Turning point 9: Why did change happen?

Turning Point is a series of blog posts looking at how change happens in churches by reflecting on my own story of change in a church context. You can read the introduction here:  https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/23/reflecting-on-change/

What was there about this process of change that enabled real change? What took us to the turning point?

1 Doing nothing was not an option for the individual (in this case me!)  There was no way I could have continued with the family service as it was, as it would not have been fair to my children. So either I left or things needed to change.

2 Doing nothing has consequences for the church.

It is very easy to think that if you do nothing about a situation, the status quo remains the same.  It doesn’t.  

I once asked David if he remembered the meeting in Bridget and Hugh’s living room and why had had changed his mind. He could remember the meeting but not why he and Mike had changed their minds.

“Except,” he said, pausing, “I think we both realised that doing nothing has consequences.”

All situations are in constant flux – children grow up, people leave, others arrive.  There are changes in leadership – both at local and diocesan level.  Relationships change over time. 

But it can be hard to recognise that there is a turning point where there needs to be change.  Change is hard even when carrying on with the status quo becomes depressing and unfulfilling. 

How can we recognise the turning point?   

3 God

I find it difficult to think of God as being constantly active in our lives.

I have had moments in my life when I felt really close to God and believe that He intervened in specific situations.

But a God who is continuously present and active and interested in the day to day rather than the dramatic?  I may know that God is always present but mostly it does not seem like that, especially when I am busy.  I may have got (slightly) better at involving Him in church/ministry situations but I still often leave day to day relationships to take care of themselves.  Twenty five years ago I didn’t really expect Him to be involved in church decisions.  I believed in a God who would always be there for the dramatic moments of my life but was mostly absent from the mundane.  

There is also a wariness around people who claim to have heard from God.  I have come across people who speak about God almost as if He was in their pockets.  I am sure this isn’t their intention, but this is how it comes across.  This wariness translates into caution on the part of the church.  For how can we know when something is from God?  Can we know at the time – or is it something that is only possible to see in retrospect?  Retrospect seems safer somehow – but there are times when God asks us to act…     

Looking back there were specific times in this process of change when I felt really close to God – the time when I knew God had spoken to me at the Quiet Evening, the meeting we had with David and Mike, a few times when I was walking the children down to school and thinking about the family service.  I never shared this with anyone else at the time and have no idea if any of the others experienced God in this situation.

It is easier to see God in retrospect. 

There was a degree of acceptance at our planning meetings that made them different from all the other meetings I went to.  There were obviously times when we didn’t agree but on the whole we managed to talk through the issues and reach agreement. But more than that there were times when someone put into words what others had been thinking, times when we all suddenly realised that something would be just right for the family service, times when we felt inspired.  For me this felt very exciting. 

The situation changed.  Older children came along which meant that six year old Kitty was never again the oldest child at church.  The numbers weren’t dramatic but until Leo was in his mid-teens we always had children and young people.  We became a community – and started to look outward, supporting Tear Fund and the Children’s Society amongst others.  There was agreement amongst ourselves that we had made the right choices.  It also enabled the members of the team to develop their gifts – whether it was preaching, music or children’s ministry.  This, for me, showed God was involved.   

4 Ownership

This was a shared vision – and it had started at the bottom with ordinary members of the congregation.  At that time none of us had any official position in the church – we weren’t even Readers or churchwardens.  In many ways this was very freeing – we were able to be creative and innovative in what we did (but without breaking any church rules or doing things without our vicar’s approval.)  

Ownership meant that we were committed in a different kind of way than we would have been to a top-down project.  We might have been supportive of such an initiative, but it wouldn’t have been ours and we might not have persisted in the same way.    

For persistence was necessary.

The new family service needed a very high level of commitment – weekly meetings, new responsibilities (leading children’s groups, writing talks, sorting the coffee), just turning up on Sundays with our children.

It wasn’t always straightforward – we had to persist in sharing our vision with others – starting with David and Mike, followed by Paul (our retiring vicar) and continuing with the rest of the church congregation.  No one was automatically in favour; at times it became quite difficult for we were seeking to change the status quo.

It is hard to know just how much emphasis to place on bottom-up initiatives rather than top-down ones.  Like all organisations the church tends to favour top-down initiatives.  Top-down initiatives mean that the leadership keeps control and that what happens is within the rules. It feels safer. There is also a belief that what works well in one context can easily be replicated in similar contexts where it should get the same results.

I am not saying that top-down initiatives never work (though it would be interesting to look at what factors enable them to work!)  They have not been part of my experience. I suspect that they are not as visionary or as exciting except for the people who initiated them.

Change always needs to be context specific.  I sometimes feel that this is something the church supports in theory but in practice still wants churches to buy into the latest diocesan or national vision.  There seems to be an assumption that since the initiative has been inspired by God, then this is the right thing for everyone. My own experience is that this not so.  God is always specific to context, to the particular community we are part of.  Even if we do believe that the top-down initiative is the best we need to think creatively about we need to change for our context.  We need to own the initiative.  

Turning Point 8: Real change?

Turning Point is a series of blog posts looking at how change happens in churches by reflecting on my own story of change in a church context. You can read the introduction here:  https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/23/reflecting-on-change/

Sometimes we talk about change and then closer analysis shows that things have not really changed at all.  We may have more enthusiasm and energy but there has been no major change of direction. 

