02 July 2011

New President of the Methodist Conference says Church should be more welcoming

The new President of the Methodist Conference, Revd Lionel Osborn, challenged the assumption that the Methodist Church was welcoming in his inaugural address to the Methodist Conference. At the Southport Theatre and Convention Centre today, Mr Osborn emphasised the need for pastoral relationships in the church that go beyond a 30 second chat at the door on the way out.

"The number of times I've heard people say "we're a welcoming church" and the number of times I've wanted to ask "Who told you that?" - for the aspiration and the reality may be two different things," said Mr Osborn. "A relationship that does not have a pastoral element to it is hardly worthy of the name."

He commended churches that organised welcoming teams to greet newcomers and praised the new vicar of a neighbouring Anglican church who had decided to open the doors every day. "Whilst I am concerned about what is happening at the front door of the church I'm equally concerned about what is happening at the back door: those who slip away due to our pastoral neglect or remain but feel disappointed or uncared for," he said, adding that churches can build a bridge between themselves and the community in small as well as great ways. Mr Osborn worked as a nursing orderly in Norfolk before offering for the Methodist ministry. He trained at Wesley College Bristol and has served in the Ripley (Derbyshire), Bury (Lancashire), Bramhall (Cheshire) and North Shields and Whitley Bay Circuits over 25 years. He has been Chair of the Newcastle upon Tyne Methodist District for the past ten years. The full text of President's address follows:

Pastoral Care as Disciples of Jesus

I must begin with three words of thanks. First and foremost to my wife Charlotte for her unending love, understanding support and wise counsel. Then to my P.A. Diane who has worked alongside me for 15 years. I am reminded of the story that David Watson used to tell of the unappreciated secretary who decided to get her revenge on her boss. He was to give an important lecture and as usual she typed his notes without a word of thanks but when during his speech he came to the bottom of the first page and read "we shall now consider this matter under fifteen headings" he was alarmed to turn over the page and find it blank except for the words: "You're on your own now mate"! So Diane with much relief - thank you!

And then my thanks to Traidcraft based in the north-east who have provided me with a cassock alb and to the Newcastle upon Tyne District who have kindly given me a preaching scarf and Eucharistic stole which I shall wear during my Presidential year. Someone said to me at our recent Synod: "Its going to be a wonderful year for our District while you're President" which I thought could be taken in at least two ways but suffice to say I'm honoured to serve the best District in Methodism as their Chair. Thank you for all your love, encouragement and prayers.

There are many I know who would be as amazed as me that I'm standing here today. My Sunday School teacher who sent me to stand outside because she saw me as a disruptive influence in her class. My mentor Raymond George who on noticing me reading the Sports Argus during his lectures on liturgy spoke to me most severely as only he could. My Father in God Donald English who remarked on one occasion that the sooner I left Wesley College Bristol the better it would be for all concerned. My own Father who told me that as I never worked hard I'd never get anywhere! And my Mother who would have cried and would have prayed today - not least for the Church! And the various churches, Circuits and Districts in which I've served are no doubt be thinking of the mysterious ways in which God and the church moves!

So I thank the dear friend who wrote to me after my designation as President, "Congratulations on your new job. This must be an exciting time for you. You get to show a whole new group of people how incompetent you are." He had it about right!

"Which lunatic should run the asylum?" These were Sir Humphrey Appleby's less than promising words as he sought to manoeuvre the appointment of a new leader in the well known television series - Yes Prime Minister. Various candidates you remember were ruled out for good bad or indifferent reasons until they eventually alighted on Jim Hacker as a balance. He wasn't too far left or too far right or too far anything really and when someone commented that there have been less likely Prime Ministers they all agreed but couldn't think of one!

Balance - But perhaps balance is not as pejorative a word as Sir Humphrey would have us believe. Indeed along with the word pragmatic they might be thought to sum up the ethos of Methodism and I am honoured and proud if the Methodist Church believe that I can offer it as President. So I am unashamedly:

Evangelical - For I believe that at the heart of Christian faith is a profound relationship with God through Jesus Christ and I long for people to discover that for themselves. I believe in the centrality of the Cross and Resurrection and in the overriding authority of Scripture but I don't find that that provides me with answers to every question or that despite living in Newcastle every moral or ethical decision is black and white. Indeed I have some sympathy with John Robinson of Honest to God fame who towards the end of his life said that he believed more and more about less and less!

