Brought up in Ballycastle in County Antrim, the 60 year old father of three received the most votes from the Church’s 19 regional presbyteries when they met in various locations across Ireland. Dr Mawhinney, who has been minister of the city centre church since 2008, will be the denomination’s 178th Moderator since 1840.
Dr Mawhinney was one of two nominees for the Church to choose from this year, which traditionally elects the Moderator-Designate on the first Tuesday in February. He will be formally elected as Moderator by the Church’s General Assembly in June and will be the first Moderator from a congregation in the Republic of Ireland since the year 2000, when County Dublin minister, Rev Trevor Morrow of Lucan Presbyterian Church, was elected to lead the Church. Until then Dr Mawhinney will be known as the Moderator-Designate and continue to serve in his congregation.
Speaking about his election, the Moderator-Designate said, “I am genuinely surprised and humbled by my election this evening. It is a position I have not sought, but happily accept as God’s will for my life. While in some respects it is quite a daunting task, I know that God’s help is promised for every task we are called to and I therefore thank Him for the opportunity to serve the Church in the year ahead.”
The minister of Drumreagh Presbyterian Church in Country Antrim, Rev Richard Murray, was also considered for election alongside Dr Mawhinney. Each received the following votes:
- Rev Dr Sam Mawhinney 10 votes: The Presbyteries of Ards, North Belfast, South Belfast, East Belfast, Carrickfergus, Derry & Donegal, Dromore, Dublin & Munster, Monaghan, and Templepatrick
- Rev Richard Murray 9 votes: The Presbyteries of Armagh, Ballymena, Coleraine & Limavady, Down, Iveagh, Newry, Omagh, Route, and Tyrone.
As a boy, Dr Mawhinney grew up on the North Coast and worshiped with his family in Ballycastle Presbyterian Church, attending Ballycastle Primary and Ballycastle High Schools.
It was during his time at High School, where Dr Mawhinney was head boy, he became conscious of being called to ministry within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. As he explained, the reality of this was so overwhelming he decided to study medicine at Queen’s University, Belfast, but become a missionary doctor. “In many ways I considered this an acceptable compromise,” he said.
After he left Queen’s in 1986 Dr Mawhinney spent five years working in Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry, Waveney Hospital in Ballymena, the Holywell Hospital in Antrim and Templepatrick General Medical Practice, becoming a member of the Royal College of General Practitioners in 1991.
“Having fully qualified as a GP, the question arose again about ministry within PCI, as that strong sense of call had remained with me. With the advice of a trusted minister, I was encouraged to test the call and see if this was from God,” he said.
“The process was a thorough one as I explored the idea of a call to medicine versus a call to church ministry in my presbytery interview. At each stage God graciously confirmed my sense of call to the latter and I was accepted to begin training for the Presbyterian Ministry at the Church’s Union Theological College in September 1992. As I had a year to wait before I started, I was able to spend that time in Kenya, serving as doctor at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa’s hospital in Kikuyu, 10 or so miles northwest of the capital Nairobi.”
As part of his ministerial training, Dr Mawhinney was the assistant to the minister of Old Park Presbyterian Church in north Belfast in 1995 for two years, before he was ordained as minister of Cahir and Fermoy Presbyterian Churches, a joint charge in Counties Tipperary and Cork respectively. He and his wife Karen lived in Fermoy with their three sons before being called to Adelaide Road Presbyterian Church, where Dr Mawhinney has served since 2008.
Speaking personally about his journey of faith, Dr Mawhinney said, “I grew up in a Christian family home and remember listening to Rev David Armstrong of CSSM, the Children's Special Service Mission, which was later to become Scripture Union. He preached in my primary school canteen of all places when I was eight or nine and it was then that I came to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.
“My faith deepened in my teenage years, I became a member of my home church when I was 16 and when I was 17/18 I served with Portrush CSSM under Rev Godfrey Brown, who himself became Moderator in the late 1980s. As a disciple of Jesus, at Queen’s the outworking and deepening of my faith lead to me being offered positions of leadership, becoming Prayer Secretary of Queen’s Christian Union and its President in 1983/1984. It was during this time there was a real involvement of students from the Republic which inspired me, developing the sense of call I had to serve south of the border.”