So was this a major change – or just a tiffling around the edges?  The change in rotas seemed like a major change at the time – we had now added in an extra family service and this effect rippled out across the group of churches.  But churches are always changing their rotas based on what is practical, what works and what the priest is prepared to do.

Equally the time apart was not really a major change – plenty of churches had Junior Church or Sunday School during the adult services. We had even had this ourselves when the vicar’s wife took the children out for story and colouring.  We worked hard on the content of what we did with the children, but we were largely doing this by trial and error; looking back there was not much substance to what any of us did.  None of us had any idea about what we could do to add depth and substance.

However, I think there were two areas where what went on was real change – certainly in how we approached things in our particular church.

One of these was in our attitude to children in worship and the other was organisational.  

Very early on in the new family service our diocese sent out a prototype family service, based I think on the story of Jonah.  It included one action chorus and the suggestion that the leader should apologise to the adult congregation for the inclusion of this action chorus, explaining that it was nice for the children to have something they could take part in…

The planning group rejected this instantly.  In fact we were baffled.  Why should we apologise for including action choruses as if the children were an extra only to be tolerated so that their parents could come to church?  We did have action choruses, but we never apologised for them because we saw the children as worshippers alongside the adults.

Instead, our view was that if the children were present, they had to be included.  The beginning and end of the service included a reading from a children’s Bible, action and other choruses with musical instruments and especially the Prayer Tree where the children wrote or drew prayers to be read and hung up and where eventually the adults joined in writing their own prayer leaves.  As we followed the same theme the children were invited to share what they had been doing whilst out in their groups.  Today, in the same context, I would want the adults to be sharing as well but in those days, twenty five years ago, the concept of intergenerational worship was in the future, even though some churches like ours were starting to discover it on our own.

The monthly All Age Service was similar in approach but often included drama in which all ages participated. The Palm Sunday drama was typical of our approach – we all processed up Applethorpe High Street with the donkey with regular members of the congregation in costume. Adults took the parts of Jesus, Judas, the Spy and members of the crowd.  The children were the stallholders in the temple before rushing round the back of the church to become the soldiers with red cloaks and wooden swords, coming to arrest Jesus.  They had key parts rather than token appearances.       

We did not want our inclusion of children to be words and sentiment only; instead we wanted to experiment to see how we could work it out in practice.

The other real change was the way we organised ourselves. We were not a committee.  Some of us used the term Family Service Team but actually we never had a settled name.  We were a loose group of people who came together for the purpose of running the weekly family services.  Before his retirement we ran decisions past Paul but when we were in vacancy we made these decisions ourselves.  When our new vicar Judith arrived she used to come along to meetings – and we all knew that she had the final say if we were proposing something that was out of order.  However, in practice she participated as one of the group, sharing her ideas and opinions but allowing us to make the decisions as to what might work and what wouldn’t.

I think this set up is unusual in church contexts.  Generally, the expectation of both clergy and congregation is that the clergy are the designated leaders in this situation and that they will take the lead.  Many, if not most, initiatives will start with them.  This does not mean that they do not welcome ideas and support, nor that their ideas will necessarily be wrong for the situation.        

I think our set up says something about ownership.  The family service was “owned” by the group of people who came along to planning meetings.  It was a bottom up initiative both in theory and in practice.  It was very freeing to be able to come along to a meeting, suggest ideas and comment on other people’s, knowing that they would be discussed by the whole group.  It changed the usual power dynamics.  No one person had all their ideas accepted just because they were the vicar, a natural leader or a strong personality.  

So why were we able to reach a turning point and make real changes?

Turning Point 9: Why did change happen? https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/10/04/turning-point-9-why-did-change-happen/

Turning point 7: Making changes

Turning Point is a series of blog posts looking at how change happens in churches by reflecting on my own story of change in a church context. You can read the introduction here:  https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/23/reflecting-on-change/

We had been given an unprecedented opportunity to make changes to the family service.  

This freedom extended to how we organised ourselves, logistics and what we did with the children and adult parts of the service. So what did we do?

Organisation:

We could have set up a committee.

But committees meant formality, agendas, minutes and items deferred to the next meeting.  Most of us had had enough of being on committees.

Instead, we went for something much more informal – a loose group of people who came along to meetings.  Even now I’m not sure how much this was a conscious decision or something that just evolved.

I called this group Planning but others called it the Family Service Group or the Family Service Lay Team.  It was open to anyone interested, who could come along and say as much or as little as they liked.  There was no chair though David tended to drive the meetings and keep us to the point.  I think someone kept notes…

Even now, over 25 years later, I have never been part of something that worked as well as Planning did.

But why did it work so well?  Firstly, we had the authority to take action and make changes.  Obviously, Paul had the final say but in practice he allowed us to have the discussions and make the decisions.  (Later on, Judith, his successor, used to come to meetings but acted as part of the team.)

We were also starting completely from scratch. There was no one to complain that we were ditching traditions or that something had been tried before and could not possibly work. We were free (or naïve enough!) to try things and see if they worked. 

