Marion Ball - Centenary Project Worker
It's lovely to have you, dear...
[by Marion Ball, March 2018]
‘It’s lovely to have you, dear . . .
but I don’t know who you’re going to find to help you.’
A Centenary Project story for Lent
One year on from our first children and families’ event at Snaith Priory, three old common-sense truths are beginning to shine. I share them here with illustrations from our experience so that they can be an encouragement for other churches whose starting point is as fragile as ours. Don’t let us dazzle you. Let us walk together and take small, purposeful steps. There is hope.
- A small step may be big enough for now. If, like us, you are starting from a place where time, energy and people with leadership skills are stretched to the bone and the church hasn’t grown significantly for years, there is little point in having a children and families’ ministry that dazzles out of all proportion to other opportunities for growth you are able to create, such as discipleship and worship. So don’t let your inability to do the big thing deflect you from your determination to do the small thing, which may be more what your church really needs right now if it’s to reach a place where it can manage something bigger, later.
With my part time role spread over seven tiny churches and covering forty square miles, this truth has been liberating. It was clear from the start that, even if I could have been appointed full time to one of my seven congregations, the lack of volunteers would always have restricted what I was able to do. Even as it is, we’ve often had to dip into the ‘willing fringe’ for help, embracing local people who don’t regularly attend church to work alongside church members. This has helped such events to be earthed both in the local community and in the church – an important balance and a great recipe for growth which we would almost certainly have missed if gold had fallen from the sky and we’d done what we might all have wished for, and created an instant mega-ministry.
- People have memories. If you don’t have the resources in your tiny fragile church to run frequent, regular children and families’ work, then run less frequent, regular children and families’ work, and make it as good as you can. People have memories. The same people will begin to show up. Those people will begin to build relationships with each other and with you. A group identity and a sense of belonging and an unspoken feeling for what church ‘is’, will begin to develop. The resulting place of trust will be joyous for its own sake but it will also be a priceless building block for ‘church’. Hooray!
This is exactly what has begun to happen at Snaith Priory. Over the past year, we’ve run four events on a pattern approaching ‘Messy Church’, comprising activities on a theme, shared food and an all-age Biblical reflection. The same is planned for next year: 1) Good Friday / Easter; 2) Summer Picnic; 3) Harvest; 4) Pancake Day. Forty-four children have attended and more than half of these have attended twice or more. Much fun has been had, especially with the apple pressing (which we got wrong and the juice looked . . . well . . . aweful) and the pancake races. We know it’s only a first step but that doesn’t make it any less of a victory. It’s worth celebrating, even as that awkward question looms on the horizon: ‘what next?’ When I arrived a year and a half ago, nearly everyone I met said, ‘It’s lovely to have you, dear, but I don’t know who you’re going to find to help you.’
- God doesn’t sleep. The months that pass between our events at Snaith and elsewhere are not wasted. For one thing, all those other things continue: baptisms, Christmas services, the Vicars’ work in schools and their relationships in the community. The volunteers’ relationships with friends and families – all of which can be triggers for people attending in the first place. But let’s not forget the GOLD: God working away, out of the lime light, tending to those seeds that have been sown. In the midst of peoples’ joys and tears, where our eyes can’t see and where we can’t go. In the lives and hearts of real people. In our lives and hearts. God willing, one day we’ll have a ‘good news story’ where we can testify to what God has been doing while not sleeping. For now, we’re called to watch and pray.
* * * * *
The Centenary Project was set up partly with the aim of aiding growth in hard-to-grow places. One of its strengths (something I benefit from hugely) is the way in which a strong network of gifted children, youth and families’ workers can model good ideas and success and offer practical support for each other. But there’s an inherent tension there, which anyone called to work in a truly fragile place will spot: other peoples’ success can be disabling when it is frankly out of my reach.
I, personally, haven’t found the Centenary Project disabling, not least because I know there are other CP workers facing similar challenges in similarly fragile places, even though others are not. But do we project this? It’s so much more fun to shout about the big wins than it is to shout about the little wins, and the culture we are a part of is always thirsty for glamour.
Can fragile people in fragile places sell ‘good news’? In an age of ‘quick-fix’ and ‘satisfaction-now’, are we in danger of losing our ability to celebrate those crucial early steps that churches in a fragile condition, like ours’, so need to take if they are to grow? That’s a tough one but we need to find effective ways of answering it. The spirit of Jesus presumably says ‘yes’. But that’s easy to say that after the event, once we’ve reached the punch-line. There’s nothing like a story of rags to riches to get the heart racing. We all love a good miracle and the resurrection is the best one in the book. The problem is, the story along the way is the one about the cross. And that one has never been quite so appealing.
Marion is part of the Centenary Project and works 20 hours / week in the benefice of Airymn, Hook and Rawcliffe, and the parish of Great Snaith, as the Children’s and Families Missioner.