Pioneer Minister Nik Stevenson, and his wife Shelly, are based in Oakley Vale, near Corby. Nik tells how 'St Benny's' has developed.
I was licensed as Pioneer Minister on the Oakley Vale estate in March 2011 and that's when we moved on to the estate. We were given a house and then told to get on with it!
We had two years of getting to know the folk of Oakley Vale, organising various activities and serving the community before we launched St Benedict's (known as St Benny's) public worship in September last year.
The first thing we got into was the school summer holiday Oakley Vale Lunch Project (LUNCH). This was providing lunch for children who would normally get free meals at school. We set up a gazebo on a local playing field and made lots of sandwiches. What was interesting was they just didn't want food, they wanted to play as well – so it was sandwiches and french cricket. We've run that project several times since.
We are also involved in running a weekly Food Bank distribution centre on a neighbouring estate with Churches Together. I'm chaplain at Corby's Stewart and Lloyd's RFC and I also play tight head prop for the Veteran team – that means I'm one of the big fat guys in the front row!
More recent projects include Storytime for primary school children in our front room and a 'coffee stop' at the school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The 'coffee stop' is where parents can go after school drop-off time. We have coffee, pastries and chat – and all sorts of interesting things happen as a result. All of these projects are part of building relationships and trust in the community.
It took a while to get to the point where people wanted to meet together as a fresh expression of church. But we now have people of all ages who come fairly regularly; we are also now seeing people coming to know Jesus better. It all begins with our Community Café that runs from 10am to 4pm on Sundays at the Oakley Vale Community Centre. We offer home baked goodies and bacon sandwiches at the start of the day. Later on, the café slows down and morphs into church when we have:
- a couple of active, 'kid friendly' songs at The Gathering with actions and dance routines;
- a craft activity or game that links in with the story;
- a dramatically told Bible story;
- three- to five-minute Bible thought;
- a gathering up of the ideas in an attempt to make it applicable to late primary/early secondary level;
- a more contemplative song;
- a time of creative prayer;
- more coffee and goodies;
- a chance to pray individually with the team.
We have a core group of about 20 people, but we normally see between 35 and 45 people weekly. The last Sunday of the month is based around a bring and share meal.
By the grace of St Michael's, Great Oakley, I am working in their parish but I have no formal ties with them. Their church is in a small village nearby but, by road, it's a long way and quite difficult to access.
The Rural Dean, Ian Pullinger – vicar of St Columba's, Corby – has been very supportive. Two of the families that form part of our core team have been sent to us from St Columba's and he commissioned Richard and Cathy Smith to be missionaries to Oakley Vale, here at St Benny's. Liz and Noel Harding and their family are also part of the core team and they have been a great encouragement and support to us since we moved onto the estate. There are other people on the fringes of St Benny's – some are happy with what we are doing but are not sure about God yet; they are starting to understand that we are kind of God's 'community workers'.
We are up front and honest and we talk about God a lot. I think, if we didn't do that, it would be a huge mistake. Once people see that you compartmentalise your life, you're in trouble. If Jesus isn't at the heart of it all, I wouldn't be here and the whole reason we are here would disappear. Jesus needs to be central to what we are doing. Authenticity is something that people respect. It's about being humble and honest.
St Benny's is now a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) – which is basically a halfway house between a company and a charity. Being a CIO means we find it easier to attract funding even though we are still very clearly a faith-based organisation. This has led to funding for the LUNCH project and a series of interns to help with the work on Oakley Vale.
Shelly and I have daily prayer using three fold Benedictine office. We are working to stream the offices as part of St Benny's Radio so that others can join in. Shelly is a Benedictine Oblate (Wikipedia: Oblate) and is doing her PhD in Digital New Monastic Communities so will be leading on that. We've put in a funding bid for an app so that the liturgy will be available on smartphones. St Benny's Radio will allow people to access a daily rhythm of life with us.
I think the hardest thing about being a pioneer is that you are always inspected, always scrutinised. I'm going through ordination at the moment so it can feel like you are being assessed to death! I am aware that it's hard for some people in diocesan structures to understand what we're doing because they spend so much of their time in a more traditional environment. It can be hard to get St Benny's as it looks so different to traditional church. How is it going to work? How is it going to cope?
I was quite defensive about it all when I started working here, but now I see I need to be willing to explain. This is what God is doing. I need to help them to understand that and not just expect them to 'get it'. It's important not to be a rebel on the edge of the diocese; we will always work differently because we are pioneers.
I'm studying part-time through Eastern Region Ministry Course and I learn online one evening a week. I will be ordained deacon in 2016. The hope is that my curacy will be here on Oakley Vale so that I will have ten years in this area before someone else takes it on to the next level when I go.