If one word describes Peter Dobbs, it’s most likely ‘missional’.
It makes sense too – a key aspect of his roughly eight years in the New Zealand Army centered around mission command – and the question, “…how do you analyse, define and fulfill a mission?”
These days, that mission-focussed foundation motivates him – he keeps it central to whatever season of life he’s in.
So far, Peter’s journey has included everything from missions work in Papua New Guinea to completing a PhD in practical theology, and even a stint as general manager of a commercial diver training school – Subsea Training Centre.
It’s no different in his current role as Christian Camping New Zealand (CCNZ) CEO – an “opportunity which found me and requires me to use all my past skillsets really well”.
Having been in the role for two years as of last month, he’s highly motivated to equip and support the organisation’s nationwide network of roughly 60 camps in their calling to share Jesus.
Peter sat down with Jeremy Smith to talk family, faith, his love of the ocean and an unwavering desire to be “a dog with a bone” in keeping Jesus and His mission as the centre point around which all areas of life revolve.
“Fundamentally, the mission is to see lives transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to see the Kingdom of God extended within the spheres of influence that God has given us.
“Therefore, in terms of my role, everything we do and every decision we make – all of our work focus goes through the lens of asking, “…does this support, equip, encourage and – when required – help represent our members, or camps, so they can achieve that mission?”
Though speaking in a work sense, that’s a thought from Christian Camping New Zealand (CCNZ) CEO Peter Dobbs which is applicable wherever we find ourselves as we walk with Jesus.
“Do we display Him wherever we are?”
At the outset of chatting about Peter’s journey, it’s almost hard to know where to start – simply because life has been so full.
But, he loves it that way.
“It’d be the worst to get to the end of your life, look back and regret not ‘doing stuff’, or pursuing God-given opportunities. With that mind-set, I’m always intentional about taking such opportunities and making the most of life.”
Raised in a Christian home, Peter’s grateful for the foundation that gave him.
In the early 1980s, his father Peter – and others – were instrumental in founding the then Apostolic Trust – now Vision College.
“We grew up in that ‘practical ministry’ environment. Isn’t it really important for all of us though to have ‘touchstone moments’ on our faith journey? Moments when we can not only cognitively define why we believe what we believe – but take that a step further and connect that knowledge to what we believe in our heart.
“They’re key moments in which we solidify our personal relationship with Jesus and say, ‘I remember that moment, God did that. I can’t argue, it was Him’. Those anchor us.”
Peter, 40, had several such experiences as a child – though he adds candidly he had times as a teenager when he “struggled with the formation of his faith”.
Joining the New Zealand Army three days after turning 17 to complete officer training, he found himself living an outward lifestyle different to what he knew he believed in his heart.
“I was a kid in a new environment, away from Mum and Dad. I knew the truth and believed it – living it out for myself though was harder. I was inconsistent – at times, over about four or five years, I’d willfully shut off my conscience to be ‘part of the crew’.
“I wanted to be a paramedic,” Peter says of how he came to join the army.
“St John New Zealand staff suggested I become an army medic – but when an army recruiter saw my school grades, he suggested I complete officer training.”
Upon graduating from that training, Peter was stationed at Christchurch’s Burnham Camp – the South Island’s largest army base. While down south, the catalyst for getting his life right with God occurred – a point at which he began to intentionally seek a more personal relationship with Jesus.
What was that moment?
“Meeting my future wife Jessica absolutely motivated me to become the man I knew I needed to be, for her. Before we met, sure, I was attending church and helping with youth group, but I’m reminded of Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart. (NIV).
“I was seeking the Lord, but not really – there wasn’t so much ‘with all your heart’ going on.
“In meeting Jessica, I both needed – and wanted – to give her the best of me. And the ‘best of me’ is living a life which lines up with the faith I profess. Had I not had those touchstone moments with the Lord as a kid, I’m not sure that shift would have happened.”
Such moments in his own life are now a “big motivator” as CCNZ CEO, a job he’s been in for two years as of last month.
He wants other young people to similarly encounter God for themselves.
“In any children’s ministry, particularly with Christian camps, a key question is, ‘…how do we intentionally create environments in which God is given space for touchstone moments to happen in young people’s lives?’ Then, when those young people have seasons in which they may go through challenging times, if they question things, they have those touchstone moments to reflect on and can’t deny God is real. That’s so important.”
