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

The new President of the Methodist Conference, Revd LionelOsborn, challenged the assumption that the Methodist Church waswelcoming in his inaugural address to the Methodist Conference. Atthe Southport Theatre and Convention Centre today, Mr Osbornemphasised the need for pastoral relationships in the church thatgo beyond a 30 second chat at the door on the way out.

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

He commended churches that organised welcoming teams to greetnewcomers and praised the new vicar of a neighbouring Anglicanchurch who had decided to open the doors every day. "Whilst I amconcerned about what is happening at the front door of the churchI'm equally concerned about what is happening at the back door:those who slip away due to our pastoral neglect or remain but feeldisappointed or uncared for," he said, adding that churches canbuild a bridge between themselves and the community in small aswell as great ways. Mr Osborn worked as a nursing orderly inNorfolk before offering for the Methodist ministry. He trained atWesley College Bristol and has served in the Ripley (Derbyshire),Bury (Lancashire), Bramhall (Cheshire) and North Shields andWhitley Bay Circuits over 25 years. He has been Chair of theNewcastle upon Tyne Methodist District for the past ten years. Thefull text of President's address follows:

Pastoral Care as Disciples of Jesus

I must begin with three words of thanks. First and foremost to mywife Charlotte for her unending love, understanding support andwise counsel. Then to my P.A. Diane who has worked alongside me for15 years. I am reminded of the story that David Watson used to tellof the unappreciated secretary who decided to get her revenge onher boss. He was to give an important lecture and as usual shetyped his notes without a word of thanks but when during his speechhe came to the bottom of the first page and read "we shall nowconsider this matter under fifteen headings" he was alarmed to turnover the page and find it blank except for the words: "You're onyour own now mate"! So Diane with much relief - thank you!

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

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

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

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

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

Evangelical - For I believe that at the heart of Christian faith isa profound relationship with God through Jesus Christ and I longfor people to discover that for themselves. I believe in thecentrality of the Cross and Resurrection and in the overridingauthority of Scripture but I don't find that that provides me withanswers to every question or that despite living in Newcastle everymoral or ethical decision is black and white. Indeed I have somesympathy with John Robinson of Honest to God fame who towards theend of his life said that he believed more and more about less andless!

Sacramental - For the sacraments - and especially that of HolyCommunion - have become more and more important to me and acontinual means of grace. And yet it is a means and not an end andI have to guard against a spirituality that becomes dry andlifeless and a mere going through the motions.

Ecumenical - For I long and pray for the unity of the church invisible form and want to encourage every initiative to bring itnearer. 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 everbeen about what God is doing in the Methodist Church today andwhatever the shape of the church might look like in 20 or 30 yearstime I believe we as Methodists will have an enormous amount to putinto the mix for the enrichment of the whole.

And having said all of that I thank God for those who do not carryan evangelical, sacramental or ecumenical label, who may carry adifferent label or no label at all but from whom I have learnt somuch .

So Balance for me is important both within these convictionsthemselves and in holding them together as one. And yes of courseat its worst "balance" can simply be a euphemism for lazy thinkingor a desire to never cause offence. And I'm well aware that oneperson's balance is another person's imbalance so to quote RaymondGeorge "I used to think that I was somewhere in the middle and thendiscovered that everyone else had moved"! So I smile to myself whenapart from evangelical, sacramental and ecumenical I have also beendescribed as liberal, charismatic and radical, for it not onlydepends on where you're coming from but where others are comingfrom too. But at is best balance can be a strong word especiallywhen it seeks to embrace the best of every tradition and offers itto make up what is lacking in every other.

So in one of his hymns we are invited by Richard Jones, a formerPresident 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 owndiscipleship too. The "breathing in" of scripture, the "breathingout" of prayer. Our receiving in worship, our giving in service (orwhat Wesley called works of piety and works of mercy). Ourcommitment to the church, to the world, to our families and friendsand to ourselves- it's not always an easy balance to maintain. Andwithin our Connexion and within each District, Circuit and localchurch that balance is continually being worked out too. If wespend our money here we can't spend it there. If we ask that personto serve at one level they might need to lay down their work atanother. If we can't fill all our appointments who decides whichare the most significant? What does a balanced diet of worship looklike and how can we avoid upsetting everyone in equal measure? Suchinteraction is indeed a balancing act and although it requires muchgrace on every side it is worth pursuing.

