Work with St John’s College
I was appointed to a dual role, not two separate half-time jobs, nevertheless the demands of balancing the two halves of that role have been acute. Busy periods of teaching and marking have often coincided with major festivals or other busy periods in the life of the parish.
More demanding of energy, however, has been the significant institutional challenges the college has faced during my time there. A once-thriving Church of England evangelical ordination training college with a national reputation has now no ordinands or onsite independent students at all and a teaching staff a third the size it was when I joined. My own post will become redundant when I move on, leaving only one full-time person working in distance learning (the remainder working in teaching youth and children’s ministry).
Efforts to develop a sustainable business in distance learning are ongoing but are proving challenging, especially with a London-based college (St Mellitus’) opening a training centre in Nottingham at the invitation of the Bishops of Southwell and Nottingham and Leicester.
The parish role to which I was appointed had some very clear priorities in the job description:
- Pioneer patterns of missional church;
- Build bridges to and in the community
(with those outside the church to be my ‘greatest concern’);
- Building a leadership team and worshipping community;
- Enabling contemporary worship and witness.
A retired priest was recruited for St Edmund’s, but the support for All Hallows’ never materialised. It was thus up to me to lead services at All Hallows’ in addition to these other priorities.
‘Pioneer patterns of missional church’
I applied for this post on the basis that the demands of the dual role could only be sustainable if they could be combined into one role where leading mission and training students would be achieved in one and the same way. In my first two years, I thus concentrated on developing a proposal for college and diocese for what would become the Community Mission Pathway (CMP). In 2014 we recruited the first cohort and six students made Lady Bay their base for practical learning in mission and ministry in the context of together forming a ‘new monastic’ mission community. They and their families helped to create a centre of gravity for Don’t Forget Your Cornflakes!, enabled broader pastoral reach and helped to develop new relationships and mission opportunities in the parish.
There were some severe challenges along the way, but I was prepared to run an adapted version with a second cohort when the first students graduated in 2016. The PCC also indicated its enthusiasm to host students again, but St John’s structural problems meant we were unable to recruit any students to the new contextual training pathway. From this point forward, the two components of my dual role have diverged, making it increasingly difficult to sustain either.
‘Building a leadership team and worshipping community’
Closely linked to the initiative described above, has been the invitation I made to the parish, on behalf of diocese and college to enter into the three-year Partnership for Missional Church process. Its aim is to embed spiritual disciplines (also called ‘holy habits’) in the life of an existing congregation so that it can become increasingly ‘missional’ in outlook. My aspiration was that PMC would in effect encourage the whole congregation to become the ‘leadership team’ for mission in Lady Bay.
There have been some good outcomes – it has helped the congregation recognise and value even more highly its existing partnerships and connections, with residential homes in the parish and through existing events such as All Hallows’ Eve. At the same time, it is fair to say that some serious shortcomings in communication mean that the spiritual disciplines have not caught the imagination of the congregation and instead resistance to anything labelled ‘PMC’ has become firmly embedded.
My long-frustrated attempts to broaden leadership in All Hallows’ to include newer members in the leadership team alongside the more established finally had some success for a time last year. This endeavour was brought to a rather abrupt end with the departures of Tim Cardinali-Wood and Michael Campbell-Edwards at the end of the year.
Alongside the existing connections identified above, I have been able to take a lead in building two significant relationships with other organisations in the community. I have worked sensitively with Lady Bay Primary School, offering a positive and respectful Christian presence that enhances the life of a school community that is very protective of its secular identity and ethos. This culminated in my being invited to join the Governing Body by the Headteacher and Chair in October 2016. This was valuable and enjoyable work.
My vocal, public support for the opening of the Framework Hostel on Trent Boulevard, while it generated some hostility, nevertheless also opened the door to a very positive relationship with the hostel; its staff and residents. In the longer term, participating in liaison conversations with neighbours has also overcome much of that initial hostility, both that directed towards me and that towards the hostel. As a result, members of All Hallows’ and other churches have been welcomed in offering practical love and care to those vulnerable young people and those working with them.
‘Enabling contemporary worship and witness’
It was my judgement that the traditional pattern of worship in All Hallows’ would not suit young families (then including my own) who are by far the largest component of the local population, but that also it would be too much change too quickly to ask the traditional congregation to adopt a more informal contemporary style from day one. Thus Don’t Forget Your Cornflakes! was born. It was initially successful and provided an accessible form of church, especially for families seeking baptism and thanksgiving.
Without the promised ministry support, however, this necessitated a change in time for the traditional service and in order to facilitate my own essential pastoral contact with both groups, I invited members of the more established congregation to have their after-service refreshments in the hall at the same time as newer members were gathering for DFYC. In addition to the change of time itself, this proved a step too far for some and we lost some members right at the beginning of my time here.
