In the coming weeks, Mahurangi Presbyterian Church will start construction of $10.5 million community and activity centre on Mansel Drive, Warkworth. The centre will ultimately comprise a multi-sports facility, auditorium, café and function area and become a hive of social gatherings, sporting and community engagement. James Addis spoke to the church’s senior pastor, Nick McLennan, 48, about his life and work …
I grew up in Porirua, and like a lot of kids I was not really sure what I wanted to do when I finished school. I thought I might have a crack at primary school teaching, so I went to teacher’s college for three years. But I realised about halfway through that I did not really want to do teaching as a career. I had friends who were very passionate about it. Back then, for the limited financial rewards, you really needed to be committed to make a good go of it, and I knew it really wasn’t where my heart was. I finished teacher’s college in 1993 and was at a bit of a loose end for a while. But my Dad was a builder and I thought I could help him out for a while. I ended up becoming his apprentice – building spec houses – and I stuck at that for about the next 15 years. I know some people find it hard to work with their fathers, but we had a good working relationship. It can get a bit cold and windy in Wellington, but fortunately nothing we put up blew down. I enjoyed it, but there was this yearning that it was still not quite the right place for me.
Church had been a fairly big part of my life since I was about 16. Before that Mum had always taken us along, but I struggled to believe in God, so that was a bit of a problem. I stopped going when I was about 12. I’d started playing cricket, which proved a good excuse not to attend. However, at 16, I was getting bullied at school. I was not even sure God was there, but I was desperate enough to make a deal with him – “Get me out of this school and I will start attending church youth group again”. As it happened, my Mum had recently started working at Wellington College and she had always hoped I would go there. She had a chat with the headmaster, and before I knew it, I was in. That was unusual because it was quite a difficult school to get into. I kept my half of the bargain with God and attended the youth group at Plimmerton Presbyterian Church, which was undergoing a mini-revival at the time. We went from 30 to 200 kids on the books, so church was quite an exciting place to be. Later that year,
I attended an Easter camp and something clicked. I think for a lot of people, they don’t have any difficulty believing in a higher power or a creator or something like that. The big challenge is to believe in a god who cares for them. That was a big change in my perception because once I believed that God cared for me, that kind of changed the way I operated – changed my identity and who I was. And I felt if he does care for me, then God is certainly worth knowing about and putting some effort in to discovering.
It became the thing that drove me and the thing that I became passionate about. I became more and more involved the church youth work and the evening services, and it continued after I got married to my wife, Marie. We got to the point where we really felt we should commit our lives to this work and so we headed to Otago, where I started studying for a Bachelor of Theology degree. It was a bit of a wrench for Mum – we had two young daughters at that stage, aged about four and two, and we were taking her grandchildren away. From a personal point of view it was a wrench, too. We had been 35 years in the same place and had a very strong support network from both our families. Now we were making our own way.
While at teachers’ college, I’d worked towards getting a degree, but I did not do too well at it and I did not think of myself as a great student. So I didn’t have high expectations when I started studying theology. To be honest, I was thinking it would be a bit like prison – you had to go there, do your time and hopefully come out the other end not too scarred. As it turned out, we had a really good time there. There were some wonderful lecturers and we made some really good friends. From there I went to Knox College to train for the ministry. My calling was strengthened at Knox – it all seemed to make more and more sense. And the technical aspects of the work – such as preaching and pastoring seemed to come together well and became more polished. Of course, I had already been doing church work on a voluntary basis for years.
Warkworth turned out to be my first parish, and I’ve been here 12 years now. I started as an assistant under Rev Mark Farmer. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with cancer soon after I arrived and passed on about a year to the day after I started. There was a little bit of discussion as to whether the church needed another pastor but, well, I was johnny-on-the-spot and got left holding the baby. There was a realisation that there were a lot of skilled and capable people in the church, and we really did not need to bring in another pastor simply to replicate what I was doing. There was also a feeling we needed to engage more positively with the community, and the church gave me a lot of rope to get stuck into that – so far I’ve managed to avoid hanging myself.
We toyed with different kinds of community engagement. One of the early ideas was to get involved in dementia care. But a woman came up from Presbyterian Support – that’s like the Salvation Army wing of the Presbyterian Church – who encouraged us to think about building on what we were doing already. One of the things we had been doing was an English as a second language course for Kiribati people in the community, which was supposed to run for six weeks and ended up going for two years. Presbyterian Support helped us secure a grant for a community worker to develop this work. That really became the genesis of the church’s Mahu Vision Community Trust – helping new immigrants integrate into the community and providing advice on parenting, budgeting, nutrition, gardening and so on. Of course, this area has the biggest concentration of Kiribati immigrants in the country. We have three social workers now and the work of the trust has expanded to include mentoring students at Mahurangi College, an after-school programme for primary children and managing Warkworth Christian Foodlink – a combined effort by Warkworth churches that supplies food to struggling families.
Even when I arrived at Mahurangi Presbyterian, we were thinking that we had outgrown our existing building. For our new building we wanted something that would add value to the community – a place where kids can run around and you can have a coffee and things like that – in addition to housing all the activities of the church. At the moment we don’t have room to swing a cat. Just the fact that we will end up having more space will mean we can do what we can do so much better. At first, we thought about converting a warehouse but nothing suitable came up. Then some land came up down by the Mahurangi River. It was a good price, so we snapped it up. At the time we did not realise it was going to be right in the centre of Warkworth’s plans for growth but that’s how it has turned out. We’ve been pretty blessed by that. Finding the money for it hasn’t kept me awake at night. Which is odd because a lot of people wondered how we were going to raise $2 million to convert a warehouse. As it is, we’ve now raised more than $8 million. It’s been a faith building exercise – the congregation, Auckland Council, the Department of Internal Affairs, Foundation North and the Presbyterian Church have been incredibly generous. We’ve had so much support, it’s been really humbling.
Is it going to be like a church – a monument to God? Well, the way I look at it God loves people. If it is a place where people feel loved, or if it is a place where people encounter a sense of family or just feel cared about – whether they believe in God or not – then I think we are on the right track.