Sacramental - For the sacraments - and especially that of Holy Communion - have become more and more important to me and a continual means of grace. And yet it is a means and not an end and I have to guard against a spirituality that becomes dry and lifeless and a mere going through the motions.

Ecumenical - For I long and pray for the unity of the church in visible form and want to encourage every initiative to bring it nearer. It is for me about common sense as well as common grace. Yet I am proud to be a Methodist and more excited than I have ever been about what God is doing in the Methodist Church today and whatever the shape of the church might look like in 20 or 30 years time I believe we as Methodists will have an enormous amount to put into the mix for the enrichment of the whole.

And having said all of that I thank God for those who do not carry an evangelical, sacramental or ecumenical label, who may carry a different label or no label at all but from whom I have learnt so much .

So Balance for me is important both within these convictions themselves and in holding them together as one. And yes of course at its worst "balance" can simply be a euphemism for lazy thinking or a desire to never cause offence. And I'm well aware that one person's balance is another person's imbalance so to quote Raymond George "I used to think that I was somewhere in the middle and then discovered that everyone else had moved"! So I smile to myself when apart from evangelical, sacramental and ecumenical I have also been described as liberal, charismatic and radical, for it not only depends on where you're coming from but where others are coming from too. But at is best balance can be a strong word especially when it seeks to embrace the best of every tradition and offers it to make up what is lacking in every other.

So in one of his hymns we are invited by Richard Jones, a former President of Conference, to "Bring your traditions' richest store, your hymns and rites and cherished creeds; explore our visions, pray for more, since God delights to meet fresh needs".

And this need for balance of course is also a part of our own discipleship too. The "breathing in" of scripture, the "breathing out" of prayer. Our receiving in worship, our giving in service (or what Wesley called works of piety and works of mercy). Our commitment to the church, to the world, to our families and friends and to ourselves- it's not always an easy balance to maintain. And within our Connexion and within each District, Circuit and local church that balance is continually being worked out too. If we spend our money here we can't spend it there. If we ask that person to serve at one level they might need to lay down their work at another. If we can't fill all our appointments who decides which are the most significant? What does a balanced diet of worship look like and how can we avoid upsetting everyone in equal measure? Such interaction is indeed a balancing act and although it requires much grace on every side it is worth pursuing.

So I affirm balance rightly understood and affirm it as essential for what it means to be a Methodist Christian today. But in one area of our Church's life I have become increasingly concerned that we have become unbalanced. Which is why "Pastoral Care as Disciples of Jesus" is a theme I hope to explore not just this afternoon but throughout my Presidential Year and thus build on the report on the Theology of Pastoral Care which is coming before Conference this week. And it is of course the Pastoral Care we offer to each other that is my chief concern. So let me begin with:


For am I the only person who cringes when I hear the word "visitors" used when folk are welcomed at the beginning of worship? It's no doubt an improvement on "strangers" which I also heard recently but it still conveys a sense of transience with the expectation that we may not see such a person again. Well as Jesus didn't say "Blessed are those who expect nothing. They shall never be disappointed!" Or think of the way in which directions are sometimes given in the notices. "The crèche is in the Cromwell Building." Fine - but where's that? "Toilets are in the narthex" What? "Coffee is available afterwards, just follow the crowd". I did that once and ended up in weight watchers! "If you would like more information talk to the Church Stewards". Well, I might if I knew who they were! You see subliminally we're giving out the "churchy" message that because we know, everyone else is bound to know too whereas in fact as I discovered only a few weeks ago a lady who'd been coming to church for over 60 years had never stayed for coffee because she'd been too embarrassed to ask where it was and no one had every told her. So the number of times I've heard people say "We're a welcoming church" and the number of times I've wanted to ask "Who told you that?" for the aspiration and the reality may be two quite different things.