This freedom meant we owned the project.  This was no top down initiative but something that was developing from the ground up – and because it was ours we committed to it, holding weekly meetings (at first) and putting in the time and effort needed to make the changes. 

We had a surprising amount of agreement at Planning meetings.  Many of the new ideas seemed to have a touch of inspiration about them.  When someone made a suggestion there was often a feeling that this was expressing something that we had all felt or that the idea was just right for us. 

How can we tell when something is God?

Logistics

Integral to our vision of a new family service was our plan to have two children’s groups which would offer the children new and exciting ways of being church without losing sight of the beliefs and stories of the Christian faith.  As we became more experienced, we hoped, so the children’s work would develop.

It was the potential of Finchworth church to have space for two groups that had led to the decision to place the Family Service there three Sundays out of four.  The reality was not so rosy.  The vestry was small and cramped.  The central heating boiler took up about a third of the available space.  It was so noisy that when it was running we felt we had to shout over it.

The space under the tower was not much better.  It was about three metres square but some of this was taken up with cupboards and a large table.  The stained glass window, about twenty feet above our heads, offered little natural light.  The area was so dark that the single light bulb situated above the large west door needed to be permanently on.  The bats were at their most active, so there were droppings everywhere.  Still we felt it had possibilities.  We could get rid of a lot of the junk and put in a couple of child-sized tables and some small chairs.  Hugh and Bridget had recently been involved in clearing out a school and knew where we could get furniture cheaply.

It was while we were sorting through the junk that someone, probably Hugh, looked up and had a bright idea.

“What about the bell ringing room?”

Sixty feet above our heads was the “ceiling”, the floor of the bell-ringing chamber.  Finchworth had had a strong group of bell ringers for many years, so the chamber was in regular use.  Bridget unearthed the key from its hiding place and we all climbed the fifty-seven steps up the spiral staircase to have a look. 

Apart from a few chairs and the bell ringing ropes the chamber was empty.  It was light, airy, spacious and (miraculously) bat free.  Another advantage was that it was so far away from the congregation that unless the children were very noisy they would not be heard during the service.  It was certainly the best place in any of the four churches for children’s work to take place.  Providing, of course, that you don’t mind spiral staircases with fifty-seven steps and no rope to hold onto… 

After discussion with Paul and the bell ringers, it was agreed that we could use it so we decided we would use the bell ringing room for the “older” children – Kitty, who was now just six, and Timothy and James, who were both four.  Our toddlers would use the space under the tower – it wasn’t remotely soundproof, but we hoped we would be able to co-exist with the adult service.

Worship

It was easy to say that we wanted a service with a strong focus on the needs of the children, but how would this work in practice?  Several of us had strong ideas about what we wanted.  If the children were in the service, I wanted them to be involved.  David, who was involved with leading quiet days and retreats, wanted a strong emphasis on prayer.  His wife Penny was concerned about the way people departed abruptly at the end of the service.      

We began by looking at the structure of the service itself.  Did we want the children to be out in groups the whole time?  At the beginning of the service?  Or at the end?  We spent a lot of time at the early meetings discussing this.

We all felt that it was important that the children spent some time in the service.  We did not want a separation between the adult church and “Sunday School.”  We wanted a Family Service, where for at least part of the time, we were all worshipping together as the family of the church.

Equally, Bridget and I, supported by a couple of parents with toddlers who came occasionally, felt that it was important for the children to be in age related groups for at least half the service.  (I don’t think this now!)

In the end we decided that we would begin worshipping together and that this early part of the service would focus on involving the children.  The children would then go out to their groups while the remaining congregation would be able to take part in an adult service.  We would come back together at the end of the service.

Prayer was something we believed needed to be central to any service.  Several of us had taken part in Sister Kathleen O’ Sullivan’s Light Out of Darkness course which has a strong emphasis on personal prayer and times of quiet.  We hoped to pass this onto the children – and to the rest of the congregation.  We wanted the children to learn to pray in their own words, however simple those words might be.  We also felt that the children needed some tangible expression of their prayers, a way of expressing them symbolically.

I think it was Bridget who came up with the idea of a Prayer Tree.  The children, with the help of their parents, could write their prayers on a “prayer leaf”.  They could come up to the front and read their prayer – or give it to the leader to be read for them.  They would then hang their prayer on the prayer tree. 

One of the parents volunteered to make a Prayer Tree.  When finished, it stood about three feet high.  It was made out of wood with a painted trunk.  The top was covered with green crepe paper to represent leaves and it had several hooks on which the children could hang their prayer leaves.  The children’s prayer time would be followed by a short time in which adults would be invited to pray, either out loud or in silence.

We decided to begin the service with an opening chorus and a short prayer and then follow this with the Prayer Tree.  We would then have a time of choruses – including action choruses that the children could take part in.   We also decided to purchase some instruments – bells, plastic drums and shakers – so that the children who were too young to read could take part.  The children would then go out to their groups.

What would we do with them?  Toddler church had often used material from Splash (Scripture Union) and we felt it was worth looking at other publications to see if there was anything suitable for the older children.  Bridget and I spent quite a time browsing through local Christian bookshops but we never found anything that we really liked.  Most of the time we just did our own thing!

