Team's blog 

Here you will find the latest thoughts from our vicar Mark and other members of the staff team

 

New Year, new spiritual regime?


As a former book publisher, I am always entertained by the selection of ‘New Year – new you’ books which hit the shelves immediately after Christmas. Which celebrities will help you be more mindful, eat more healthily or start a new exercise regime this January?
 
Now that I’m a church leader, it’s my role to call you to something even more lasting: to go deeper in your relationship with Jesus in 2022. For Christians everywhere, a daily discipline of Bible reading and prayer is foundational. Today there are more resources than ever to help you. Here are some ideas for you, whether you are just getting started or would like to try something new in '22!
 
The best piece of advice if you’re not doing anything yet is to do something – be realistic and start where you are. One of my favourite promises in scripture is ‘Come near to God and he will come near to you.’ (James 4:8a) God will meet you in whatever time you give to him. You can meet God in your room, in your car, on the train, out for a walk...don't feel guilty that your spiritual pathway isn't the same as someone else's.
 
If you decide to use an app, make sure you won’t be distracted by notifications or other things on your phone. God deserves your full attention! As ever, we can't take responsibility for all the content we mention here.
 
The Bible App
A wealth of free resources, including various versions of the Bible and a wide range of Bible reading plans. Whether you’re looking for something to help you with particular issues or a plan for the whole year, you’ll find lots of options here.
 
Pray as you go

A 10-13 minute daily prayer framework you can listen to. Ideal if you want to get into a simple rhythm of praying every day.
 
Lectio 365
From the 24/7 prayer stable, a fantastic app which will help you pray morning and evening, and will speak truth over you.
 
Bible in One Year
From the Alpha stable, a very accessible way to read the whole Bible in a year. Nicky Gumbel gives you a reflection every day (and you can listen to the whole thing).
 
For the love of God by D.A. Carson
An excellent two-volume set to help you read the whole Bible in two years, if one year feels a bit too much of an undertaking.
 
Through the Bible through the year and Through the year with John Stott by John Stott
Want to get to know the Bible better but not ready to read the whole thing? You can’t do better than Stott.
 
Explore Bible reading notes
Available on paper on app, an excellent resource to get you into the Bible every day.
 
Every Day with Jesus Bible reading notes
Generations have turned to these to build a stronger relationship with God.
 


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Help for Christmas crises

If you find yourself supporting someone in crisis this Christmas, here are some helpful resources.
 
Mental health
https://www.emmascrivener.net/2015/12/christmas-tactics/ - help from someone who’s been there.
 
https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/christmas-and-mental-health/christmas-and-mental-health/
- help from the experts, including emergency contacts.
 
Eating disorders
https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/your-stories/top-tips-supporting-loved-one-christmas/ - help for those supporting people with eating disorders.
 
Abuse
https://www.yoursanctuary.org.uk/ - resources include a helpline and online help.
 


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Podcast corner: What to listen to over the holidays

Podcasts have exploded in popularity since Covid. You can listen to high-quality content via your device anytime – what’s not to like? However, it took me ages to find Christian podcasts I like, so to save you a lot of time and trouble searching, here are some recommendations from the St Mary of Bethany team.
 
As always with external content, a recommendation is not an endorsement of all their content, nor do we take any responsibility for them.
 
Dare to Lead and Unlocking Us
Recommended by Youth Minister Dave.
Not specifically Christian (although Brown herself is), Brown is an excellent voice on leadership and vulnerability in our modern cultural setting.
 
Faith with Haith
Recommended by Children’s Minister Kate.
Conversations with a variety of interesting Christians.
 
Speak Life
Recommended by Associate Vicar Bekah.
You may recognise Glen Scrivener from his fantastic video ministry, which we’ve used in church. This podcast thinks about the news with an evangelistic hat on. Fun fact: Mark trained with Glen and his wife Emma!
 
Unbelievable
Recommended by Vicar Mark and Associate Vicar Bekah.
Premier Radio and the United Reformed Church Woking’s own Justin Brierley hosts this thought-provoking weekly look at all things Christian.
 
Being Human
Recommended by Associate Vicar Bekah.
Aims to inspire and equip everyday Christians to understand, articulate and participate in the Biblical vision of humanity, from the Evangelical Alliance.
 
Godpod
Recommended by Associate Vicar Bekah.
A monthly podcast from the HTB/Alpha stable - Theologians Graham Tomlin, Mike Lloyd, Jane Williams, and the occasional guest speaker get together to discuss burning issues of God, theology, life, and much more.
 
The Bible Project Podcast
Recommended by Associate Vicar Bekah.
Big questions tackled in a very accessible way – ideal for people exploring faith or walking alongside someone who is.
 
Together
Recommended by Associate Vicar Bekah.
Fortnightly conversations from TearFund, focusing on pursuing justice and ending extreme poverty.
 
Fight Hustle, End Hurry
Recommended by Associate Vicar Bekah.
John Mark Comer’s limited series thinking about rest and Sabbath.
 
The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill
Recommended by Vicar Mark.
As listened to by every church leader this year, the story of the rise and fall of a US megachurch is highly relevant in our UK setting, with toxic leadership being a powerful connection.
 
Quantum: the Wee Flea Podcast
Recommended by Vicar Mark.
From Scottish conservative evangelical Anglican David Robertson, who casts an often challenging, Christian apologist’s eye over world events from his base in Australia. You won’t agree with some of what he says, but he is always thought-provoking.
 
Ian Wright’s Everyday People
Recommended by Vicar Mark.
Not a Christian podcast, but a fantastic set of life-affirming stories, which are an antidote to all the dismal news that’s out there. Warning: you will cry!

Do let our team know what you're listening to!
 


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What's on your Christmas list?

One thing I love about this time of year is the Christmas gift ideas in newspapers and magazines.

  • A Christmas pudding outfit for your dog? Check.
  • A stupidly expensive handmade mug? Check.
  • A fabulous checked shirt for the Christmas party which might well be cancelled at the last minute? (I'll just check.) Check.

 
‘What about Christian Christmas gift ideas?’ I hear you cry. Well, the St Mary of Bethany staff team can help! Here are some of our recommendations to make your festive season a bit more edifying. Don't forget our top eco tips: avoid 24-hour delivery (which is highly resource intensive) and wrap your gifts in recycled paper. (Links are for information and do not imply endorsement of any particular website; Christian books and materials can be ordered at Origin at Christ Church Woking.)
 
Books
Reliably good authors

Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard – when I read this book, I wanted to grab every Christian I knew who’d read it before me and ask why they hadn’t made me read it! Beware – if you take Willard seriously, this book will change your life.
 
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown – this book will help you to engage with the gifts of vulnerability, honesty and authenticity in a world where it can feel like presentation is everything.
 
The Word Made Flesh: The language of Jesus in his stories and prayers by Eugene Peterson – a brilliant rediscovery of the way Jesus prayed.
 
Heaven by Paula Gooder – what does the Bible really say about heaven? An excellent, eye-opening read from a superb, accessible Bible scholar. (Our bishop says a lot of books are good, but Paula's are gooder!)
 
How to Pray: a simple guide for normal people by Pete Greig – Guildford author Greig’s book does exactly what it says on the tin in a positive and accessible way.
 
A Meal with Jesus: Discovering grace, community and mission round the table by Tim Chester – if your idea of hospitality is a fancy three-course meal with all your best crockery in your immaculate house, you need to read this book and change tack!
 
Fruitfulness on the Frontline: Making a difference where you are by Mark Greene – God has put you just where he wants you. Greene will help you to engage with your frontline in new and transformative ways.
 
The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer – this book challenges the busy-ness of modern life. Written before Covid but even more relevant now.

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy – last year’s bestseller – a great, warm-hearted read for adults and children alike, a multi-layered, visual treat.
  
