Monday, April 27, 2020

Irving Steggles (1945–2020)—The Sun That Never Set

(A tribute on behalf of the directors of the African Pastors Conferences)


On April 22, 2020, Irving Steggles left the sphere of his earthly labours and went to glory from a hospital bed in South Africa. Many of us had been fearing that this day would come for at least two years before it did, as the earthly tent in which Irving Steggles lived began showing serious signs of wear and tear.

Irving Steggles’ early life and ministry

Who was Irving Steggles? I have picked up this much from various sources. Irving was born in 1945 in the United Kingdom and became a Christian in 1959. He studied mathematics at the University of Oxford and went on to teach at Monkton Combe School. He sensed God’s call to the pastoral ministry while he was a member of Widcombe Baptist Church in Bath. He then went on to train at London Seminary before becoming pastor of Ladyfield Evangelical Church in Chippenham. In 2004, he was called to pastor a church in Durban, South Africa, but that pastorate hardly lasted a year. He then moved on to help establish Birchleigh Baptist Church in Kempton Park under the oversight of Constantia Park Baptist Church, which at that time was under the pastorate of Martin Holdt. Irving had a very strong belief in the centrality of the local church in leading kingdom work. So, although his sphere of influence grew as he settled more and more in South Africa and this took him all over the world, he remained pastor of Birchleigh Baptist Church until he went to glory last week.

Irving served on a number of boards for various Christian institutions. In the UK, he was a board member of London Seminary, having served as chairman of that board for ten years, and on the board of Reformation Today Trust. In South Africa, he served on the board of Mukhanyo College and on the board of Step Wise Youth Ministry. Irving also served on the South African board of the African Christian University which is situated in Lusaka, Zambia. Each of these ministries will have their own tale to tell of how this man’s life impacted them while he served among them.

Irving Steggles and the Reformation in RSA and Zambia

While Irving Steggles was pastoring Birchleigh Baptist Church, a number of black South African young adults came to embrace the doctrines of grace at about the same time. This was largely through listening to sermons by Paul Washer, John MacArthur, and John Piper on the internet. Some of these young men and women were in the nearby township of Tembisa. They found themselves at Birchleigh Baptist Church and Irving gave himself unreservedly to discipling them. Though he was a bachelor, Irving was very hospitable. He would often gather these young adults in his home for theological discussions. Those young men among them who were sensing a call to the pastoral ministry were encouraged by Irving Steggles to go for formal theological training. Some of these are now in full time pastoral ministry around South Africa.

Irving Steggles and the South African young adults he brought to the Zambian conference
The Christians in Zambia will particularly remember Irving for the many times he came to attend the Zambian Reformed Conferences and preach in our churches. At the conference, he stood out like a sore thumb partly because he was Caucasian and also because he was easily the oldest man among us. There was no doubt that he was very interested in the growing work of Reformation in Zambia. With the help of Ronald Kalifungwa, pastor of Lusaka Baptist Church, he often used preachers from this country for the African Pastors Conferences which were taking place across the continent of Africa.

Irving Steggles’ and the African Pastors Conferences

Irving’s godly example and his extra-ordinary faith in a sovereign God, and his love for the Bible, for the Reformed faith, for missions and for God’s people have been noted by many in a number of tributes that have been written since his demise. Perhaps the most lasting legacy that he has left us with is that of the African Pastors Conferences (APCs). These conferences were started with the express aim of providing African pastors who had little or no theological training with model expository preaching (done largely by fellow Africans), solid books at very affordable prices (some of them as free give-aways), and actual teaching on pertinent theological and practical issues.

Some of the books displayed at an African Pastors Conference
When Erroll Hulse went to glory in 2017, I wrote a blog in his honour. In that article, I said, “Perhaps Erroll Hulse’s final lasting legacy to Africa will be the African Pastors Conferences (APCs). Initially, he worked closely with Dennis Hustedt, a former pastor in South Africa who now lives in the USA. At some point the two felt it better to work independently. That was when Erroll Hulse looped Irving Steggles and me in as directors and the APCs were fully born. That must have been around 2008. The board of directors has expanded further since then.” I have since been corrected. This was in 2005. The board now includes Thomas Winn and John Divito from the USA. Erroll and Irving were like twins in terms of their zeal for the APCs. They were like two peas in a pod. If I was the sleeping member of that board, Irving and Erroll were the flying ones! When Erroll was hospitalised and went to be with the Lord, his absence was cushioned by Irving’s zeal.

Irving made the APCs a personal project in which he poured heart and soul to his dying day. Each year he kept adding more conferences until the APCs grew to about sixty conferences a year. Irving visited Europe and the USA, and spoke in churches and conferences, appealing passionately for support for the conferences. Finding a conference manager for the APCs was difficult because the conferences were dotted all over Africa and so they demanded that the manager should be “on the run” most of the year. We had very good men come on as conference managers but for the reason I have stated and others they only served for a short time and moved on—although their hearts have still remained with the APCs up to this very moment. Irving recruited Nico van Zyl in 2016 and for the last 3 to 4 years the conferences have stabilised and grown from strength to strength. With Gayle, Peter and Kabelo handling the books, the APCs became a work horse that was delivering preachers and books all over Africa.

"Yours truly" visiting Irving Steggles in South Africa after his knee operation in 2018
Once or twice I suggested to Irving that we cut back a conference or two and he would not hear of it unless it was totally impossible. “The pastors are asking for more such conferences,” he would say. The conferences are now being held in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal. In order to attain and maintain such a number of conferences, churches (mostly in the USA) were asked to consider partnering with individual conferences. The pastors of these churches were also encouraged to be among the preachers for their sponsored conferences. This pairing, which was mooted by Thomas Winn soon after he became a board member in 2014, made it easier for the sponsoring churches to know how their funds were benefiting those who attended the conferences and thus they were encouraged to give further support in succeeding years. All you need to do is read the tributes coming in from all over Africa to appreciate the impact that Irving Steggles has had on the continent through the APCs.

Irving Steggles’ sun that refused to set

When I went to South Africa to preach at the Grace Ministers Conference a few months ago in January, it was my intention to speak with Irving about the need to look for someone else—someone younger—within South Africa to manage the APCs. Although his mind was still very sharp, Irving had already been struggling with failing health in the recent past. We met at the Grace Ministers Conference and talked about the APCs. But I could not bring up the subject. He was so enthusiastic about the work that I feared I would kill him if I even dropped the hint that he should handover what he was doing to someone else. I decided he was better off dying in the driver’s seat. I did not know it would be this soon!

Felistas and I visiting Irving Steggles in hospital in London in 2019
I am rereading the last email I got from Irving. It was about the APCs and was sent on March 20, 2020—exactly one month and two days before he died. It was a confidential letter to the directors and he was sharing with us about the impact of COVID-19 on the conferences in 2020. He said absolutely nothing about his failing health. Twelve days after he wrote this email, he was admitted into hospital never to come out again. The email was all about the conferences and the staff who serve the conferences so well. He wrote as he concluded, “I very much hope that conferences we are postponing now will occur later in the year.” He exhorted us to PRAY (in capital letters for emphasis) as he signed off!

That was Irving Steggles! His sun did not slowly set, it was just suddenly eclipsed by a brighter sun—the Sun of Righteousness. As I said earlier, the tributes that are pouring in are mostly referring to the impact that this man had across Africa through the APCs. He is now gone to be with his Master whom he served so well and so faithfully to the very end.

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