In March 2020, MST graduates Paul and Mel Jessop were due to board a plane back to Japan to serve there “basically for the rest of our lives” when COVID shut borders and Australia went into lockdown.
The Jessops had been in Japan with OMF for four years already; two years studying Japanese, and two years doing church planting. They came back in 2019 for what was supposed to be a 12-month home assignment with their then four children (now five).
“Initially, we thought that in six months COVID would blow over and then we could be back in Japan,” says Paul. Two years later, he can laugh about the naivety of that statement.
However, letting go of his ‘plan A’ was a challenge. “We had been preparing to go to Japan our whole married lives,” he says.
In fact, Paul and Mel had been preparing for their life on the mission field from the moment they started studying at what was formerly Bible College of Victoria (BCV). “I knew that I was preparing to go to Japan from the first subject I took [at MST],” he says.
Grounded in Australia by the pandemic, Paul took on various homeside OMF roles, including ministering to the local Japanese diaspora in Melbourne. Last year, he became the Victorian State Ministry Leader, but “still always with an eye on trying to get back to Japan.”
The longer things went on, however, with lockdown after lockdown in Melbourne, and Japan closely guarding its borders, God changed their plans.
In Winter last year, the International Director of OMF got in touch with Paul and asked if he’d prayerfully consider the National Director position, which is based in Sydney. Fast forward to now and Paul, and his family of seven, have moved north, and he’s now been in this new role for a number of months.
Paul’s appointment is a wonderful representation of the continuing relationship between MST and OMF, one which began with the formation of the college in 1920.
The inter-denominational Melbourne Bible Institute (MBI), as it was first named, was founded with a view to training missionaries for the field, many of whom were to go abroad with the China Inland Mission, a movement started by Hudson Taylor in the 1800s.
Like today’s courses of study, the curriculum at MBI was both biblically focused, and practical. Students took Bible classes and learned skills like open air preaching, pastoral care in hospitals, city mission work, and how to teach Christianity in schools. As still happens today, serving missionaries also often visited and spoke to students, inspiring them for their ministry abroad.
Today, Melbourne School of Theology has a flourishing Chinese Department, MST Chinese, while China Inland Mission became OMF. The two organisations still have a strong relationship, as highlighted by Paul’s recent appointment.
In the footsteps of Hudson Taylor, Paul says he wants to make prayer a big focus during his tenure as National Director.
Paul says his time at MST helped form him for the mission field and his role now.
“Doing missions subjects [with David Price] was really important in helping me to start thinking about contextualising the gospel, what mission might look like on the ground, and how you balance anthropology and theology.”
Having conversations with lecturers and classmates, and thrashing out some of the specifics about what it means to apply the learning, was like “iron sharpening iron.”
Paul says a strong theological foundation became vitally important when overseas, to defend himself against spiritual warfare. He says it is still just as important now.
“It equips you to withstand some of the storms that can come. You get real theological challenges and spiritual warfare on the mission field. If there’s any weaknesses, in either theology or character, they will really show.”
“The mission field also helps prepare you to be tested back in
Australia, because you’re aware of spiritual warfare and the battles arrayed around you.”
As for current MST students? Paul has an evergreen word of advice, one that he too has had to put into practice recently.
“Have a courageous faith: a faith that says, ‘I will go. I’m not going to put boundaries on what I might be able to do, or what I think God wants me to do.’ But a faith that says, ‘I’ll step out into the unknown’.”
Living in a culture that emphasises safety, security and comfort, Paul wants to remind us that the call to mission says, ‘leave everything and don’t make excuses’.
He says, “Just say ‘Yes, Lord’, and go. The Lord has to take care of the rest.”