The Global Vineyard – Meet John Mumford
John and Eleanor Mumford led the Vineyard Churches in the UK and Ireland for over 20 years. Here is an interview telling a little bit of John's story and vision for the Vineyard Global Family
Vineyard International Executive
Extending the Kingdom of God through church planting and missional living.
Vineyard USA: Let’s start with how you came to faith, and then move that into how you came to the Vineyard and into leadership.
John Mumford: Quite honestly, I think the answer to the bit about leadership was mainly just the absence of any other better candidates!
I grew up in a Christian home. My father had become a Christian when he was at Cambridge in the 1920s. Both my parents loved the Lord and served in a local church. It’s where I grew up. I served with them as we went every Sunday as a family. We prayed together, read the Bible together, and that was entirely natural. It just never occurred to me to do anything else. It wasn’t a chore; it was a wonderful heritage.
I have no recollection of life without Jesus. I was christened at probably three months, being in an Anglican church. And I suppose it was kind of a bit like an inoculation … I assume it took! (An explanation which, of course, irritates my Baptist friends.)
Around age 8 or 9, I went to an English boarding school. Particularly around age 14, I remember somebody asking me why I was a Christian, and the answer “Because Mummy and Daddy are” was no longer going to cut it at that age. I would have been skewered.
So, I remember there was a point where I was kneeling down in my boarding school in my little cell block. And I remember praying and getting up from my knees and having a very strong sense of, “Now I’ve got somebody and something to live for.”
Some people would have a profound sense of forgiveness, or a profound sense that death is no longer to be feared. I didn’t have any of that.I had a strong sense I had something to live for & that feeling has never really left me. - John Mumford Click To Tweet
So I grew up in these sort of varsity organizations. They basically ran summer holidays and house parties for a week or ten days for schoolchildren. Male and female were separate. All the team members were undergraduates, and that provided a very good training in discipleship.
I was going to do medicine. My father’s a doctor. My brother’s a doctor. My sister married a doctor … and I’m a failed doctor.
In my last term of high school, when I was sitting in exams with a view of doing medicine, I decided then that I would switch from medicine to what we’d now call pastoral ministry. This was in the late 1960s. Because I’d grown up in the Church of England, pastoral ministry and ordination was a no-brainer. So I read theology in Scotland at St. Andrew’s for four years, and then I went to Ridley Hall, which is an Anglican/Church of England seminary at Cambridge.
In that, I sort of grew up in the John Stott/Michael Green/David Watson/Michael Harper crowd. I was in the same circles as them and knew of them. Most of the crowd were, for the most part (apart from maybe David Watson) very anti-charismatic, opposed to it.
Having left Cambridge, I went to work in a parish in the west country with a man called John Collins. In the Church of England there’s a system whereby, having been to a theological college, you then go and work in pastoral ministry as a sort of assistant pastor.
At least to us it seemed like the key job, the right move. Because we left college really not knowing much, if I’m being honest. Or thinking we knew everything, but in fact we knew nothing.
So I had the great fortune to work with John Collins. Had you asked me ten years before this who I’d like to go work under, I would have said “John Collins,” and then roared with laughter at my own joke. I thought I would sooner get to the moon than work for this fellow.
Whilst I was there, I met and married Eleanor. We were both filled with the Spirit around the time that John Wimber was starting to come around England with his teams at the invitation of David Watson and David Pytches in the early 1980s.
In 1982 I was in the States on an invitation from David Watson, who had befriended John Wimber when they were both visiting professors at Fuller. And David said, “Whatever you do, don’t leave the United States until you’ve met John Wimber.”
So David gave me John’s address. Being that there was no email or Skype, and phones were expensive to use in those days – and being a nice little English boy – I wrote him a letter. “Dear Mr. Wimber, I’ve met David Watson and he suggested I come and visit. May I come and visit?”
Didn’t hear a thing. Not a squeak.
Anyhow, most unlike me – very out of character! – I actually decided to fly from the East Coast to LAX. And literally all I had was a telephone number and address. I found a phone booth, and rang this number.
Somebody met me, and a couple of days later I got a telephone message to go and have lunch with John Wimber. So with great fear and trepidation, I was introduced to Wimber. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. Was this a cult?
