7 Questions with Rob Furlong

Name: Rob Furlong

Current title: Senior Pastor

Current organisation: Woodvale Baptist Church (Perth, Australia)

Rob Furlong has served in pastoral ministry for over 36 years in Queensland and Western Australia, including 20 years as Senior Pastor of Thornlie Church of Christ, (Perth, WA) before transitioning to a role as Pastoral Consultant with Baptist Churches WA for 2 and a half years.

In 2017 Rob returned to local church ministry as Senior Pastor of Woodvale Baptist Church and is enjoying building into the life of a local congregation.

In his time at Thornlie he either led or was a member of a number of Short Term Mission teams that saw him travel to Vietnam, Thailand, India and Zimbabwe. He has also had extensive experience in teaching, training and preaching to leaders and church members in order to better equip them for the ministry they have been called to. While at Thornlie the church grew missionally and resulted in a number of people travelling overseas on short term missions to build orphanages, assist the poor and provide medical aid.

He is passionate about Leadership Development, Mission and teaching the Word of God and completed his Masters studies at Vose, including a thesis on ‘Pastoral Burnout and Recovery’. He has a desire to be a part of assisting the next generation of leaders to emerge in the local church in Western Australia.

Rob is married to Karen and together they have four adult children and 15 grandchildren! He is the chaplain to the Western Australian/Scorchers Cricket Teams, supports the Fremantle Dockers, enjoys reading, bike riding with Karen and is a budding master chef.

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1. What have you found most challenging as a church leader?

There are two things.

The first is bringing about cultural change to a congregation and I am talking about the way we live out our faith in community. Every congregation has both Biblical and un-Biblical ways of handling relationships. Identifying these is fairly straightforward as is the process of establishing the values that will encourage us to live in Biblical community. The challenge is to live them out faithfully and consistently! But it is worth it.

The second challenge (and by far the greatest for me) is to keep the main thing the main thing - my relationship with Jesus. For me, it means growing in intimacy with the Lord, knowing that I am not defined by my ministry, keeping good ministry boundaries, making sure my relationship with Karen and my family is strong and healthy and ensuring I am spiritually, emotionally, physically and mentally healthy. To put it simply - I seek to live within the limits God has given me.

2. How did you become a church leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

I grew up in a non-Christian family but attended the local Baptist Church in Sydney from about the age of 6. In my late teenage years I began sensing God had a call on my life and I thought it would be to the mission field. To me it seemed impossible because all I could think of was, "What will my parents think?" I accepted a job with a Bank after completing Year 12 and believed I had found God's will for my life - all done and dusted at the age of 18! But this sense of call kept niggling away at me. I was asked to speak at our Church's Youth Service one night and an elder approached me after the service and told me the words I did not want to hear: "Rob, you have a gift and you should use it."

From that moment on I could not turn the thought of this call off, but every time it surfaced I would answer with "What will my parents say?" or "I have found God's will for my life!" 8 days before my 19th birthday I found myself at our Sunday night service and the preacher was speaking on the call of Moses and all the excuses he gave God as to why he could not answer His call to lead the people out of Egypt. I was sunk! When the appeal was made at the end of the service to follow God's call on our lives I was the only one standing - my call could not have been clearer. That was the beginning of my journey into church leadership.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I begin the day with a cup of coffee and God at about 6.30am. My time with God is my priority and I have to constantly guard against "skimming" on this discipline.

Mondays is spent largely on writing articles and administrative tasks associated with the church, the majority of Tuesdays is spent with team/other meetings and some preparation for Sunday, Wednesdays is admin/sermon prep and Thursdays is largely spent on writing my sermon up. All of this is interspersed with people issues, mentoring and other matters that arise in the course of any given week.

Fridays is my Sabbath day and I am very focused and disciplined in keeping this. Having burnt out 14 years ago I have learned the hard way that rest is a critical and important discipline to learn and practice. This means I do not look at my emails/church related matters for 24 hours. I have been learning the joy that God can run the universe without my help!

4. What one book had the most profound impact on your church leadership? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

Mid Course Correction by Gordon MacDonald which I read in 2007 while I was recovering from burn out. In 2006 I was leading a church, overseeing and running back to back groups for men struggling with sexual addiction and also trying to do my Masters in Ministry. In October of that year I collapsed - this had been building for 4 years -and led to me having the first 6 months of 2007 off, completely away from ministry.

It was at this time that I read MacDonald's book. His basic premise is that we are born again once, when we first meet Christ, but on our journey of faith we come to decisive moments where we are again met with the challenge: "Will you follow me through this?" and we have what he describes as another kind of conversion. You see this demonstrated in the lives of all the great saints - Abraham and Peter are two notable examples. I knew this burn out moment was one of those times for me. As painful as it was, would I follow Him through this? I did and it has transformed me and my ministry. So yes, this book's impact on me was truly profound!

5. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

To never underestimate the importance of an honest conversation. There have been many occasions in my ministry where I have allowed a staff member to fly under the radar by not speaking to them about shortcomings in their performance. I am not talking about sin issues but things like a poor attitude, controlling behaviours or consistent failure in getting reports done on time. In the past I have let these things slide on the premise of trying to maintain unity. But over the last ten years I have learned how crucial it is to address these issues with the person concerned, for the good of everybody.

These conversations must always be done truthfully but graciously, in line with our values and with a strong commitment to help the person concerned. They are never easy and I don't enjoy them - I don't think any of us do - but they are vital to building a healthy team culture. 18 months ago I had to have a particularly confronting discussion with a staff member about their behaviour. It was tough but the person has sought to grow and recently thanked me for having the conversation with me! I say it is a recent lesson because I find this is one that I continually need to develop in.

6. How do you develop a healthy leadership pipeline in a church?

1. Look for people who exhibit Godly character.
2. Preach and teach on the priesthood of all believers.
3. Establish, promote and live out the core values of the church/team personally and corporately and look for people who are doing the same.
4. Identify people with the particular skill/gift set and match them to the task.
5. Provide mentoring as required.
Being still relatively new at my current church means we are still developing in this area.

7. If you had to pick just one story, what would be the most meaningful story from your time as a church leader so far?

That is a tough question - across 36+ years of ministry there are so many but the following is the one that comes to mind. At our farewell service from ministry at Thornlie my eldest son was asked to speak and he called his tribute "My dad's a pastor." The standard joke in our family is that I would fix everything with super glue - I am not much of a handy man - and he built his talk around fixing things, including people. He mentioned how he watched me closely, how ministry was beginning to take a toll on me as I reached my limits and how I responded to that. He concluded with these words:

"I get it now. Christianity isn't a thing. It's not a tag or a hobby. It's a lifestyle. It's about living out the things we preach...most of all it's about fixing broken things. I am learning my own lessons now and I am very aware of who watches me. I am just thankful to God I have had such a strong example. I have the right tools, a drawer full of super glue and sticky tape and plenty of paper. Dad, help me make a paper aeroplane for my kids and help me show them that no matter what circumstances God always has enough super glue to keep the pieces together."

I have always believed that if I fail at home then success elsewhere means nothing because I have failed the ones who matter the most to me - my wife, Karen, my kids and now, my grandchildren. For me, to receive this unsolicited tribute from my son, is my most meaningful leadership moment.