Today he ministers to around 110 families in the city centre congregation totalling around 150 people. “We are in the heart of inner city south Dublin where Adelaide Road has become an international church. For many years we were happy to share our church building with the Dublin Korean Church until recently and still welcome the Japanese Christian Fellowship that meet in our building once a month.
“We are Bible-centred and evangelical, with a heart for serving the local community. In preparing God’s people for those works of service, we seek to serve one another in love and encourage engagement with the local community in mission that is relationship based and gospel focused. Our ethos tries to hold this outward focus,” Dr Mawhinney said.
Originally built in 1841, the year following the establishment of PCI, by the 1980s, the church considered moving from the city centre. “I am pleased to say that in 1989 the congregation took the prayerful decision to ‘Stay and Share Jesus’. It was a great decision as the local population is diverse, from those living in social housing, to modern apartments and expensive private homes, and student communities – everyone needs to hear the Good News!”
Describing his own ministry, Dr Mawhinney said, “I believe that when God’s word is taught, God’s word is heard. I therefore see preaching as my primary task and have sought to preach well and relevantly throughout my ministry. For many years I have attended regularly the Irish Preachers Conference and presently serve on its organising committee.”
Dr Mawhinney will be the 11th minister serving in a Dublin congregation to become Moderator and the third serving in Adelaide Road to be elected. Since the establishment of the Church in 1840, 25 Moderators have come from congregations in what is now the Republic of Ireland. Fifteen were elected pre-partition, the first in 1845 and the last in 1920. Nine Moderators have been elected post-partition, the first in 1926, Rev Dr Robert Hanna who was also minister of Adelaide Road Presbyterian Church, with the last being Dr Morrow in the year 2000. Dr Mawhinney’s immediate predecessor at Adelaide Road, Rev Dr Frank Sellar, was elected Moderator in 2016, eight years after he left Dublin.
Thinking about his forthcoming year in office, he said, “While a little daunted, I am very much looking forward to serving Christ in a very different way. During my time, I would like to highlight the work of God in Ireland, particularly south of the border where I have lived, raised our three children with my wife Karen and ministered for nearly 25 years.
“I am genuinely excited by the green shoots of Church growth and want to encourage us to look outside of ourselves. As we witness a rising tide of society’s unbelief we need to remind ourselves that “if God is for us”, as we read in Romans 8:31, we are able to deal with the reality of a changing Ireland and begin to move forward and rediscover the confidence and the blessing of our faith.”
"God is love and so he moved towards us humbly and with self-giving, and my desire for the Church is that we would be confident in our Christian faith and loving in our desire to move towards people with the message of salvation in an attitude of service,” he said.
Dr Mawhinney continued, “As Moderator I am looking forward to sharing with the church this vision of confident Christianity. I am also looking forward to having a front row seat and being able to travel and visit the Church across Ireland. It will be a real blessing to have an opportunity to support and pastor our ministers and people.”
The Moderator-Designate concluded by saying, “I am sure that my own journey of Christian discipleship during this time will be both a good and challenging one, and I am also confident that, as the Apostle Paul tells us in Philippians, “he who began a good work in me will carry it on until the day of Christ Jesus.”
When he is not in the pulpit, or visiting members of his congregation, Dr Mawhinney relaxes by doing bits of DIY, tidying the garden and watching sport and TV dramas. As a former hockey player he also enjoys sport and road cycling in particular. A keen Manchester City supporter, he was until recently manager of YMCA Dublin’s 1st XI hockey team.
Dr Mawhinney will be officially nominated to this year’s General Assembly at its Opening Night in Belfast in the third full week of June when he will succeed the current Moderator, Rt Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick. Dr Kirkpatrick will continue in office as the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s principal public representative until then.
Photos (1) Rev Dr Sam Mawhinney, minister of Adelaide Road Presbyterian Church, who was elected Moderator-Designate this evening (credit Press Eye) and (2) Adelaide Road Presbyterian Church in Dublin.