I was spluttering, as any good Englishman would, and I said, “I want you to know that I did in fact write to you, because I have a friend named David Watson, and he suggested I write to you. And obviously you didn’t get my letter, and I’m so sorry.”
And he said, “Oh, no, we got your letter. And we said to ourselves at the time, ‘We think this is the Lord.’ And we said to one another, ‘Well, if he turns up on his own, then it is God.’”
This was an entirely novel approach to hospitality!
We had a long lunch, probably four hours or so. I was bombarding Wimber with questions. Now, I didn’t typically like all those very direct ways of approaching ministry. Being English, to me it was too physical, too in your face. It wasn’t discreet enough.
But yet, it was riveting. I couldn’t stay away. The worship, too: the ministry of the worship got under my skin. It wasn’t theologically such a huge shift; it was just a different approach.
John Wimber had read all the English charismatic writings. And he said basically that it wasn’t all that different. But he didn’t just want to believe it; he wanted to do it. Which was exactly my assessment. We believed it, but we didn’t know how to do it. We didn’t know you could train people to do the experiential. To us, that was reserved for a few rather weird or hyper-spiritual sorts of people speaking on a stage – more often than not, some visiting American wearing a shiny white suit with so much brill cream on his hair that it was solid.
Which was fine. But culturally speaking, the gap was enormous. We couldn’t relate to it.
When Wimber came wearing a pair of sneakers & a Hawaiian shirt, it was a shock to the system! - John Mumford Click To Tweet But because of his superb sense of humor, which was very similar to the British sense of humor, people just loved him.
It was phenomenal how widely he was embraced. I still bump into people on occasion in the Church of England who went to those meetings and loved him. It was a little bit like Billy Graham: God just gave those men such great favor.
I know this has been written about, and there’s even been some confusion about it, but it would be great to hear from your point of view how the Vineyard churches in the UK emerged.
I’ll give you my perspective, certainly.
Essentially what happened was, David Watson and David Pytches, as I mentioned before, were the two men who initially invited Wimber over to visit different parishes in the early 1980s.
Sometime that year, a Catholic brother and a Baptist brother asked Wimber to come and do a conference for the churches in October, 1984. It was a big conference, in a center literally right next door to Westminster Abbey in the heart of London. That was unheard of at that time – the place was absolutely jam-packed with people, and an awful lot of them were pastors and clergy.
Then he did the same thing in 1985, along with some other major conferences in Brighton, Manchester and York. The number of people was extraordinary. It just hit a nerve.
As a result, there were a whole number of people who wanted to pursue this further, of which we were included. But it never crossed our minds that we would be doing Wimber-sorts of things in any other place than within the Church of England.
By this time, David Watson had died of cancer. David Pytches became the facilitator and would organize meetings. We would practice and do some teachings. I wasn’t with John Collins anymore at this point. He had left to be vicar and would do some writings. He was one of the other people who would eventually have John Wimber come and speak.
At this point, I was in another different church in London with Michael Teddy Sanders, near Victoria Station and Buckingham Palace. Michael was another friend of Wimber’s and a great encourager. He couldn’t really facilitate ministry of the Spirit himself, but he loved it and let myself and Eleanor do whatever we wanted. So we would host these meetings.
So there were a whole lot of us associated with the stateside Vineyard. We were mostly Church of England with a few Baptists; we were young leaders and pastors. Honestly, it never occurred to us to do anything else other than continue in this kind of arrangement, where we belonged to the Church of England but were able host our new friends and facilitate conferences.
Over the next few years, in different ways, the Spirit of God began to speak to us about joining the Vineyard. That honestly was not good news, at least for me. It’s difficult to describe how it is once you’ve become ordained in the Church of England. It’s a bit like … if you are having tea with the Queen, it’s rude to burp. Or lick the jam off your fingers.
Once you’re ordained in the Church of England, you don’t leave. You just don’t. At this time the people who left were usually kicked out for some sort of sexual immorality, or possibly embezzlement – but usually sex. So there was a big stigma to it.
I jest a bit, but it’s a little like the mafia. “You don’t leave the mafia except feet first, horizontal.” You don’t go to the don and say “I’ve had a great time, but I’m going to go do something else now.” It just doesn’t work like that.
