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Ministering the in-between time

The Revd Harry Steele is an interim minister working to bring small two churches in a united benefice in Doncaster to a place where they have a viable future. He talks about the way he approaches his role.

My current placement might be fairly typical of an interim ministry appointment. Basically, because of the nature of Doncaster, it is hard to appoint good quality incumbents. There are not many applications and the ones who do apply might not be up to the rigorous demands of where the church is at.

My role is to plough the ground and plant some seeds that might be attractive to any incumbent – someone who wants a challenge and can see opportunities to work with.

I am working with two churches in a united benefice. I am here for a short time. My general job description says from six months to three years. I have set myself a view on 18 months.

In St Mary’s, a plan is unfolding. There would be a large church graft orchestrated from a large church in Sheffield.

That means much of my work is with the PCC to help them see what a church graft is, and to prepare the way. That’s being advertised now. Incumbent from a particular network of the Church of England.

The diocese knew that there would be around 12 months in which nothing much might happen. My presence makes the period of waiting while the process unfolds that much easier.

St Paul’s is completely different. It’s on a tough outer estate and in its 60-year lifespan as a church it has been in interregnum more than not. The congregation has dwindled so much that it would be ripe for shutting down, except that the parish next door has closed. The archdeacon has said: “We’ve got to stop closing churches in Doncaster”. Unless we turn something around, there could be a population of 25,000 people with no Anglican presence at all.

If the graft goes ahead in St Mary’s St Pauls will need to be linked with another parish.

An 18-month timescale gives me permission to rattle the cage a little. If I were thinking in terms of three years, I know that I would have a tendency to develop things more gently.

I am fairly confident in this situation in my ability to bring about a culture change. The weird thing is that I’ve never line-managed anyone before. In fact, I’ve never really been managed before.

After left school I worked as a cabinet maker creating one-off pieces. My boss would observe that I like starting things, but am not so good at finishing. Once the pile planks I would start with began to looks like a welsh dresser, I would lose energy for the finishing and polishing. It’s just a part of my personality.

My curacy was initiating fresh expression of church out of a large evangelical church, building a community of adults.

Once I had done a piece of work there – led a church plant to an Anglo-Catholic church. I took a fresh expression with a post-denominational feel to a church of 30. And once I had done that, I spoke to the bishop saying that I wanted to leave.

In bringing about change in the church I fall back very heavily on two things:

  1. Preaching and teaching
  2. the worshipping life of the church

I know that I have a gift in preaching and teaching. People have told me that they like to hear me. I don’t usually speak for very long and I usually follow the lectionary gospel reading. In my preaching time, I often turn to the life of the church and speak directly about the challenges we face.

Because of my journey into the church I am very, very modern catholic. I have a deep love and respect for liturgy, but I feel able to adapt and ask how can we make each element meaningful? Nine times out of 10 I will not robe.

Focusing on the preaching and worship is a great way to bring about change in the church and once those things are right, evangelise. For us that means doing the basics of getting involved with the community, such as setting up a toddler group and an after school club.

I have met very little resistance to change. People in the church are not that bothered. They don’t need to be persuaded, but they do need to understand what I mean.

For example, as I arrived the need for change was a no-brainer: the congregation was small and everyone was over 70. That’s when good strategic services are important. I began talking about the importance of the church being accessible and being welcoming. Their response: “show us what you mean.”

Getting people accustomed to change is important. You hear it said, ‘don’t change things for change’s sake’, but I believe there is a place for making changes simply because it unsettles the belief that change cannot happen.

I just talk a lot about hope. You get to the point where you either do or do not believe in the power of the prophetic word to bring about change.


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