When it was revealed on February 4 this year that Rev Mark Lennox would be quitting his Christ Church berth in Strabane, one local woman summed up the collective reaction.
“Mark, you will be missed so much,” Beatrice Wauchope said on social media. “You just have the X Factor for the church. The people of Killyman don’t know how thankful they will be.”
For Rev Mark, if he didn’t already know the level of esteem in which he is held among his flock, he certainly does now.
And the touching thing is: It’s a two way street.
The local Church of Ireland minister this week admitted he can’t comprehend how he’s going to cope with his last service at the beginning of May, such will be his devastation upon leaving. Also, the watch-word for Rev Mark’s relationship with the town is ‘love’.
“I love Strabane and that isn’t something I initially thought would happen,” Rev Mark explained.
“My initial appointment in Strabane was part-time. At that time, for the parish it was a case of make or break, amalgamate or grow.
“But I love the town. I love living in the town. I love the people. I love the atmosphere. I’m very happy here and I don’t want to leave.”
Obviously, this begs the question: Why leave?
Perhaps just as obviously, Rev Mark replies, “I’m leaving because I think that’s what the Lord wants me to do. And he’s too big to argue with.”
Although he doesn’t say as much, Rev Mark – originally from Castledawson – is still himself coming to terms with his decision; it wasn’t a conclusion he arrived at with ease.
The first time representatives from Killyman Parish asked if he’d join their parish, he refused – but only after a lot of praying.
The second time they asked, he declined.
The third time, they asked and eventually, after much soul searching and yet more praying, the Killyman seed took hold.
“I was preaching that Sunday morning,” Rev Mark continued. “And it was the Call of Samuel, when the Lord calls him three times. Samuel says, ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’
“This was the third time I had been asked. They had said, ‘We’re sure you are the person we want.’ With that sermon that Sunday morning, I felt as though I was preaching to myself. I accepted.”
Nigh-on six years at Christ Church in Strabane, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Rev Mark has left an indelible impression on the parish and perhaps even his charges.
There is the “significant” growth experienced by Christ Church since his arrival, the founding of the Parish Players, the new links with South America, the expansion of the children’s ministry – all of these things have helped move the affable minister ever closer to people’s hearts.
“Strabane has grown significantly,” Rev Mark admitted.
“But this has been down to the parish and the parishioners being open to do things differently. I have to say, the parishioners are a hard-working bunch.
“A question I have continually asked myself and others is: If the church were to close in Strabane, would the town miss it? That question has spurred us on.”
He added, “It would be fair to say I initiated some things but no matter what I dreamt up, it wouldn’t have happened without the parishioners’’ hard work and dedication.”
Retaining a sense of humour despite the enormity of his decision to leave, Rev Mark points to a phrase which was suggested to him lately.
“There will be challenges and new ways of doing things at Killyman. I’ll be moving into a new house, into a community that doesn’t know me; it’ll be tough at the beginning, I’m sure,” he said.
“But I was told, in comparative terms to modern work… I’m not changing job, I’m not changing boss… I’m just moving to a new office.”
Rev Mark Lennox’s last sermon will take place at Christ Church in Strabane on Sunday May 6. Patently – and he admits as much – that occasion will be heart-breaking.
“I suppose if I was giving any (Strabane) minister advice I would say love the people,” he said. “Love them and live with them and let them love you.
“I’ll be saying my farewell sermon on May 6 and saying my final goodbyes. That will be tough. The Sunday I announced I was leaving I was in bits.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get through it.”