There is a church I know well that always decorates its building beautifully for Christmas. Last year they placed in the window of the church a nativity scene made of reed. It was stunning. There was only one problem - the figures were all facing inwards and a black cloth obscured them from the view of the many people who passed by. In spite of being in many ways one of the most welcoming churches I've ever been to it seemed somehow to illustrate how quite inadvertently we forget who its all for and who God is all for.

And what of our use of the word "Door Steward"? In Psalm 84 the Psalmist hints at the privilege of being a door-keeper in the house of the Lord and indeed it is but it is surely more than opening a door and handing out a book? So I'm always impressed by those churches who have not so much door stewards as welcoming teams and where people commit themselves to be trained for such an important task and are available regularly so they can see who hasn't been before and who is missing and are on hand after the service as well as before. (And yes of course you can be over welcomed but I don't often hear that complaint!)

And what of class leaders and pastoral visitors? It was one of the geniuses of John Wesley to place disciples of Jesus in The Methodist tradition in "classes" and I believe that Home or Cell Groups are a worthy successor especially when within them there is a balance of worship, learning, prayer and sharing, which are all vital in our Church. Yet this should never make redundant the role of the Pastoral Visitor. Rather I am convinced that they are one of the most undervalued groups within the life of our church today. They are an essential expression of our commitment that "all are welcome in this place" and yet are rarely prayed for or commissioned in our churches and are sometimes ill-prepared for their role, and perhaps it is this that has led in some places to membership tickets simply being handed around after the service with the "Oh I know you're alright" comment! Well if only they did really know.

And then we still too often speak of "Ministers in Other Appointments" even though that phrase is no longer in our standing orders. "Other appointments" as though they were nothing to do with us. "Other appointments" as though there is a lesser form of ministry for those who can't hack the real thing - namely what we're used to. So I am anxious that those who work on our behalf in Prisons, Hospitals, Schools or Work-places or as Pioneer Ministers can pastorally sometimes feel very much on the edge of things and even as though they didn't exist. And this can equally apply as much to lay people as ministers of course so I remember someone telling me how they had once worked for Scripture Union and had then sensed God's call to train as a teacher. And how when they were with Scripture Union everyone at church asked after them and they were prayed for regularly but that when they became a teacher it all suddenly stopped whereas as they said the reality was that they needed prayer and pastoral care far more as a teacher in the inner city than ever they did as a worker with Scripture Union!


For whilst I am concerned about what is happening at the front door of the church I'm equally concerned about what is happening at the back door as it were - those who slip away due to our pastoral neglect or those who remain but feel disappointed or uncared for and I want to speak particularly to ministers now and include myself. So I'm just old enough to remember the advice that was given to me at college about never being found in your slippers after 8.00am and never without your dog-collar by nine. And I recall how each day was to be divided into three sections, mornings in the study, afternoons visiting and evenings at meetings. And it took me about half an hour in Circuit to realise just how impractical that was - that ministry doesn't fit neatly into three compartments even though the basic principle has something to commend it. And now that emails seem to require an immediate response at any time of day or night (although whether it has to be that immediate is questionable and whether an email is the most effective way of being pastoral is questionable too). And when meetings take place in morning or afternoon just as much as evening - developing a pattern of ministry becomes ever more difficult and there is never enough time for everything.

But I'm aware that life and ministry has changed in other ways too and that very often the career of a minister's spouse is as equally as much a calling as that of the minister themselves and that that has implications for child-care, educational needs and not least time with the family. So I recall Donald English forcibly reminding us that most of us took our marriage vows before our ordination vows and that that should be the order of our priorities.

And furthermore I recognise that in many places more time and care is given to Baptismal and Marriage Preparation and the needs of the bereaved than previously and I applaud that.

And yet I remain concerned that Pastoral Care through visiting (or even telephone calls) has in many places become a thing of the past except when an emergency arises. For some it's a question of time. For others it is low down on their list of priorities. Some frankly regard it as unimportant or unnecessary making reference to the fact that God had not called them to be domestic chaplains. But I believe they are wrong and I think therefore their ministry is in danger of becoming unbalanced.

