Ben Clowes reports on new staff, opportunities and challenges at The Welcome, Knutsford.
The biggest development for us this year has been the appointment of Julie King as our lay pastor. She arrived at The Welcome as a cook in 2005, famously saying, 'I don't do God but I do a demon chocolate cake!'
Since then, of course, she has come to faith here, served as senior steward and local preacher and will probably be candidating this September. Julie's 25 hours a week role is a three-year post and the funding comes from different sources:
- a District grant;
- a Mission Alongside the Poor grant;
- local fundraising.
She was commissioned here on Easter Sunday and started about a week later. In the three months since she has been in post, we have seen a marked increase in the numbers of people who have been coming in off the streets, having coffees, making contact. So many have seen her come through from The Welcome kitchens to becoming a Christian and now serving the community in an official role; that has had quite an effect on those living nearby. She is becoming known to all sections of the community and that sometimes has unexpected outcomes.
For instance, we recently had someone run into The Welcome and say, 'Julie, we need you now!' A local man, involved in drink and drug dependency, had died unexpectedly and members of his community had wanted to perform their own rites to mark his passing. Julie was called upon to stand guard and act as a 'bouncer' until the police arrived.
But this isn't all about an individual or a personality; it's about what God is doing through Julie's job. It's astounding.
So much has happened since the local Methodist Church in Knutsford started The Welcome 20 years ago. We now provide a huge range of activities, services and support to the people of Longridge and Shaw Heath estates.
The growth of our community activities partly prompted our 2010 decision to separate church and charity for fundraising purposes. We were advised to do it because it is difficult, when applying for money, to have the Charity Commissioners' listing of us as 'Promotion of Religion'. There was confusion about The Welcome appearing to have two 'agendas' – one as a church and the other as a secular charity. But then came the banking crash. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as we know, but I would say this decision to separate was one which hasn't proved to supply the needs of either church or charity and several of us feel that we need to move towards merging again. Thankfully, we may be starting to bridge that gap because Julie has now been invited on to the board of the charity.
The whole nature of funding has changed in the last five years; funders are becoming 'smarter' in their approach and are beginning to see the difference between social outreach projects and proselytisation. You have to be careful about how you fund these things.
The Welcome is 20 years old this year, one of the older fresh expressions of church. As such, it has been a forerunner of all that has happened since but we are still entirely dependent on grants and money from Circuit. At the moment I can't see that changing because this community is extremely poor.
The Circuit give us £4,000 every year. We make a voluntary donation in return and I very much hope that the donation will grow as the community develops, but the 'money pots' we used to go to for possible funding are drying up and the District has said no further grants are available. I do believe The Welcome will continue to evolve but the wider church has to find a way of continuing to support it. To cut the church off would mean the loss of the whole community – a community who not only want to know they 'belong' to The Welcome, they also want to know they are accepted. In practical terms that acceptance would equate to not having to fight for every last bit of cash.
What we want to know from the Methodist Church as a whole is, 'What is the strategy for fundraising?' The Welcome created the procedures recently used elsewhere to become a 'proper' church and the thought process may therefore be that we should be more financially viable, but the deprivation level here is so immense. All the secondary-school-age kids from the estate go to Knutsford Academy – where there is such stigma associated with where they live. Deprivation isn't just about finance, it's about stigma.
It takes such a long time to build relationship here and we are just beginning to see the fruits of that. This year, for instance, we got a grant from Cheshire East Council to put on an outdoor Passion Play in Longridge. The Welcome was the Upper Room, the garden at the back was Gethsemane, and the tomb was a garden shed. It was pouring with rain but about 60 people followed us around the estate. We had primed someone from Longridge to remove the door early on the Sunday morning and, sure enough, someone contacted us to say, 'Your door has disappeared'. We then explained that was the point of the whole thing! Julie was commissioned next to that shed on the day to bring home the message of new life and new beginnings.
One of the difficulties that we have at The Welcome is when we're asked to detail numbers attending the church. Our regular Sunday congregation has about 8-10 while, on the Tuesday, there are 10-12. 'That's rubbish', people say, 'rubbish numbers, not worth investing in'. But the fact is that we now have contacts and relationships right across this estate, and that contact is so godly. Essentially we have a church of about 4,000 people there.
The reason The Welcome works so well is that it is 'owned' by the people of Longridge. We work alongside them and they are our guide and we are their guide. They come to us when they have a need because they trust us – and that's priceless.