the foreseeable future. “But after I’d been there for 10 years, I just started getting kind of itchy feet a little bit and thinking that God wanted me to do something else, and I wasn’t sure what it was,” Stephen says. Once again, attempting to discern the Lord’s leading, he began to look for other options within the Anglican church.

Soon after, Stephen’s bishop approached him and asked if he would become the Director of Mission and Evangelism for the Diocese of Southwark. Accepting the position, Stephen consequently joined the clergy staff of Southwark Cathedral and stepped into a completely new arena of ministry: the cathedral. “I had no cathedral ministry experience. All my church experience had been in pretty contemporary evangelical parishes,” Stephen says. “That was my background and that was where I’d served, so I was quite nervous actually in the prospect of cathedral ministry… And then much to my surprise, I really fell in love with cathedral ministry.”

Cathedral Ministry

Stephen was admittedly much less used to some of the markers of cathedral ministry such as robes, choirs, and a certain level of formality that one doesn’t often see in a typical evangelical church. However, in due time, the style of the cathedral would begin to grow on him. “I actually found the formality, the structure of the liturgy incredibly liberating, having thought that I would find it constraining,” Stephen says. “In fact, I found it deep and rich… praying of prayers which had been written hundreds of years ago and which people had committed to memory and which Christians all over the world had been praying for hundreds of years. I found that incredibly powerful.”

Along with a growing appreciation for the aesthetics and worship style of the cathedral, Stephen found it was shaping his ministry vision as well. He found that the kind of influence and form of outreach of cathedral ministry was very different from that of an evangelical-style church. Along with locals who might attend the cathedral’s services, it was also a place that attracted non-Christians and public figures. Many non-Christian tourists and visitors attended merely for the beauty and the experience. The cathedral would also host services to mark national events and people like the Mayor of London would hold special events there. Stephen was suddenly faced with an opportunity to reach people who wouldn’t normally grace the halls of a modern evangelical church. A new form of mission had come to him.

“So how do you keep the bar low?” Stephen says. “We’ve got all of those contacts, but take people on a journey so the way people end up is as committed, Holy Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus. I mean, that to me is absolutely fascinating. And it’s kind of what I’ve been working on ever since.”

While invested in this unique ministry context, Stephen then became Dean of Derby Cathedral for a time before being asked to ​​take on a role as a National Lead for Evangelism and Witness for the Church of England. With all that he had been learning and experiencing in ministry to that point, this position seemed ideal. “That absolutely ticks my boxes,” he says. “And when the national church says, ‘look, could you lead on this,’ well… yeah, absolutely.”

However, amid some restructuring that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, Stephen felt the role became more administratively focused than he expected. He began to think about going back to cathedral ministry when a friend suggested that he apply to be Dean of Toronto. “If you said to me 12 months ago I’d be Dean of Toronto, I’d have fallen off my chair,” he says. “I mean, absolutely not in my field of vision at all. But here I am.”

Dean of Toronto

Stephen began this position in January 2024. According to Stephen, Toronto is a very diverse and multicultural city with a thriving art and culture scene. Now, in his influential role leading the clergy, managing organizational matters, and preaching and leading worship, he is thinking about how the cathedral can reflect the city around them to reach people with the gospel. At the same time, during his years of cathedral ministry, he has observed a growing interest in liturgy and more traditional styles of worship as opposed to the clear attempts to reflect the contemporary culture that has largely marked the evangelical church for the past several decades. This creates both a challenge and an opportunity for someone in his position. He says that the answer isn’t then to take a hard turn into neo-monasticism or traditional worship as the sole strategy of the church.

“That’s going to connect with some people,” Stephen says. “I think what we have to do is to say, you know, what’s in our heart, this community of faith, and what could we do with integrity and authenticity? And then let’s do that. And let’s try and do it in a way which makes it as accessible as we can for people who don’t presently come. No church can be all things to all people.”

With keen cultural exegesis, Stephen says that culture is too fragmented and the cultural tribes too numerous to choose one style or tradition and assume it is the one way to reach people with the gospel effectively. Not only so, but he observes the issue of constantly trying to be too contemporary. “There’s nothing so dated as something that was really contemporary 10 years ago,” he says. “The problem of pursuing the kind of ultra-modern is that the ultra-modern doesn’t stay that way for very long.”

The bottom line for Stephen is that the church is a place where people have the opportunity to engage with God. “The only interesting thing about Christianity is God and the opportunity to be restored to a relationship with God through Jesus,” he claims. “Our calling is to introduce people to God. Now, can we use cultural forms to do that? Yeah, absolutely. And should the quality be as good as we can make it? I think it should. I think God is dishonored if we don’t work at what we’re offering in worship. But it’s a huge mistake to think that it all depends on us getting the music group right. Or the choir, in my context now.”

With years of serving in churches that can seem to represent something antiquated, Stephen has discovered a timeless vision of ministry, one that is incredibly applicable to ministers in any context: the primary call of ministers is to lead people to God. According to Stephen, whether a cathedral or contemporary-styled church, each has a unique capacity to connect with someone or some groups in the community in which they reside and point them to a relationship with Jesus. 

“That’s the thing that we offer that nobody else does,” Stephen says. “And it just so happens that I think that’s the thing which most addresses the fundamental human need anyway.”

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