This year has been dominated by one thing – Covid.
The impact that the virus would have was beyond anything we could have imagined this time last year. One of the results of the pandemic was that we have had to learn completely new ways of being church together.
However, despite it all we continue to Plan to Grow Together.
As well as a great deal of pain and loss, there have been some extraordinary silver linings and I have been encouraged by stories of God’s grace being poured out in many of your lives, and in my own.
As ever, what follows is only a snapshot of a full and exciting, albeit challenging, year.
Let’s not kid ourselves, since our last APCMs life has been difficult, frightening, full of loss and uncertainty. However, God is good, and there have been some extraordinary silver linings.
In my last APCM report we were about to have our Away Day, looking at the ‘posts and wires’ we needed to support our wonderful and diverse vines across the team, and what pruning we needed to do to allow for new growth. Well, we couldn’t have our Away Day, but the work happened anyway.
Our ‘posts and wires’ have been well and truly secured. Through Fiona’s ministry amongst us, we have excellent structures and brilliant working groups.
Through everyone’s good grace we have had whole team PCC meetings and worked together for the good of our town and surrounding area.
The clergy and the administration team have worked hard to invest in relationships with Funeral Directors and partners throughout our communities meaning we had the privilege of coming alongside more than 100 bereaved families.
Far from the pandemic meaning we have not been able to engage with our schools, we have actually been able to minister to all 11 of our primary schools, via Youtube with collective worship and their contribution to our online services. As well as this, we have been able to support families from our schools in practical ways through ‘comfort and joy’ meals for both Christmas and Easter.
Through these things, our relationships with our schools have been strengthened. And our online presence has increased massively, reaching many hundreds of people, and being held up as ‘a benchmark’ for online services in the Diocese.
We joined together, and with others from across the town for a Holy Week of prayer, expectantly listening for God’s voice – and we were not disappointed!
In the midst of all this, we had the joy of welcoming our Curate, Helen, into the Team. She has been a joy and added so much to our life together.
So far, so brilliant.
However, there has also been a significant disappointment. In my report last year, I wrote of our hope for a new team member.
At the time, we were imagining this would be a third stipendiary priest. However, as we looked at the shape of our mission and ministry, and at our financial situation, we began to reimagine that post as a lay minister overseeing the more structural aspects of the life of the team. When it came to the critical decision, giving within the team was so low that a third stipend was utterly beyond our financial reach, as was the significantly cheaper hope of a lay minister.
Through the wilderness
Throughout our faith story, scripture recounts experiences of the people of God leaving the familiar, journeying through the wilderness and arriving at a new place.
From Moses leading the people from Egypt to the promised land to Jesus journeying through death into resurrection life, this is the central motif of our faith. We are on our own journey; from all that was familiar, into the desert of lockdown, and now we find ourselves at this pivotal point.
As I reflect on the time since my last report, the past three and a half years since I came, since 2014 when Stroud Team was formed, and the life of these worshipping communities stretching back through the generations, the vision of the church has always been the same; to abide in Christ and bear fruit.
And this is our vision too; but we can’t move towards that vision by just going ‘back to normal’. We need to courageously move forward into all God has for us; out of this wilderness into the new place God has prepared for us. Through prayer, reflection and conversations with many people and groups directly and indirectly, these three key areas that have risen to the top as priorities.
The first recurring theme that has arisen is discipleship; as a follower of Jesus, what does that mean for my life, my day to day choices, my relationships with friends, family and those around me? As a community of people who follow Jesus, what does this mean for us, our time together, what we do and how we live out our call to love one another? And as a community of believers, individually and collectively, what does this mean in our relationship with those in our wider communities; how do we communicate the good news that has changed us so much? Exploring these questions, individually and together, reflectively and practically, is the heart of discipleship.
To help put some focus to this then let’s dedicate ourselves to building life-giving small groups. Small-groups that are open and accessible to anyone and everyone. Small groups that are encouraging and challenging. Small groups that feed our faith and equip us to serve.
The second recurring theme, and an area that most people will be aware of, is the central place of our Local Ministry Teams. We have been investing in these for some time and we have much to celebrate. However, if the last 12 months has shown us anything, it is the vital and important place of the local. Local pastoral awareness, local understanding of community issues, local relationships with those in practical and spiritual need, the house-bound and the sick.
Local worship for when we gather, local leadership and local ministry. We’re thankful and celebrate everything and everyone as part of our local ministry teams. Now let’s dedicate ourselves to ensuring those teams are supported, resourced and equipped for their sake and the sake of us all. Let’s do what we need to do so we have confident and creative local ministry teams.
The third recurring theme is our buildings. Buildings we have inherited from the generosity of those who have gone before us; church buildings and church halls that can be both joys and burdens. Time and time again we have spoken about increasing the use of our buildings, and making them fit for purpose: for worship and community use. Some worshiping communities had and have various hopes and plans that were put on hold over the last year.
This is the year we dedicate ourselves as a Team to having hospitable buildings, starting where we are, and reflecting who we are. Open and welcoming, a joy to worship in as a gathered community and a blessing to the local community. Buildings that are available in practical and meaningful ways to individuals, groups and organisations. Buildings that are reflective of who we are as generous and hospitable people. Buildings that are not a financial burden but a life-giving centre of faith and community, and even a source of income.
So I am challenging us, as a Team, to do what we need to in order that we have hospitable buildings.
Amongst all the themes and all the things we could do as a Team of worshipping communities, it is these three that should be our focus for this coming year:
- life-giving small groups
- confident and creative local ministry teams
- hospitable buildings
Over the coming weeks and months we, the team council, the PCCs and the core team will be expanding and elaborating on these three focuses and calling us all to consider how we do this together.
Let’s keep moving forward into all God has for us both individually and together and let’s stay faithful to our call, to abide in Christ and bear fruit.
I thank God for you, and for the privilege of serving this community together.