The following article, "Towards the Light—Drew Williams' Coming to America," was written by H.L. Ani, a professional writer and reporter with some 20 years of experience, including articles for Fortune, Investment Dealers' Digest, www.investinginbonds.com, and Treasury and Risk Management, among other publications.
To escape the bustle of London city life, at 28, Drew Williams with his wife Elena decamped to an idyllic village of sunny beaches and rolling purple azaleas of northwest Devon. Nestled in the wooded enclave, the couple purchased what by all appearances was a dream residence. The Georgian house held wing on top of wing of rooms, while the garden was adorned with espalier fruit trees.
Despite the unmistakable proclamation the grand house made: "the people who live here have made it," Drew, who was a senior litigator defending lawsuits brought against the legal profession, was wearying of the—come-see-how-big-my-house-is—parties and the endless renovations. Drew thought perhaps he was undergoing a mid-life crisis. Not likely: He had just turned 29.
To meet their neighbors, the couple started to attend the local parish church. On that first Sunday, the traditional church seemed a dark and dank place. "There were more drafts than people," recalls Drew, who hadn't grown up in a church-going household but had been baptized in the Church of England. The chilliness of the first impression was at once redeemed by a friendly gleam of a circle of congregants, which included the new vicar (pastor) and his wife, a retired Major and two couples that subsequently took a sincere, abiding interest in their lives. Despite their talk of Jesus, Drew liked them well enough not to hold it against them.
Drew, who had sung in a choir since age six, felt a visceral pull to a song buried in the church's obscure, almost ancient hymnal. In particular, the third verse struck a chord: 'Oh joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to Thee, I trace the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not in vain; that morn shall tearless be.' His heart stirred: "I knew what a rainbow was, and the idea of looking out on a stormy horizon and tracing one with your finger through the rain was at least a possibility." Suffused by bonds of kindness, of support and openness, of evocative melodies and fellowship, Drew accessed a profound and total clarity. "Faith was pursuing me, calling me really," says Drew of his spiritual awakening.
By discovering the redemptive power of love, a huge paradigm shift occurred in Drew's inner life beyond the material, beyond shame, beyond anger and beyond sanctimony. Yes, almost sounds too good to be true. Except that Drew "was really concerned God was going to say sell the house and stop being a lawyer." But when that happened, "I couldn't sell it quickly enough. I felt as if I had had a toothache in every part of my body."
A Higher Calling
No leap of faith necessary for his next step. Drew's destiny was clear, "more clear than anything ever in my life besides knowing I needed to marry my wife." The couple sold the house to help pay for Drew's seminary school at Trinity College, Bristol, where he earned an honors degree in Theology and did rigorous training for ordination in the Church of England, including interning at a psychiatric hospital and a high security prison, among other hands-on service.
Prepared to step off anywhere in the country to start ministering, the Williams family, which now included first born Katie, was placed in, of all places Devon, at the church of St. Andrews, Whitchurch, a village in the South West where Drew had enduring roots. When he was 10 with his brother Paul, his parents had moved the family from Hampshire, one of the "home counties" just outside London, to West Devon. His mum and stepdad happened to be in the congregation during his curacy (apprenticeship) at St. Andrews.
After ordination in the Diocese of Exeter in June 2000, Drew donned the clerical collar, led the youth group, where he tried out "loads of ideas", including shooting three consecutive movies about the nativity with the children singing live and the three kings entering in a yellow Rolls Royce. The time also imparted a completely different history to a set of childhood memories. Altogether Drew's first priestly stint was "unnervingly wonderful. One of those very special seasons. We had a lot of fun trying out new things and the church thrived."
In 2003 Drew was vetted for a plum spot as Assistant Vicar at one of the UK'S largest Anglican churches, St. Andrew's, Chorleywood, in the northwest of London. St. Andrew's Chorleywood had a history of pioneering in church planting. In recent times it had planted a Youth Church – 'Soul Survivor' – which has been a model to the church in the UK. Building on this heritage, then Vicar, Dr. Mark Stibbe felt called to mobilize the church in a fresh way. Drew was asked to develop a strategy that would spark initiative by church members, connecting them to themselves, to one another, to those beyond the church, and to God.
