Craig Burton, general secretary treasurer of PAOC, was elected at General Conference 2022 in Winnipeg, Man., after serving for 17 years as the Eastern Ontario and Nunavut district superintendent. Get to know him, his family, and his perspective on his ministry transition in a recent interview with Ron Davis, who served as interim general secretary treasurer.
Ron Davis (RD): Craig, I think a lot of people know you as district superintendent or even as pastor in your previous ministry opportunities, but I know there is a significant part of your life that is husband, father and grandfather—why don’t you tell us a little about your family.
Craig Burton (CB): I’m very, very grateful for my family. Wendy and I have been married for 36 years, and a fun fact is that we were both born on June 14 in the same year, so we’re exactly the same age. We also got married on our birthdays in 1986. So when you throw Father’s Day in there, June is a big deal in our family. We have three children in ministry, married to three great people, and four grandchildren. Laura, our oldest, is married to Mark Edwards, and they have two daughters, Joy and Holly. Laura pastors at PORTICO Community Church’s Milton campus. Our son, Scott, is married to Micaela Fulton, and they have one daughter, Isla. Scott is the pastor of young adults and young marrieds at Mapleview Community Church in Barrie. Our youngest, Emily, is married to Jesse Bone, and they have one son, Finlay. Jesse is the children’s pastor at Calvary Church in Peterborough. All of our children and their spouses are serving the Lord, and we are truly grateful.
RD: I hear you when you say “grateful.” It does fill us with gratitude, and in some ways, humbles us, too. We go way back to the early 80s. How did your call to ministry begin?
CB: It really began in my life after Wendy and I were married. I was working with Canada Trust, and I had a growing sense of calling to pastoral ministry and a growing interest in training for ministry. Accompanied with that was a growing restlessness and lack of fulfilment in my chosen career. I would describe it as a dominant impression in my thoughts and in my spirit, and Wendy and I began serving as coaches in youth ministry in our local church where we processed the thoughts and feelings that we were having. There were some personal confirmations that took place along the way, and as we took steps in the direction of preparing for ministry, little confirmations would happen. Wendy thought she had married a banker, but she supported me in leaving that career and attending Eastern Pentecostal Bible College in 1987. That was a great experience … I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Bible college … valued very highly the theological training, the spiritual formation, the women and men who just poured into my life. The Lord called us both—Wendy and I together—it wasn’t just me responding. She put me through school. She worked with IBM and I commuted back and forth from Pickering in those days.
RD: You’re transitioning now from a district superintendent role, where, by the way, you had a great district secretary treasurer to help you along, to now being a general secretary treasurer. What are some of the things you’ve learned from being a district superintendent that you’ll bring into this new position?
CB: I have learned that truth always prevails. In any situation, time will tell. You do wonder if at times some people’s motivations are the best, as things happen and initiatives develop, but I’ve learned that the purposes of the Lord will prevail. Jesus is building His church and sometimes, over 17 years especially, I’ve seen things happen but not necessarily have longevity. But when God’s in it, truth will prevail. I’ve also learned that there is always opportunity in crisis. Never waste a good crisis. Although it may be difficult and painful, there are things we can learn in the middle of it and as a result of it. And often, times of crisis can be the catalyst for change that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to pull off if it wasn’t for the crisis. So because something has to happen at a critical time, you can sometimes move things along a lot faster.
RD: If we could pick up on that, we’ve obviously just been through a crisis as a church, as a nation, as a world, called a pandemic. What are some of the opportunities that have come out of this crisis?
CB: The pandemic has provided us with the excuse that maybe some needed to say “no” to some things that may have kept us very busy in the past—lots of good things that churches were doing, that we were doing as the church, but they weren’t necessarily effective. And sometimes it’s hard to end it … to stop it. The pandemic brought an end to everything—everything stopped. So the opportunity, I think, is—will we start that up again? Even though it was appreciated by some people, and it may have been a good thing, let’s not necessarily do it if it wasn’t an effective thing. I think that’s a huge opportunity for churches as they look at the calendar and the schedule through the lens of the mission that we need to be on—The Great Commission. And maybe some leaders who were hesitant to make changes pre-pandemic can make them now, but not restarting all of the things that kept us so very busy.
RD: So we’re not waiting to get back to normal.