Peter vividly remembers the day he and Jessica first met.
“Absolutely! Jessica’s a podiatrist – she came down to Christchurch for her first job. I saw her at the church where I was in a youth leader-type role and thought ‘wow’. I rang my sister after Jessica and I first chatted to say, “…in case something happens, I want to be able to tell you that the day I met my wife, I told you.
“And here we are. Jessica and I have been married for 18 years. We have five sons aged nine to 15 – Timothy, (15), Samuel, (13), Michael, (11), Joel, (9) and Neo (9).
My second son has Asperger’s syndrome and my youngest son is an Oranga Tamariki Home for Life foster son.
“We’re blessed to have a fantastic relationship with our foster son’s birth parents – that’s not the norm. I thank God for my family.”
On the subject of family, I ask what an opportunity to rest and recharge looks like, and what the perfect family day out is.
“It’s really interesting. In regards to slowing down, I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to understand what rest really is. Obviously, we know true rest is found in Jesus. But for many, ‘rest’ looks like catching up on a list of ‘homework’ around the house. At times we have to even put that ‘work’ aside – I’m not very good at that – and ask , “…what truly refreshes me?”
“My answer? The ocean – I love it! I didn’t grow up near water – but now I get a bit down if I have to go for a while without being there.
“I love surfing. My perfect day is one spent at the beach in the water with all my family. And, when there’s waves, pushing the kids onto them and being stoked to watch them stand up. Jessica though, not so much! I know being in the water is a big ask and sacrifice for her, but she’ll do it for me and for the kids because she knows how much it refreshes us. I love that about her.”
Given Peter’s zest for life, it’s not surprising he almost casually mentions that prior to meeting Jessica, one of his hobbies was skydiving – and not just once, 50 times!
We discuss the fact many men live busy lives in which multiple areas of responsibility – work, family and others – often require attention.
“…How do you find balance in all of that and keep Christ at the centre?” I ask. “And, how do we, as men, ensure we display Godly leadership in all of those areas – even when it’s, at times, difficult to do so?”
“Great question,” Peter reflects. “I often ask Christian leaders the same thing about the importance of balance. I think you’ve got a bit of a clue that you have the balance right if your answer is something like, “…it’s really tough, but I’m trying!”
Obviously, Jesus needs to be the centre of our lives – He helps with that balance. Additionally though, a key question I ask – regardless of the sphere we’re talking about – is “…what does ‘success’ look like in that sphere?”
“I’d suggest if you don’t know what success looks like, then how will you know if you’re being successful? Herein lies the importance of both knowing and defining your ‘mission’.
“I hope that’s a somewhat simplistic, and therefore helpful, answer for anyone reading this. As an approach to leadership – for me anyway – that brings clarity.
“In my family life, is my mission to be my children’s friend? No. Do I want to be? Absolutely, but it’s not the core goal. My mission is to raise Godly men who love God and their wives and who are fantastic husbands and fathers who participate and contribute to the world they’re part of. “Put every decision through the filter, “…does this achieve our overall mission?”
Family is Peter’s priority – he takes that thought a step further.
“Personally, my wife comes first. When I tell people that they often say, “…your kids come second?” Truthfully, they do.”
“That’s because one of the greatest gifts I can give my children is to love their mother really well, practically modelling what that looks like to my kids. That gives them an example, and learnings they can refer to in the future – observations regarding the stable family unit and so many other sociological benefits.”
In fact, a desire for the balance he’s just spoken of in his own life was the main reason Peter ultimately left his eight-year army career in 2006.
Jessica was expecting their first son, Timothy, and Peter didn’t want to go overseas for six months, leaving his family behind.
So, it was quite literally time to dive into something new – Peter became general manager at Huntly-based commercial diver training school Subsea Training Centre.
The importance of balance though was again brought to the fore in 2011 – and Peter faced a question.
“Timothy said to me, “…Dad, when can it just be you and Mum and Samuel – our second oldest? When can we be a family again?
“Talk about a wake up call. The very reason I left the army five years prior was to be present for my family.”
While at the dive school, Peter had also been studying theology part time – though Timothy’s words resonated with him. So, after prayerful consideration, he left the dive school to study theology full-time.
It’s a nice transition in our chat – studying – or perhaps, more appropriately, learning is an area in which Peter is hugely passionate.
