Interview with Steve Cooper

Transcript of an interview I recorded with Steve Cooper in December 1997:

Steve Cooper leaves Queensland this month for the cool tranquility of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. Rod Benson caught up with him as he prepared to depart after six years in the provincial city of Ipswich (in Queensland, Australia).

RB: Steve, you moved from New South Wales to Queensland in 1992 as Senior Pastor of one of the state’s oldest and largest churches. How would you describe Ipswich?

SC: My first impression was of a working class provincial city with lots of social problems, and many people living on welfare and unemployment benefits. Arriving in January 1992, the heat and humidity was overwhelming, and I noticed that one of the results of that was there were a lot of people finding it hard to control their emotions in relationships.

Six years later there is still a lot of truth in that impression, but I’ve also found that Ipswich is a very diverse place, with a fascinating blend of rich tradition and culture and heritage as well. One of the things I’ve appreciated about this city is the way the facilities are so handy: you’re physically close to people, to hospitals, to schools, shops, to doctors. There are so many facilities for people to use, and they’re very easy to get to, a very convenient city to live in.

RB: What changes have you seen over the last six years?

SC: Probably the main change is the direction of the city. Ipswich was very much defined by the main employers in past generations – big department stores, coal mines, the woolen mills, railway workshops – and virtually all those have closed down now. There’s nothing like the amount of employment that there used to be, and I think the general Ipswich population wonder what’s the direction for the future? Have we all got to go to Brisbane for employment? What’s the identity of the city? What can it really offer to its own people and to outsiders?

I’ve seen that confusion and uncertainty and lack of confidence growing over the six years. Although there are certainly some notable people who have tried to reverse the trend, and give some significant direction, including a number of Christian leaders.

RB: What shape has your ministry taken at Ipswich Baptist Church?

SC: When I came here six years ago, it was a church that was very traditional, it had been through a number of pastorates where there had been a lot of ups and downs. One pastor, Geoff Litzow, had died tragically, and the church was still in some degree of shock over that. The church had lost direction in the sense that it didn’t really know if it wanted to stay in the central part of the city or whether it should sell up and relocate.

The other thing that struck was that the church people were comfortable in their friendships with each other, but they were unfriendly to others who were different, especially anyone who was weak or hurting in the community. Often those people were treated fairly coldly because the church people were secure and could basically only handle employed people or middle-class types.

So what I’ve tried to do over the last six years is, very gently and slowly, to move the church along so that it’s more open to contemporary worship styles, to have a clear sense of mission and purpose, and also to be a welcoming and friendly church, to accept people who are battlers. Jesus talked about “the little ones”; I’ve often preached on the theme of “the little ones” – those who are so prevalent in Ipswich.

Our church has been through some hard times during my ministry, especially in the second and third year, when two of the pastors on the pastoral team were involved in moral misconduct (one was jailed; neither is in ministry today). Through that time I aimed to be there with the church as a stable, thoughtful pastor to help them through those hard experiences.

One of the things I have enjoyed here in this city is the interaction with other pastors where we’ve tried to present a relevant gospel message to a city that very much needs hope and compassion. It’s been a big challenge to try and work toward that.

RB: You’ve also seen the church send the first cross-cultural career missionary in its 136-year history.

SC: Yes, Cathy Pickard, a young woman from our church who’s working with OMF in Thailand, which is a great joy to us. She already had a very clear missionary vision before I arrived, but I’ve certainly supported her and helped the church to get behind her and pray for her and support her. We’re her main sending church, and it’s been very good for the church to learn to have a vision for cross-cultural mission, especially overseas.

It’s been a church that has been very good at church planting in Queensland, a commitment to planting churches in Ipswich over the 136 years, a commitment also to Mission to Queensland, but they needed to have a broader vision beyond our state and especially across cultures.

RB: You came to Ipswich from a quiet beachside suburb of Sydney. What led you here?

SC: I’m not sure of the answer to that, Rod. Dee Why Baptist Church was my first pastorate, I was there for five years. Most of that time I was part-time, and it was a fairly small church with about 60 to 70 regular attenders. After five years I was ready for a greater challenge. I was especially interested in leading a pastoral team.

A representative of the Ipswich Baptist Church contacted me, and when I came up and met with the leaders, the church here seemed to be very much the kind of situation I was looking for. I could see it was going to be a very diverse community and a diverse church, and I thought that would stretch me in many ways, and certainly it has.

RB: How does Queensland Baptist culture compare to that of New South Wales?