Chewing on big issues
Ghost Ship by A.D.A. France-Williams – an arresting book from a unique voice, on the Church of England’s problem with race and racial justice. If you think that churches are generally safe and wonderful places for people of colour, you definitely need to read this and wake up.
 
Waiting on God by Andrew Murray – 31 daily reflections on waiting and why it’s fundamental to the Christian life. Not in any way new, but a great read.
 
Sabbath: The hidden heartbeat of our lives by Nicola Slee – an unusual read which points towards the find God’s pattern of rest and work.
 
Dominion: The making of the western mind by Tom Holland – a brilliant read which will help you to understand the culture we live in and the effect of the last 3,000 years of history in shaping it, in particular the role Christianity has played.
 
Entitled: How male privilege hurts women by Kate Manne – not specifically a Christian read, but a modern take on feminism and patriarchy from which many in the church can benefit.
 
Frequencies of God: Walking through Advent with R S Thomas by Carys Walsh – a book of reflections on poetry – moving and engaging whether or not poetry is your thing.
 
Slow Down, Show Up and Pray: Simple Shared Habits to Renew Wellbeing in Our Local Communities by Ruth Rice – The inspiring story of a Nottingham church which has stepped out in faith and seen God at work.
 
Magazine subscriptions
Woman Alive  – brilliant Christian articles every month.
 
Premier Christianity – always interesting and worthwhile.
 
Sorted – equally good, aimed at men.
 
For children and families
Family Advent Box – a great resource for this time of year – it’s not too late to get it!
 
Youthscape bricks and What If…? excellent resources to start conversations with young people.
 
Would you rather? by Doug Fields – hundreds of good questions to get young people talking. Sure to get your Christmas dinner table zinging!
 
Good News Bible: Family Edition – great for reading as a family, with space (and permission!) to scribble and resources to help you read and pray. 


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It's (not always) the most wonderful time of the year

As I write this, a wonderful friend and colleague of mine is hovering between life and death after a terrible car accident last week. This morning I was talking to a resident in our local sheltered housing, who faces his second Christmas without his wife of over forty years. Yesterday I listened to Mark Russell, the Chief Executive of the Children’s Society, who described dishing up Christmas lunch for a teenager who had never had that meal before. Contrary to what the mainstream media tells you, Christmas is not the most wonderful time of the year for everyone.
 
Churches understand this very well. After all, we are immersed in the mess of people’s lives. We are alongside people who were bereaved in the last two years, many of whom didn’t get the funeral they had in mind. We know where many of the pockets of deprivation are on our patch – people who can’t afford to heat their homes, let alone buy a turkey. We understand that many of the shiny homes in our suburban Woking parish contain people who are prisoners of addiction or abuse. You won’t have a happy Christmas if your dad’s a violent drunk. Many of us face familiar conundrums at Christmas: which set of parents to see; who gets the ‘difficult’ relative this year? Christmas can be a tipping point in relationships: family solicitors report a sharp spike in contacts every January from couples seeking to divorce. If you suffer from alcoholism or an eating disorder, the barrage of seasonal food and drink can be a terrifying ordeal.
 
I don’t have any special wisdom on how to navigate the Christmas season if you face any of these challenges. I grew up in a home where a very tricky relative spent a week with us every Christmas; we got through this by laughing a lot and enjoying it all as best we could. Can I encourage you to have a good eye out for people who might be struggling this year? In this busy season, take a moment to imagine prayerfully how people you know might experience things differently from you. Could there be an extra chair at your Christmas dinner table for someone who will otherwise be on their own that day? Who do you know who would be encouraged by a quick WhatsApp message just to say you’ve remembered them? As you prayer walk your local streets, who does God want you to notice? As a church we seek to be a safe place for people with messy lives. Let’s pray that we can live up to this vision as individuals and as a body, and that God will use us to be his transforming presence in the mess we encounter.


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Are our two Sunday services what we really need?

This might be an odd question to ask, in the week we relaunch our two Sunday services. The question has been coming up since Covid hit though, and it’s a good one. As a church family, we’re used to a more traditional Holy Communion service at 9.15am and a more contemporary worship service at 11am, with our children’s and youth groups in the latter slot. We also have our monthly 8am Book of Common Prayer Communion. Before Covid we were having a youth cell at 6.30pm on a Sunday too; we hope to restart this very soon. Over the years we’ve had Messy Church too. Since Covid, we’ve been all together at 10.30am, and many people have appreciated the sense of unity this has instilled; some love these services and don't want to move away from them. Now that we have more leadership capacity with a full-time Associate Minister, is the Holy Spirit prompting us to look at new services, or to move our existing services to different times?
 
Well, Sunday mornings don’t work for everybody. Lots of family activities and sports happen then. Younger people often prefer Sunday evenings for worship. There are another six days in the week too. Patterns of church attendance have changed over time; a generation ago, it was normal for some regular attenders to go to more than one Sunday service per week. Now, many of our regulars make it to one service a month. Post-Covid, we are still working out who our ‘regulars’ are, with many committed church members yet to attend a service in person post-Covid.
 
On the other hand, it must be right for us to be focusing on St Mary’s as a community rather than a set of services. I’m not sure it was ever true to say, ‘If you run it, they will come’, as though putting on more services or activities will lead necessarily to newcomers finding us. We are an activist community – since Bekah joined us, a question she’s heard a lot is, ‘What can we do about this?’ We make no apology for listening to and waiting on God before acting. As we’re about to see in our Advent sermon series, people are generally in a hurry, but God wants us to wait for him.
 
In 2019 around 2,000 people came to one of our physical services, a little under a third of those living in our parish (of course, some of them will have been from outside). If the others were just about to drop round, the minute we put on something designed to appeal to them, they would be with us by now. The painful fact is that many of our friends and neighbours are fifth or sixth generation unchurched. In the 1990s most English people would have had some idea of what a church community looked like; not so now. Most people have no idea; they don’t even know that we do weddings and funerals. We need to continue to put our energy into being an authentic, intergenerational family of faith, where we listen to and affirm the youngest child, the most senior adult, and everyone in between. It’s this transformational community which will prove magnetic, not just our compelling services or events. Relationships take time and work. Many of us know our neighbours better after Covid; these connections may contain the seeds of something new for us as a church.
 
Equally, we must also recognise that God’s people worshipping him authentically is a hugely powerful thing. Our services and events are not just our shop window; they are where the Holy Spirit works in us as a body. Along with the Leadership Vision Team, the staff team and PCC, I’m beginning work on a new two-year plan for life at St Mary’s. One thing we’re praying into is the idea of a ‘service pattern review’, with help from outside, to assess what we have and whether the Spirit is calling us towards new possibilities. This rebuilding phase of life feels like a good time to revisit this subject. Do pray about this and talk to any of us about it.
 
Good news corner 1
Eagle-eyed users of our building may have spotted our fantastic new, green chairs. These are used mainly in the hall; they are far easier to stack and store than our old, red ones, with their notorious, heavy trolley. You may be wondering what’s happened to the red chairs: we have sold them on eBay to a community village hall in Northamptonshire and they were collected by a Christian volunteer. We pray that they will bless those who use them, as they blessed us for many years.
 
Good news corner 2
I am reeling from the life-changing revelation that Cadbury’s Crème Eggs are now available in the weeks leading up to Halloween, rebranded as ‘Goo Heads’, with different foil but the same product inside. Tragically I realised this only on 30 October. Fortunately this traumatic story has a happy ending; from 1 November Goo Heads were available at many good high street shops at a knock-down price, so there’s no need to wait until Boxing Day for your Crème Egg fix! (I always get a laugh on social media when someone posts a Crème Egg picture on Boxing Day.)
 