Meanwhile someone had had the bright idea of a monthly theme that all age groups could work on together.  The more we discussed this idea the more we liked it.  If the theme was Paul, for example, then the little children could be told a very simple story about one of his adventures with lots of pictures and actions.  The older children could approach the story through art or drama and the adults could have a talk about his encounter on the Damascus Road or his reception in Corinth.  When the children came back into the service they would be invited up to the front to share what they had been doing in their groups.  The parents would know what the children had been doing and could talk to the children about it on the way home.  It would also give a focus to the All Age service when the children could present some of this work.

What should we choose as our first theme?  Well the beginning seemed a good place to start…  We decided to spend the first seven weeks looking at the different days of Creation.  We would not have an All Age service during September in order to give the Finchworth Family Service a chance to become established.

David took most of the responsibility for developing a more adult service for the time that the children were out in their groups.  It was based mainly on Morning Worship from the Anglican Alternative Service Book (the predecessor to Common Worship.)  This included confession, prayers and creed and also the canticles – the Venite or the Te Deum, the Jubilate or the Benedicite – and the collects.  A psalm might be said, followed by a Bible reading and a short talk.  It sounds very straightforward but in practice there was a lot of discussion.

Most of us were not experienced at leading a service.  David and Mike were – but then they also had to do the music and it seemed likely that they would have to give many of the talks.  To make things easier we decided to have two leaders, Leader A and Leader B who would alternate throughout the service and share the responsibility. 

At that time the Anglican church in our diocese allowed lay people to give a short talk (but not a sermon) during a service.  David and Mike had stood in for Paul, the vicar, when he was away and had some experience of doing this.  Mike was widely read and had a scholarly approach to giving the talk.  David had been involved in leading several Quiet Days and Retreats.  Both Bridget and Hugh volunteered to give the occasional talk – providing David or Mike was prepared to help them with it. 

Back in the service the children would share what they had been doing.  We would then have another hymn and the collection, which would be taken by the children.  A final prayer, a blessing and then a final hymn would finish the service.

“And what about coffee after the service?” suggested Penny.

 For many churches this happens so automatically that doing it has never been questioned.  But our lack of kitchen facilities made providing coffee such a logistical nightmare that it was something we only did on special occasions.  However, for this new beginning it seemed right that we should have some time at the end of the service to build relationships and encourage newcomers.  We decided to try it.  The only tap at Finchworth was outside, as far from the main door as it was possible to get, so a collection of thermoses seemed a more practical option than filling the urn.  A coffee rota was drawn up, with people taking it in turns to take the mugs and thermoses home to wash up and provide the following week’s coffee.

It was Sunday 10th September… we were ready…

But were we making real changes?

Turning Point 8: Real change? https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/10/04/turning-point-8-real-change/

Turning point 6: Working through committees

Turning Point is a series of blog posts looking at how change happens in churches by reflecting on my own story of change in a church context. You can read the introduction here:  https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/23/reflecting-on-change/

The Church of England functions through committees.  Central to these is the Parochial Church Council (PCC). Each of the four parishes had their own – and any major changes to worship or pattern of services would have to be agreed with all four PCCs.  There was no other option, no way around this.  Our priority was to change the pattern of services to enable us to be three Sundays a month at Finchworth where we felt we could offer group work.  But any changes to the rota would have a knock on effect that would be felt across the group. To make changes we had to have the agreement of these committees.

Finchworth was the home church for most of the family service people.  Larkwood PCC insisted on Book of Common Prayer services at all times, Plum Green had only four people on PCC and my own PCC at Applethorpe had an average age of about 75. It was hard to know how they would respond to our ideas.

Plans were being made for the vacancy following Paul’s retirement.  With his blessing we held an open meeting where a surprising number of people came along and volunteered for everything from reimagining the parish magazine to leading Bible Study. Ten people volunteered to form a Family Service Group. 

We first needed to convince the standing committee of eight churchwardens (two from each church) that we had a strong enough case to take to each of the PCCs for a decision.  The standing committee were not particularly friendly…

“If it’s only three children why are we bothering?”  The speaker, who acted as treasurer for the group, clearly could not understand what all the fuss was about.

Perhaps he was right? Were we really expecting this whole world of adults to change a working pattern of worship for Kitty, Timothy and James?

Luckily this decision was not for the Standing Committee to make.  Their decision was only whether to allow our proposals to go forward to the four PCCs and this was agreed. 

Bridget and I reviewed all the churches listing their good and bad points and emphasising that only Finchworth would be suitable for two groups of children.  The new family service group met together to draw up a statement describing the problem and listing possible solutions which we circulated to all PCC members. 

Several of us had a try at drawing up a new rota of services.  The new rota needed to give Finchworth three family services a month, while at the same time putting in a morning prayer service to replace the Family Service in the other three churches.  We also had to fit in a once a month All Age Family Service that would circulate round Plum Green, Applethorpe and Larkwood.  This impossible task was not helped by the fact that we each believed ourselves to be the one who had finally cracked it.  I colour coded my attempt – but it made no difference, no one else liked it!  In the end Hugh put something together.  It seemed workable – just – and we needed something definite for our presentations to the PCCs. 

