Introducing our newly appointed Pastor Will Cottrell

Q. Let’s start with a potted history of your life till now, starting with where were you born?

I was born 16 miles southwest of London in a town called Kingston Upon Thames but grew up in Chessington which is famous for its World of Adventures (and not much else). I was fortunate enough to be born into a family that attended the local evangelical church and grew up hearing the gospel, though I didn’t become a Christian until much later. 

After spending my youth and teenage years in Southwest London I headed over to Devon to study English Literature at Exeter University and I think that was a place where my faith found its feet.  I also had the opportunity to think more about a call to ministry and overseas mission work, so when I graduated in 2011 I took a short-term mission trip to the Philippines to help out in a bible translation project there (actually as of writing this the project is now finished and the bibles are being printed in the Tawbuid language).  I then spent some time in central London, again working as a missionary, before heading to do a masters of music in Birmingham, but there was always the pull of ministry in the back of my mind.

After wrapping up my music degree I decided to take a year to work at my home church and explore with my church family whether I was experiencing a call to full-time ministry, and during that year I learned to love the local church and had some opportunities to discover what my gifts were when it came to the church.  Another significant moment was a trip to Japan as another potential mission field, which allowed me to keep pressing in to that question of where God was calling me to be.

When my time as a church apprentice drew to a close, I had decided that I wanted to undergo further training at seminary, but was advised to take two years out in the workplace before committing to that, so I secured a job as an english literature and history teacher in a local prep school.  I have to say that time was wonderful and fruitful in terms of opportunities to share my faith with others and invest in the life of the school, and I left with a sense of gratitude and sadness at the end of my time there. 

I think God used that time to reveal that my vocation was as a teacher, regardless of the context.

Nevertheless, heading over to America to attend Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary was tremendously exciting, and in the three years of study plus one and a half of work experience and applying for a visa I really felt a deepening of my faith and a focusing of my calling, and picked up so many wonderful friends along the way (as well as a wife, but that’s a longer story).  That is not to say that my time in the USA was easy. I was there at a moment when the country and the church was extremely polarised, and the pandemic hit just as I graduated which made finding a job extremely difficult on top of issues with my visa (which was eventually denied), but I think I learned wisdom and greater patience through walking in that wilderness. 

So, at the current chapter of the story I’ve ended up in Perth after over a year of talking to TCF and discerning whether I would be a good fit for the church and vice versa. I have to say it was totally unexpected, but I’m delighted to be here and excited to see what happens in the coming years.

Q. When did you become a Christian? All Christians remember that well and their emotions at the time. How was it for you?

Though I was raised in a Christian household and attended church from the very beginning, I didn’t become a Christian until my mid-teenage years.  For me it was a combination of careful years of gospel preaching and good teaching at my home church with the more direct intervention of God at a point in time.  Before I was a Christian, I’d say I was very moral, perhaps noticeably religious, but I had reduced Christianity down to a set of moral codes to live by because this was what made sense to me.  Because I grounded my worth and self-image in my academic success and obedience to the rules it seemed obvious that God would work in the same way, but at that point I was clearly making God in my own image.

However, when I grounded my identity in my performance any failure or threat to that went very deep indeed.  Whenever I met someone more intelligent or accomplished than me, or whenever I failed to live up to my own standards, I became inconsolable and anxious because I could feel my very identity eroding.  Later I would realise that I was doing what the bible would describe as “building my house on the sand”.  I couldn’t make sense of God’s grace because the god I followed was holy but not gracious, and I was attempting to live the Christian life without the power of grace.  Because of this I was constantly on the treadmill of achievement, and fundamentally self-absorbed. 

But I remember a moment at Christmas around 2006.  I was rehearsing playing the drums with the band at my church for the service like I’d done for years before, and we were practicing a song called “thorns in the straw”.  It told the story of how even at Jesus’ birth the plan of his life would lead him to the cross.  As I heard these words sung, I felt a connection happen in my understanding like the rush of electricity when a circuit is suddenly completed.  I realised that Jesus hadn’t died just so that I could be forgiven for the bad things I’d done.  He’d died to save me from all the good things I was desperately trying to do to earn people’s love (and ultimately God’s love), so that I could stop and get off that spiritual treadmill and be at peace.  All at once what I’d heard preached and sung over the years at Sunday service, and what I’d studied unthinkingly with youth bible retreats became real.  The puzzle pieces locked into place, and I saw for the first time the whole picture of what this “good news” I’d heard about all these years was.  I didn’t have to be “enough”, and actually I never could.  Jesus was enough!  My search was over, and I could finally step off the treadmill.  I actually broke down in that moment as the knot of an identity I was desperately trying to achieve for myself unravelled.  I had finally begun to understand how I could receive a new and stable identity from Jesus, who loved me so much that he willingly died for me and gave me the status of his very own perfection.