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A time to remember

The annual St Mary of Bethany Memorial Service happens at 3pm Sunday 7 November. Covid has meant a long gap since our last one, and has given us the opportunity to move it to the All Saints/All Hallows season, where it is traditional to remember before God and give thanks for those who have gone before us. The service is a quiet, meditative one, with readings, music and space to reflect, as well as an opportunity to light a candle as a prayer in memory of a loved one. We’ll serve tea and cake afterwards, with a chance to catch up with others who are on similar journeys and those who have ministered to them. Do join us if you can and spread the word.
 
This year it feels particularly important that we make available spaces to remember and mourn together. For everyone who died of Covid, there are many others who died from other causes. Since March 2020 no death has gone according to plan and every funeral has been subject to uncomfortable restrictions. For many months families were not even allowed to meet together, have a drink, hug and exchange stories – surely the basics of British mourning. It will take many years to come to terms with the true cost of Covid on our society and the wider world. We will only emerge in an emotionally healthy way if we can acknowledge the pain we feel as we mourn and lament what we have lost and what might have been. The church is in a unique position here; we have 2,000 years of experience of helping people on their journeys towards death, and being alongside those who remain. Grieving well is not ‘getting over’ a death or being ‘back to normal’; it is finding a new normal where the pain of loss is a dull ache rather than an open wound; where it occurs to you from time to time rather than being ever present.
 
Now, as always, I am observing many in our church family grieving well: women widowed close together who go for walks each week, people taking intentional time out from busy routines to make space for themselves. In wider British society death remains a taboo subject. Our media sanitises it and we wish it wasn’t there. You rarely see a realistic portrayal of grief on television (soap opera being a serial offender – the writers forget that someone will still be grieving years after a death); a little more often in cinema (Casey Affleck’s Oscar-winning turn in 2016’s Manchester by the Sea being a stellar, but gruelling, example) and more frequently in literature. Somehow many people feel immortal – as if I ignore death for long enough, it will leave me alone. Church ministers regularly encounter families where a loved one failed to make a will or have any conversations about what to do after their death. This makes it so much harder for those who remain, particularly where there is unfinished business, things left unsaid or unresolved. Thoughtful preparation for your own death can leave an important legacy. It remains, however, the ultimate statistic: that one in every one person dies.
 
I would argue that, if you want to process grief well, you could do worse than to hang around with faithful Christians, or people of peace from other faiths. When you finish reading this, why not message someone you know who is grieving, just to check in or remember someone they’ve lost? And if you’re within easy reach of Woking, please join us on 7 November and spread the word. This year more than ever, it feels important to be together.


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Are you getting warmer or colder?

Winter draws on, as my grandmother used to say; the days are getting shorter and the mornings crisper. This autumn is a strange season! As a church leader, Sunday by Sunday I’m used to knowing where everyone is. In pre-Covid times, I worked from the assumption that around two thirds of our regular Sunday congregations would be in church each week. Now, since we reopened for in-person services in the spring, we continue to see people drifting back into our building to worship together. But there’s a pattern emerging across English churches, and St Mary of Bethany is no exception: some of our most faithful members have yet to appear in person. While we see people returning every Sunday, it’s proving to be a slow process.
 
Having returned to church life myself recently, I’d like to offer a few potential reasons people might give for staying at home, and give some gentle encouragements or challenges along the way.
 
‘I like watching church on my telly, in my jammies, with a coffee.’
Indeed, who doesn’t? Some people have found that arrangements which were ‘needs must’ during lockdown are actually quite appealing. Why would I sit in a chilly building, with the risk of Covid it entails, when I can stay cosily tucked up at home? The danger is that Covid has made us passive receivers of worship rather than active participants. Just as lockdowns have isolated us from one another and focused us narrowly on our own felt needs, some may have forgotten that worship services are not only a setting where you receive something from God and other people. No: worship services are places where you can bless and encourage God and others by your participation and presence. Also, much of the friction present in our national and community life at the moment is simply a result of people not being in the same room talking to each other. We don’t know how people are doing, because we haven’t caught up with them in a quick conversation over coffee or a quiet moment. Mature Christians ask what they will bring to a worship service and how God will use them in it, not just what they will receive from it.
 
Should we, then, stop live-streaming and prioritise everybody being in the building? I don’t think so. We committed very early in the first lockdown to continue to live-stream services indefinitely, and we made it clear that we regard online and offline participation as equally valid. Live-streaming kept weekly worship alive for most of our church family in lockdown, but it also opened up our church. Those who cannot get to physical church for health or mobility reasons have felt much more a part of our community. Our fringe has grown, as family members or former members who do not live locally have joined us online. Our ‘shop window’ has changed: before Covid, newcomers would check our website before trying us in person; now they join us online first. We have recently booked in a number of weddings and baptisms from people who first joined us online. All these people are on a journey nearer to God with us. Some people argue that live-streaming discourages people from participation in physical church; the evidence across the wider church is mounting that, in fact, live-streaming encourages people to be part of our vibrant faith community. This is all part of the picture which has been emerging in the last few years of a church without walls.
 
One thing I’ve heard a number of people say after they return to physical church for the first time is, ‘I was really moved – it was better than I expected.’ Watching a live-stream cannot give you the full experience of being in the building. It’s the same difference as watching ballet, theatre or opera on a screen; it’s a fantastic way to bring it to people who cannot always get to a live event, it opens up accessibility and opportunity, but it isn’t a match for being there. Don’t underestimate what the Holy Spirit will do when you are with your Christian brothers and sisters in person. If you’re holding back from coming to the building, but you’re out and about at the pub, seeing friends and family, at groups, work, school or whatever, can I warmly invite you to return? We would love to see you and it will really bless us to have you here.
 
‘I’ll come back when the 9.15/11am/children’s/youth etc. restarts.’
It’s fantastic to be able to welcome back families, and meet new ones, now that our Sunday children’s and youth programme has restarted. We continue to follow Covid protocols and this is going well.
 
You may be getting bored of hearing us say that we plan to move to two services when we have the resources. At the moment that feels like it may be some way off – none of our teams, from welcoming and stewarding to hospitality, audio-visual, music or prayer ministry is anywhere near having enough people to sustain two services every week. You can of course be part of the solution to this, by offering to help with one of our teams. However, we want to acknowledge that, for some in our church family, coming into a large gathering of people in an enclosed space feels very difficult at the moment. As we minister to each other, it’s OK to be exactly where you are, whether that’s confident, anxious or whatever. It’s important to be understanding of each other and recognise that you don’t know how others are doing if you haven’t spoken to them.
 
Just now we are regathering in one place at 10.30am, and this feels significant. The simple act of worshipping all together has been important since the first lockdown. We have learned to accommodate the full range of worshipping preferences in our church family, without the service feeling like a ‘lowest common denominator’. In this period of rebuilding, I think it’s important that we regather together before we split things up. At the same time, I understand some people feel the need for weekly Communion and a slightly more traditional service, and others who enjoy something more informal. If you’re holding out for the right style of service, consider joining us at 10.30 every now and then, for some of the reasons above.
 
‘I don’t want to wear a mask’ or, on the other hand, ‘I don’t feel safe.’
Hands up everyone who loves masks? Sorry, I can’t see a thing – my glasses have steamed up! We are constantly reviewing our Covid protocols in dialogue with other churches locally and nationally. At the moment we are at the more restrictive end of what churches are doing about mask-wearing. This is under review and we hope to move to something less restrictive soon. Bear in mind, though, that we want to include in our services people who are anxious and feel vulnerable. I’ve had conversations with people who will not come to a service where everyone is unmasked, and others with people who won’t come if they have to wear a mask. Again, the key is bearing with each other.
 
So, then, are you getting warmer or colder?
Are you getting closer to God or further away? Nearer to being a full part of our church family or is this more remote? If you haven’t yet dipped your toe in the water of a physical church service, but you could, come on in: the water’s lovely!