CB: What’s normal? Normal, pre-pandemic, we talked about the fact that three-quarters of our churches were plateaued or in decline, and that’s not just a PAOC statistic, that was a North America-wide, evangelical church conundrum—problem—that we were facing. So I don’t think getting back to normal is the goal; getting back to “effective” would be a great goal. I do think the pandemic exposed something, Ron—I think it exposed, in many churches, not everywhere, but in many churches, a lack of discipleship. We were doing lots of good things, but were we really building people up—training and equipping the saints to do the work of the ministry? As we see 30 per cent of the pre-pandemic attendance just dissolve and go away, where did these people go? We could argue there’s great opportunity now to refill those seats—those pews—but I do think we have to assess how effective were we on mission with discipling. Not just telling people about Jesus. Jesus said “make disciples,” He didn’t just say “preach the gospel.” And that’s where I think we identified that we could be doing a more effective job.
RD: Do you think we had achieved a certain measure of ability to “do church” at the expense of “being the church”?
CB: I think that’s the problem—we were “doing it,” not “being it.” In terms of lessons learned, in light of the pandemic, when you’re a pastor, you want people to be happy, generally—you want people to be content. And we sometimes can find ourselves leaning into the preferences that people would have. But I think pastors have lived in a tension between what they need to do in terms of missional effectiveness, but also shepherding the sheep and managing people’s expectations. I think, again, the pandemic has caused us to be able to assess—it’s not just what makes people happy. They need to be trained, they need to be discipled. Absolutely, people need to be fed … I’m not saying they don’t. But instead of just catering to preferences, we can now be more missional. At least I think that’s the opportunity before us.
RD: The thought that comes to mind is when Paul said to the Philippians, “I’ve learned to be content in all situations.” We’ve tried to make people happy where we should have probably made them be content in all situations, with contentedness coming from being in Christ, not because of the circumstances.
CB: In our culture, too, we’ve had many people who have faced illness, serious illness, and I wonder if that reminder of how precious and frail life really is would serve us well as we talk about a message of life and death—hope. Hope of heaven. Who wants to talk about the day we die? All of a sudden, we’re talking about serious issues of mortality. I think that will serve the church well as we continue to tell people about the hope we have in Jesus. But it’s not just the pastor preaching about it on Sunday morning. It’s we, personally, everybody has to be on mission, being Christ’s representatives, salt and light in our communities. And that’s where I trust that we can all be on mission post-pandemic—giving people the reason for the hope that we have.
RD: If we’re going to get back to anything, it would be that—getting back to the mission.
CB: Back to the mission—with Spirit empowerment, understanding the purpose of it, and being bold and creative and opening our mouths and talking about Jesus. That’s what I think the crisis of the pandemic has done for us. It’s given us that opportunity to give people the reason for the hope we have.
RD: In your 30 plus years of ministry within the PAOC, what changes, what growth have you seen? What would stand out to you in those years?
CB: There are a few things that I could say, but here’s what I think I’ve seen. I’ve watched the PAOC decentralize over the past 25 years, away from a dominant international office where we had multiple officers and program-based portfolios, to a more distributed model of networking and resourcing of ministries through the districts. We’ve uploaded an awful lot from the national office to the districts. So I’ve observed that the International Office continues to provide influence over the big three things: credential standards, our doctrine and our shared values, and then, of course, Mission Global. But we’ve uploaded much of the responsibility for discipleship and multiplication and theological education and training of leaders to churches and districts. So that’s a process and it’s taken us a while to do that. But what I perceive now is a call for a strategic centralization. The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada has self-governing churches which embrace the missional realities of our nation, and we do that with unique visions and strategies. But there is, I think, the need for a greater collective emphasis on some things. So there’s a sense of a need for us to get together on some themes again. And I would say one of those is the issue of discipleship. That as The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada we’d return to not just evangelism, and reaching the lost, but actually making disciples of people. I think there’s a call for that kind of a collective emphasis. And I also think in terms of how we multiply ministry and plant churches, there’s a call for us to be more organized and co-ordinated on that, and certainly, when it comes to leadership training. The good work that’s accomplished through our Bible colleges, our seminaries, and of course we’re exploring some innovative ways of credentialing those who come to us with appropriate prior learning and prior education. [With] all of these—I think Dave Wells