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Sheldon Community

Farmers and monastics both knew how to choose good places to settle. A good water supply but without flooding; an aspect which catches the sun and avoids the worst of the wind; a mixture of summer and winter pastures; local supplies for walls and roofs, fuels and foods.

Perhaps, therefore, it is not surprising that a new religious Community looking to set up a retreat house should develop a traditional Devon farmstead on the edge of Dartmoor for a new use. Maybe the conditions for rearing livestock and nurturing retreatants aren’t so very different? Anyway, the setting must have something to commend it, because the Community has flourished and this summer celebrates its 21st birthday.

The heart of the Society of Mary and Martha’s vision is to offer support to people in Christian ministry within the framework of a ministry of hospitality. The approach is quietly understated, making full use of the qualities of the landscape and buildings in the restoring of frayed spirits, troubled minds and sick bodies. Traditional spiritual values and modern therapy resources are combined to offer accessible and effective support. The charity has a strong reputation both for emergency help at

times of crisis

or breakdown, and for ongoing maintenance such as retreats and sabbaticals. In 2002 the charity published ‘Affirmation and Accountability’ a workbook of ideas for preventing clergy stress, sickness and early retirement. Many of the problems presenting to the Community had roots in organisational issues, not just what might appear (and be keenly felt) as personal failings.

Around 500 clergy and ministers of all denominations visit Sheldon each year. They value the unique body of experience around ministry and its stresses in many different settings. One issue for rural clergy is the ever-higher number of parishes being grouped together. Clearly one person cannot do the same amount in 3,6 or 11 parishes as he or she would have done in 1 or 2 parishes, but parishioners’ expectations can take a generation to adjust. There is the sheer volume of meetings and services to cope with when everything from PCCs to carol services are multiplied several fold. Rural clergy can also find themselves

travelling much larger distances and being more isolated from colleagues and other support inputs than their urban counterparts. As the shape and expectations of ministry are changing rapidly it is often the most committed and hardworking clergy who arrive at Sheldon stressed, exhausted or burned out.

The stable quality of rural and religious life is also part of the Community’s ethos, with its current 5 members having given over 100 years of combined service. Alongside the specialist resources for people in ministry there is a wide range of retreats open to everyone and the famous “Pig Pens” for private retreats. The thoughtfully converted barns also make an excellent venue for parish retreats, school field trips, extended family gatherings etc. Full details are on the Society’s website

Sarah Horsman

The Society of Mary and Martha, Sheldon, Dunsford, Exeter, EX6 7LE



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