SC: I’ve been surprised to discover that there’s not a lot of difference between the average Baptist person, or even the average Baptist church, in both states, and one area in which this is particularly true is the theological colleges. When I came to Queensland I had a certain impression of the Queensland Baptist College of Ministries [now Malyon College], and the Queensland Baptists generally as being more theologically conservative, but I think I’ve seen some changes while I’ve been here, and I think my stereotype was a bit incorrect.

The difference between the Queensland Baptist College of Ministries in Brisbane, and Sydney’s Morling College is very small these days in terms of theology, emphasis, mission orientation, styles of training, the academic qualifications and outlook of the faculty.

The Queensland scene is definitely smaller, about half the size of Baptist churches in NSW, so for me that’s been a positive thing, because it’s helped me to know people more quickly, and to feel part of a family, whereas in NSW you can as a Baptist feel a little bit lost in the middle of quite a gigantic organisation.

One of the things I’ve observed in my six years here is that Baptists in Queensland seem to have separated into several camps. There’s a charismatic group, there’s a Reformed group of churches and pastors, there’s even a group these days who would see themselves as the ‘Baptist distinctives’ group. There are some people who are pro-Union, some who are suspicious of the Union, some who are anti-Union. And there are other groupings as well. All of that saddens me, and I don’t think that characteristic would be so true of pastors and churches in NSW.

I’ve always been very impressed with the leadership of the Baptist Union of Queensland, with the General Superintendent and Directors of other Service Groups who have always seemed to me to be more progressive and more innovative and more in touch with real Baptist life than the leaders that I knew in NSW.

I was greatly encouraged when I arrived in Queensland because I was given opportunity very quickly to have influence in the Baptist Union scene. For example, I was asked to be an Area Superintendent, and I know that if I had remained in NSW, I would have been perceived as a recent College graduate, and a pastor in his late thirties, and I probably wouldn’t have been given a leadership role like that.

I’ve also been given opportunity to lecture at the Baptist College in Brisbane, and I’ve appreciated very much the openness of the faculty to allowing me – a ‘foreigner’ – to share with the students in that way.

RB: Some time ago you wrote in the ministry magazine Adelphoi about the “unbusy pastor.” What does that mean to you?

SC: About 15 years ago I read an article in Leadership magazine that influenced me more than any other article I’ve ever read, written by Eugene Peterson, titled ‘The unbusy pastor.’ Peterson’s basic thesis in that article is that most pastors are far too busy, and they try to impress themselves and others by being super-busy in their lives. Peterson says that for a pastor to be overly busy is a very dangerous thing. He says that a pastor has to set their goals and priorities very clearly.

The main business of a pastor is in three areas: one is to be a person of the Word who studies scripture and teaches the Bible to others; secondly a person who listens to others; and thirdly a person who prays. He says they’re the three main priorities, and if you get overly busy in administration or rushing around, then you don’t really have enough time to dig down deep and do well in those three things.

Now obviously there are many times when I am busy, and life becomes incredibly crowded, and that’s true, I’m sure, for any pastor. But Peterson’s vision is a very haunting one, and one that I find very attractive – I’d like to aim in my life to be an “unbusy pastor” who has time to reflect on scripture, time to really pray deeply with God, time to really get with people and sit beside them and listen to them, and be a sensitive pastoral carer.

RB: At the end of a long day, what do you do to relax and unwind?

SC: Reading is something I love to do. I also love to be with my family. It’s a good idea for a pastor to combine his leisure with family time, because for a lot of men, if they’re very stressed out at work, their form of leisure is to go off with other men and, for example, go fishing, or have a game of golf, or go to the pub, or whatever it might be – not that there’s anything wrong with those things in themselves.

But the problem is that you’re going away from your family, and you see less and less of your wife and your children. So I’ve tried to do leisure things with my family, whether it be around the home, in the back yard, or going to things together on Saturdays, so that I’m relaxing, but I’m doing it in the presence of the ones that I want to be close to and care for in my family.

One of the problems with that, of course, is that I don’t have a real lot of non-Christian friends, because I don’t play sport, and I don’t get involved in clubs and that kind of thing. So I’ve had to compensate for that a little bit by trying to be friendly with men in the street, and try to seize on whatever opportunities I get to befriend non-Christian men. But those opportunities are not real easy for me.

RB: How do you balance the need to be aware of popular culture through watching television, and concerns about wasting time?

SC: I don’t spend much time watching TV. I usually watch as I wipe up the dishes. My wife Joy and I have an allocation of jobs, and she usually cooks the tea and then I wash and wipe up after. I’ve got a little black and white TV that I watch while I’m doing that, so I catch up on the news. Apart from that I don’t watch a real lot of things. I find TV pretty boring, and slow-moving.