Hugh was the first of us to make a presentation to a PCC.  It was to Larkwood, the BCP (Book of Common Prayer) church, who felt the present system worked well enough so why change it?  The proposal was defeated, but only narrowly, by four votes to three.  Hugh was very disheartened and wondered how he could have presented things differently.

But the response from the other PCCs was amazingly positive.  Finchworth’s support was never in doubt – and for three weeks out of four the new family service would be based there.  My own elderly PCC at Applethorpe was whole heartedly in favour. They would miss the children they said, but we had to do what was best for them.  With only days to their move Louise and her husband went along to their last meeting of Plum Green’s tiny PCC to vote through the changes.  

Which left us one vote away from acceptance.  Paul offered to go back to Larkwood for us and talk to them again.  With the rest of the Group so strongly in favour, Larkwood agreed to try the new system. 

Turning Point 7: Making changes https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/04/03/turning-point-7-organisation-and-logistics/

Turning point: 5 The turning point

Turning Point is a series of blog posts looking at how change happens in churches by reflecting on my own story of change in a church context. You can read the introduction here:  https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/23/reflecting-on-change/

Events moved quickly after that conversation in the supermarket.  But it wasn’t straightforward. The hardest thing was convincing the other people who came along to the family service about the need for change.

Many people were pessimistic about the future. They anticipated a long vacancy after Paul’s retirement, with the possibility that we might become a six church partnership instead of four.  Young and energetic clergy with families would not be sent to small rural villages.  We might not even get a priest.

They were equally despondent about the family service.

“There is a real difficulty in providing a service that is suitable for all ages,” commented one of the music group.  “On the occasions that I have taken the service for Paul and have prepared something suitable for young children, I have been disappointed at the attendance – there’s no point in having a children’s talk if there are no children to hear it!  I think I would be very tempted to take my children to a livelier service if they were the age of yours.”

It would have been easy to have become disheartened. 

With our vicar’s approval, Hugh and Bridget organised a time for us to get together with David and Mike, two key members of the family service music group to talk about the coming vacancy and the family service.  Their own children were now adult and had moved away but they had continued with the family service, coming along to play keyboard and guitar.

Bridget, Hugh and I sat at one end of their living room, with David and Mike at the other.  It didn’t quite feel like opposing sides, but it wasn’t far off.

At first the discussion was vague and unfocussed.  David and Mike seemed able to understand what we were getting at, and broadly in agreement with us but they didn’t seem to see the urgency of it.  I felt as if the discussion was tailing off with agreement that there was a problem, but with no will to resolve it.  I couldn’t think of anything to do except to put the case again in the bluntest possible terms. 

“If the Family Service doesn’t change,” I said slowly,   “then I am not prepared to carry on bringing my children along.  The service on the orange card is too wordy and difficult for them.  They need something more than being taken out for a story and colouring.  If nothing changes, we will leave and go elsewhere.”

 “If Sarah and her children leave,” said Bridget, backing me up, “then Hugh and I will be looking elsewhere too.  It wouldn’t be fair on James and Betsey to be the only children who come to church.”

“If these children go,” said Hugh, “the Family Service will collapse.  There will be no children.  What will be the future for the Group if there is no Family Service?”

This was the turning point. 

The feeling in the meeting changed completely.

David and Mike admitted that they weren’t happy with the orange card family service either.  They felt it had been simplified to the point of being banal.  As it met the needs of neither the children nor the adults perhaps now was the time to start afresh.

Tentatively Bridget and I outlined our hopes for a service with children going out in groups for Sunday School.  David and Mike were keen.  If this happened it would be possible to have a much more adult service without the distraction of bored children.

But where to do it?  We paused thinking of the four churches, our lack of church rooms, the cramped and noisy vestries. 

I think it was Hugh who thought of the space under the bell tower at Finchworth.  As it was not my own church I wasn’t very familiar with it but the others (whose home church it was) assured me that there was quite a bit of space.  At that time it was a complete glory hole containing the assorted junk of years of church life.  But it could be cleared out and used for the children.  The main disadvantage was that it was only separated from the church by a pair of iron gates.  Soundproofing would be non existent. 

“But we could hang a curtain,” suggested Bridget. 

That at least would give us the illusion of having our own space and mean that both congregation and children would be less distracted by each other.   The second group could take place in the vestry.  It would never be ideal, but it would be a start.

We moved on.  If children’s groups were going to work they would need to happen on most of the Sundays in the month. Currently the family service rotated around the four churches so that each church had one family service a month.  But once a month would not be enough for the children to build any kind of group identity.  We would have to rethink the entire pattern of the family services.  Ideally, we would need to be at Finchworth on at least three Sundays in the month.        

This was an issue we could not bypass.  The pattern of services had stayed the same throughout Paul’s time as vicar and probably for several years before that.  It would be a major upheaval for everyone if we were going to start trying to fit in a Family Service with children’s groups.  Would they agree to it?  Would they think this was completely the wrong time to even think about it?  Paul’s retirement was imminent.  Wouldn’t they think that it would be better to wait for a new priest before trying to change things?  Was the whole idea even workable?

“Paul’s asked me to take the service at Applethorpe on Trinity Sunday,” said David, eventually.  “What if we make it a new style Family Service – no children’s groups but a service that is child friendly?”

