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Changing Multi Church Ministry:

In July 1994, I had a bit of a crisis. On a hot, sunny Sunday morning in South Cheshire, I was between services and stuck in a traffic jam. It was 10.45am and I was due back at Acton for 11am to take an All-age communion service with three infant baptisms. Road works must have been set up while I was taking the first service because the road had been clear earlier. Now they were re- tarmacing and the A51 had become a car park. The traffic was barely moving. I was becoming anxious. In nearby cars, people presumably setting out for a day in the countryside, or on the beach, or visiting family were getting hot and bothered. Five minutes went by. We had gone less than half a mile. Still three miles from Acton Church – the tower was visible in the distance- I wasn’t going to make it in time. So, leaving my wife to drive the car, I picked up my service book and started to run between the two queues of cars down the centre of the road towards St Mary’s, Acton. It was sweltering. Running in a white

cassock alb and sweating profusely, I must have made an odd spectacle. Cars started to honk their horns, people were cheering out of the windows – they thought I was doing a sponsored run dressed as a monk! Finding it difficult to make progress in the road due to the tarmacing, I began to run on the verge where the dry grass had recently been cut. But my shoes must have got tarmac on them because they began to pick up the straw from the side of the road.

Running in a white

cassock alb and sweating profusely, I must have made an odd spectacle. . .

Soon I was running with two great ‘plates’ of straw on my feet. The horns kept honking and people continued to laugh and cheer. I couldn’t see the joke.

I eventually made it to the church 15 minutes late. I stood on the threshold dripping in sweat. I could hear babies screaming that had been made to wait too long, a congregation of two hundred becoming agitated, the organist playing his extended voluntary in a temper. The church warden met me with a kind smile.

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She looked down at my feet and said ‘Mark, take off your shoes while I get you a drink of water’. Catching my breath, gulping the water and saying a prayer, I walked up the aisle in my socks (not realising that black tarmac had splashed all up the back of my white cassock alb), made my apologies and began the service.

The service went fine. That wasn’t the point. The events of the morning, however, had been a parable to me. For the past three years I had been running around the parishes like a headless chicken – setting up home groups, organising holiday clubs, starting a pastoral care group, leading a discipleship course, doing assemblies in each of the three primary schools every week, amidst all the usual pastoral care, baptisms, weddings and funerals that go with four parishes. I was exhausted and knew I couldn’t carry on like this for much longer. This incident was God finally getting through to me: ‘this is my Church, not yours; this is my Mission, not yours.’

It slowly dawned on me that God is the missionary who transforms lives and communities but that he loves to include us all in his reconciling activity. I had been too busy looking at all that needed to be done rather than at the resources God had generously provided to do the work. That summer I committed myself to doing things differently as I learnt important lessons.

The romantic ideal of a ministry based on that of George Herbert may well be alive in the minds and hearts of many rural priests and congregations. It is, however, impractical today. What was possible for a country parson with the cure of 500 souls and the aid of a few curates is now a recipe for a nervous breakdown in a multi-church benefice

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