So I reflect Theologically on the ministry of Jesus. For at the very heart of the Gospel is the pastoral image of Jesus the Good Shepherd which despite the fact that many of us have never seen a shepherd at work and certainly not operating as in Jesus day, still strongly resonates with us even though it is not without its difficulties. And it is not of course merely an image, for Jesus throughout his ministry demonstrates in words and actions what knowing his sheep, calling his sheep, listening to his sheep, loving his sheep, laying down his life for the sheep reaching out to the lost sheep looks like as an indication of what God is like. And it is this of course to which Peter is commissioned. So it is not surprising that at the Presbyteral Ordination Services that many of us will share in tomorrow the call to Peter to "tend my sheep and feed my lambs" is echoed over and over again not least when The President says to the newly ordained:- "Be shepherds to the flock of Christ. As you exercise mercy, do not forget justice, as you minister discipline do not forget mercy; that when Christ the Chief Shepherd comes in glory he may count you among his faithful servants".

It is this that forms the backdrop to all I want to say next for I am not simply calling for a re-examination of the place of pastoral care within our churches life and its ministry for its own sake but as disciples - learners and followers - of Jesus.

Pastorally and theologically, and our treasured word: Connexion. But what meaning does it have unless it is to do with being in relationship, and a relationship that does not have a Pastoral element to it is hardly worthy of the name? For as Martin Luther reminded us "it is the personal pronouns that matter". A colleague Chair told me of a time he was invited to lunch after worship by a couple in the congregation and as he looked around the front room noticed the picture of a young man on the mantelpiece and made reference to it. The whole story came out. How their son had died in his late teenage years and of how this had rocked although not destroyed their faith and that they still found his death distressing twenty years later and didn't always react well at church as they put it. "Well I'm sure that successive ministers have been supportive" said my colleague. "Well it's hard to know really" they replied. "We've never seen one". And here is the punch-line: "It's not the kind of thing you can talk about in 30 seconds at the church door is it?" And if you say "Well they should have asked the minister to call" I ask "should they?" Or did they make the excuse that so many kindly Methodists make about us that we're too busy? I was saddened by this story as I am by the stories of some of our Supernumerary ministers or their widows and the elderly members of our churches who can't now come to worship yet have so much to share and who so much value prayer with others but never have the opportunity for either.

Pragmatically and that other "Methodist" word I mentioned earlier. For I don't think some ministers recognise how much pastoral care paves the way for so much else in ministry. I was visiting a congregation recently who wanted to tell me how wonderful their new Minister was. "Was it his preaching?" I asked "Or his conduct of meetings?" They looked puzzled. "Oh no its nothing like that" they said. It's just that we know he cares. He has visited many of us already. He listens to us and prays with us. And although he's introduced some new things into worship and has some ideas of how the premises might be better used which we weren't sure about at first we trust him because we know him and he knows us. And I spoke to this minister afterwards and he said that this level of pastoral care had been hard work but that it had paid dividends in so many ways. It had informed his preaching, it had opened doors - literally and metaphorically - it had encouraged those who were working so hard for the Lord and the church, it had been more fulfilling than he imagined - and that although such Pastoral Care was important for its own sake it had in fact increased the size of the congregation too. And as I heard this story it reminded me of my recent visit to the Methodist Church in Estonia and hearing that the churches that are growing there have only one thing in common - good Pastoral Care!

Personally - So I recall how I came to faith and why I became a Christian and although others preaching and prayer played a significant part it was in the end people that mattered. The minister who played with me for what seemed like hours when I was a small child, The Tent Officer at a Christian camp who stayed with me and listened when I was incredibly homesick instead of going for a swim. The Crusader Leader who invited me to tea every Sunday afternoon. These are the folk who I recall (and there have been many others on my faith journey since) who in their Pastoral Care showed me something of a God who cared so much for me and who laid down his life for me that I could do no more then respond. And so although it was never offered in such a way Pastoral Care became for me a converting ordinance. So it is to this that I finally turn.


