It is always good to get to know our ministers who serve in our congregations. Unfortunately, it is difficult to interact with all of our ministers and their congregations due to the vast distances between us in North America. Rev. Derek Erwin is probably best known to some “snowbirds” who winter in the Orlando area of Florida as they seek to get away from the cold of northern climes. He is also well known to some of our Ulster people who like to vacation in Orlando in the summer. For those who have never been able to attend the services in Orlando FPC, this interview will give some insights into Mr. Erwin’s life and ministry. We also hope that budding preachers will be helped by his answers regarding preaching and preparation for the pulpit.
When did you first hear the gospel and how did you come to full assurance of salvation?
I was not born into a Christian home but was sent along to the local Methodist church in the village of Cullybackey, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, when I was three years of age. However, it was not until I was in my late teens and had started to work in a shoe factory in Ballymena that I first heard the gospel with profit. Believers in that factory had for years been holding lunch time gospel services in a local Presbyterian church. They kept pestering me to attend these meetings and I eventually gave in.
Around that time I started to date Anne, who later became my wife. She had been brought up in a Christian home and her parents were godly people who shared the gospel with me. Through the preaching of the Word at the lunch time services, the faithful witness of my co-laborers, and the prayers of Anne’s parents, I fell under conviction of sin. One night, after being on a date with Anne, during which time we had talked about spiritual things, I trusted Christ as my Saviour in the quietness of my own home. The next day at work, Anne, who also worked in the shoe factory, told me that she too had trusted Christ for salvation in her own home. We were saved on the same night. God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform!
The call of God is absolutely essential to the Christian ministry. In what ways did God convince you that He was calling you to preach the gospel?
Shortly after getting saved Anne and I started to attend Ballymena Free Presbyterian Church. As I sat under the preaching of Rev. R. J. Beggs the Lord began to speak to me about full-time service. At that time I got involved in the Y.P.F. [Young People’s Fellowship] in the church and was given the opportunity to testify, to lead a service, to prepare short, five-minute “sermons,” and generally to get the confidence to stand before others.
At that time four of us young men began to take meetings in the various mission halls around our locality after the Sunday evening services. We took it in turn to lead the meetings, to testify, and to preach. This also extended to participating in open-air meetings on Sunday nights and sometimes during the week. In due course this led to being invited to preach in the different churches in our denomination. The Lord continued to deal with me and I was convinced that He wanted me to prepare for the ministry of the Free Presbyterian Church. I had the desire to preach, some measure of ability to preach, the opportunity to preach, and finally the Lord confirmed His call to me to preach through His Word (Isaiah 49). Subsequently, I applied to the Ulster presbytery for training in the Whitefield College of the Bible and was accepted.
Tell us something about your ministry in Northern Ireland and of your call to Orlando, Florida.
I entered the Whitefield College of the Bible in September 1982. After successfully completing the first two years of study I was placed by the presbytery as student minister in Sixmilecross Free Presbyterian Church in July 1984, a little over a year after the departure of the first minister of the congregation, Rev. John Greer, to Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. I then completed the final two years of training during which time I carried out the responsibilities of a student minister in the congregation.
On the successful completion of my studies I received a call to the Sixmilecross church and was ordained and installed in the congregation on Wednesday, November 5, 1986. I remained there until January 1991 when I accepted a call to take up the pastorate of Ballygowan Free Church in County Down. I ministered there until July 2003 when I received a call from the Orlando congregation to become the second ordained minister of the congregation. I left my beloved Ulster and arrived in the U.S. on November 28 of that year. My wife, Anne, was not able to travel with me at that time and did not arrive in the States until early January 2004 and was there for my installation on the 30th of the month. I am now in my twelfth year in the Orlando church.
What was your biggest fear as you began ministering in a new country and how did the Lord help you to overcome?
The first year in America was probably the most difficult. Arriving in the U.S. with no credit score, etc., was a daunting thing. I had no social security number for a while, and that meant I couldn’t get a driver’s license, buy car insurance, or even open a bank account. I really did feel like a stranger in a strange land. Then when the container with all our stuff from Northern Ireland arrived in Miami, they would not release it until unexpected additional money was paid. On top of all that the church manse was not ready for me to move into. I was, however, able to purchase a vehicle. So I had a car I couldn’t drive, a house I couldn’t live in, and a wife I couldn’t kiss! That year we had four hurricanes, and, if my memory serves me right, about twelve or thirteen storms. In addition, there were seventeen car accidents outside the church manse culminating with the death of a sixteen-year-old boy at our front door at 2 a.m.! What a welcome to America! But the Lord worked everything out in His own good time. He never disappoints or lets His people down. It was all part of the divine learning process.