So I affirm balance rightly understood and affirm it as essentialfor what it means to be a Methodist Christian today. But in onearea of our Church's life I have become increasingly concerned thatwe have become unbalanced. Which is why "Pastoral Care as Disciplesof Jesus" is a theme I hope to explore not just this afternoon butthroughout my Presidential Year and thus build on the report on theTheology of Pastoral Care which is coming before Conference thisweek. And it is of course the Pastoral Care we offer to each otherthat 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 heardrecently but it still conveys a sense of transience with theexpectation that we may not see such a person again. Well as Jesusdidn't say "Blessed are those who expect nothing. They shall neverbe disappointed!" Or think of the way in which directions aresometimes given in the notices. "The crèche is in the CromwellBuilding." Fine - but where's that? "Toilets are in the narthex"What? "Coffee is available afterwards, just follow the crowd". Idid that once and ended up in weight watchers! "If you would likemore information talk to the Church Stewards". Well, I might if Iknew who they were! You see subliminally we're giving out the"churchy" message that because we know, everyone else is bound toknow too whereas in fact as I discovered only a few weeks ago alady who'd been coming to church for over 60 years had never stayedfor coffee because she'd been too embarrassed to ask where it wasand no one had every told her. So the number of times I've heardpeople say "We're a welcoming church" and the number of times I'vewanted to ask "Who told you that?" for the aspiration and thereality may be two quite different things.

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

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

And what of class leaders and pastoral visitors? It was one of thegeniuses of John Wesley to place disciples of Jesus in TheMethodist tradition in "classes" and I believe that Home or CellGroups are a worthy successor especially when within them there isa balance of worship, learning, prayer and sharing, which are allvital in our Church. Yet this should never make redundant the roleof the Pastoral Visitor. Rather I am convinced that they are one ofthe most undervalued groups within the life of our church today.They are an essential expression of our commitment that "all arewelcome in this place" and yet are rarely prayed for orcommissioned in our churches and are sometimes ill-prepared fortheir role, and perhaps it is this that has led in some places tomembership tickets simply being handed around after the servicewith the "Oh I know you're alright" comment! Well if only they didreally know.

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


For whilst I am concerned about what is happening at the front doorof the church I'm equally concerned about what is happening at theback door as it were - those who slip away due to our pastoralneglect or those who remain but feel disappointed or uncared forand I want to speak particularly to ministers now and includemyself. So I'm just old enough to remember the advice that wasgiven to me at college about never being found in your slippersafter 8.00am and never without your dog-collar by nine. And Irecall how each day was to be divided into three sections, morningsin the study, afternoons visiting and evenings at meetings. And ittook me about half an hour in Circuit to realise just howimpractical that was - that ministry doesn't fit neatly into threecompartments even though the basic principle has something tocommend it. And now that emails seem to require an immediateresponse at any time of day or night (although whether it has to bethat immediate is questionable and whether an email is the mosteffective way of being pastoral is questionable too). And whenmeetings take place in morning or afternoon just as much as evening- developing a pattern of ministry becomes ever more difficult andthere is never enough time for everything.

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

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

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

So I reflect Theologically on the ministry of Jesus. For at thevery heart of the Gospel is the pastoral image of Jesus the GoodShepherd which despite the fact that many of us have never seen ashepherd at work and certainly not operating as in Jesus day, stillstrongly resonates with us even though it is not without itsdifficulties. And it is not of course merely an image, for Jesusthroughout his ministry demonstrates in words and actions whatknowing his sheep, calling his sheep, listening to his sheep,loving his sheep, laying down his life for the sheep reaching outto 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 isnot surprising that at the Presbyteral Ordination Services thatmany of us will share in tomorrow the call to Peter to "tend mysheep and feed my lambs" is echoed over and over again not leastwhen The President says to the newly ordained:- "Be shepherds tothe flock of Christ. As you exercise mercy, do not forget justice,as you minister discipline do not forget mercy; that when Christthe Chief Shepherd comes in glory he may count you among hisfaithful servants".

