Ordained Pioneer Minister Beth Honey tells how she, and her husband Ben, are helping to 'grow oak trees' through their ministry in Derby.
Derwent Oak is growing out of an initiative of the Diocese of Derby to re-engage the community across two parishes on a large housing estate. The Derwent Ward is to the north-east of Derby and has a different make up to the South of the city; in general it's a monochrome, sprawling, post-war estate which is home to about 22,000 people. It's sort of split into three or four areas because of the way the roads run through the place; and it can be seen to be very different to live 'up the hill' or 'down the hill'.
Before we came for interview, we looked at the statistics which highlighted Derwent as a deprived area but, when you live here, you discover it hasn't got significant issues with violent crime; it's private deprivation, such as not eating enough or not eating well, or accepting that life cannot improve. There had been two previous attempts to plant here in a very 'worship first' way, Derby City Mission were aware of the needs too but the para-church work in this area had come to a natural end.
The diocese, alongside the Mission, began to wonder, what do we do here next? So, after several years of praying and planning, the concept of pioneer ministry – being explored in other areas of the diocese – was developed for this area. I am licensed to the council ward and encouraged to consult with the parishes, and this is an ongoing process of understanding each other and developing our different roles.
I would say this area is at least 80% unchurched; yes, there may be a few Christians out there to find and there is a kind of heritage of Catholicism but that's about it. This is an exciting place to begin discipleship; without any expectations of church attendance. This role did not have to be filled by an ordained minister, but I have found it a benefit as the sacramental expression of the gospel has already found a place.
The pioneer ministry started in a relational way, with me and my husband Ben working to get to know our neighbours and listen to anyone who wanted to talk to us about the area – whether those people were from churches, the public sector or individuals stopping us in the street.
There's not a lot of overt community life, it's almost like a tribal network; people look after their own people but it doesn't tend to go much wider than that. Once you get to know a few individuals it really helps, but I reckon it takes an average of 10 encounters with someone here before you get to anything like a conversation and then 25 conversations before they'll come into your house.
Being out and about is vital as lots of life in Derwent is conducted out on the street so we got a dog, and it was brilliant to see the kind of 'God things' that happened as a result. Billy looks like a greyhound on steroids but he's actually a lurcher/Staffordshire bull terrier cross so he has got quite a lot of street cred because of his quite 'tough' appearance. When we first took him out for walks, people would say things like, 'Would you look at the muscle tone on that?!' The irony is that he wouldn't hurt a fly, but Billy's unconventional looks have certainly sparked many a chat we wouldn't otherwise have had. There are a number of neighbours we now count as friends through these haphazard conversations. We really believe that discipleship starts from these first meetings.
Our house is next door to a church but the useful thing for me is that I'm not the vicar; we are here as residents and I think that's enabled us to go to new people in a slightly different way. Mind you, I still get asked, 'Are you a vicar or something then?'
I explain it as, 'You know how some nurses work in hospitals and some are in the community? Well, I'm like a vicar who works in the community.'
Fresh expressions language wouldn't fly with the local people here, and so we speak about getting together, throwing parties, having dinner. There are other more formal things we could do – in schools and such like, and we have done a few things but generally we've thought we don't want to spread ourselves too thinly and only organise events or pop in for an assembly here and there.
We have learned that people really do want to gather and celebrate, and most of all want to serve as well as be served. Our community began to emerge after about six months of being here and we have grown into a small group, a team who hold the vision and those who support it; some of us are used to church, some of us are not.
We have discovered that the community is real and welcoming. In our ongoing listening, we have also begun to hear some themes. There is a significant distance from institutions in this area, and what we suspected to be true has become evident on the ground; namely that this cannot be about another project for Derwent, but needs to grow out of Derwent. We also need to avoid being in a hurry. Relationships, rather than structures, will be the heart of anything that grows here, and they simply take time to develop.
As a result of this prayer, we decided to call what we are doing Derwent Oak, after Isaiah 61.4 – 'God will plant oaks of righteousness to display his splendour out of places of mourning and poverty'. We believe that God will not use us to transform Derwent, but that he will, in his grace, use us to help plant the oaks that will. Oak trees are proud, solid, grand, and last a long time… and take a long time to establish!
Twelve months into the first beginnings of this shared life and experiment, we are growing as a community, and have a monthly rhythm of prayer, eating together and planning, as well as seasonal routines emerging. We see possibilities for the future in our partnerships with other charitable and public sector organisations in the area, and we are always looking out for those who start with relationships.
We are based in two Anglican parishes that are fully supportive of community engagement, St Philip's, Chaddesden, and St Mark's Derby. I work under a Bishop's Mission Order, with a five year licence which I am a year into, but I would say, looking ahead, it's a 10-year thing.
For accountability and support, I see the Fresh Expressions Officer for the Diocese, Michael Mitton, once a month and I also see the Archdeacon every term too. Mike is the visitor to three further full-time Pioneer Ministers who are licensed to BMOs in the Diocese. They are Mark Broomhead at The Order of the Black Sheep in Chesterfield; Dave Battison at The Bridge, Matlock, and Captain Tim Rourke of the Church Army who is working to grow a pioneering community for local people living on estates in the southern part of Chesterfield. A lot of people have heard of The Order of the Black Sheep and it's because of Mark Broomhead's hard work in both parish settings, and through fresh expressions, that the Diocese has trusted him – to the extent that this expansion in pioneering work has been possible.
We have experimented with some wider gatherings as we've got to know more people and we are learning that sharing food, working together, asking for help (this is vital in an area where so much help is offered), and relaxing and enjoying ourselves – as much as planning – are the best ways to invite others into making things happen in Derwent. We are also discovering that we don't have to try to bring Jesus into the conversation; he just seems to appear there.