We seemed to have come a long way in a short time.  David finished the meeting with prayer and a reminder to us to keep praying.  I went home thinking about how completely the meeting had changed once Hugh, Bridget and I had spelt out the consequences of keeping the Family Service unchanged.  This had definitely been the turning point.  But had we been too overbearing, too threatening about it?  Had it been necessary to be quite so blunt?

But if we hadn’t spoken as we did the church would have meandered on and could have lost two generations – children and their parents.  Nothing would have changed…

What convinced David and Mike so that they went from change isn’t really possible to change is necessary?  I don’t know.  At the time it felt as if we were pushing them into it – but I can see now that we weren’t. David and Mike fundamentally agreed with us and the meeting ended with an almost tangible sense of unity.  This would not have been possible if any of us were playing power games. 

Could it have been God?  Looking back I think I never expected God to be so directly involved and active in small rural churches and their future!  Even now I struggle to say, yes I think this was God…   

Turning Point 6: Working through committees https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/04/01/turning-point-6-working-through-committees/

Turning point: 4 What next?

Turning Point is a series of blog posts looking at how change happens in churches by reflecting on my own story of change in a church context. You can read the introduction here:  https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/23/reflecting-on-change/

I knew I was going to stay… but the family service was still not suitable for my children.  What could I do about it? What did God want me to do about it?  What about everyone else? 

It was while I was thinking about this that I bumped into Bridget in the fruit and veg section of the local supermarket. Bridget was James and Betsey’s mum.  James, then aged four was the only child over two still coming to church; his younger sister Betsey was a few months older than Leo.

In between moving out of the way to accommodate the people who thought the supermarket was the place to buy carrots rather than sort out your life, Bridget and I talked about the family service in a way we had never managed after church.

She and her husband Hugh had been thinking on similar lines. Like mine their children were at the fidgety stage where most of the words went over their heads. Betsey was too little even for a Bible story and colouring. Were they doing the right thing bringing their children along Sunday by Sunday?

I didn’t tell Bridget about my experience at the Quiet Evening; it was still too new and I didn’t know her well enough.  I didn’t need to – she could see the need for change if we were going to continue taking our children to church.  

Having started talking it was difficult to stop… Bridget, Hugh and I got together to carry on the conversation.  We briefly discussed running a Sunday School on Sunday afternoons. But this would mean that we either had to stop going to church or have church commitments on Sunday morning and afternoon. This just didn’t seem feasible.

Group work or some kind of Sunday School did seem to be the answer though. It would give the children opportunities to understand the Bible stories at their own level. Perhaps between us we could run a group while the church service was going on?

And then, while we were talking we realised that we needed not just one children’s group but two.  Kitty at rising six had a level of understanding that was a world away from Leo’s at 15 months.  She was currently passionate about Roman history while Leo didn’t even understand “yesterday”.

Two groups!  In cold, bat ridden churches where the only available spaces were the tiny, furniture crammed vestries.      

But the more we talked the more necessary it seemed.  The younger children might all be under two at the moment but they wouldn’t stay that way for long.  Betsey the oldest of the group, would turn two in September.  We didn’t want a short term solution.  What about the following year when she would be three?  And the year after that?

Turning Point 5: The turning point https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/24/turning-point-5-the-turning-point/

Turning point: 3 Encounter

Turning Point is a series of blog posts looking at how change happens in churches by reflecting on my own story of change in a church context. You can read the introduction here:  https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/23/reflecting-on-change/

I didn’t realise how much I was worrying about this problem until I started thinking about it during the night.  I would be woken by the baby and then I would lie awake going round and round the same circle.  Family Service was not suitable for my children.  Soon there would be only one other child over two, who came to church.  There was no way to improve the situation.  So we ought to find another church.  Which church should we try?  Would the boys be happy at the Methodist church?  Should I try one of the town churches first?  Did I really want to leave?

When this first started happening I could not believe it.  How could it be so important where I went to church?  Surely it was being a Christian that mattered rather than where I chose to worship?  How could I be lying awake at night worrying about it?  Why wasn’t I lying awake worrying about more important things like would Chris be made redundant and when would Leo start walking?  Or, on a wider scale, people starving in the developing world and the situation in the Middle East? 

Looking back, I think that my life then was so frantic and I had so little time for prayer, that the middle of the night was the only time God could reach me.  But at the time I just lay there in the dark, squashed between Chris and the baby, trying to decide where to go to church and wondering why I was spending so much time worrying about something that seemed relatively unimportant. 

I don’t know how I would have sorted it in the end, but as it happened I didn’t need to.  My friend Catherine phoned.

“I’ve got this terrible cold,” she said.  “I really don’t feel up to going to the Quiet Evening tonight.  Would you like my place?”

“That sounds wonderful,” I said.  “I could do with some time to think that isn’t the middle of the night.  I know it sounds strange but I keep lying awake wondering whether I should keep coming to the Family Service or start looking for something else.”

“Yes, a Quiet Evening sounds the perfect answer to unquiet nights,” said Catherine, laughing.

“Oh ha ha,” I said.  “I can’t really see a new vicar with five children and a keen interest in children’s work suddenly materialising in front of me, can you?”