It is this that forms the backdrop to all I want to say next for Iam not simply calling for a re-examination of the place of pastoralcare within our churches life and its ministry for its own sake butas 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 inrelationship, and a relationship that does not have a Pastoralelement to it is hardly worthy of the name? For as Martin Lutherreminded us "it is the personal pronouns that matter". A colleagueChair told me of a time he was invited to lunch after worship by acouple in the congregation and as he looked around the front roomnoticed the picture of a young man on the mantelpiece and madereference to it. The whole story came out. How their son had diedin his late teenage years and of how this had rocked although notdestroyed their faith and that they still found his deathdistressing twenty years later and didn't always react well atchurch as they put it. "Well I'm sure that successive ministershave been supportive" said my colleague. "Well it's hard to knowreally" they replied. "We've never seen one". And here is thepunch-line: "It's not the kind of thing you can talk about in 30seconds at the church door is it?" And if you say "Well they shouldhave asked the minister to call" I ask "should they?" Or did theymake the excuse that so many kindly Methodists make about us thatwe're too busy? I was saddened by this story as I am by the storiesof some of our Supernumerary ministers or their widows and theelderly members of our churches who can't now come to worship yethave so much to share and who so much value prayer with others butnever 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 carepaves the way for so much else in ministry. I was visiting acongregation recently who wanted to tell me how wonderful their newMinister was. "Was it his preaching?" I asked "Or his conduct ofmeetings?" They looked puzzled. "Oh no its nothing like that" theysaid. It's just that we know he cares. He has visited many of usalready. He listens to us and prays with us. And although he'sintroduced some new things into worship and has some ideas of howthe premises might be better used which we weren't sure about atfirst we trust him because we know him and he knows us. And I spoketo this minister afterwards and he said that this level of pastoralcare had been hard work but that it had paid dividends in so manyways. It had informed his preaching, it had opened doors -literally and metaphorically - it had encouraged those who wereworking so hard for the Lord and the church, it had been morefulfilling than he imagined - and that although such Pastoral Carewas important for its own sake it had in fact increased the size ofthe congregation too. And as I heard this story it reminded me ofmy recent visit to the Methodist Church in Estonia and hearing thatthe 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 aChristian and although others preaching and prayer played asignificant part it was in the end people that mattered. Theminister who played with me for what seemed like hours when I was asmall child, The Tent Officer at a Christian camp who stayed withme and listened when I was incredibly homesick instead of going fora swim. The Crusader Leader who invited me to tea every Sundayafternoon. These are the folk who I recall (and there have beenmany others on my faith journey since) who in their Pastoral Careshowed me something of a God who cared so much for me and who laiddown his life for me that I could do no more then respond. And soalthough it was never offered in such a way Pastoral Care becamefor me a converting ordinance. So it is to this that I finallyturn.


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 bethought through. What are the real needs of the community we serverather than what we imagine them to be? And what kind of welcome isit when we hire our premises to community groups or organisationsbut have no meaningful contact with them - except to complain whenthey've left a window open or haven't paid their dues? One of thesmaller churches in my District was invited to hold their ChristmasDay service in a Residential Home across the road. Afterwards someof the members reflected that although they had never been asked byanyone who was wheelchair bound if they could come to worship, thepews would clearly be a huge problem anyway. So for that reasonalone they removed them and rearranged the church and although itlooks a bit empty at the moment because they can only afford to buyone chair per week they are getting there - and so incidentally area 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 churchand the community? Well it can be done in small as well as greatways. Across the road from where I live is a large and somewhatforbidding Anglican church where until recently not only the doorof the church was locked but the gate to the door of the church waslocked as well! But the new vicar had other ideas and decided toopen the building each day much to the consternation of some of thecongregation! Within a few days a young lady who was seeking somerest and quiet in her busy life, an older lady hoping she mightfind someone to talk to about her desperate situation and a Muslimwho 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 - hewas amazed at how many candles had been lit and how many requestsfor prayer had been made. And yet as a general rule we keep ourbuildings resolutely locked and our fire-extinguishers at the readyand thus fail to make the two ends of the bridge connect.

Or perhaps unashamedly our Pastoral Care has the desired outcome ofmaking disciples. Then we should persevere! For it is sometimessupposed that mission in this narrow sense and pastoral care aremutually exclusive. Not so. For as Anne Morisy helpfully comments:"Mission as experienced (for example) through fresh expressions andMission Shaped Church is inclined to major on the message of goodnews, of reassurance that our persistent futility and inability todo good is not the final word because Jesus has made us right withGod. But there is also the pastoral task of "saving us fromourselves" that is helping people to explore how to live wheninformed by the pointers that Jesus gives from his life andteaching. When people are bothered and bewildered mission andpastoral care need to be closely interwoven because when they worktogether it becomes possible not just to proclaim hope but to enacthope.

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

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

It is to do with intention. Someone once said I would make a greatSuperintendent because I was super at intending to do things butnever quite got round to it! I know churches like that too! What'syour intention and where is its fulfilment?

So during this coming year I invite the people called Methodists toreflect and to act if we have become unbalanced by our neglect ofPastoral Care. Unbalanced in our welcome at the front door of thechurch and in our watching at the back door. Unbalanced in notseeing the potential for every conversation, visit, email, phonecall and letter to be a pastoral and grace-filled moment thatbuilds up and does not destroy. Unbalanced in supposing thatworship or mission can operate in watertight compartments and thatpastoral care is just an add-on for those who like or need thatkind of thing. And unbalanced if all this seems like just anotherdemand for over-worked people rather than as a response to graceand at the very heart of what it means to be disciples ofJesus.

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