So long as you’re not a naughty boy, in the Church of England, you’re guaranteed a job, a salary, a house, a certain amount of respectability, a pension … for life. To walk away from that? I spent months, maybe years, with my fingers in my ears. I didn’t want to hear it.
I remember lying flat on the carpet, paralyzed, at a Vineyard session. Carl Tuttle, who had led worship, said to Carol Wimber, Mumford is having a heart attack, or it's the spirit of God. I hope for his sake it’s a heart attack - Carl Tuttle Click To Tweet
Looking back, that was the point when I realized that God was serious. I can’t really explain how, but I just knew that the issue was either obedience or disobedience. It was as stark as that.
So shortly after that, we made a decision. I had a cousin who was a very senior bishop in the Church of England, and when I told him, he went absolutely ballistic. I was summoned to have lunch with him at his club in London, and it was the worst lunch I had ever had. He was very, very angry with me. I don’t even remember what I ate.
The final decision was actually made when we were in the States. I was on staff at Anaheim. Our choice was to come back to the UK to establish what was then the first Vineyard church plant in Europe.
We could just come back, sneak into the country and not officially tell anybody. Or we could tell our friends what we were doing. As you would have it, integrity demanded that we tell people, which we were still reluctant to do. So we wrote letters. And my, did we receive some angry letters in return! I still have a fat file from those days.
Church planting, at that point, was very much not on the radar among the mainline established denominations. It was seen as a threat. They assumed that the policy would be sheep-stealing. You see, everyone in England already belonged to a local parish, whether they cared or not. And to plant a new church was a big threat. It would generally cause a huge furor, a stink.
When people like ourselves went to Wimber saying that we thought God had asked us to plant Vineyards, that was really a dilemma for him, because he had said he wasn’t going to plant in the UK. His vision was bigger than planting: it was for renewal of the church worldwide, and for renewal and planting in North America only. That was his vision developed over time.
I can remember being at the early conferences: There would be times when it would be clergy only, and he’d speak. Then he’d have a Q and A. Someone (usually younger, it seemed), would ask him if he had plans to plant any churches in the United Kingdom. And you could physically see the tensions rise in the room. In fact, I imagined that if you could somehow have removed the chairs out from underneath everyone, they would just remain in seated positions — the tension was so high. And, of course, John would tell a joke and say, no, he had no plans for that, and the room would again relax.
So the two issues for Wimber were these: “Am I going to release people in the Vineyard that they have vision for, but I don’t?” And number two, “I’m going to have to go back and tell the leaders in the UK – after I had promised I wouldn’t plant churches there.”
So we started under a fair amount of suspicion and dislike, particularly from the Church of England. I said to them, “Look, as far as I know, this is the Lord’s initiative, but I can’t be entirely sure. It’s just that I’m doing what I think God’s calling me to do. Give me ten years. Let’s assess it in ten years’ time.”
And we kept a very low profile. In the 20 and more years that Eleanor and I pastored that local church, we never asked a single person to join the church – save one person whose marriage and independent church had exploded in one weekend. He was quite the mess, so I asked him to join us for six months just to get mended.
I’ve never heard anybody accuse the Vineyard of sheep-stealing, that I’m aware of. We’ve been accused of all sorts of things, probably! But never sheep-stealing.
We’ve been accused of all sorts of things, probably! But never sheep-stealing. - John Mumford Click To Tweet
Looking ahead to the future of the global Vineyard, what are some of your hopes and dreams, and maybe even trepidations?
By way of preface, I start by saying that Eleanor and I are handing over the Vineyard UK to John and Debbie Wright. They are to become national directors here soon, which we’ve been doing in effect for 25 years.
It’s almost like they and we are in twin trajectories. They are going to take over the UK and Ireland, and we’re going to work internationally. There is a lot to be done. There are currently eleven established Vineyard families around the world. Eleven AVCs. The twelfth happens later this year with Zambia. There will potentially be another dozen within the next five to ten years.
