November 2022: Rev Dr Elijah Obinna
The Church of Scotland's ‘Talking Ministry' series shares personal stories from those serving in Christian ministry, along with resources filled with questions, prayers and reflections to help encourage reflection on how God might be calling you at this time.
In this instalment, Rev Dr Elijah Obinna speaks about the faith journey which has led him from South East Nigeria to become parish minister at Carluke: St John's Parish Church.
My ministry: Rev Dr Elijah Obinna, minister at Carluke: St John's Parish Church
Originally from the South East of Nigeria, where he was ordained through The Presbyterian Church of Nigeria (PCN) in 2002, Rev Dr Elijah Obinna joined the Church of Scotland in February 2016 as a parish minister. Currently, he is the minister at Carluke: St John's Parish Church and interim moderator of Cairngryffe, Libberton and Quouthquan, and Symington parishes. Dr Obinna is the first minister to be called to the deferred union between St John's and fellow Carluke church St Andrew's.
Do you come from a religious family?
I was born a second child into a Christian family of five. My father, Elder Hon. Obinna Oka, was a committed Christian and an ordained ruling elder of PCN. My mother, Margaret, is also a committed Christian and like my father, an ordained elder of PCN. By the grace of God, I was enabled to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ at an early stage of my life, through regular devotion, and participation in worship both at home and in the church.
My father and mother both were true Christian role models. They shaped the lives of my siblings and I, not only by taking us to church, but in terms of leading us to commit our lives to Christ as our Saviour at a very early stage. My father sadly passed away six years ago, but like my mother, he was a very strong pillar in my early Christian formation.
At the age of six, I started studying the Bible on my own and speaking about Christ, but when I was eight I spent the school vacation with my uncle, also called Elijah, where I had a deeper personal encounter with Christ and joined some children's groups which were committed to prayers and preaching on the road. I can't remember what we were preaching, but I know we were speaking about God's love to those who were passing by.
What led you on your path to ministry?
From childhood, it was always my desire and prayer to serve the Lord. I committed to the service of God within and beyond my local congregation at Amasiri, Ebonyi State. There I worked with young people and adults and served at prayer meetings and Bible study, and it became clear to me that was what I was being called to do.
In 1996 I applied to PCN through my Parish, Presbytery and Synod, and was called to an interview and was admitted to Trinity (Union) Theological College in Umuahia, Nigeria, and completed a Diploma of Theology with Distinction and a Bachelor of Arts in Religion. I was licenced as a Minister of the Word in July 2001 and posted to serve my probation period in St Stephen's PCN, Aba, and ordained in August 2002, so it is 20 years since my ordination took place.
What brought you to the Church of Scotland?
After I was ordained, I served in St Stephen's until I was appointed by the General Assembly of PCN as the pioneer personal assistant to the Principal Clerk. I was in that role for about three years, then I had an opportunity to study for a Master's degree at the University of Edinburgh.
While I was studying, I was attached to St Stephen's Comely Bank in Edinburgh as a Faithshare student. I completed my Master's with Distinction and started studying towards a PhD in 2007 when my wife, Favour, joined me. At the same time, I had an offer from St Giles' Cathedral to be an assistant minister. Alongside that, I served as a member of the African and Caribbean committee of the then World Mission Council.
In 2009, I went back to St Stephen's Comely Bank as a pastoral assistant and also served as a development officer of the Boys' Brigade, Edinburgh and Leith Battalion. In 2011, after I completed my PhD programme, my family and I went to the University of Missouri, Columbia, where I worked as a visiting assistant professor. I taught in the school and I also served in a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and worked with the Agape Fellowship, a group of Rwandese, Burundian and Congolese refugees.
When I was in Scotland, I did not feel a sense of call to full-time ministry here, so I left. It was in the US that I began to sense that call and expressed my interest to the then Ministries Council. My family and I went back to Nigeria in 2012, and apart from my busy congregational ministries, I was a senior lecturer and director of postgraduate studies at Hugh Goldie Lay/Theological Training Institution, Arochukwu, and later served as the national director of PCN's Directorate of Lay Development and Leadership Training (DLDLT).
In 2014, I attended the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and met the recruitment team and was given a certificate of eligibility.