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Vicar Mark returns from leave

...and writes: I am very grateful to Guildford Diocese and the staff and congregation of St Mary of Bethany for the opportunity to take a period of Extended Ministerial Development Leave. This felt overdue; I was due to take it during 2020, but it felt impossible both to leave my post and to make any plans that spring because of Covid. In the end I had been ordained for thirteen years, spending nine as an incumbent, before I took the time.
 
I had a number of focuses:
Reading
I had a big pile of theological books to read; I have read some very helpful work, combining modern classics and new thoughts. These included Messy Grace by Caleb Kaltenbach, Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard, Ghost Ship by A.D.A. France-Williams, Life of the Beloved and Our Greatest Gift by Henri Nouwen, Waiting for God by Simone Weil, Waiting for God by Andrew Murray, Kept for the Master’s Use by Frances Havergal and The Pastor as Public Theologian by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan.
 
Thus I spent time reflecting on the intersection between truth and grace when it comes to issues of identity and sexuality, personal holiness, racism within the Church of England, the missional power of communicating God’s love in Christ to non-Christians, the role of death in our life and faith journeys, what it means to wait for God, and exactly what pastors and congregations should understand their role to be. My bookshelves feel more up to date, and I am building in more time to read theology going into the next phase of my ministry. I am also reflecting on how to bring some of the thoughts from this reading to all of you; perhaps via my blog or an online book club for church.
 
I also had a big pile of general books to read; I must note here that the congregation of St Mary of Bethany gave me a very generous book token as a gift for my leave. As is my general habit, I combined fiction and non-fiction over the time: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, Tribes by David Lammy and My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.
 
Thinking theologically about waiting
I have begun a project about the role of waiting for God in the Christian life. I hear a lot of talk in Christian circles about rest and sabbath, but less about the discipline of waiting and how intolerable this has become in our culture. This seems particularly relevant in this 'rebuilding' phase of the Covid pandemic. Some of you are really struggling to wait for cherished church ministries to return; in general people want the comfort of the familiar, after such a chaotic time. God calls us to wait for him much more than we find comfortable. Waiting for God involves engaging with the Bible, deepening our prayer life and getting to know him better; none of these are easy or comfortable things to do. My reading touched on numerous general thoughts on waiting; I have started to work through the Old Testament, thinking about people in the narrative who waited for things, as well as where individuals or the faithful in general are told to wait. We are rarely told how biblical characters felt about waiting; I think it is helpful to wonder about this, to engage with our cultural experience. I will set aside some time to continue this over the next few months; I am not sure what the outcome will be, but I hope it will speak to many people’s experiences and be challenging.
 
Other writing
I wrote several children’s stories too. I have really enjoyed writing during this time; I did less than I hoped, as I felt called not to be at a keyboard for too long.
 
Travel and retreat
I spent several weekends away, including a five-day unguided retreat to Sheldon, visits to friends, fellow church leaders and family. These were very refreshing times, which were all significantly easier to organise because I was not working weekends. I also took a very refreshing holiday.
 
Other cultural engagement
I kept track of all the films and television I watched, and I've been listening to a number of excellent podcasts, so watch out for some blogs on these soon.
 
Health
I did the Couch to 5K programme via the NHS/BBC app, enjoyed it and I continue to run three times a week. I feel healthier and more connected to some of my local outdoor spaces. If you've seen me lumbering past you, I can only apologise.
 
I have returned rested and refreshed, just in time for my fourth anniversary at St Mary of Bethany (which has just passed on 21 September) and entering a new phase in my ministry here. My period of leave has given me the opportunity to restart, seeing the challenges of the work post-Covid and facing some of the issues which I have been parking over my time so far. I have fresh eyes, clear focus and the energy and time to reset my priorities and move things on. I feel called not to 'hit the ground running', but to stay close to God, listening to him through scripture, prayer and his church. This 're-entry' phase is interesting: it's similar to when I arrived in 2017 in that I can see the church family with fresh eyes (you don't see the cobwebs in a house once you've lived there for six months), but this time I am not meeting people for the first time, but I know many of you well. Covid has exposed many challenges for us as a church; some of these are issues which were already significant weaknesses before the pandemic. I am returning with the energy to tackle head-on those ways of being which are holding our church family back. But if you are hoping for a strong, revived leader, who can pull us all in the right direction, you may need to think again. Consider God's words to Paul: 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' (2 Corinthians 12:9) Sensible Christians want weak leaders who rely fully on God.


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Being Community in a Liminal Space 

One of the biggest gifts my Christian faith has given me over the years has been its ability to enable me to hold together the most opposite of emotions. At the heart of the Christian faith are a cross and an empty tomb, crucifixion and resurrection, the depths of sorrow and the heights of joy, absence and presence, despair and hope.
 
“Discovering” Holy Saturday, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Day was, for me, discovering a space where the whole of human experience could have its being: a confused and uncertain space, but a holy space.
 
The readings set for Morning Prayer recently have been from 2 Corinthians and I’ve been reminded afresh of the example of Paul and the Bible’s wisdom on holding things in tension, even as I struggle for certainty, clarity and stability.
 
‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.’ (NIV)
 
I’ve seen headlines referring to the 19th July as “freedom day” and others as “fear day”. It has been confirmed the legal restrictions are being lifted and yet with this certainty, there is so much uncertainty.
 
We are waiting for updated guidance from the government and Church of England, but in the meantime I wanted to share what we do know (not that much), what decisions have been taken (not that many) and just a few thoughts that I hope will help us as we seek to love Jesus, to serve and tell others, to be community in this next season.

  • We do not need to react as quickly to the easing of restrictions as when they were first introduced. Even when the legal restrictions change, we can take time to breathe, pray and reflect. As a team we are committed to not making panic decisions, but instead seeking to discern the right next step for our whole church community. We need to be realistic that we won’t have everything worked out by Sunday 25th July and I suspect there will be a lot of unanswered questions for some time yet.
  • We’re in a very wide variety of different places and have all had different experiences of the pandemic so far. We’re trying to listen and hear everyone’s voice and take decisions keeping in mind how we can be as together as we can be at this unsettling time, whilst recognising it’s likely some of us will want to be further ahead and some of us will feel left behind. This will be an uncomfortable time, I suspect, for each of us and we will each need to prioritise showing grace and walking slowly with one another.
  • We are going forward to somewhere new and it will take time for us to find our way. We don’t need to be afraid of not knowing exactly where we’re going and we need to acknowledge we are not picking up where we left off in March 2020.
  • We are committed to returning to two services, but we do not have the resources to do this before the end of September at the earliest and we would usually have a combined 10.30am service during August anyway. There will continue to be an 8am BCP Holy Communion service on the first Sunday of each month, including August, and a pre-recorded Holy Communion service is available here on each of the other Sundays.
  • Even with the lifting of legal restrictions, we will still need to listen to any guidance and we do not necessarily have the volunteers to restart ministries exactly as they were pre-pandemic. We will also need to be mindful of track and trace, where any volunteer or member of staff could suddenly be required to self-isolate.
  • Many of us were greatly blessed by the live songs we had during last Sunday’s service and we will continue to gradually introduce live music over the next couple of months. We do not yet know what the guidance will be on returning to singing. If this does become possible, we will be taking a cautious approach.
  • We will be asking that, unless exempt, even after 19th July, you continue to wear a mask in the church building and to have conversations outside as much as possible.
  • We are waiting for the guidance from the Church of England, but we are anticipating we will increase the number of chairs in the worship area from the beginning of August. Any changes to the layout of seating will be accompanied by the introduction of “please leave space” cards to help us to let others know whether we would like to sit distanced or whether we would welcome someone sitting next to us. At this point, we envisage that booking will no longer be required, but, as with any decision at this time, we may need to revisit this if the situation changes.

 
Please do get in touch with any member of the team if you have any concerns or questions. As a colleague helpfully commented last week, our “social muscle” has weakened and so we will all need to be looking out for, helping, and supporting one another at this time.
 