It was as usual, completely frantic trying to get out the door in time.  The Quiet Evening was being held in the convent in town and it was to be led by David, one of the Family Service music group.  I rushed around, trying to get the children fed and organised before I left.  Although Chris didn’t come to church, he knew how important it was to me and had always supported me.  However as he arrived home late, I still needed to leave the children ready for bed.  By the time I had fed the baby and unearthed the children’s pyjamas I felt so frazzled I wasn’t even sure I still wanted to go.

I arrived with two minutes to spare, hurried in, sat down and took a couple of deep breaths.

And then I knew. 

I didn’t have to spend the evening going round the circle.  I didn’t need to go over my arguments and weigh up the pros and cons.  I didn’t even need to spend time in prayer asking God for guidance.  No, it was quite simple.  I was going to stay.  I hadn’t heard any voices or seen any visions.  I didn’t need to.  I didn’t know what would happen or what might change; that came later.  At the time all I had was this moment of knowing that I was going to stay.  And I knew that this was God. 

I have no memory of the theme of the Quiet Evening.  I am sure David had put a lot of thought and prayer into it, but it passed me by.  My mind was full and I could not listen.  Eventually we were sent off to find a quiet place for prayer and reflection.  In one of the small guest bedrooms, I found myself in tears,  thanking God for answering the prayer I had never spoken. 

Turning Point 4: What next? https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/24/turning-point-4-what-next/

Turning point: 2 The problem

Turning Point is a series of blog posts looking at how change happens in churches by reflecting on my own story of change in a church context. You can read the introduction here: https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/23/reflecting-on-change/

I didn’t set out to change things.  Three small children and a variety of family, play group, school and church commitments kept me far too busy.

My only child commitment at church was Toddler Church, which a couple of friends and I had started five years before when Kitty was a baby. Toddler Church, held fortnightly in Applethorpe church itself, was a lively mixture of stories, songs and activities for under 5s. The little children felt at home in the church – perhaps a bit too much so at times.  They particularly loved hiding behind the curtain that hung over the west door and running up the aisle.  At its peak Toddler Church had about ten families turning up and taking turns to run it.  Only a few came to our church on a Sunday but that didn’t seem to matter.  We were so happy with it that we weren’t very bothered about what happened to the children next.

“I’m really worried,” one mum said to us.  “my son starts school in September and there isn’t anything for him at church.”

“Well it’s not our worry yet,” we had replied smugly.  “Why don’t you do something about it?”

Now though, Toddler Church was failing.  The original children had gone to school or moved away, so there were only three families involved.  It didn’t seem worth opening the church for so few children, so we held it in each other’s houses once a month. It became rare for all the children to be there at the same time.   Kitty had been at school for over a year and Timothy was due to start in September.  I no longer felt inspired to struggle to keep Toddler Church going – and certainly no one else was interested. But what could we do instead?  

There were other problems too.  My friend Louise from Plum Green came up to me after church one Sunday.

“Ben’s got a job at last,” she said, excitedly.  “So we’ll be moving in August.”

I wanted to say congratulations but all I could think of was the effect on the church.  This would be the third family to move away in as many months.  Louise’s two boys were nine and eleven and I knew how much my own children looked up to them.  When they moved there would be only three children over two years old who came to church.  Kitty and Timothy would be two of them.  The other, James, was four the same age as Timothy.  Under two there would be James’ sister Betsey, Leo and very occasionally a couple of other toddlers.

Kitty, still only five years old, would become the oldest child at church.  I felt the time had come to start looking at alternatives. 

My first thought was to go along to the local Methodist church.  I didn’t think God was very bothered about which denomination I belonged to and in my student days I had had a lot to do with the Methodists.  One of my Toddler Church friends, whose girls were older, had been going along to the Methodist Church for some time.  She was full of praise for their weekly Sunday School and monthly family service. Kitty loved marching up and down behind the Girls Brigade band at Parade services and I sometimes abandoned the Family Service and took the boys along as well.  However, I hesitated.  The Sunday School seemed to be closely linked to the Girls Brigade.  Kitty enjoyed Girls Brigade, so this would be fine for her, but I was worried about the boys.  Would they be the only boys at Sunday School?  How much would it matter if they were?  I didn’t know.

I thought next about trying out a different church each Sunday until I found the one that I felt was right.  We were only three miles from our local market town, so there were several other churches not far away.  I was sure I could find something suitable for my children on a Sunday morning. 

But again I hesitated.  If we started worshipping in town, I would miss the people from the Church Group.  Over the years I had been along to various courses and Bible Studies and knew some of them well.  Some of them were my friends.  If I went elsewhere I would feel as if I was deserting them; I would no longer be part of the local church community.

What should I do? 

Turning point 3: Encounter https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/24/turning-point-3-encounter/

Turning point: 1 Prelude

Turning Point is a series of blog posts looking at how change happens in churches by reflecting on my own story of change in a church context. You can read the introduction here: https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/23/reflecting-on-change/

Turning Point: 1 Prelude: Spring 1995

I am sitting with my children at the back of a small medieval village church. We are here to worship.

Or are we? 

The baby, who is 13 months old, is sitting on my knee, the other two aged 3 and 5 sit either side of me. All three are fidgeting, and at this point, half way through the service, I am doling out a third round of raisins.  We have already exhausted the books, crayons and toys that I hoped would keep them quiet and occupied.