Every pastor knows the challenge of preaching to the same congregation week in and week out. What has helped you to remain sharp and focused in your pulpit ministry?
I think that keeping the heart in tune with God is the most important thing in the ministry. I seek to develop and turn my own personal devotions into messages for the pulpit. I find that what usually blesses and enriches me can also be used by the Lord to bless and enrich my people. When the Word is alive to the preacher in the pulpit it usually becomes alive to the people in the pew. Dwelling often upon the glories of Christ is a good way to keep fresh in the pulpit.
What single piece of advice would you give to a young preacher starting out in the pastorate?
I can think of a few things that I can suggest by way of advice. The first thing is to be absolutely sure that you are called of God to the ministry. Then make sure you are in the right place to minister and that you are in agreement with the position held by that body or denomination. Be diligent in personal devotion and private study. Keep your heart in tune with God daily. Use your mornings wisely for study when the mind is clear and fresh because so many things can creep in during the course of the day. Give yourself much to prayer. Pray much for yourself and for those over whom you have the spiritual oversight. Be organized and redeem the time but always be sure to “come ye yourselves apart … and rest a while.”
Make much of Christ in preaching. Preach with passion and in the power of the Spirit compelling men and women and young people to repent and seek the Lord while He may be found and to call upon Him while He is near. Love the Lord. Love your people. Love the work that God has called you to do. Labor fervently for the glory of God and give Him His rightful place – first place!
Which resources do you use most for Bible study and research?
Well, I always have my old A.V. of the Bible on my desk. That is the first place I go to. Matthew Henry’s Commentary is never far away. William Hendriksen is frequently consulted as is A. W. Pink. J. C. Ryle on the four Gospels is a must as is anything by C. H. Spurgeon. Thomas Boston on the Shorter Catechism (two-volume set) is a firm favorite. The Body of Divinity by Thomas Watson has been a rich source of blessing over the years. Young’s Analytical Concordance and Wuest’s Word Studies in the Greek New Testament have been most helpful. Louis Berkof’s Systematic Theology and Hodge’s Systematic Theology are treasures. I have also received benefit from the writings of James Montgomery Boice, John Calvin, John Murray, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, etc.
Tell us about your wife, Anne, and your family.
I have been married to Anne for almost 45 years. She has stood with me every step of the way in the Lord’s work and has been a true friend, a faithful supporter, and a pillar of strength to me down through the years. We have two grown children, Paul and Diane, who still live in Northern Ireland. They each have a son. Jamie, who is Paul’s son, is seven, and Scott, who is Diane’s son, is three. It has been almost five years since we were last home and it has been difficult not being there to see our grandchildren growing up.
How have you been able to keep in contact with your family across the miles between Ulster and Florida?
At the start it wasn’t easy making contact with home. We had to depend on phone cards, which proved to be a pretty expensive way to keep in touch. Then we signed up for Skype and what a difference that made! It is a wonderful invention and has transformed our whole way of communicating with our family and friends. Not only is it good to hear them, it is also very nice to be able to see them and to be able to let them see the beautiful blue Florida sky when most likely the rain is pouring down in Ulster!
What do you and your wife like to do for recreation?
One day shortly after we arrived in Orlando Anne was out for a walk in the subdivision across the road from the church and she returned all excited—she had seen a bicycle at a yard sale for $5. Wow! Well that sounded too good to be true but it was a sheer delight to a Ballymena man! We snapped it up, pumped the tires, and off Anne set. I purchased a bike sometime later (not as cheap though) and since then we have covered over twelve thousand miles between us. Having several biking trails nearby it very convenient and a few times a week I ride the twenty-two-mile round trip from the manse to the church to do some study. The bikes are taken along at vacation times as well and we do our very best to relax and keep fit in this way. Anne also likes gardening and always has a good display of flowers along with her tomato plants and various herbs she uses for cooking. I just stick to mowing the lawn and in the intense Florida heat that is more than enough recreation for me!