But let’s remember that we, every single one of us, have ‘treasure in jars of clay’ and ask for the help of the ‘all-surpassing power of God’ to enable us to live well in this liminal space.  It may be a confused and uncertain space, but it can also be a holy space.


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Questionnaire Responses & Team Update

We've heard from you...

Thank you all so much for taking the time to fill out our questionnaire on emerging from lockdown. We have been hugely encouraged by the general themes that have come from your thoughtful input and are grateful for the depth and detail with which you have shared.
 
Although we cannot cover every point that was brought up in the written sections of the form, be assured that every entry has been read and thought through.  In some cases the suggestions made have already been prayerfully acted upon, and in others, time, discernment and guidance from the government and Church of England are still required before we can make any further decisions.
 
There are many things that the questionnaire makes very clear. The first is that the St Mary of Bethany family would like to continue with our pattern of two services on a Sunday, with an additional 8am Holy Communion once a month. This is certainly a pattern we want to get back to, but it will take time. The questionnaire does suggest that for us to get back to a more normal level of attendance in the church building, all restrictions will need to have been lifted and singing permitted. Once that happens, we will need to secure enough volunteers to make our services both viable and safe. Not everyone who was serving eighteen months ago, feels safe or called to continue as they were. Half of our volunteers are looking forward to getting back to what they were doing pre pandemic, but many are not sure they want to go back to what they were doing previously, conversely, some, who weren’t volunteering before, want to start now. Hopefully as our small groups offer the Shape Course over the next year, some of us will discover new ways to use our gifts!
 
Many of us are very content in our small groups, and feel they have been a significant support to us during the pandemic.  Others are not finding their small group helpful, and still others are not yet part of a small group.  Please get in touch with us if you would like to join a small group, or want to consider joining a different one.  There are so many benefits to being part of a small community, we even have a thriving permanently online one as a result of the pandemic.
 
Many of you enjoyed meeting centrally on Zoom for teaching; Home Group Central and the ‘Living His Story’ lent course were both well attended and well received. The questionnaire strongly suggests that these kind of courses would be more widely attended if they were held online as opposed to in person, we will take this, and those who prefer in person, into account when planning future teaching and courses. A few of you are regular attendees at Morning prayer which is held each morning on zoom, the vast majority of you are unable attend, but some of you have shown an interest in attending in the future. Please join us online here Monday to Friday at 9am.
 
Most of us want to get back to in person worship, but not all in the same time frame; many are back already, but some won’t return until all the restrictions are removed, and we can sing. All children’s group members including youth, wish to get back to in person either as soon as possible, or when all restrictions have been removed, again we will need to recruit more volunteers before this can happen fully. There is a significant number who intend to continue attending church online regularly and almost all said they would access online church in the event of not being able to make it to church physically. Online church is, as we have stated from the beginning of the pandemic, here to stay, one service will be broadcast each week, which service is broadcast and how often, is yet to be decided.
 
The majority of us are feeling positive as we come out of the pandemic, but some still feel anxious. We recognise that each one of us approaches the ‘new normal’ with different expectations and concerns. Some are keen to mix, give and receive hugs, others are less keen - we need to respect each other and give ourselves time and space to adjust to what is a very new reality.
 
We thank God for sustaining us through this period of exile from each other. Many of us have found ourselves attending church as much or more than we did pre pandemic, with only a few saying their attendance had dropped.
 
Please continue to pray and seek God as we navigate this coming season together.   
 

And we thought you might like to hear from us...

From Jess & Sharon, our Office Manager & Office Administrator:

Sharon has been at the Church building to welcome people, in the week; to answer any queries as we get busier for things such as room hire; supporting ministries; sending paper copies of our blog and notices to those who cannot access the website; working alongside our wardens to keep the Church Covid safe and other general admin duties.

Jess has been dealing with queries around marriages and the reading of Banns, keeping our social medias and weekly notices on the website up to date; putting together rotas; general support of staff and ministry meetings; safer recruiting duties and supporting the Lay Chair of the PCC with essential PCC secretary duties.


From Tina, our Young Families' Minister:

Sunday School - We are sending emails out every week to our families, with activity sheets which allow the family to look together at the theme and with colouring, puzzles etc. Often, we send extra resources that we think the children may enjoy. These are produced by Together at Home Church Resources and have been very enjoyable. Tina, Kate and Joel make a video each week to support the theme and this is available on the St Mary of Bethany YouTube channel if you would like to see what we are up to! We are currently running a series about David.

Bethany Babes – Under the current guidelines we have been able to reopen a small pre booked group called Bethany Babes Out and In on both Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. We are basing our activities mainly outside in the garden, with sit and rides in the halls. We met for the first time on the 1st and 2nd of June and it was a bit emotional as the families were so glad to be back and we were so happy to see them. Please pray for continued good weather so that we can make the most of the space.


From Kate, our Children's Minister:

In Fun Club at Barnsbury School we have just finished teaching Year’s 3 and 5 outside with outside fitness sessions and this next term we will be teaching Years 4 and 6. The children love keeping fit outside and it has been such a pleasure getting to know them and inviting them even to our events like the Alice Trail.

FNC has started up this term every Friday and the children are loving playing outside with football and games and our pool / table tennis and table football is still very popular. The God Slot with tuck is still a wonderful way of bringing the children together and thinking about important questions. We do all these activities in a very covid safe way and the children are loving being together again.


From Dave, our Youth Minister:

Awaiting new guidance 14th/21st June.
 
Pathfinders is back on Sunday mornings 10.30am – 11.30 am in Youth room. Cell groups are still going.
 
Schools work is still slow going but I will be going in to Christ’s College to lead a few Alpha sessions as part of the RE curriculum in June, and into Hoe Valley School for detached work with Year 7’s.
 
RAFAC – have 25 new recruits and I will be doing my first sessions with them over this next month as well as meeting with the other 30 plus cadets.
 
Thinking of running a Youth Alpha in September/October 2021.
 
Shortage of volunteers, even if there is new guidance we cannot open everything up to young people.


From Joel, our New Wine Discipleship Year Intern:

The past few weeks I have been working with Kate, Tina and Dave as we start up our weekly groups in person again such as Bethany Babes, Fun Club at Barnsbury and meeting face to face for our weekly Cell and Sunday morning youth groups! Alongside this I've been working with Engage again recording and editing material and content for their summer assembly which will go live in the next week.

From Sarah, our Curate:

The last few weeks I have been focused on The Living in Love and Faith course. I am currently leading the pilot course on a Tuesday evening and doing it with the online small group on a Wednesday. Please get in touch with me if you would like to go on the list for the next available course.

As I approach the end of my second year of curacy, I have my ongoing study portfolio to put together and complete; this involves reflecting on all the different areas of ministry that I have been involved in during my time at St Mary of Bethany, some of which have been completely unexpected as a result of the pandemic! I continue to oversee our pastoral team, lead worship and preach, and although I miss him, I am really enjoying assisting Bekah as she leads us through Mark’s EMDL.


And from Bekah, our Associate Vicar:

I am enjoying being able to meet and get to know more of the St Mary of Bethany church family and also getting more connected locally and within the diocese. I am working with the team as we continue to navigate this recovery season, listening to God, our church community and the wider community.

After a great Alpha Course in the spring, we're currently running The Bible Course for our Alpha guests and I continue to prioritise helping us to think about mission and evangelism. I meet regularly with the Woking Evangelists' Network for encouragement, equipping and joint working in evangelism and am currently involved in a number of different conversations reflecting on what it means for mission and evangelism not just to be something we do, but to be at the heart of who we are as a community, and what it means to be a church where everyone belongs.

 
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Who we are, not what we do

As I head off on leave, I have a few thoughts about our life together at St Mary of Bethany in this ‘recovery’ season. Over the last fourteen months, many of you have taken an enforced sabbatical from church ministry. For some, this rest has been refreshing, even when you combine it with the many losses and traumas of lockdown. But it has left a small number of people carrying the burden of a great deal of our church’s ministry. Don’t get me wrong: we have been called to this, for this season, and it has been a joy to serve and see others growing too.