Probably my main source of information is from listening to ABC Radio as I drive around, and also on Sundays I receive the Sunday Mail, and I find there are often a number of insightful comments in that, on the nature of culture and society in Queensland. They’re my main sources of trying to keep in contact with local news and information. I find I just get overloaded, there’s so much stuff around that I’ve got to be fairly guarded about how much information I’m receiving.

RB: You have four school-age children. How does your family cope with the demands of Christian ministry?

SC: Not too bad, really, because my wife and I try to be fairly disciplined in our approach to family. Right from early days of being in ministry – and I’ve been in ministry now for 20 years, and pastoral ministry for eleven of those – I’ve always tried to set parameters on my working week. So each week I set goals, I work out priorities, and I try to work hard in the time allotted for my church work, or my ministry work, but I also try to make sure that I have plenty of time for family and for leisure.

I’m usually home four nights a week, although obviously there are exceptions to that when I’m incredibly busy, and I also try to make sure I take a day off each week, and usually that is the case. I need that for leisure, I need it to chat with my wife, I need it for time to unwind.

Apart from days off once a week, I’m very keen with my family to take our four weeks of holiday each year, and we plan those holidays very carefully as a family, and we enjoy those four weeks thoroughly. We go away, and we just have a great time, and a great adventure together as a family, which I think is essential for a family.

RB: What is most significant about your time in Ipswich?

SC: Before I came here I had spent virtually all my life with middle class to upper middle class people, and in particular spent many years involved with tertiary students – five years as a university student, and then seven years as a full-time Christian worker with Student Life.

So for me, coming to live in Ipswich has been a very broadening experience. It’s forced me to sit down with a very wide diversity of people and to try and understand them: unemployed people, people who have psychiatric problems, victims of abuse, people who battle with alcoholism and temper problems, Aboriginal people.

Before I came to Ipswich I’d never spoken to an Aboriginal person in depth, and certainly had never had any Aboriginal friends, but here in Ipswich I’ve been able to relate to Aboriginal pastors and Aboriginal people, and try and understand them and get to know them. So it’s been very enriching for me to be able to grapple with what makes these people tick, what has brought their problems about, how can I serve these people, how can I love them in God’s name, and how can I lead them into the kingdom.

One couple I’ve had a lot to do with are both about my age, in their early forties, and they’ve never worked in their lives, and they never will work – both of them are on disability pensions – and they’re simple people. Whenever I visit these people, I ask myself, “How do I communicate the gospel to these people?” They can’t read a Bible, they can’t read hardly anything at all; they watch TV and videos all day long. What does it mean to make the gospel relevant to them? What does Jesus offer to that kind of people?

And then, related to that issue is, if they become Christians, how do you incorporate them into the church, especially a church that is fairly traditional and middle class? How do you make people like that feel welcome, and how do you have a worship style and a preaching style that really connects with them and helps them really move on in their Christian growth? I think that whole aspect of broadening and enriching has been the most significant thing for me during these six years in Ipswich.

RB: You’re not the only Queensland Baptist pastor lacking a secular career background. Do you see it as a disadvantage?

SC: When I finished high school, I spent five years at university, and most of my friends and most of my contacts during my university years were not Christian, so I certainly wasn’t living in a kind of Christian ghetto. And then seven years working with Student Life full-time certainly meant a lot of interaction with Christians, but it also meant an enormous amount of time in evangelism and interaction with university students and faculty, most of whom were not Christians.

So by the time I arrived at theological college, I’d spent a fair amount of my time in connectedness with the non-Christian world, even though it wasn’t actually in a secular workforce role. When I went through my latter years of high school, and all the way through university, I worked part-time in my father’s shop, and during the Christmas holidays I’d often work for a month or two full-time, and so I think I’ve had a taste of what it means to work in the secular workforce and grapple with some of the issues, even though it wasn’t a permanent job, and there are some dimensions that I haven’t encountered.

One of the skills of any pastor is learning to listen and reflect, to grapple with what the scripture says about issues. There are lots of issues that people in their workaday world encounter which I’ve never encountered. But at the same time I’ve never encountered suicide in my own life or my own family; I’ve never been a drug-dependent person or an alcoholic, but just because I haven’t grappled with those problems doesn’t mean I don’t have something to offer.

In all of these dimensions a sensitive pastor should be able to listen and reflect, go to the scripture and find some answers, and then share some of those perspectives with people.