Having previously completed a Bachelor’s Degree in business while still training in the army, after the dive school, Peter completed a graduate diploma in theology through Laidlaw College – followed by his Masters Degree in practical theology through Otago University in 2013.
At least in part, Peter’s previously mentioned desire to be present in family life may have informed the topic of his Master’s research – The Impact of Fatherlessness on The Way One relates to God as Father.
As part of his Masters, Peter surveyed about 500 people in churches – asking how they perceived both their father and God.
“One sad finding I discovered – which I’d suspected was there – was that some respondents who displayed characteristics of being ‘fatherless’ actually did have their dad around. Those respondents were Pastor’s children who told me, “…Dad was there for everyone else, but not me…”
“It’s a reminder that sometimes there are plenty of ‘good’ things to do – but those aren’t always the right things. Sometimes, we have to say no to some ‘good’ things’ to do the really important things,” Peter says.
“It’s so easy to get ‘busy’ doing God’s work, but forget Him in the process. Let’s be intentional about keeping our hearts Christ-focussed despite the inherent ‘busyness’ of life.
Upon completing his Masters, Peter briefly lectured at Vision College, before the Lord brought “one of the hardest, but absolutely coolest” things they’ve done as a family across their path. They were given the opportunity to serve in a short term missions role in rural Papua New Guinea, where Peter was facilities manager at Kapuna Hospital.
He mentions it because it’s an experience from which he’s applied several key learnings as he’s subsequently journeyed with God.
“When we say rural, this was properly remote – no roads, boat access only, no cellphone coverage and no power.
“It was a hugely impactful time for our whole family – I really enjoyed sharing those experiences with Jessica too, she hadn’t experienced anything like it before.
“That time reminded me that at times when God calls us to something, don’t we often have the propensity to let fear stop us? Papua New Guinea highlighted to me the fact that we should absolutely be intentional about not letting fear prevent us from stepping out.
“The reality is, we can take the opportunities God calls us to – it’s just there will always be a cost. Often we say, “…I’d love to, but…”
“In saying that we can absolutely miss out.
“Instead, let’s ask, “…are we prepared to step into what God’s calling us to, regardless of the cost?”
Most recently, study-wise, Peter was awarded his PhD in practical theology from the University of Otago in 2019.
It’s appropriate we’ve discussed the theme of ‘mission’ at several points so far – the theme is again evident in his doctoral research – How Theology Shapes Practice in Faith-Based Organisations.
“Really, it became a story of mission drift and understanding how mission can, and does, shift over time if we’re not vigilantly keeping that mission in focus. I’m so passionate about supporting values-based nonprofits to remain effective in the fulfillment of their core mission, vision and values.
“My mission-focussed outlook is one I was obviously trained to have in the army – but I’ve brought it with me through everything since – from my doctoral research to my current role at CCNZ.”
Shifting back to the discussion of balance briefly, he says it’s importance was also highlighted to him in a rather stark way as he studied.
For a time while completing his three-year doctorate, Peter juggled his full-time studies with working three-and-a-half days doing children’s ministry at a church, as well as several other areas of responsibility.
“For about two months, I would either start or finish work each day at 4am – getting about four hours of sleep a night. Long story short, after about eight weeks of that schedule I ended up in hospital with heart issues.
“That was a huge lesson to learn. There’s a balance between resilience, or high performance, and sustainability. You simply can’t sprint a marathon.”
I enquire, then, about the importance of having people in his life who ensure accountability and point him to Jesus.
Similarly to having spoken of mission drift, Peter candidly says our walk with the Lord can drift too – if we aren’t intentionally keeping Jesus as our key focus.
“For me, a significant thing is not so much mentors, but rather a few key people who I do life with and who help keep me accountable.
“If I was going to say I have a spiritual mentor though, it’d be my dad – he’s awesome, he’s intentional and he’s my friend.
“In a personal sense, I have Daz Chettle – he’s been a good friend for a long time. His entire focus is Jesus – that’s so good for me. When I have a propensity to get so ‘busy’ or caught up in the challenge or the fun of a project, he simply asks me “…where’s Jesus in this?” In a professional sense too, I’d say there’s also Bill Tissingh, who is on the CCNZ board. He’s wholeheartedly focused on Jesus. Both Daz and Bill are like a ‘dog with a bone’ when it comes to keeping Jesus central – I need them in my life.
