On Saturday the 20th of August, Lesley Cheesman was officially commissioned into her new role as Agapé National Director as part of a Celebration Event held in Nottingham for Agapé staff, supporters, churches and like-minded agencies.
We asked Lesley to tell us about her own journey of discipleship and her vision for Agapé’s future.
Lesley was a typical 14 year old growing up in Hove, insecure and uncomfortable in her own skin. “I’d had a particularly hard time at school and realised that the friends I had were not really my friends,” says Lesley. “This started me asking some big questions about myself and the world. And that’s when I met Anne.”
Anne was a Christian and invited Lesley to come along to her church youth group.
“That first evening, I could see that the young people there were different. The level of love and instant acceptance I received was so out of my experience of my peers.”
Intrigued by these new friends, Lesley continued to attend the youth group. A few weeks later she was invited along to the Sunday service for the first time.
“Roger Simpson explained Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15 and finished with a challenge to follow Christ. For me it was a really easy decision. I had always been attracted to Jesus but no one had told me before that day at church that I needed to actively respond to him.
“I said to Anne, ‘I prayed the prayer!’ She was so excited that she rushed me to the vicar. He instantly said, ‘You need to meet somebody’ and rushed me over to Jo Bowden who was an Agapé staff member.” Jo invited both Lesley and Anne around to her house after school the following Thursday to do a Bible study together.
BECOMING A DISCIPLE
As the threesome continued to meet, Lesley learned more about her new-found faith in Jesus, but more than that she was intentionally discipled by Jo. “Jo’s house became a second home to me. I helped take care of her kids, shared my problems… We were deeply involved in each others’ lives.”
The youth group that had initially piqued her interest in faith also became Lesley’s first experience of a vibrant and growing movement of believers.
“Lesley showed the ability to be a powerful, cohesive force amongst her peers,” remembers Jo. “The youth group grew partly as a result of key members being discipled by my husband and me, and partly by them, in turn, discipling others.”
For Lesley, sharing her faith and building into others was a natural part of following Jesus. “That time was so valuable and formative for me. It defined how I felt about myself and the world,” says Lesley. “It was not just about coming to faith. Jesus transformed my life.”
By the end of her teenage years, Lesley knew what she wanted her life to be about: investing herself in people and helping them to follow Jesus.
Lesley first met her husband Paul in Jo’s front room. “Lesley was seriously unlike anyone I’d met before. She had a sense of purpose that I was only just starting to explore,” remembers Paul. “As Lesley and I talked about our future, we realised God was laying pretty similar agendas on our lives. That was a key element in us getting together… plus, I really fancied her!”
Soon after, Jo and her family were asked to move to Newcastle to launch a new Agapé schools ministry. Jo challenged Lesley to join them. After some thought, prayer and a drive around the block, Lesley agreed and joined the staff of Agapé. About a year later, Lesley and Paul were married, and within a few years they were leading Agapé’s schools and youth team in the North East together.
“It was a dynamic time,” remembers Lesley. “We saw a movement of young people coming to faith. They were so excited that Jesus changes lives, you couldn’t stop them from passing it on!” Though Paul and Lesley loved what they were doing, they faced exhaustion and burnout as they learned to balance life, ministry and leading a team.
CARING FOR STAFF
After seven years in the North East, Agapé’s leadership asked Paul and Lesley to consider moving to Birmingham to oversee Human Resources for the ministry. “Having had a thriving youth ministry, this was really out of the blue for us,” remembers Lesley.
“But God challenged us that our desire to see people transformed needed to be transferred to how we felt about our staff… to see them developed and cared for.”
“Looking back I can see how God used those rough times in Newcastle to shape our hearts and steer our ministry towards staff care and development,” says Paul.
In Birmingham, Paul and Lesley started their family, first with a daughter, Charis, and then a son, Joel. Paul spearheaded Agapé UK’s Human Resources, and both Lesley and Paul continued to disciple young people, running outreach-oriented youth work in their church. “For me, one of the things I wanted when I had children was to invest in teenagers at my house, with our kids at home. It was great to be able to do what I saw modelled by Jo. Ministry involves our whole family.”
As the children got older and started school, Lesley was given more opportunities to develop as a leader and speaker. In 2005, she was asked to join Agapé’s National Leadership Team and became responsible for Leadership Development for the UK movement.
At the same time, Paul began to move into a global role where he could serve Agapé movements around the world, nurturing best practice in staff care and development, helping teams to thrive.
“We figured out a while ago that although God calls us together into areas of ministry, he normally has quite distinct and different roles for us,” says Paul. “It’s been great learning how to support one another within our separate areas of leadership.”
TAKING THE LEAD
“Lesley is truly a ‘home-grown’ Agapé leader,” says Andy Atkins who is passing on the role of National Director to Lesley. “I have known Lesley for over 20 years and have the utmost respect for her as woman of God, wife, mother and leader.
Since the earliest days the focus of her life, family and ministry has been to follow and love Jesus wholeheartedly. I am very excited to see God's hand so clearly on Lesley as she leads us into his future for our movement.”
“Lesley’s passion for seeing people grow and become and do all that God calls them to shapes the way she leads,” says Paul. “I’m delighted that God has called Lesley, and to some extent, us as a family, into this new role of leadership.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the handing of the baton of leadership from Moses to Joshua,” says Lesley. “There wasn’t a change of direction when the leader changed, because God was still leading them. God has called me to lead the UK ministry of Agapé from where we’ve come from to where we’ve always been going, trusting him to lead us forward.”
INTO THE FUTURE
What does Lesley see as Agapé’s priorities for the future? “Leading people to Christ and helping them become disciples. We want to work with the wider Church to see lives changed and devoted to Jesus 100%.
We are trusting the Lord to grow movements of people who will speak against the things at the university, in the workplace and in our families that are damaging the fabric of our society and damaging people.
“We also want to see our staff thrive. Energy, innovation and creativity are life signs of a healthy movement. How do we live by grace with one another and rigorously evaluate effectiveness at the same time? This must come from an understanding of what grace looks like in our lives.”
“What do I think Lesley will bring to the role of National Director of Agapé?” asks Jo, her dear friend of 26 years. “What she has always brought to Agapé: passion, commitment, love of God and a desire to serve him, intelligence and thoughtfulness, clear-sighted vision, love of people, insatiable curiosity and an ability to bring cohesion and a sense of identity.”
“From the beginning, Agapé’s core vision of making disciples has been instilled in me,” says Lesley. “Wherever I’ve served it’s been about making my best contribution for the Great Commission. I’m excited about the opportunity to serve.”