On the one hand, this is incredibly exciting. I may be wrong, but I’m convinced that the Vineyard has something to offer the world and the church globally. Alongside other denominations, we’ve just seen time and time again in other nations that God has given us a unique flavor for the stew, or whatever analogy you’d like to use. We’ve seen time and time again that God has given us a unique flavor for the stew. - John Mumford Click To Tweet
On the other hand, this future potential raises all sorts of questions. There are a number of books written on how to plant a church, but there are none written on how to plant a movement. In some of the AVCs that have been planted, there have been real struggles. Eleanor and I feel deeply that we’ve got to get ourselves better organized. It’s going to require the existing national leaders, directors and others. There’s an awful lot of resourcing that needs to be done. Planting and establishing and developing churches is a skill set and a calling of its own.
Developing a movement and raising up national leaders is not an identical skill set to church planting. As we’ve help nations plant churches, we’ve seen that if there isn’t someone around who has had experience in planting a whole movement, there is a bit of struggle.
And a lot of this is because of the history of the Vineyard. Wimber said two things: “I don’t want an international director to follow me.” And, “I don’t want an international board” – for the reason that it would be dominated by the white man: “If God ever allows us to plant and develop churches in South America or Africa or Asia, they will vastly outstrip anything that we can do in the West, but it would be governed by the white man.” He did not want that.
But then, God bless him, he went and died on us before he had a chance to say what he did want! And that’s where we struggled for a number of years, because that was interpreted as “We mustn’t have a leader.” And that became, “We mustn’t have leadership.” Which is crazy. And you can guess what happened. The level of frustration just rose and rose, because no one could make any decision.
Only in the last couple of years have we made an international board. There are four couples on it. And we basically said to the others, “Will you let us lead on your behalf? And if you don’t like any of it, would you please just bang on the table and tell us?” Now some of the younger national directors are emerging and asking for help and resources.
Will you let us lead on your behalf? If you don’t like it, bang on the table & tell us - John Mumford Click To Tweet
So to answer your question about why I’m excited: I think we are at a point where we are genuinely trying to develop this thing over the next ten years so that it is an international multicultural institution. I know people don’t like that language, but that’s what we are. Can we do it in such a way where our only job as leaders in the Vineyard is to help others do their jobs better? Not to boss them around or control them, but help them be better. Can we do that? That’s the challenge. I don’t know. Give us ten years!
In the last twenty years, we have learned some things around the world. Even though we’ve made mistakes, we’ve learned some things. And wouldn’t it be wise to write some of this down? To let the new emerging leaders at least see what some of the options are? To know the history, to know the oral traditions? Which things have worked well, and which ideas have been calamities?
You’re speaking to the “behind the scenes” aspect of working in ministry. Every person that gets hired into professional ministry could be told, “Get ready to see the dark underbelly of ministry!” But to keep looking at the positive side – to push forward even though there are difficulties, disappointments and struggles – if this global meeting in Columbus worked well, it could draw nations together and we could soon have meetings all over the world. The Vineyard may become a non-white-centric movement. What sorts of things have you seen that could speak to that future?
Temperamentally I’m not wired to be an optimist. I’m not less a visionary, just more of an, “Okay, let’s see if we can actually do this” kind of person. It’s maybe an English thing! – I’m probably more visionary than most, which isn’t necessarily saying much.
But I am somewhat optimistic about some things. Let me give you an example. A little over a year ago, we had all eleven national directors together, which we do every couple of years. We were in Rio just before the Olympics. If you could be a fly on the wall, you’d see that in all of the essentials of what it means to be Vineyard, you honestly couldn’t see daylight between us. The sense of friendship, collegiality, praying and laying hands on one another was just completely Vineyard. The sense of friendship, praying & laying hands on one another was totally Vineyard. - John Mumford Click To Tweet
People from Mexico, Chile, and Brazil who are likely to emerge as national leaders were there as guests, and there was so much common understanding. We are all devoted to the Scriptures. We have great friendships, great vision and great consensus. We need better coordination and communication, perhaps, but it’s there.
As it gets bigger, we need to continue to find ways that aren’t top-down. In Rio, a third of the attendees were Spanish-speaking, and we had translators. It was new for us, and wonderful.
We have to continue in supporting the diversity and never suppressing it. Brazil is very different from New Zealand. It has to continue that way culturally. Yes, we have so much in common, but the expression of those commonalities must remain locally diverse. I’m so excited for this.