The other thing I’ve consciously tried to do as a pastor is try and do all I can to enter the world of the workaday person. One of the good things for a pastor, there’s a role of speaking out, and getting our people to think about ministry in a city like Ipswich is a lot of the people in our congregation do work locally here in the city, so I’m able to go and visit them at their workplace and have lunch with them, or just drop in and say “g’day” to them.

Often when I’m visiting hospitals, for example, I’ll see a doctor from our congregation, or a physiotherapist, or someone else who’s in their workaday world who’s interacting with me, and those people feel that I’m a professional like they are and I’m working with them for the wholeness and health of people, and so there’s a mutual respect for how my professional expertise can interact and complement that of other people in our church as well.

RB: Overnight federal politicians have called on Australian church-goers to boycott the churches in response to statements by church leaders that are perceived as politically motivated. Do we, as ministers of the gospel, have a political responsibility?

SC: It certainly is part of our responsibility. I remember earlier this year our local federal member of parliament, Pauline Hanson, issued a statement that it’s wrong for pastors and churches to make any political comments, and we should confine ourselves to religious issues.

I wrote an immediate letter back to the local Ipswich newspaper (The Queensland Times), saying that that’s a wrong perception, that when a person follows Jesus, we become involved in not only loving God but loving our neighbour as ourselves, and if I as a Christian love my neighbour, then I’m concerned about my neighbour’s welfare and well-being and health, and the community in which they live, and the political structures that affect them, and situations of injustice and unfairness for those people.

So certainly, for any average Christian, there’s a role for protest, there’s a role for speaking out on issues of compassion and justice in the world, and in our own country and local community. But especially, for a pastor, there’s a role of speaking out, and getting our people to think, and be people who are truly salt and light in the world in which we live.

The only cautious note I would add to that is that a pastor needs to be careful not to be seen to be siding with one particular point of view, and I wouldn’t want people to think that the way that I’m preaching or the things that I’m saying would brand me with any particular political party or any particular Christian lobby group or whatever.

I would like to think that I present issues, and present a general framework, so that the Christian people can think the issues through and make their own intelligent choices. I’m there really as a catalyst and a resource person, a stimulator, if you like, to get to think through their own issues, and grapple with what the scriptures say about the issues of the society and community in which we live.

But it’s certainly not my role to take a dogmatic stance that’s going to alienate one group and make another group think that I’m their friend. I’ve got to be very cautious about that.

RB: You have about three weeks ministry remaining in Ipswich, and then you’re moving to Springwood in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, to take up another role. What’s your vision for Springwood?

SC: First, let me say that I’m not doing a lot of planning for my next ministry, and one of the reasons for that is that I’m convinced that a new pastor in their first year has to mainly listen and understand, and get to know the people, and the unique culture of that particular church. Another thing that I should say, too, is that the church that I’m going to, the Springwood Baptist Church, is a large church, and a very vibrant one, so in many ways I’ll be able to keep a good thing going, rather than try to change things or alter things too much.

On the other hand though, from my connection with the church so far this year, I’ve come to see that there are a number of ways in which that church should be changing, and I would like to see myself as an agent in that change.

One of the things that I’m concerned about is that the people of Springwood Baptist Church don’t seem to be very well connected with their local community. A lot of them send their children to Christian schools, and a lot of them spend virtually the whole of their social interactions with other Christians. As a pastor I’d like to model to them involvement in a local community with the non-Christians, and serving people, friendships, understanding the non-Christian world, sharing the gospel, and probably another big need for that church is prayerfulness. They only have a couple of prayer meetings, and they’re poorly attended.

Next year, when, I arrive I’ve got a vision for being a prayerful pastor, which of course is one of the three areas that Eugene Peterson highlights as a role of a pastor, and really encouraging people to be passionate about prayer, and passionate about intercession for their local community, as well as for the wider world.

RB: You certainly have a lot of enthusiasm for your new ministry. Thanks, Steve, for talking to Tempo. We wish you well as you return to New South Wales.

SC: Thanks, Rod, and thanks to all my friends in Queensland who have made these six years a wonderful experience.

Rev. Steve Cooper concluded as Senior Pastor of Ipswich Baptist Church and as Area Superintendent of the Ipswich and West Moreton region of Queensland on December 14, 1997, to become Senior Pastor of Springwood Baptist Church in New South Wales, Australia, in January 1998. He spoke to Tempo on 21 November.

Image: The former Ipswich Baptist Church, Queen St, Ipswich, where Steve Cooper served as pastor 1992-1997. Source: IpswichFirst

 

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