“I need to remind myself at times – don’t we all – that we shouldn’t get so caught up in ‘doing’ stuff for Him, that we forget to get to know Him. Our faith walk is a journey of many steps over time.”
And, this is where some thoughts on authenticity come in.
“Those who observe us as Christians want to see that we actually live out what we say we believe – our faith in Christ – not watch us say one thing and act another way.
“Be real and keep short accounts with the Lord – when we make mistakes go to Jesus, apologise and continue the journey.
“On this note, a skill set I’ve been intentional about developing is ‘soft skills’ – listening intentionally and really ‘hearing’ people as they talk. Not only that though, empathising with people and ensuring they feel truly valued is huge. The way you listen to and interact with people let’s them know how much you care – and you can’t fake that you care.”
Finally, I ask Peter to both reflect on his time so far as CCNZ CEO and to cast his mind forward to 2022.
About 60 Christian camps nationwide are part of the CCNZ network.
“Privileged is the right word,” he says of his role. “It’s a wonderful opportunity which found me, not the other way around.
“The role uses so many of my past skill sets and things we’ve chatted about – knowledge of the outdoors which I acquired in the army, time spent working at churches, my leadership experience from the education sector while instructing commercial diving and, as my Masters and Doctorate work shows, research in faith development and governance in faith-based organisations.
“The concrete answer whenever we look ahead is that, of course, COVID-19 has meant the most pressing need for camps is simply surviving. It’s been incredibly difficult on a number of fronts. As an organisation, at our core, we’re simply here to serve our members in whatever capacity we can during what have been incredibly challenging circumstances.
“We’re called to be God’s hands and feet where we are. So, because I have those specific skill sets and experiences which fit really well, and I’m passionate about camping as a ministry, while I am in this role I’m absolutely committed to contributing in a really positive way.
“This year, one of the big strategic needs which is on my heart is a desire to see both the relational and strategic partnership between Christian camps and the Church in New Zealand strengthened.
“Camps are wonderful avenues through which people often have the opportunity to meet Jesus for the first time and make a decision to follow Him. But, as we all know, we are not solely here to see people make decisions – we’re here to make disciples. The Church is wonderful at discipleship. So, whatever the future looks like going forward, that’s one of the absolutely key things in my mind – the goal of improving that partnership, and to ultimately make disciples.
“On a personal level, my role as CCNZ CEO needs to be primarily about providing tangible benefits to our members – we’re here to serve them. When they feel supported, they’re better positioned and equipped to achieve their mission – seeing lives transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“We’ve spoken about being Jesus’ hands and feet – in my sphere, what that looks like in terms of our members for me is identifying both needs and opportunities. Sometimes it’s just about listening and being available, other times it’s about interpreting legislation and communicating that. No matter what though, we won’t lose sight of that core mission. And, as well as most importantly having God’s help, I’m surrounded by a wonderful team of people at CCNZ who are all focussed on that goal.
“It’s so true too that in this role, Jessica and I are absolutely a team – she’s amazingly supportive.”
Peter says stewardship comes to mind when he reflects on the story of Christian camping in New Zealand.
“Remembering our whakapapa, or history – the reason there are Christian camps in New Zealand – is absolutely critical. If we’re going to remain faithful to our mission going forward, we need to honour our origin stories and remember, celebrate and acknowledge the people who have gone before us.
“They dedicated their lives to this cause of seeing lives encountered by Jesus – why? Because they understood their mission and put the call of God ahead of what it might have cost them personally. To lose track of our history would be a significant disservice to those who have gone before us.”
As our wide-ranging chat draws to a close, I ask Peter to sum up a final word of encouragement for readers.
“As we walk with God – and submit every experience to Jesus – nothing is wasted. He takes and uses everything.
“Romans 8:28 says, “…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (NIV).
“That’s bigger than just the things in life that we liked or didn’t like too – it includes even, eventually, the times we were willfully rebellious. In walking with the Lord, not only when looking back at where we’ve come from, but also ahead to what God has for us, one has to simply conclude one thing – and keep that in focus as we walk by faith, not by sight.
“It’s all because of Jesus.”
Wow. Thanks so much for chatting to us Peter! For more information about Christian Camping New Zealand, see www.christiancamping.org.nz
- Feature photography by MHB Photography – www.mhbphotography.co.nz
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About the author
Jeremy Smith is editor of, and one of the writers for, Authentic Magazine.
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