Now, as restrictions are being lifted, we look forward to a more ‘normal’ situation emerging, even if this doesn’t happen completely on 21 June. The break has given us all an opportunity to reflect with God on the new season we’re entering. As we’ve always said, some of our ministries won’t restart; some will relaunch in a new form; others will look much the same. For some of you, God is calling you to leave aside something you’ve put down over the last year; maybe he’s calling you to take up something new too.

We recently launched the Shape Course, to help you think about your unique gifts, enthusiasms, life experiences and calling, and the first group is likely to start the course in June. This is offered as a tool to help you engage with the Holy Spirit’s calling in this new season. If you’re in a homegroup, speak to your leader about doing the course as a group; if you’re not yet in a group, contact the Office to say you’d be interested in an upcoming course. It’s a really useful way to go deeper in your journey with God.

Working with Associate Vicar Bekah and Curate Sarah has been a great blessing to me and to the Church since lockdown. One of the things we’ve noticed is what an activist church St Mary’s is: we do a lot of things. As we’ve started thinking about being a truly intergenerational community, one thing people at church have often said is, ‘What do we need to do?’ But we think God is calling us to be, not just to do¸ in this new season.

There are many things which get said of our church: we’re a safe place for people with messy lives, if Carlsberg made churches…, we’re God’s transforming people in our parish, and so on. One of the things Bekah is helping us to think through in her role heading up our mission and evangelism, is what intergenerational church means: a community where everyone at every age and stage of life is equally welcomed, valued and plays a part. In my sermon for Pentecost last Sunday (available to watch on our YouTube feed here), I talked about some of the people of God who have blessed me in my life. Some of them were never aware of the blessing they were.

We want St Mary’s to be a place where you can bring yourself, and where we help people to take the next step on their walk with God, but also where we make the most of the blessing that you are. The fact is that you don’t know how you will bless the people around you; it could be as simple as the smile you give someone, an encouraging word or a prayer offered up silently. I have been blessed by the unconscious, the incapable and the sick, as much as by the energetic, the fun and the thoughtful.

Part of our journey to being an intergenerational church will be to spell out some of our values. Schools do this well: these days every school has a set of values which help define their community and which the children learn, things like ‘resilience’, ‘determination’ and so on. As we work through our vision and planning cycle over the autumn and winter, we will set out some words or phrases which sum up who we are at St Mary’s – what sort of community we are, how it feels to be here. It’s a slightly more nebulous thing than setting out our vision, but it will help people outside the Church to get a feel for who we are; what the Church ‘smells like’.

This summer brings opportunities to step back gently into our Church community, at whatever rate and in whatever space you feel most comfortable. If you’re planning to come back to Church onsite, talk to our team about what we can do to help you. If you’re desperate to get back to a particular service or ministry that’s still suspended, pray and engage with the obstacles which may exist to restarting in our context.

One concern that some leaders have around online church is that it may have pushed some people into being passive recipients of church, because it’s something you can access in the same way as you would a TV programme. As churches everywhere grapple with what it means to be a hybrid church (one where some ministry is onsite, some is online and some is both), I encourage you not to be passive. As a wise member of our Leadership Vison Team said last week, ‘Don’t be the person sitting complaining that you want a cup of tea; be the person who puts the kettle on.’ There’s a subtle distinction between your starting point being a place of ‘being rather than doing’, and becoming a consumer of something which is being done to you.

I leave you in the capable hands of Bekah, Sarah and Youth Minister Dave, with one last piece of advice. Paul writes to the youthful church leader Timothy, ‘Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.’ (1 Timothy 4:12) We are blessed with Bekah as our Acting Incumbent for this season, someone who is comfortably younger than the average St Mary’s member. We are used to having younger people in leadership (for example former curates Barney and Zoe), but perhaps Bekah also brings something new as a single woman.

In our culture, young women leaders often receive casual sexism and condescension. In a church context this is probably quite unintentional most of the time. If the last fourteen months has taught me anything as a middle-aged, middle class white man, it is that I come from a place of immense privilege compared to many other people: for example, the woman who has to plan carefully how to get home from a night out; the black doctor with a nice car who needs to put a soft toy in the back window to avoid getting pulled over regularly by the police; the young man with learning difficulties to whom people are routinely rude or short-tempered at the shops. My work with curates sometimes depresses me, when I hear what young women leaders occasionally have to put up with. I have found St Mary’s to be the kindest and most generous church community in which I have served. Be the best you can be with your leaders in this season.

This blog will be a bit quieter in the next few weeks, but do keep an eye on it for developments at St Mary’s. And keep praying for each other and all of us; God has great plans and it’s an exciting time to be part of his kingdom! 


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Music and worship at St Mary of Bethany - an open letter to our musicians

I'm contacting all our musicians at St Mary of Bethany to say hello, we haven't forgotten you, and to let you know where things are at church before I go on Extended Ministerial Development Leave next week. Thank you for all you've done over this last fourteen months, even if you have been taking a break from our music. his period of Sabbath rest will bear great fruit in our church's life.

This is an 'open letter' which has been sent to all our active musicians.

This season of April-August has been called the 'recovery' season, a time to start trying more 'normal' things in a low-key as restrictions are gradually lifted, while we look forward to the autumn as a 'restart' season. People are in different places emotionally, practically and spiritually; we are experiencing a fair degree of anxiety in people of all ages, and quite a lot of grumpiness. There are tensions between 'now' and 'not yet', weariness with restrictions, impatience to get 'back to normal' and frustration with the limited nature of what we are able to do.

The hardest thing about church for most musicians since Covid is not being able to sing. We still have no idea when this rule will be relaxed; the next set of announcements is due on 14 June to take effect on 21 June, but there is no guarantee that this will be included. Similarly we hope for a reduction in social distancing to 1m and ultimately to zero at some stage, but we have no idea when.

Our 10.30am Sunday service is nearly full, and we have launched a church-wide questionnaire available here (and on paper from the office) to take the temperature of the church family and help us determine the best ways forward. The majority of people onsite would normally attend our 9.15 service; we don't expect to welcome back most children and families until we can run Sunday groups onsite. The guidance on this is developing all the time; at the moment we are looking to restart onsite youth work on a Sunday morning, but our building's limitations mean work for primary-aged children is too challenging to restart just yet. So far we have had nearly 100 responses to the questionnaire; we are going to set a closing date around 30 May. One way to increase our capacity onsite a little would be to have a booking system, as we could set out the exact sets of chairs we need, with a few extra for those who just turn up.

Once we are able to see the responses, we can start to make decisions about whether and how to move our services forward. We are unlikely to move away from our single 10.30am service before mid-September. I am going on leave for the summer, so we will not have enough service and worship leaders to cover two services. It would also put a lot of pressure on our already stretched tech team. Given that we normally have a 10.30 service throughout August, any change we would make in the next half of term would only be for a few weeks. Rather we will use this time to prepare for the autumn 'restart' season.

We are looking to start having some live music in our services over the summer. This is more complex than you might think, as the tech team has to mix the sound in the building and online. As we have done all the way through Covid, we will start small, with a guitar/singer or keyboard/singer, for just one or two songs in a service, and then build out as we feel confident. This will be a process of improvisation and it will be slower than some people would like. Please be patient! Bekah, Sarah, Dave, Ray and I are in touch with the other worship leaders; at the moment we are not keen to have much live music before we are allowed to sing together - we are conscious of the sense of 'performance' that this might bring. But we need to work behind-the-scenes to get ready.

A small group of singers from the 9.15 service is looking to get together in the church building regularly on a weekday, to get used to singing again after the long break. Beate Shaw is taking a lead on this.

