Friday, 31 August 2012

20 years on...

Today marks the end of my first 20 years in Circuit ministry in the Methodist Church in Great Britain as a Presbyter. I say that last thing because I spent 2 years prior to being selected for ministry serving as a Lay Pastor to 2 congregations in Leicestershire. But this could very well be the mid-point of my active ministry: How has the experience been?

Following 3 years training in Bristol, the first 6 years were spent in post-industrial County Durham, in the town of Stanley. Well, I call it a town - that's how it seemed to me when I arrived there fresh from college - but I soon discovered that it was more of a collection of pit villages, each with their own particular identity and each lacking the one thing that gave them that identity - the pit. These had closed back in the 1970s, but their shadow still hung heavily in the air and in the hearts and lives of the people.

Methodism in County Durham is, to all intents and purposes, the established church: it was easier to start a Methodist Society as these communities were being built than it was to establish an Anglican parish. Consequently, if people didn't go to church there it was the Methodist Church they didn't go to - unless they needed a christening, a wedding (often after the second christening) or a funeral. So, my time there was largely spent on what were laughingly called 'occasional offices', making many contacts with the 'unchurched', but having very little time to develop those contacts as a fresh 'batch' came along with at times alarming regularity. I averaged 20 Weddings a year, around 60 christenings ('wet' and 'dry'), and roughly 80 funerals: many opportunities to 'sow the seed' of the gospel, but little time for harvest.

After 6 years, and having guided one of the churches through their centenary celebrations, I moved from Stanley to Wetherby in West Yorkshire - only about 10 miles from home - to take charge of 3 churches there. Sociologically a very different appointment, in that Wetherby is, in many areas, a lot more affluent a place, with the consequent challenges that that brings in ministry terms. Together we saw in the new millennium and explored new ways of worship and of doing and being church - explorations that did not come without issues, in-fighting and insensitivity - from me as well as them. I learned a lot about people and about ministry there, but not without considerable cost to my soul and my psyche at times.

The Wetherby years were also the time when I spent a lot of time engaged in Chaplaincy. Alongside the 3 churches I had care of, I was also the Free Churches chaplain at HMYOI Wetherby. This not only provided many opportunities to engage these young lads in conversations about important issues, but also to introduce them to stories that had been a part of my life almost from the beginning. There is a particular joy to being able to tell the story of the Prodigal Son to a 17 year-old lad for the first time and to see the recognition in his face as he reflects with you on its timeless qualities. In contrast to the work in the prison, I was also chaplain to 35 (Wetherby) Squadron of the Air Training Corps: a generally motivated bunch of young people, more or less the same age as the YOIs. No generation can be stereotyped: hopefully all generations can be given hope and purpose for their lives.

And so, in 2004, to Sheffield. For the last 8 years I have been minister of Wesley Hall, Crookes, a large Methodist Chapel with a relatively small congregation, sitting in the shadow of one of the largest Anglican churches in the country (St Thomas' Crookes). In that time we have together sought to catch a vision for our place in that community, and to develop Wesley Hall as a focus for many activities in the Crookes area. From there we reach out to young families through the Toddler Group, to the elderly with the Lunch Club, and to young lads through Boy's Brigade. Our buildings are used by MENCAP to house offices, by choirs and opera groups, for Tae Kwon Do and Zumba classes. We struggle with what to do with a building that is Grade 2-listed and showing increasing signs of being 104 years-old, but increasingly rely on God's strength to get us through.

Alongside Wesley Hall, my only consistent 'charge' over the 8 year, I have cared for congregations at Stanwood for 6 years, Rivelin Glen & Stannington for 5 years, Walkley for 2 years and Dungworth for 1 year. Each have had their own opportunities and challenges, yet remain cheerful. For the last 2 years Wesley Hall & Walkley have functioned as one church, sharing a church council but retaining their separate buildings and worshipping communities. We are still working out the implications of this for both communities, but it has been good to share in mission, worship and fellowship over the past 2 years.

So, 20 years of outreach, mission, ministry, worship, frustration, sadness and joy; sharing Christ with God's people within and outside the church building and the church community. And after 20 years, if I'm honest, I don't really think I'd rather be anywhere else (though I would be lying if I said I'm not tempted on an almost daily basis to pack it all in!) Only God really knows where the next 20 years will take me - I hope, by God's grace, to still be active then