uses the term “on-ramps”—to credentialing, we must be preparing and training leaders for the future. We have decentralized so that the International Office can be focused on mission to what matters to the districts and churches. And as a district superintendent, we had a number of things kind of uploaded to us. And they were program-based. We used to have women’s ministries … men’s ministries … youth ministries … children’s ministries. All kinds of different things. And what we’ve in turn done is, we’ve passed a lot of that up to the local churches. Asking, “Do you really need us to do that for you?” So that’s discipleship. Now discipleship is in the hands of the local church. Church history—I don’t think it’s linear. I think we come around to things again. It’s remarkable—we see the circle back. And we’re circling back, I think, to a cry for, “Let’s work together on some of these important things. What can we do together?” One of the catch phrases that we’re using these days is that we’re “better together.” Well, we are better together. So in an environment where we celebrate the self-governance of the local church and the entrepreneurial leadership of Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered pastors and leaders, what are the things we can do together? Well, credentialing standards, theological shared values, global mission, Mission Canada—training leaders, multiplication of ministry. Discipleship. I think that’s what I see a return to. I’m going to call it strategically centralizing around some things that we do better together—Ron, we do financing better together. There are just certain things that we do better together. Not everything. So that’s the trend, I would say.
RD: So we need to get together so we can be better.
CB: Yes. If we take some of those administrative duties off of the backs of the local church, they can be doing what they’re called to do, and districts and the national office can do what they’re called to do to help them. I think the only thing is I’m watching the baby boomers age. I’m on the tail end of the boom, where pastors my age or older are stepping over, stepping back, maybe even stepping away from leadership, and this demographic reality is one significant reason why we are experiencing a leadership crisis. We need leaders. And that has only become more acute in the last few years. So I think we’ve got to return intentionally to preaching on and promoting the call of God over the lives of individual women and men. And I don’t just mean districts talking about it and camp meetings talking about it. I think pastors and churches need to be celebrating the call of God over the lives of people of all ages—and then encouraging them to train creatively to be involved in vocational ministry. If I have my facts straight, there are more millennials out there today than baby boomers. So it’s not a function of us not having as many people available to us—it’s a function of us really embracing the call of God, and I see that as something we’ve really got to take very, very seriously. The problem isn’t that we haven’t got training institutions—great people prepared to train and equip pastors and leaders for the future. We need people to respond. Jesus said the fields are white unto harvest; all you have to do is ask for Him to send you the workers, and that’s where we are. We need the workers. So I would say that’s been a shift.
RD: We’ve had some people who have done a great job through the years in the PAOC, and you and I can both name off numerous leaders. In fact, we’ve actually lost a number of them recently—significant people. We want to honour that, and be faithful to what called them, yet at the same time, like you say, step aside and encourage that next generation of leadership. Do we need to find new ways for this next generation to respond to that call that we’re talking about? Create avenues for them?
CB: It’s opportunities, I think. I think we need to create opportunities. So, when do people wait on God? When do they spend time in corporate prayer? When do we gather around altars? Now that was significant and important to us in terms of the way we did things years ago … it’s one of the reasons why we feel strongly about camp meetings in Eastern Ontario. It’s because it gives people opportunities to be in prayer rooms and at altars, where, maybe, and this isn’t intended to be a blanket statement, but they may not have that opportunity back home in the local church where there may be different themes and emphases that the church is embracing. So I think it’s a question of opportunity. When do people hear messages preached on the call of God? And when do they have opportunity to respond? And I thank God for the 17½-year-old person that responds to a Bible college presentation on a hot summer night at a camp meeting. But what about a 7½-year-old child that begins to have a sense of calling in their life, and that’s nurtured by a Sunday school teacher or a children’s pastor? And through the years of their life and development, with their parents’ encouragement, they really do understand that God’s hand is on a little person. They can grow up but really have that call nurtured and matured in their life. There’s something to be said for that “pipeline of leadership”—I’m not sure if I like that phrase, but it is a pipeline. It’s helping people understand the call of God over their lives. And we need leaders.
RD: It’s a pipeline, it’s a pathway, whatever you want to call it … but provide it, make the opportunity. What would be your hope for our Fellowship over the next five to 10 years?