Over the coming years the mission of the church was re-orientated so as to develop a model that had a radical outward focus; 'a go to them' model reaching young people, children, the elderly, prisoners, students, physically disabled people, adults with special learning needs, young people who are in trouble with the police and local authorities, those leaving clubs and bars in the early hours of the morning, the homeless and many local communities and neighborhoods. The innovative program came to be known as "Mission-Shaped Communities" or "MSCs."
Without having to be management gurus or professional preachers, church members were encouraged to take responsibility for the direction of mission. Not only did the bottom up vehicle allow individuals to hone their skills, it also helped them find the spiritual in the everyday by going outside the walls of the church and in return multiply the impact. When successful it was a symphonic process.
Across the Atlantic
As more and more MSCs developed, Drew in 2007 traveled to Pittsburgh to talk about their international potential at a conference held in an Episcopalian church. A year later one of the delegates in attendance recollected Drew's formidable oratory to members of Trinity Church, in Greenwich, Connecticut, which had started an inquiry process for a new lead pastor.
The unique church located in one of America's most affluent suburbs emerged when Ian Cron and music producer Rob Mathes imagined a way to make church more relevant for those who felt apart from the established Church but still felt a spiritual need—the likes of those who were kicked out of catechism for asking too many provocative questions. The chrysalis started as an informal evening worship geared toward the younger set at Stanwich Congregational Church in Greenwich, an independent Protestant church. Adapting traditional hymns to upbeat rhythms, as well as, writing original rock 'n' roll pieces, which they played at the evening fellowship, the gathering soon outgrew the sanctuary of Stanwich.
In 1999, the group had agreed to solidify its identity as Trinity Church, meeting on Sunday mornings at a no-frills Greenwich middle school auditorium, deliberately remaining independent as a non-denominational church. To keep the faith and mission centered community fresh, senior Pastor Cron stepped down, passing ten-year-old Trinity on to a new set of eyes.
Who could feed the minds and souls of what had grown to some 700 congregants? Enter English minister Drew Williams, who had never heard of Trinity back in Chorleywood. He unexpectedly received an email that took him by surprise. Nearly a year later, answering to God first he crossed the Atlantic to America with Elena, and their offspring, which now included Katie (now 13), Isabel (now 10) and Olivia (now 2), to become lead pastor at Trinity. In September 2009, he gave his first talk on discovering the power of the heart through devotion to the Father. Afterwards, one of the old-timers confessed to a Trinity elder: "I can still come to church here, even though Ian's left."
Drew, as his parishioners in the U.S. call him, has a mien that is at once boyish and warm, looking more like an older soccer pro than a man of the cloth. (He wears khaki chinos and a button-down for sermons.) When preaching from the Book, his excitement flows as if he's quoting from the hottest Simon Schuster bestseller, mostly by telling self-deprecating stories: "I don't know what else to do," he says. Personifying a permanent and irrepressible tenderness, Drew's teachings call on a higher level of thought, inspiring people to confront the real nature of their relationship with God. While charismatic leaders aren't necessarily genuine, many talk about Drew's trueness not just behind a podium but when it counts—with others, everyday, behind the scenes, in crisis and administratively. "Someone said to me when I arrived, the Lord has been for the whole of your life preparing you for this job. And it does actually feel like that," says Drew. While he doesn't wear a shiny suit and shout at people to become Christians, he sees the stakes as incredibly high. To that end, he's embarking on strengthening the pioneering spirit of Trinity not only with MSCs but also with the "Alpha Course," another program exported from England that explores the Christian faith in a non-threatening, non-doctrinal way. Together, Drew hopes to bring a balance between the traditional and contemporary; a thoughtful dialogue about life that integrates contemporary music, literature and film; and capitalizes on an inclusive range of viewpoints to aid injustice and misery in the world.
Convinced that "we're hardwired for a relationship with God, forever in our mind," he admits, "I cannot make someone a follower of Jesus." Still, Trinity is attracting all kinds looking to connect with something greater than themselves. He envisions Trinity as a beacon church for the Northeast, a place of cohesion, where people can come alive, with space and support to free up their passion with the genius of God in community. With that goal in mind, his talk on revelation a few Sundays back (Romans 5:1-8) is relevant: "Hope does not put us to shame."
H.L. Ani is a professional writer and reporter with some 20 years of experience, including articles for Fortune, Investment Dealers' Digest, www.investinginbonds.com, and Treasury and Risk Management, among other publications. She lives in Westchester, NY with her family.