"I don't recommend getting your masters and planting a church at the same time," Paul Dunk (MABTS ‘17) says with a chuckle. Little did Paul know at the time, the most significant trial of his ministry career was still ahead of him. The disruptive events of 2020 would prove to be an audition where his leadership, faithfulness to God’s calling, and hope in the timeless truth of the gospel would soon be put to a greater test.
Paul Dunk leads KW Redeemer in Waterloo, Canada, a region that has become an epicenter for the technology industry featuring hubs for big named companies like Google, Facebook, and Intel. Just as much as the tech industry is relatively young and new to this historical settlement considered home by multiple indigenous people groups, so is Paul’s church that he planted in 2015 to reach the growing, diverse, and vibrant population among the working class and university students.
“It’s been good for my ego that growth has been slow,” Paul says as he reflects on his leadership in the first five years of church planting. It’s been exactly that kind of humility that helped prepare him for this global moment.
Learning to “Play the Long Game”
Going into 2020, Paul and his leadership team had already been dreaming and planning to hire their first part-time employee to assist him with the day-to-day operations of the church so he could focus on a growing outreach program. He was beginning to see fruit from his “Faith and Reason” events he had recently been hosting in partnership with another local ministry. Often reaching dozens of students with in-person question and answer sessions that explored the Christian faith in a secular environment, these were the types of gospel opportunities that were starting to open up for Paul and KW Redeemer. Despite these breakthroughs he had long been praying for, the unexpected would challenge his plans and leadership at a new level.
"You've got to call some audibles for the next twelve months," Paul says, reflecting on the decisions he had to make in those early weeks of lockdown. When it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon and emotions began to rise around the country and his community, Paul knew he had to learn how to play the long game and lead his church to do likewise.
"I wasn’t going to make any decisions or die on political hills that don't serve our vision.” That vision, for Paul, is grounded in one thing: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
"I know many of you will have disagreements,” Paul shares, recounting standing before his church in a rare opportunity Redeemer had for a distanced gathering during the pandemic last summer. “But what is it that unifies us? Not our politics, position on masks, or vaccines. We are unified by Christ, and Christ alone."
If pivoting his young and fragile church community to embrace the constant waves of change throughout the pandemic wasn’t difficult enough, holding a group of people together around a single mission when it seemed like the social order was tearing itself apart would prove to be even more challenging, but not impossible. Paul’s theological training, faithful resilience, and experience traveling the world has provided him with a helpful perspective.
“I’ve seen all kinds of suffering and persecution endured by churches outside of North America. I refuse to allow [politics] to create an 'us versus them' scenario. We're going to be for the city and about the gospel of Jesus Christ.” And so they have been.
Since becoming dislocated from their rental facility for weekly worship services due to pandemic restrictions at their local community center, the money the church has been able to save in rental costs has been used to serve the emerging needs in their city. Today, they are financially supporting a local refugee family, soup kitchens, food pantries, and other local outreach programs.
“The only hill we'll die on is the Gospel," Paul states with resolve. "We've got to get through this with Christ crucified on the cross for our sins as being the main thing."
Today, as churches are reporting splits and attendance losses, Paul is grateful to report that KW Redeemer has been faithful to their unity around a common vision and higher calling.
Leading Into the Future
As Paul prepares to lead the church into their regathering phase later this year, his hopes and dreams for the church in a post-pandemic world are another challenge for any maturing community of faith. He sees his leadership being defined not as “wasting” a global tragedy, but to lead through it for a greater purpose.
"My hope is that our church will grow in maturity through this. To see our idols of wealth and comfort like never before, and to be more active in giving a defense of our hope."
For Paul, gospel-centered leadership in a time of crisis has taken on a journey of personal maturing and clarity. That, it appears, will become the defining mark of his ministry in, with, and for the church – for years to come.
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Paul Dunk is a 2017 alumnus and holds a Master of Biblical and Theological Studies from Knox Theological Seminary. Knox trains men and women to declare and demonstrate the gospel of Jesus Christ in their unique calling and context.
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