|Don at a Holy Trinity, Cambridge Church picnic around 1986/7|
The first time I heard of Don was at our church youth group. The Sunday night meetings always ended with a time of open prayer, and some of the group members earnestly prayed for him for a few weeks. It turned out that he had had pancreatitis and major surgery. In 1978 I met him for the first time, when I went as a teenager on of the CYFA holidays [aka houseparties or ventures] that he ran. Based in a boarding school in Clevedon, hired during the holiday, it was a lot of fun, games, getting to know people, as well as talks and worship. I liked it so much I kept going - at different venues during summers and new year reunions. Eventually I ended up on the leadership team, and worked for Don from 1985-7, when he was at Holy Trinity, Cambridge. Part of my job was promoting ventures and organising them.
Looking back, Don was a fascinating character. He was full of seeming contradictions, yet when you got to know him, it all made a kind of sense. He could be quite a control freak, yet was willing to trust relative novices with big responsibilities. He could be dogmatic, yet had a team who represented a broad range of views and always warned against simplistic responses to complex questions. He wasn't beyond a sexist comment, yet became an early evangelical champion for women's ministry in the church, when it wasn't commonplace to do so. He was very open to the charismatic movement, yet never one for hype or pushing people to expect or have experiences of a particular kind. He could be quite intimidating, and some people were scared of him, yet he shared his vulnerabilities and had an openness unusual in strong leaders. It created a deep sense of loyalty, and the venture team have always felt like an extended family for many of us.
Don had more than his fair share of suffering - as well as the pancreatitis, I mentioned earlier, he lost a son, Thomas, at only a few weeks old. It happened during a venture holiday, and none of us who were there could forget it. Don and Zoe even came and spoke to help us understand what was going on. Later Don developed Parkinson's disease, which for a number of years didn't seem to diminish his enthusiasm for ministry. After he offered, I invited him to speak at the church where I was based in Coventry in the mid 90s for a special Harvest weekend. He also acted as a mentor for me for the time I was there, asking good questions and offering wise advice.
Latterly we were less in touch, but I got to his marriage to Sarah, and as Steve Tilley has also recalled, he memorably cut the cake with shaking hand he said "there may be casualties" - typical humour. I kept sending him a card and news at Christmas. He didn't always manage one back, but I know all of us who had grown up with his ministry were in his thoughts and prayers.
Would I be a Christian without Don's ministry? Probably - I already was when I met him, but his encouragement was key to me seeing faith as more than attending or 'consuming' what other people produced, and seeing it as something to inform, challenge and tranform you life. Would I have had confidence to take responsibility, do things up front and eventually move into ministry? Probably not. Don inspired, challenged, critiqued and supported many of us on that journey. For some it was to ordained ministry, but to others it was to being missionaries, youth workers, and perhaps most importantly to being Christians getting stuck in at their churches and in their communities.
Don's illness meant that he didn't have the career he might have expected, but his influence on the church may well be greater than some who achieved higher office. Those of us who knew and loved him will always have a deep sense of gratitude to all he gave us.