The autumn will also be a new season in my ministry, as we will make the most of having a Vicar, Associate Vicar and Curate working together for the next year or so. I will be taking a more active role in organising and resourcing our worship, training up musicians and leaders. I will step into some of the gaps left when Daren left, which we always planned to own in the team once we had a full complement of ministers. As Bekah only joined us in lockdown last year, there has not been the opportunity to do this yet. Please pray for me over my break, and into the new season, as there will be other ministries I will need to let go off, or which do not restart, to facilitate this.

As we've been thinking about spiritual gifts in church, and launching the Shape Course, it is certain that we will not see everyone serving at SMOB in the same ways they were doing before Covid. It is also certain that the Holy Spirit is stirring up gifts and talents in new people too. This will be an exciting time if we can take God's hand and let the Spirit lead us. Unpredictable, on the edge - exactly where God calls us to be as his transforming people in our parish.


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Why vicars need a break

In three weeks’ time, on 28 May, I will begin three months of Extended Ministerial Development Leave (which was formerly known as a sabbatical). The very wonderful team at St Mary of Bethany will lead without me over the summer, under Associate Vicar Bekah, Curate Sarah and Youth Minister Dave.

The Church of England has long recognised the value of an extended rest period for full-time, paid ministers every seven years or so. In Guildford Diocese this rolls round seven years after you begin a post of first responsibility (when you become the priest in charge of a church or an Associate Vicar), and, if you move parishes, you lose a year. Working this out needed all my fingers and toes: I was appointed as Vicar of Lightwater in 2012, moved to St Mary of Bethany in 2017, so was due my leave in 2020. It was in the diary and I had just announced it via this blog…and you know what happened next.

So here I am, nine years into incumbency, having piloted the good ship St Mary’s through the choppy waters of Covid. I was in good company in my decision to delay (the Bishop of Guildford did the same and is on leave now; the Archbishop of Canterbury is going on leave this summer), but it’s been an exceptionally tough and costly year for every church leader.

What does a sabbatical look like?
It looks like an extended period of rest; an opportunity to kick back and smell the flowers, to enjoy the things God has given you and wants to give you. For an activist like me, it’s the opportunity to stop. I am trying to resist the temptation to have an ever-lengthening to-do list of household chores or things I want to achieve. I will do some writing: some children’s stories, a novel I started 25 years ago, and I will do some theological thinking about waiting – how I’m in a hurry but God wants me to wait. The Bible tells us many stories of people who waited: Abraham, Moses, Mary, Zechariah…it rarely explores how this must have felt for those people. I will visit friends and family, and go back to places I love. I will invest in good times, shared experiences and making memories. I will take lots of photos. I will let go of many things, the better to take hold of others.

For some clergy, this leave involves extended pilgrimage, retreat or study. It’s an opportunity to spend time in different, inspiring work learning new things.
‘But what is so special about a vicar’s role that you need all this time out?’ I hear you cry. I thought I’d share some of the Things I Kind Of Knew About Pastoring But Didn’t Really Understand The Implications When I Agreed To Do It. 

The six-day week
When I quit my job in book publishing in 2003 to go and work for a church, I didn’t actually realise that paid ministry involves a six-day week until about two weeks before I moved. I certainly didn’t work through all the implications of this.

On the plus side…married clergy can co-ordinate days off with their spouse, to have quality time together with cheap cinema tickets and places to go which aren’t stuffed full of the weekend crowd. Singletons can enjoy long lunches with friends and, if you work the timing well, you can get away for a couple of nights. You can work flexibly over your working week.

On the minus side…you lose any real prospect of a full weekend away. (You’re allowed six Sundays off per year.) You don’t get to worship at other churches or to visit friends in different parts of the country easily. Of the things I’m looking forward to most in my leave, one is to visit a few sets of friends and family in far-flung parts of the country for the weekend – it feels like a real luxury and it’s something I really miss doing. I haven’t spent quality time with some of my closest friends for 15 years or more.

The things you hold and the cost of loving your flock
Someone said a good pastor needs a soft heart and hard feet; you need to be able to love people, to be able to walk through dark and difficult places with them and help them find the way with God. It is a massive privilege to be allowed into some of those spaces, for example to be alongside someone as they die, perhaps as the only person they know who can hold their hand and pray with them as they take their journey home. There is great joy and fulfilment in being God’s Right Person In The Right Place At The Right Time, but it can be costly too.

It is a joy to walk alongside people at all sorts of stages of life, sharing their stories, being asked for advice or prayer; the bread-and-butter work of a pastor. But it’s hard to hold some of those things too. My heart has been broken several times: the morning I stood at the front of All Saints’ Lightwater and realised that I’d lost a whole row of faithful veterans in the last 18 months. The times people have told me in very matter-of-fact terms about the abuse they suffered as children. There have been difficult conversations when I’ve had to call out a situation where someone’s behaviour needed challenging.

It takes a particular set of skills to hold together the complex emotional landscapes involved in funerals, or in other church services in moments of crisis. Some moments will never leave me: a father my age bringing into church a tiny coffin, no larger than a hat-box, containing the remains of his twin daughters, born prematurely; the funeral of a four-year-old boy who died from sepsis after contracting chicken pox; the mother-of-two who died of cancer aged 49, telling her two daughters of her illness just 48 hours before the end. I have learned so much from these people, and at the bedsides of the dying, and it is always a unique privilege to be allowed into a family’s life at such an important and intimate moment.

‘Where do you go with the tough stuff?’ a pastorally-minded parishioner asked me recently. It’s a good question; clergy have to figure this stuff out for themselves, by and large. I was fortunate to be pointed towards a spiritual director at the start of my ordained ministry, whom I have met with regularly ever since, for guidance, gentle wisdom and prayer. I have learned to make time around funerals and challenging pastoral encounters, to give myself space to process them emotionally and spiritually, and I have found safe people to help too, principally my remarkable wife. Some weeks I do very little of this kind of work; others it can be all-consuming. If the reasonable worst-case scenario is very bad, you can’t always just clock off. This work is largely unseen by parishioners until they experience it themselves. You can always ask to see a minister and we will always make the time, whether you want a sounding board, someone to pray with or whatever it is.

The show must go on
Pastors work hard to be a non-anxious presence in church services every week, to slow down, talk to people and not be in too much of a rush to do whatever job needs doing before or after the service. Some weeks this is easier than others. I remember one week when a colleague took a service after experiencing a terrible personal tragedy the night before. Five minutes before the service they were weeping and in pieces. I offered to take the service for them; they decided to do it, and God honoured what they did in an amazing way. The vast majority of people there were oblivious to what was going on under the surface, which is only right. It’s a great truth of the Christian faith that God honours what you bring him in faith; he uses what you have and, if he calls you to do something, he equips you to do it too. He does not want what you do not have. There are weeks when you have to put aside the maelstrom inside you, put your hand to the pump and do your stuff, because it’s what you do.

An amazing truth about the Holy Spirit is that whenever I think my work is in vain, when I would have liked to spend more time on a sermon or a service, it goes ahead of me and makes sure it all lands in people’s hearts. I have lost count of the times when someone has said, ‘That was just for me today.’ So often I was thinking of someone else when I prepared – I looked around to see they weren’t even there, and God had another plan. If prophecy involves the bringing of God’s word into people’s lives, then the simple act of doing it week in, week out is hugely powerful. It’s immense when someone tells you they’ve never heard a Christian truth or a Bible story explained like that before, and it suddenly makes sense for the first time. At the same time, when God puts someone on your heart, but you just don’t know how to approach them or what to say, he brings the conversation round in his perfect timing.

The public role and the goldfish bowl
Any public leadership role brings with it a degree of expectation from people. In some ways my job is similar to a headteacher or MP: everyone thinks they know what you ought to be doing, and everyone has a view on whether you’re doing it well or not. People project many things on to priests and have all sorts of expectations, both reasonable and unreasonable. Someone said that the art of leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can cope with! I have developed a rhino-thick skin; you have to try very hard indeed to offend me and I am almost impossible to shock. On the other hand, I’ve found that some people take offence at the most extraordinarily trivial things.

