An ex-mining village in Dunfermline lies at the heart of a developing fresh expression of church. Aileen Christie reports.
It takes a long time to build trust and relationship and we have certainly found that at Wellwood. It's a village of about 750 people and it's a place that's quite isolated in the northern part of Dunfermline.
Wellwood used to be a mining village but the industry's decline brought difficult times for what is a close-knit community.
In 2004, Wellwood was brought into the parish of Gillespie Memorial Church, part of the Church of Scotland. We were doing Purpose Driven Church and, at one point, we all held hands before being told to turn around and look outwards. Some of us felt it was no coincidence that Wellwood came into our parish at that very stage in the life of Gillespie.
The congregation embraced the idea of reaching out to the village but it didn't go too smoothly at first; we tried to deliver Easter eggs but this was met with suspicion by villagers who had been let down by churches in the past. Thankfully, that seems almost unbelievable now – and it's all down to the community relationships we have built up since then.
Jesus in the Park,or J in the Park, was our next step. That's when we took a large tent to the local park in the summer of 2006 and offered a week-long programme of activities, including drama, games, crafts and worship. We did that for five years and we did see some people coming to faith, that was all well and good but it was then a major step for them to walk into a traditional church setting.
We started off with the whole congregation involved and now there is a relatively small number of people concerned with it, I guess it's slightly unusual because it has taken the opposite track to many fresh expressions in that we began with a very large group that has now become smaller in number – but the good thing is that the smaller group is one that's more focused on its intention to be church in the community.
In those early days, ten years ago, we weren't looking to create a fresh expression of church; all we wanted to do was to engage the people of Wellwood to come to our church. In the first year, some of the kids came along and we built up some good relationships. After that, we did have people coming down to church and it was a complete disaster; that's when we realised that church as we knew it was just not going to meet the needs of people with no experience of church.
From then on our aim was not to get them to come to our church but to find out what would be 'church' at Wellwood – and that's still the journey we're on today. We are still not there in exploring discipleship but we can see that that will come in God's time.
We started to put our energies into getting to know the residents and developing friendships with them. We had a Scripture Union group at Wellwood Primary School and that meant we were seeing the people every week; it just built relationships but it really does take such a long time, we couldn't believe how many years it takes to get to that stage.
Again, we still had no idea of setting up a fresh expression of church but then I did the mission shaped ministry course in Edinburgh and things developed from there. We'd come to the natural end of Jesus in the Park at the point when I was doing msm and I felt it right that we should have a permanent presence in the village, a place for the community which might also become home to a fresh expression.
There wasn't a community facility at all at Wellwood. There was a small food store and what was an empty unit next to it which people remembered as a post office and later a beauty salon. It's a fairly small space and had lain empty all the time we had been in the village. If we were going to set up a permanent presence in the village, that was the only place to do it.
Initially we were completely funded by the church but after Jesus in the Park finished, the funding wasn't as available so we were looking for external funding. Thankfully, we have a great relationship with the Fife Council in the Dunfermline area and they were very amenable to partnering with us in Wellwood. We also applied to various trusts and the Go For It fund of the Church of Scotland. Although not significant sums of money, this helped us to tell our story in various circles of assistance. Go For It has been such a huge source of support and encouragement along the way and we are very grateful for that.
We knew that we had to make a move for the empty unit so, in the end, we just went into the neighbouring shop and asked the woman who owned both sets of premises, 'How do you feel about us taking on the next door unit, even though we can't afford to pay anything like what you are asking?' She said, 'That sounds like a great idea!' It should have been £650 a month but she gave it to us for the first year for £200 a month with an increase to £300 after that time.
The wonderful thing is that Gillespie Memorial Church did support us in that. They agreed that if we didn't manage to get funding, they would underwrite us when we took on the lease. That sort of support meant such a lot to us.
We can have small meetings in the unit, which has become a real hub for the local community and is known as The Well, but we are now hoping to move into the local primary school. That's when I think we can start developing working with adults coming in and having meetings and chats. At the moment the environment doesn't allow for that. It's really reaching the end of its lifespan for us but it was the ideal location at the time.
We're into our fourth year and the unit is used regularly by the community. We have a lively youth group on a Monday night and hope to revive a drop-in on Thursday lunchtimes for secondary school pupils.
People in the village give us far more credit than we feel is due to us for making things happen but the truth is that they have found the confidence to develop as a community; we have been happy to support them in that. A major turning point was the planning of a Gala in the village. In mining communities, the Gala was a big event on the calendar but there hadn't been a Gala at Wellwood for about 20 years.
Then it was decided that it would be great to have a Gala again and The Well became the meeting place for the Gala committee. We were able to facilitate that and we helped with applications to the council, and so on, but we weren't even officially on the committee; we simply went along to the meetings.
It was fantastic to see people gain in confidence and actually take control but even until the very last minute we didn't know how the wider community would react to the Gala. We went to the top of the village where the parade was going to start, there weren't many people around… and then, with 10 minutes to go, all the doors opened and the people came out as the band came marching down the road. It was so significant for everyone in the village. That then was the turning point because the attitude changed from complaining about the council to thinking about what they could achieve themselves.
By the second year, it strengthened our relationship with the community and the rest of the people. Now we're looking forward to the fourth Gala on the last Saturday in July.
It has been a real highlight to see how that has developed but there have also been some terrible low points. Wellwood's primary school closed in October 2014 as part of a package of school closures across the area; we walked alongside the parents to build a case for the school to remain open but, in the end, the decision went against them. It was a devastating blow.
The children now have to go out of the village to school. They have settled all right but I think it's more about the impact on the community not to have a school at the heart of it any more.
But there's now a possibility of using the redundant school premises, getting it at a token rent for use by the community. We really hope the residents get the chance to do that, particularly as they are saying to us, 'The church needs to be there, we couldn't do it without you'.
We have to get the paperwork done by April. We never know where we are going next on this journey but we would hope and pray to be established in the old school buildings in the summer.
The school closure was awful, though working closely with the parents has been such a blessing. If the school was made available, it would give us the space to do a lot more, particularly with the kids, and it would also give us so much more scope in the range of things on offer.
There are three of us on the team at the moment. I work with Shirley and Linda (our respective husbands also lend a hand!) We are all lay people. We also have those who support us in the church – mainly in prayer but they are also there if we need help at all. As I've mentioned, there was a massive buy-in from Gillespie Memorial Church at the start and there is still a lot of goodwill but, in practical terms, it's just us.
All three of us are 50 and we are in this journey for the long haul. We all do what we can do and then we wait and see what happens. We do work very closely with the people on the Gala committee, about four or five of them, and I think we are at a tipping point in terms of members of the local community stepping up to take responsibility. I think we are on the verge of seeing people say, is there a role for me?
We are all partners working in Wellwood together. The adults now know there is no 'side' to us; it would never have worked if we did. We say, 'we are here to help you', because it's all about working alongside people so that they are finding out for themselves.
How many people are coming to our church? That's not what we are about. We have seen change in the community and have built up trusting, open relationships which leave the way open for deeper conversations to arise naturally. All the children in the village had contact with J in the park and the SU group and now have a grounding in the Bible stories and, we hope, an understanding of who Jesus is.
We've encountered some ministers in the wider church who do not have much understanding about what we are trying to do and don't seem to be 'buying' it. But that's OK, we just try and remain faithful to what God wants us to do with the people in this area; we leave everything else up to him.