Following the departure of the CMP students in 2016, DFYC became more challenging to sustain in terms of resourcing it personally and in terms of fluctuating attendance. An experiment with an afternoon version (Don’t Forget Your Jimjams!) saw even less reliable attendance and this separate, weekly all-age endeavour was wound up at the end of 2017.
This opened up the opportunity to experiment with bringing the two groups together ¬– the remnant of the DFYC/DFYJ community and the former 9:30 A.M. traditional congregation – to form one Sunday morning congregation, meeting at 10:00 A.M. with a mix of a traditional structure with contemporary elements (music, liturgy, etc.) including the use of a screen and projector instead of hymn and service books. It is my judgement that the format overall is working reasonably well, though there are still some challenges around accessibility for both groups.
At the same time, Messy Church has started up without needing any initiative or input from me. It appears to be growing well after just a few months and shows real promise in creating an accessible space for young families in a much more sustainable way than I managed to achieve with DFYC in its time.
It is a matter of deep regret that we have not been able to more sustainably establish All Hallows’ as a safe space church for LGBT people in the south of Nottingham to the extent that I and others have wished.
‘Resourcing pioneer ministry in the Diocese’
In addition to all the responsibilities already in the role, a wider diocesan brief was always going to be difficult to fit in, but there was some early success in my participation on the East Midlands region ‘FEAST’ (Fresh Expressions Area Strategy Team) and in my joint leadership of a mission review in Bilborough with Sarah Clarke (then still Vicar of Clifton). I also facilitated some network gatherings for pioneer ministers employed by the Diocese at St John’s and at the Vicarage.
With the change of diocesan leadership however, and with a new strategy focused on top-down church planting and grafting initiatives, those of us committed to developing bottom-up Christian communities have found ourselves increasingly swimming against the tide. Support and enthusiasm for those of us designated ‘pioneer’ ministers has declined and some lay roles that have been reviewed have been made redundant. What I have to offer is no longer a good fit for this Diocese and this has, in part, precipitated my move.
It is fair to say that while there have been some successes, and while I believe I have been faithful to the role I was licensed to fulfil under God, my main feeling after seven years is one of disappointment.
Some of that has been due to circumstances beyond my control – structural changes in theological education nationally and regional as well as diocesan leadership and strategy, for instance, but inevitably one has to ask: what could I have done differently?
The single most significant learning for me in the past seven years relates to the issue of trust. Were I to have my time over again, I would invest much more time and energy in building relationships of trust. There was of course suspicion about my role before I even arrived, with some openly saying that I had been sent to close the church. That made it even more imperative to take the time and trouble to get to know people better than I did early on and to do much more to make it clear that all I have wanted to do has been born of love – love of God, love of God’s people in the church and love of all God’s children in Lady Bay.
For some more longstanding members of the congregation, I believe, the church had become a refuge of familiarity in a world of change and more specifically a community that had changed and was changing beyond recognition. To invite change in this last safe arena was always going to be a big ask. For such an invitation to be accepted would require confidence that the one asking is someone who loves you and has your best interests at heart.
Communication is key to building trust and in this environment of anxiety about change, I didn’t always take the care I might have to clearly communicate, especially about the reasons for change. I did try to communicate at times, of course, but without the grounding of a relationship of trust, it is difficult not to ascribe ulterior motives to someone who is asking something difficult of you. Narratives of suspicion abound in the fertile ground of mistrust. Ironically, it was my desire to be plain-speaking from the outset that may well have undermined trust even further. My now infamous and somewhat crass comment early on that I was not ‘here to be your Vicar’, rather than, as intended, communicating a different focus, style and approach to my predecessor, was heard instead as ‘I don’t care about you’.
For that, I am sorry. I don’t know if there would have been a different outcome with a different approach, but this lack of investment in trust has certainly been very difficult to overcome and made me a ‘Marmite’ figure for some in the congregation. I hope and pray that such division will not persist after the conclusion of my ministry in June. My learning has been profoundly costly for me. I suspect it may be for others too. Trust is a two-way street in the end. I hope that following my departure you will take the risk of trusting each other again and offering trust to whomever, if anyone, might follow me.
Future ministry and direction
There have been hopeful signs from the Area Dean and others that serious consideration is being given to future ministry in Lady Bay and Holme Pierrepont. It is my belief that the Bishop will not invest the serious subsidy that would be needed, even to support a half-time priest, unless he sees the possibility of growth and renewal in the church. That would most likely involve sending a group of people from another church or churches to create the core of something new, alongside what is already established.
I believe it will be vital for whomever comes after me that I am not a continued presence or irritant in the parishes and thus hope you will understand why I will not sustain contact except with personal friends after my departure. That said, I will continue to pray for you all. May God richly bless you