In a previous parish, I was sent in the direction of a couple whom I had never met, but who were very cross with me. Apparently they had once said hello, only to have me blank them. Given that I had no recollection of the encounter and I don’t make a habit of being rude, I can’t have heard them speak to me. A short, friendly conversation broke the ice and put things back on track. The man who sent me in their direction, an understanding son of a clergyman himself, said, ‘In your position it’s remarkably easy to cause unintentional umbrage.’

Vicars (and their families, if they have them) have the great privilege of living in a nice house rent-free, with some of our bills paid and basic home maintenance organised for us. The flipside of this is that we live in a goldfish bowl. People know where you live; they observe your comings and goings; they sometimes have a sense of ownership. You meet parishioners at the supermarket. If you have a family, their demeanour is duly noted. Clergy spouses have a role which is unofficial, unwritten and for which they get no formal preparation. Setting up and navigating boundaries around work and family life can feel like trying to hit a moving target. People talk about work/life balance, but that puts the two things in tension. I prefer to talk about a blended life; one where everything has a place and a season.

Parishioners sometimes push at those boundaries. In a previous job, someone cut my front lawn without asking, because they thought it was overgrown and looked a mess. I think it was intended as a kind act; I received it as judgemental and intrusive. If you want to cut my lawn, ask me if that’s something I would like; for all you know, I might be cultivating a wildflower meadow or a hedgehog sanctuary! Another clergyperson told me that they were entertaining people in their home when they found people going upstairs to the bedrooms without asking.
We receive cranky communications, sometimes anonymously. Any anonymous, hostile communication is an aggressive act. Sensible clergy will not respond to anything which does not have a name on it.

The flipside of this is that we receive a lot of kindness, love and prayers from all sorts of people. One of the great privileges of ministry is that people I have never met pray for me. We are loved and looked after in all sorts of ways. Anonymous mail isn’t always negative, but can be appreciative. Sometimes there’s a card or gift to say thank you, a cake on the doorstep or a casserole, just when you need it.

God willing, I will return for a new season on 13 September – who knows where we will all be by then? I am confident that God has plenty for me to do at St Mary’s yet, so rest assured that I will not arrive back and announce that I’m leaving. I leave you in the capable hands of our wonderful team, who will help navigate through the rest of this ‘recovery’ season. We have learned to slow down through the last year; the summer will involve low-key ways to get back to onsite church, and chances to meet face-to-face again for quality time. You’ll be continuing to make decisions about what comes next. We will emerge into what should be a more stable autumn, where our ministry can flourish in new ways and old. God’s got the plan, and he’ll tell us when he’s ready, if we wait for him.


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The road map, SMOB and you

As we journey through ‘the great unlocking’, it’s useful to check in on where things are for us as a church. Throughout the pandemic we have sought to communicate clearly what we are doing and why, whilst listening to our people and to the Holy Spirit. We continue to live through a time which has been incredibly unstable, where so much of normal life has been suspended without any firm commitment to when it will return.

We continue to move towards our ‘new normal’, and the government assures us that their road map is on track. It’s worth understanding just what this means for us as a church. Government announcements are often calibrated to give you the good news (understandably); but when you dig into the details, things are more complicated. Gaps are emerging between people’s expectations of what we will be allowed to do, and what we can do practically in our situation. The constant ‘drip, drip’ of announcements from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland does not promote clarity in understanding which rules each of us is supposed to be following at this moment.

How government guidance works
When the road map was first announced, the Prime Minister stated clearly that nothing in it was guaranteed. As we approach each key date, announcements are being made a week in advance of the changes. Most recently, the formal announcement that shops and outdoor hospitality could definitely open on 12 April was made on 5 April. As long as the road map holds, we can be confident of some of the things that will change on 17 May (including indoor hospitality, two households staying overnight in the same home and foreign travel), but it is important to remember that none of these are likely to be confirmed until 10 May. We have to continue to hold lightly to our plans, however challenging that might be.

This also goes for the final date on the road map: 21 June. We simply do not know whether or not this will mark the end of all Covid restrictions. Among Church leaders there is a strong sense that some degree of restrictions is likely to continue; we do not expect a complete end to social distancing, mask wearing in shops and so on. But we have no inside knowledge and it is clear that everything will remain under review until an announcement is made on 14 June.

It’s important to understand that a government announcement is only the beginning of the story for our church and every other organisation. SMOB works within seven different types of guidance: we are a place of worship covered by the Church of England, we are a workplace covered by the Department for Work and Pensions, our youth and children’s work is covered by the National Youth Agency, our pre-school work by Early Years and so on.

When a government announcement is made, each of these organisations takes time to digest the new rules and contextualise them. Sometimes this takes days, but it can take weeks. A government announcement is rarely clear enough to be interpreted in our context without any further guidance. For example, the government announced a relaxation of restrictions on weddings from 8 March, but it took several days to clarify whether this meant weddings could only take place in exceptional circumstances, or whether they could resume more generally. It is not hard to imagine how this plays out pastorally on the ground.

Once we receive full guidance from the relevant body, we need then to contextualise it ourselves for SMOB. Since we first locked down, we have had to work out principles to do this as we have gone along. Our starting point has always been our church vision and values. (We will be giving some thought to defining our key values when we next review our vision and plan at the end of the year.)

For example, it’s important to us that our children’s and youth work is really fun and appealing for children. We could run groups for children on a Sunday now, but the current rules governing this are so restrictive when you look at the context of our building, that it is impossible to do them well. However, the guidance for midweek groups is different, so it’s great news that we are restarting our youth cell groups very soon. They will meet outdoors unless the weather is bad, in which case they will be inside.

Here’s a worked example: part of the announcement on 5 April was that parent and toddler groups could reopen, prompting a flurry of excitement among Bethany Babes families. On closer inspection, the guidance is very restrictive of which groups can restart – small groups essential to health and welfare are permitted, but not something as free-flowing and mixed as Bethany Babes. So the headlines can be misleading; the devil, as they say, is in the detail.

Our road map at SMOB
We continue to watch the evolving guidance, to listen to our church family and the Holy Spirit. If we haven’t announced something, it’s not because we are keeping it quiet; we just haven’t decided. Talk to us! If you have a question, ask.

With our Sunday services, it’s been fantastic to see people coming back to church. If the building reaches capacity within the next few weeks, as it will on current trends, we will make a decision about whether to move back to two services. This decision impacts on service leaders, preachers, our tech team and our musicians; we are in discussion about it, but we are not ready to decide yet. For church family members who plan to come back on to our site, do talk to others about what needs to happen for you to come back, and be understanding that people are in a variety of different places on this. For example, many of our families are unlikely to be on-site on Sunday morning until we can safely run children’s and youth groups. Some of our senior adults cannot move around safely without assistance from someone else. If you are staying online-only, we are committed to live-streaming one service every week on a permanent basis. Do get in touch, sign up to our website and ask us about joining a small group.

With live music, we are now allowed to have a minimal band or organ playing on Sundays, but we have not actioned this yet, because of the need to ensure that the sound mix is as good for those online as it is on-site, and also because we need to make sure that a good number of our musicians will be happy to serve on-site again. We do not yet know when singing will be allowed indoors.

With other ministry, we will continue to offer a hybrid of online and on-site. Currently Morning Prayer remains online-only; at some stage this is likely to change. We will lose some people if we go 100% on-site with no online, and this will affect our decision-making. Our Living His Story course and blog was a big hit, so we will probably do more short-term online-only courses over time.

I hope this helps you to understand how we’re navigating this unusual time. Do talk to our staff, PCC members, ministry team or homegroup leaders and make sure you stay informed, give us feedback and ask questions. And pray! Above all please pray.
 
 


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