The service is called the Family Service and is a simplified version of Morning Prayer printed on orange card.  Simplified just means shorter; little change has been made to the words.  As none of my children can read, the words roll incomprehensibly above their heads. It must be like listening to a radio play in Russian.   They are bored.

Kitty, the five year old, slips off the pew to sit on the hassock at my feet. Timothy gives me a quick look and goes to join her. They put their heads together and start whispering. The baby squirms and wriggles.

The congregation welcome my children warmly. Few people tut in disapproval if the children speak or wander round, as can happen in other churches.  But I still spend the service on edge, constantly monitoring my children’s behaviour, trying to make sure that they are doing nothing to disturb those who have really come here to worship.  

Usually they are not the only children who come to the Family Service.  Sometimes the vicar’s wife takes those over three out for a story and colouring.  It’s hard to see what else she can do in the cramped, grubby vestry.  In winter it’s hard to hear yourself speak over the noise of the boiler.  

Today she is away.  Soon she will be permanently away as Paul, our vicar, is planning to retire this year. 

The children have started collecting hassocks to make a fort. It has nothing to do with what is going on in the service but I let them. Leo, the baby, whinges and I give him a biscuit. 

We have at last reached the final hymn. The elderly sidesman arrives and kindly takes Timothy’s money and puts it in the bag thus depriving him of his only moment of participation in the entire service. 

I collect our belongings, put the baby in the buggy and we set off for home… 

What were we doing here this morning?  There were no opportunities for my children to be included in the worship, nothing offered that nurtured their spirituality or helped them to learn more about the Christian story, no chance for prayer…

I smile politely at the kindly welcoming members of the congregation but inside I’m angry. Surely we can offer our children something better than this? 

But is real change even possible?

Turning Point 2: The Problem : https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/23/turning-point-2-the-problem/

Reflecting on change

Reflecting on change: Introduction

I’ve been involved in several conversations recently about change in children’s ministry – either through attending zoom conferences or discussions on social media.

There seems general agreement that change needs to happen and several people have commented that change needs to begin at the top:  church leaders, bishops and diocese need to change the church’s culture and ethos; clergy training needs to include more time spent on children, families and all age worship; children and youth ministry needs to be a priority at all levels. If things change at the top, the thinking goes, then there will be changes at local level.

But this hasn’t been my experience of change. 

In twenty five years or so of working with children and families I have been part of several positive changes of direction in my local church context.  I cannot think of any that came about as a direct result of top down initiatives.    

Instead, I would identify two catalysts for change which I will call Turning Point and Inspiration.  Turning Point occurred when things that seemed to be going in one direction suddenly turned and went in a different direction entirely. It followed a time when I felt as if all possible courses of action had so many negatives that there was no way forward – all ways were blocked. 

Inspiration happened when we came across something so compelling, so visionary that our instant reaction was that we wanted to introduce it in our own context.   

I thought about trying to explain these, but instead have decided to share my experiences in a series of blog posts.  Sometimes things are easier to understand through narrative rather than explanation.

The problem with real life stories is that they are not tidy.  Where do you begin and where do you end?  What do you include and what do you leave out? In an attempt to make things clearer I have described my context and included a list of recurring characters at the end of this post.

Reflecting on change: Turning Point

Context:

This story took place over twenty five years ago, right at the start of my journey with children’s ministry.  (These days I would not use the term “Sunday School” myself nor do I think it is essential for adults to have a time of only adult worship!)  

At that time I lived in Applethorpe, the largest of four rural parishes loosely linked together by having the same vicar.  Applethorpe had a primary school (catchment for all four parishes), a shop, a pub and a chilly, bat infested medieval church. 

The other three churches Finchworth, Larkwood and Plum Green were similar – two medieval and one Victorian.  I used to take my three children to the Family Service which rotated around all four churches, so I knew them well.      

None of the churches had a church hall or a church room.  There were no loos, not even a portapotty; the desperate used the bushes.  Three of the churches had an outside tap, one didn’t even have running water. All of them were cold and cluttered.  

Recurring characters (all names have been changed)

David and Mike:  church leaders who played in the family service band and occasionally preached when Paul (the vicar) was away

Penny:  married to David

Hugh and Bridget: parents of James (aged 4) and Betsey (aged 2)

Kitty (5), Timothy (4) and Leo (18 months): my children

Chris: my husband

Paul: our vicar, on the point of retirement

Catherine: a friend from church

Turning Point 1: Prelude https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/23/turning-point-1-prelude/

Turning Point 2: The problem: https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/23/turning-point-2-the-problem/

Turning Point 3: Encounter https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/24/turning-point-3-encounter/

Turning Point 4: What next? https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/24/turning-point-4-what-next/

Turning Point 5: The turning point https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/03/24/turning-point-5-the-turning-point/

Turning Point 6: Working through committees https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/04/01/turning-point-6-working-through-committees/

Turning Point 7: Making changes https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/04/03/turning-point-7-organisation-and-logistics/

Turning Point 8: Real change? https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/10/04/turning-point-8-real-change/

Turning Point 9: Why did change happen? https://meristemweb.wordpress.com/2022/10/04/turning-point-9-why-did-change-happen/