From time spent in the Army in Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia, then coming to know Jesus, planting churches in the slums of Yangton and then moving back to the UK and planting a Vineyard church earlier this year in Darlington, Phil’s journey of faith is inspiring.
When Phil Crosby left the Army and landed a job as a personal trainer, building a church on the other side of the world definitely wasn’t on his ‘life plan’. But just three years after he signed off in 2006, he and his girlfriend had an encounter with God that changed everything.
“I was brought up through the Church of England. My father was a lay reader and every single Sunday I was dragged along to church. But when I joined the Army at 16 I didn’t look back or consider faith again.”
Phil says he was a typical member of the Army. “I jumped in with my mates. There was a lot of alcohol going on and a lot of fun. I always loved the army and thought I would be in it for 37 years – all my life.”
A lover of the outdoors, Phil enjoyed an active lifestyle so the Army was an obvious choice for him. He said, “I joined the REME as vehicle mechanic. They told me I needed five GCSEs to get in, so I only worked at five subjects and only passed five!”
After an apprenticeship at Arborfield and then further training, Phil was eventually posted to Abingdon and attached to 3 Close Support Regiment RLC. His 10 years in the army took him on four operational tours including Bosnia, Kosovo and two tours of Iraq. “All that time I never thought about faith – it just wasn’t something I gave any consideration to,” Phil said.
However, the tours had taken their toll and he had some mild symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, including nightmares and a bit of anger. A difficult boss on his last tour tipped him over the edge and he decided his time in the military had come to an end.
“At that point I was a bit disillusioned and I thought I’d have a better life out in ‘civvy street’,” he said. Before leaving the Army Phil had managed to do a personal trainers’ course, building on his army PTI instructor qualifications. “During my training I ended up being the youngest person ever to become a PT instructor. I passed my PTI course when I was 17. I hadn’t even qualified for phase two training. I was a qualified PTI before I was a qualified soldier and I wasn’t even a craftsman in the REME at that point.”
Life seemed to be going well when Phil left the Army as he landed a job as a personal trainer. Things got even better when he met his wife-to-be, Lisa, who had hired him as her personal trainer! “We moved in together very quickly,” Phil said. “We were both enjoying life and loving our adventurous lifestyle. We had a ridiculously high salary between us – we were in a small village in the north Pennines in County Durham and we were part of the Mountain Rescue.”
Phil managed to set up an online business which was thriving and they both enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle, going out for expensive meals, staying in nice hotels and travelling down to London when they could. “We’d been together for about six months,” Phil said. “Then one weekend we were invited to a family event at a church in Leicester.”
This weekend away turned out to be a pivotal point in their lives. Listening to the preacher at the service they were struck by what was said and began to sense the presence of God – a God they had never considered could be part of their lives. During the service a lady stood up and said that there were two people in the church who should go forward for prayer. Phil said, “I wanted to respond, but I was too scared. On the way back in the car Lisa and I talked about it and decided to find out more about the church and this ‘God stuff’.
Although I knew many of the Bible stories – I couldn’t see how it related to me – they were just stories.” The next Sunday Phil and Lisa drove to the Newcastle Vineyard church [Life Vineyard Church]. After the service they talked with the pastor about what had happened the week before. “There was a lady standing near us and she suddenly said, ‘It was you two! I was there last weekend in Leicester!’ We couldn’t believe that it was the same lady and she had come to this church. We knew then that God was doing something,” Phil said.
Phil and Lisa gradually started to dip their toes into this new church family and found themselves in a relationship with God that was starting to change them both. As they became more deeply involved in church life, they gave up their Mountain Rescue commitments and gave more time to the church. Within a year, Phil said he told Lisa he thought they should give up their jobs to volunteer with the Newcastle church for a year. Everything fell into place a few months later when Lisa was made redundant.
Phil said, “That one year turned into three years – God took us on a journey. We learned lots of things about how to live off less, having sacrificed our joint six figure salary. We started leading compassion ministry and student ministry. The Army had really hardened my heart about a lot of things – I was very much of the opinion that homeless people and drug addicts just needed to sort themselves out. God taught me things and started to transform my character and soften my heart towards those in need.”
In 2013 Phil and Lisa’s daughter Elsie was born and they were still volunteering with the church, learning to live on very little. This turned out to be good preparation for what lay ahead. Not long after Elsie’s birth, Phil had been inspired about overseas mission through a book he’d read and told Lisa he felt God was calling them to go and serve with the church in Myanmar in Asia. He said, “Lisa had just had a baby. She was feeling sleep deprived and knackered and I chose this time to tell her I thought we should go to Myanmar.” Lisa wasn’t impressed and told Phil, “Not a chance! We’ve got a child who doesn’t sleep, I’ve not heard a whisper of this from God. If we’re called, God’s got to speak to me about this very clearly as well.”
Through a strange set of circumstances, Lisa’s interest in supporting a charity making jewellery to help victims of people trafficking, ended up linking them with Myanmar. After overcoming huge financial hurdles, which included selling their house and many other financial issues, in February 2015, Phil, Lisa and Elsie eventually found themselves on a flight to Myanmar with three suitcases and £6,000 in their pockets. Phil said, “We’d sold everything we had and given the rest away so all we were left with was what we flew out to Yangon with, and a box of ‘sentimentals’ including my medals, which we left with my parents.”
This was the beginning of another leap of faith for them all. “We rocked up in Yangon with seven days in an Air BnB and no local currency,” Phil explained. “We had no idea where we would live after seven days. We had the financial support of 20 friends and family who were sending through £900 a month, but we then found the cost of accommodation was almost on a par with London and a small apartment for the three of us was £600 which didn’t leave much for family living.”
The Vineyard church in Yangon was just a year old and Phil and Lisa were there to train and equip the leaders. “We started to plant small slum churches with them. We spent a lot of time discipling them and talking about prayer and healing.” The church also supported various practical education projects and skills training for vulnerable local women.
Towards the end of their third year in Myanmar the church had grown to support 35 staff and nine slum churches which would gather together in Yangon each Sunday at the main Vineyard Church. In 2018 Phil and Lisa began to sense their work in Myanmar was done and with reluctant hearts the family moved back to the UK. They were now following a new ‘call’ back to the North East where they are currently establishing a new Vineyard church in Darlington.
Phil and Lisa’s story is one of incredible provision against the odds, as they found that God met all their needs – from bags of nappies being handed to them at church to donations of money, furniture and even a home. Phil said, “God has provided again and again as we’ve been living by faith these past five years. It’s been the weirdest thing. I could tell you no end of stories, from someone giving us exactly the right money to cover a puncture on the car to someone giving me two Mont Blanc pens to sell on Ebay that helped fund our flights to Myanmar.”
Reflecting on his new training and leadership role in the church, Phil said, “Some of the Army leadership training I went through has put me in good stead for what I’m doing. Along with the resilience the Army teaches you and the ‘get up and go’ attitude, what I like about military leadership is that it is generally quite empowering. Something we’re passionate about is how to empower people in the church. Jesus trained the 12 disciples and then sent them out. The Army is great at teaching people what leadership really looks like and how to empower people to go and do it. It’s not about me leading a church, it’s asking how do we give this away and how do we make ourselves redundant, by training and equipping others?”
This interview is reproduced with kind permission from ‘Contact’ – a magazine for members of the armed forces who have a faith. You can check them out here.