CB: My hope would be that we are found to be truly Spirit-empowered and on mission, effective in making disciples. That would mean that local churches are on mission, individual followers of Jesus are on mission, and that we don’t just “do church” and hope that the pastor preaches a great message and somebody walks the aisle. Thank God for that. But that’s not what Jesus asked us to do … to just do church … He asked us to train and equip people to be His representatives in the marketplace, every day. And so, I think that’s my hope, that we can be effective and fruitful. That’s going to be manifested in a variety of ways. That’s going to be manifested in multiplication of ministry, in church planting, through generosity in giving, locally and internationally … it’s going to be manifested in us being concerned about missional issues—not issues rooted in people’s preferences. Sometimes pastors and district superintendents can spend a lot of time on distractions, that really, in the long run, will have nothing to do with kingdom effectiveness.
RD: I can certainly relate to that over the past year, year-and-a-half.
CB: We found things to divide over that I didn’t even know existed. It’s unbelievable the stuff that people divided over and argued about. I’m not saying they weren’t important issues, they were important because they were rooted in people’s preferences.
RD: Any last thoughts?
CB: We’ve talked about some of the women and men that we said farewell to in the last number of weeks, and I’ve actually got quite a collection of funeral bulletins on my desk at home. I just go home from service and when I go through that list, it’s remarkable. We saw the names as they were published in General Conference, which, by the way, I think is an amazing tradition that we have, to do that. So I would like to say, the past really matters. As the old saying goes, the past informs our future. And I personally place a very high value on our history. I say that personally—my own ancestry, my family, my heritage, my ancestors, who made sacrifices and decisions along the way that now allow me and my family to have blessings and benefits. That my granddad came over from Northern Ireland with £20 in his pocket and a trunk full of all his earthly possessions. He came here with vision in the 1920s. You can be sure, my kids know that story. Because I want them to understand the sacrifice he made so that we would have a future in a new land. I think it’s the same in our Pentecostal family. Because the women and men who have served us all so sacrificially over the years, they must be remembered and honoured and respected. We have been entrusted with something precious in the PAOC—and it’s certainly a product of the Lord’s initiative and blessing. Absolutely. But it’s a product of the hard work and dedication of all those who have gone before us. And that really, really matters. We have to understand, too, the motivation of those who have gone before us, and why they did what they did. So in terms of our Pentecostal family, let’s understand the truths, the purposes, the motivations behind what they did then and why. So truth does prevail, but the methods need to change. So they wouldn’t do it the way they did it then, today—they’d do it differently today. Because “today” requires different methods. But the values, the purposes, the missional intention behind it all—that’s what I think we really need to hang on to and understand. Sometimes we hang on to methods of the past and we don’t want things to change because they were effective then. The value is the motivator for it, not the method itself. But like being stuck in the past, another danger is leading [in a particular area] today because it’s a trendy issue. You can catch waves—everybody’s talking about it, everybody thinks it’s important—therefore I better get on this tread. I think that’s equally as dangerous. Let’s understand what the foundational value and principle is, and then let’s lead in effective ways based on that knowledge and understanding. With the creativity of the Spirit, that’s a powerful combination.
RD: I think what stands out to me there was your comment that if our heroes of the past were in ministry today, they wouldn’t do the work the way they did it in the past … they would do what’s needed for today, because they had that insight and that moving of the Holy Spirit inside of them that would allow them to do what’s needed for today.
CB: We don’t just dismiss all of that and say, “That wasn’t effective,” and “That was for an older time.” Let’s honour why they did it the way they did it. I think of things like singing hymns, for example. We’re dealing in, certainly, worship, but we’re dealing in the memories that people have. “I remember when we used to sing that hymn,” wherever they were. I think we do people a tremendous disservice when we just say, “None of that matters anymore, we’ve all moved on from that.” Well, maybe we have, but we don’t have to dismiss it as not having been valuable and meaningful, because it is, and it was.
RD: Thank you, Craig, for sharing your thoughts.
1. Philippians 4:11
2. John 4:35
Photos courtesy of Craig Burton. Home page photo: Craig and Wendy Burton. Top of page: Craig Burton speaking. Middle of page: Craig Burton at the installation service for Rich Janes, president of Master’s College and Seminary.
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