My background was originally in horticulture, but very quickly I sensed a calling as an evangelist and after studying at theological college I later became a Baptist minister of a town centre church in Herefordshire.
After leading a church for around 10 years, I moved away from church ministry and back into horticulture and currently overseeing a community garden in the centre of Ross-on-Wye. I work with adults who are long term unemployed, those who have learning disabilities, challenging behaviour, mental health illnesses and those with Dementia.
Looking back on my years in church leadership, I realise I was incredibly driven by courses, programmes, projects and initiatives. I was continually hungry for the next ‘new thing’. Everything seemed to be centred on the life of the church and bringing people into it. Life was incredibly busy, stressful and I think now, a million miles away from what Jesus called, ‘life to the full’.
Over the last few years, I have been challenged by the words and life of Jean Vanier, the Canadian theologian and founder of L’Arche. His work amongst those with learning disabilities has been quite ground breaking, and those in need, he believes, should be right at the centre of or at the heart of community. Vanier says, ‘we are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love’.
I now find in my work that I have to slow down, not go at my pace, but someone else’s. For those with mobility issues I have to walk with them and support. For those who are deaf, I need to have eye contact and speak clearly so they can read my lips. For those with learning disabilities I have to clearly explain what we are doing, and a number of times repeat instructions and illustrate how I need a job done. For those with challenging behaviour I need to create an environment which is safe, peaceful and where routine and familiarity are central. The list continues, but the main point is that my daily life and pace are now being changed by those I work with. I am becoming a different person, and I think it’s for the better.
When Jesus is talking about sheep and goats in Matthew Ch 25, he makes the point that when we feed the hungry, care for the sick etc, we do it for him. When I slow down and help those in need, I am drawn closer Christ and a revelation of more of His kingdom. For too many years I’ve been sharing a kind of neat gospel ‘package’ with people, and now each day I seem to be shown what gospel really is, and a new rhythm and pace, by those who may not even be aware of God.
In John 15, Jesus calls his disciples ‘friends’ and straight away there is a difference in relationship. When I led a medium sized church, I often referred to those within the church as members, some of whom were close friends, others I guess I hardly knew. There can be at times and for a number of reasons, a gap between minister and member. Of course there are times when we find ourselves meeting and ministering to people in incredibly difficult and painful times in their lives. But I think in the majority of those I served and worked amongst, there was a closeness but not a friendship. In fact I regret that in the case of the people I served most closely with, such as Elders, Deacons, Trustees etc, I think it was friendship which was lacking the most. Looking back I wish I had had more friendships within church. Sunday by Sunday you can find yourself repeating the same conversations with people at the door, but never really building honest friendships, friendships where both are equal, and where we as leaders are vulnerable and real.
My wife and I now meet regularly with a couple groups of people that we connect with, many of whom have stopped going to a traditional kind of church. We are of course church, but not with that label. With a small number of people, we are not only journeying together as disciples, but I sense we are close friends as well.
I try and model a spirituality of friendship at the garden. So we don’t have labels like carer, which means care is often shown one way, but a model of friendship which is two way. I think we are building a community which is based on friendship, and not attendance or ability. Where those with weaknesses are drawn to the centre and considered strong. We intentionally want to hear their voice and learn from them. For this to happen we may need to walk at a different pace, go in a different direction, speak in a different language, listen more intently and enter different environments and unfamiliar ground. And when I stand in their presence I not only feel incredibly humbled, but I recognise my own weaknesses.
I think I understand a little more of what it means to be human. For too long, inside or outside of church, I have looked at people as objects of care, as people I can help, in whatever way. Now, I think I see people differently, I desire to see God not only through them, but I want to be and am prepared to be changed by them, to learn something of God and his kingdom through them, and to be my friend.