The following year we had a celebration to mark the centenary of the death of Scottish missionary Mary Slessor with events in Nigeria and Scotland. I served as the secretary of the National Organising committee and we had a week-long event in January with guests from the Church of Scotland including Very Rev. John Chalmers, the then-Moderator of the General Assembly. In April I led the Nigerian team visiting Scotland and while I was here I glanced through Life and Work and saw a vacancy for Carluke: St John's. In the five years we lived in Edinburgh, I never heard of Carluke, but the more I read about it, the more I sensed that this was the place, so I made the phone call and submitted an application.
In February 2016 the whole family moved to Carluke – and we are still here!
How did you find the transition to working as a minister in Scotland?
What I didn't realise was that Carluke has a strong connection with Nigeria already. On the day of my induction, I met an elder in our congregation, Dr Ann Jackson, who served in Nigeria throughout the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) as a medical missionary of the Church of Scotland. While she was there, the people in Carluke prayed for her and raised funds for the hospitals where she worked. One of those hospitals was where my mother later worked as a nurse and the hospital where our second son was born, so she knew the area I came from.
That was very helpful for me and my family in settling into life in Carluke. My family and I had no doubts that God had already gone ahead of us before we arrived. We have been blessed by a wonderful congregation and a wonderful community.
Are there lessons or experiences from Nigeria or the USA that you have brought to your ministry in Scotland?
Following a deliverance to the General Assembly in 2018 I worked with the committee that produced the Special Report on Lessons from Africa. In that report we talked about Bible studies and worship that should be at the heart of a believer's life 24/7. We talked about testimony and people being able to share their story. We also talked about equipping members for ministry. That was something I did in Nigeria where I was national director of the DLDLT.
I strongly believe that ministry is for all the people of God, not only for professionals. We need to recognise people's gifts and find a way to provide space for growth and to equip them for the work of ministry. That is something I am very much interested in and am encouraging in our congregation.
In the last six years I have seen great gifts being released among our members and to me that has been amazing. These gifts are already there so we are simply working alongside the congregation and community to promote what God is already doing among God's people. People talk about Scotland being a secularised country, where people don't want to worship, but there is still a deep hunger for God. There is a place for the Church in the community and there are lots of things we can still do to share the love of Christ.
What would you say to someone thinking of joining the ministry?
When I think about that, I would say: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart. In all your ways, acknowledge him and he will direct your path."
I would encourage the person to explore that and not rely on their own strength or understanding. Ministry is challenging, just like everything in life, but it is God's mission, not ours. We are only privileged to be God's partners. At the end of the day it is God's will that will prevail.
November Discernment Resources: Pushing at Doors
Stepping through a door that is ajar takes us into what lies beyond, leaving one place behind and stepping into another. Stepping through a door can be an exciting or daunting experience as we leave the relative comfort of where we have been to step forward into a new reality.
Similarly, when Jesus says, "Come, follow me," it can be an exciting or daunting experience as we leave the relative comfort of the life we know to respond to the call of God.
Take the first disciples who were called by Jesus. They were called to leave their fishing nets behind, step out of their boats and follow Jesus.
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 ‘Come, follow me,' Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.' 20 At once they left their nets and followed him. 21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
Had Simon Peter and his brother Andrew been builders would Jesus have called them to build people up? Had they been doctors would Jesus have called them to heal people? Had they been farmers would Jesus have called them to grow people in their faith? They fished for a living, they caught fish, so Jesus called them to "fish for people".
7 ‘Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
8 For everyone who asks receives;
the one who seeks finds;
and to the one who knocks,
the door will be opened.
What are we called by God to do? Is there a clue in what we already do? In the gifts that God has already given us? Whatever God calls us to, we can respond to the invitation by asking questions, praying and reflecting, by pushing at doors, searching for a door that is ajar, that we might step through it into whatever lies beyond, leaving one place behind and stepping into another.
What gifts has God given me?
What opportunities come my way?
What is stopping me from responding to God's call?
What questions do I have?
Who can help with answers?
Lord God, who calls us out of darkness into marvellous light, help me to seek your call in my life. Help me to use the gifts you have given me to serve you. Help me to follow you in the sure and certain knowledge that you are always with me. Amen.
If you would like to consider how God might be calling you to serve at this time, you may want to discuss further with your minister or be in touch with your Presbytery to explore local opportunities.
If you are interested in exploring a call to the recognised ministries of the Church, you can find more information on our vocations page and can contact email@example.com for a Discernment Conversation with one of the Recruitment Team.