For what is the purpose of the Pastoral Care we offer as a church? Perhaps it is hospitality and welcome? Then if so it needs to be thought through. What are the real needs of the community we serve rather than what we imagine them to be? And what kind of welcome is it when we hire our premises to community groups or organisations but have no meaningful contact with them - except to complain when they've left a window open or haven't paid their dues? One of the smaller churches in my District was invited to hold their Christmas Day service in a Residential Home across the road. Afterwards some of the members reflected that although they had never been asked by anyone who was wheelchair bound if they could come to worship, the pews would clearly be a huge problem anyway. So for that reason alone they removed them and rearranged the church and although it looks a bit empty at the moment because they can only afford to buy one chair per week they are getting there - and so incidentally are a number of residents from across the road and others who have said "that's the kind of church I want to belong to".

Or perhaps the intention is to build a bridge between the church and the community? Well it can be done in small as well as great ways. Across the road from where I live is a large and somewhat forbidding Anglican church where until recently not only the door of the church was locked but the gate to the door of the church was locked as well! But the new vicar had other ideas and decided to open the building each day much to the consternation of some of the congregation! Within a few days a young lady who was seeking some rest and quiet in her busy life, an older lady hoping she might find someone to talk to about her desperate situation and a Muslim who couldn't get to the Mosque came to pray in the church instead. And when the Vicar wasn't there - which was usually the case - he was amazed at how many candles had been lit and how many requests for prayer had been made. And yet as a general rule we keep our buildings resolutely locked and our fire-extinguishers at the ready and thus fail to make the two ends of the bridge connect.

Or perhaps unashamedly our Pastoral Care has the desired outcome of making disciples. Then we should persevere! For it is sometimes supposed that mission in this narrow sense and pastoral care are mutually exclusive. Not so. For as Anne Morisy helpfully comments: "Mission as experienced (for example) through fresh expressions and Mission Shaped Church is inclined to major on the message of good news, of reassurance that our persistent futility and inability to do good is not the final word because Jesus has made us right with God. But there is also the pastoral task of "saving us from ourselves" that is helping people to explore how to live when informed by the pointers that Jesus gives from his life and teaching. When people are bothered and bewildered mission and pastoral care need to be closely interwoven because when they work together it becomes possible not just to proclaim hope but to enact hope.

Furthermore as Martyn Atkins reminds us in his book on Discipleship our Methodist theology is rooted in the understanding that "You can't do it on your own". He quotes Wesley: "A Methodist Society is a company of men and women united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work our their salvation" and he comments: "Whatever being a disciple of Jesus means for Methodists it includes other people to whom we belong".

Another of the smaller churches in my District had been distributing invitation cards for their Christmas services for years. They had had no response and were on the point of giving up but last year was different. For a lady came to the church who had never been before. She told me she had received these invitations year by year and she was really grateful but had only plucked up courage to come because her friend said she would come with her. She spoke of how she had been in Newcastle and a member of the Healing on The Streets team - seeing her looking troubled - asked if she could pray for her and did. "She told me that God loved me very much - I'd never heard that before". And then at the Carol service where evangelistic booklets were available for anyone to take based around the film "It's a wonderful life" guess what her favourite film was! She didn't take a booklet - she read it in the foyer there and then and has been coming to worship from time to time since. Perseverance - Risk taking - Ways in for people to Church and to Faith.

It is to do with intention. Someone once said I would make a great Superintendent because I was super at intending to do things but never quite got round to it! I know churches like that too! What's your intention and where is its fulfilment?

So during this coming year I invite the people called Methodists to reflect and to act if we have become unbalanced by our neglect of Pastoral Care. Unbalanced in our welcome at the front door of the church and in our watching at the back door. Unbalanced in not seeing the potential for every conversation, visit, email, phone call and letter to be a pastoral and grace-filled moment that builds up and does not destroy. Unbalanced in supposing that worship or mission can operate in watertight compartments and that pastoral care is just an add-on for those who like or need that kind of thing. And unbalanced if all this seems like just another demand for over-worked people rather than as a response to grace and at the very heart of what it means to be disciples of Jesus.

In his first letter Peter very simply reminds us: "God cares for you" and in generous response to such a God as this we are commissioned with the same message and the same task. 

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