Needless to say, it didn’t all make sense at once, and I am still working out the profound implications of the gospel even now, and Jesus continues to put his finger on new knots in my identity, areas where I’m not enjoying the freedom of having God’s unconditional love.  But that love enables me to face the ugliness in my own heart his law uncovers without the fear he will forsake me.  Instead of the fuel for my life being the toxic yet subtle need to prove myself, the love and regard of God in Jesus has taken its place.

Q. How has your faith influenced key life decisions till now?

This is a tough one to answer, because I think a lot of our decisions are made on the level of instinct which builds on years and years of character formation.  And though the bible certainly gives us instructions on how to behave in specific situations the vast majority of it is concerned with forming godly wisdom and character which then becomes reflexive.

Having said that, there are a couple of gospel principles I have found invaluable when coming to major life decisions.  We live in a culture that tells us we have to look inside for the ‘right path’ and that any outside authority or influence should be regarded with suspicion.  This is not only untrue, it’s blind to the fact that we’re all influenced by someone or something in the end. I have to say the support and counsel of the elders of my home church has been invaluable to my discerning the call into seminary and ministry.  Their wise counsel and hard questions really enabled me to discern my internal sense of calling by testing it in different ministry settings.  I wouldn’t be here at TCF if it wasn’t for them.

Another faith principle is the freedom that the gospel brings.  Anxiety tends to come hand in hand with key decisions and (speaking for myself) this is because I give myself too much credit.  I’m anxious because subconsciously I believe my decisions are the way I achieve the plan for my life.  My anxiety reveals my lack of trust in God because I’m worried that there is indeed a plan that he’s going to mess it up!  I think the boldness to make key decisions (like moving to another part of the country and spending time apart from loved ones) and the peace to see them through comes when I remember to take myself off the throne of the universe and say instead, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” That God is not only good but kind, and that he can draw straight lines with crooked sticks.

Q. Well you have made an extremely bold decision to move from the States to Scotland, so what are your first impressions of Scotland and, of course, Tayside Christian Fellowship and its family?

You mean besides the rain? My first impression of Scotland was one of contrasts: incredible natural beauty and a much more down-to-earth feel than the big cities I’ve come from combined with a real desperate need for the gospel to take root again in the “land of the book”.  It’s hard not to look around and fall in love with the surroundings and people yet not have your heart broken by the people who are as of yet cut off from Christ. 

As far as TCF goes, I don’t think this will come as a shock to anyone but what particularly struck me was how welcoming the church is.  Leave aside being the pastor, being new at a church in any capacity and moving to a totally new area is daunting and sometimes isolating.  But the welcome I’ve received here has made me feel loved as part of the family.  It’s reminded me of the truth of Jesus’ words, “By this the world will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.” TCF feels like a family in all its love and informality, and it’s clearly not trying to be superficially relevant and slick (which is good because people can spot that a mile off), but instead taking the Word seriously and seeking to have that be the core of what motivates us.

Q. What characteristics would your friends and family choose to best describe you?

Probably that I love to study, play music, and talk to people about theology (not necessarily in that order), and that I’m fairly inept when it comes to practical matters (but, thanks to my more practically minded fiancé Olivia I’m getting better)!

Q. Tell us 3 things we are unlikely to know about you!

First, I am a dab hand with a medieval English longbow.

Second, I studied Japanese for a couple of years and spent some time living over there. 

Third, I love to cook (particularly curries and east-asian food), so invite yourself around sometime!

Q. Finally, if you were to recommend any book, not the bible, what would it be and why?

For something theological I’d recommend Dynamics of Spiritual Life by Richard Lovelace.  It’s a little academic but it’s amazingly prescient even now in its insistence that the heart of all true revival is a recovery and deep application of the gospel in churches and the lives of believers.

For something more literary I find myself coming back time and again to a collection of poems by George Herbert called The Temple.  Herbert is one of the most profound writers on the Christian experience and his ability to describe the wonder of grace is unparalleled in my opinion. Start with his meditation on the cross: The Sacrifice.

Header photo by Octavian Dan on Unsplash

Published June 2022