It’s all about relationship (Debbie Forman)

Debbie FormanDebbie Forman claims it's all about relationship.

I sometimes wonder whether I am a complete fraud as an Ordained Pioneer Minister in the Church of England! It is true that when I read descriptions of the characteristics of a pioneer, I seem to fit the bill quite well. Yes, I love God and I long with every fibre of my being to take the message of God's saving love to the people whom s/he loves and in whom s/he delights, whether they already know about God or not.

When I visited Innsworth in Gloucestershire for the first time to see whether it might be the right place for me, my incumbent drove me around the estate describing it as needing to be loved, at which point everything in me said, 'please send me'.

I have lots of new ideas and get very excited at seeing what happens to them when they are batted around by others. It's certainly not something you do on your own.

But are not these the qualities of all ordained ministers? Am I not simply doing what any self-respecting curate does? Does not every ordained minister wake up in the morning with that sense of excitement wondering how the Gospel can be re-imagined for a new day and share their vision with others?

I actually spend a great deal of my time doing the most old-fashioned thing in the book, namely good pastoral care and a fair proportion of knocking on doors to ensure that people of any religious affiliation or none know that the church is there for them.

When I first arrived here, I was deeply moved by the number of times people would tell me their life stories on the doorstep. It seemed that nobody had ever listened to them before. I am well known in the community now. As a cyclist, every time I go out on my bike I am greeted by all and sundry and occasionally screech to a halt as I see someone who I know could do with more than a wave.

It is those relationships that have been established which have made a difference

People know to contact me if they want to get married, if they want their children baptised, if they want their new house blessed. Much of these first two years has been about community cohesion. Yes, worship does happen in the Community Hall twice a month, always with a creative twist, I do run lunch club for the elderly – with volunteer helpers I hasten to add – and yes, my pioneer title has given me licence to occasionally do something wacky to take the Gospel story into the community.

But it is those relationships that have been established which have made a difference, and yes, people do talk to me about prayer and forgiveness and God. As I read other stories about fresh expressions it is easy to think, 'Oh that's exciting, why haven't I done that or why does it not work that way here?' And then I reflect that every fresh expression or pioneering enterprise is the result of a conversation between context and theology and that there has to be integrity in that conversation. And alongside the conversation there is the listening and the discernment.

God is always there before us and it's great to come panting on behind and join in. I am confident that the rumour of God is now heard and felt in this place and I wonder what tomorrow might bring!

Church at Innsworth

Troops from across the world are living 'on the doorstep' of Revd Debbie Forman, Curate and Pioneer Minister for Innsworth, Gloucestershire. How is she working on her own estate and with people serving in NATO's Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC)?

Imjin Barracks in Innsworth welcomed almost 1,000 servicemen and women and their families to swell the ranks at the ARRC base this summer. In all about 520 new families from 15 countries came to Innsworth, some are living on the camp itself and others on the estate just outside.

Innsworth - last supperThere are lots of facilities on the base and they also have a padre but people are encouraged to worship outside the camp at churches in the town, there is no provision for church worship on the base itself. This can be quite difficult for people to access in an unknown place so I see part of my role as being that of a welcomer. I speak several languages, including French, German and Italian so I'm hoping that I can make myself understood when the time is right! The influx of people comes from all over the place, including Italy, Poland, Portugal, Turkey and Spain. The whole world appears to be on my doorstep.

This is an estate of mixed housing stock: some Ministry of Defence, some social housing, some owner occupied, with other property comprising ex-military housing that has been sold off. It's quite isolated as an area – on the one side we have the base and on the other we have a flyover over the ring road.

It's not a huge estate, the original houses were prefabs and the ones in the middle of the estate are in the process of being bricked up. People came to work on the then RAF Innsworth camp after World War Two when the houses were new. There is a significant elderly population because those who came at that time are now in their 70s, 80s and even 90s.

Innsworth - lunchAlongside them we do get some younger families but we haven't got as many in the middle age group. I am curate at St John the Evangelist (Churchdown and Innsworth) but there wasn't a church presence actually on the estate which meant that people could feel a bit isolated from the rest of the parish – part of a Local Ecumenical Partnership which supports the Pioneer Minister work.

We have a Council of Reference which contains a representative from each of the churches involved in that LEP. They were running a little service in the Innsworth community hall when I arrived. It now happens twice a month and the clientele has changed – there are now two or three who support us from St John's but I'm glad to say it's now largely people from Innsworth itself. The largest number we have would be 17-20 and sometimes it's fewer than that but the balance has definitely shifted.

The estate definitely needed a bit of tender loving care. To reflect that in The Church at Innsworth services, I work with a group of three others, one lady who lives on the estate and a couple who live on a neighbouring estate. We decide on a theme, such as the Church's year, but we always attempt to put some sort of creative aspect in the middle of it. I'd probably go a little further with it as I've been part of an alternative worship group but we have to maintain what can sometimes be a tricky balance between a challenge and a comfort.

To get the message out I do something very old-fashioned and deliver to every property on the estate, that's over 700 houses. I'm a well known figure because I cycle everywhere and when I first arrived I did quite a bit of cold calling. In the past I would never have done that but it just goes to show how God moves us on. In the first year I delivered a flyer for every service that happened; now I deliver a programme. I also put up notices on the Parish Council noticeboard and write a regular feature in a magazine for Innsworth.

Innsworth - police tapeDuring Holy Week I put up installations on the green spaces in the community. It was quite funny getting permission; I went into the police station and said, 'Can I have some police incident tape? I would like to create a scene of arrest.' They agreed but said they thought it would be vandalised. I was putting it up when a car full of young lads came to a screeching halt alongside me. They asked if there had been a crime, I said no but it was meant to remind people of a man who was wrongly arrested for what he did for us. 'Can we help?' they said. I asked them to make sure it stayed safe. I don't know what they did – or didn't – do but it never got vandalised.

In other public places around and about I had a Pilate judgement seat and, for the Last Supper, I super-glued plates and cups to a groundsheet on the green – it was like a mini art installation really.

This year during Lent, I got people to think of three things – Kindness, Giving, Generosity and we put out a public challenge to 'do something nice for somebody today'. I've also hung Advent boxes on the trees and put things in them to tell the Christmas story.

But what I am actually doing for most of the time is basic pastoral ministry. It's all about being known and being trusted. People will ring me up if they want their child baptised or if they want to get married. I feel well supported; I have a lovely training incumbent who has allowed me to have as much rope as I wanted. I also have accountability to the Diocesan Missioner and that's very valuable. There are four designated Pioneer Ministers in Gloucester and we are going to meet together for mutual support.

Innsworth - mealWhat I suppose is lacking at the moment is people emerging from the community to be leaders but it's early days yet. When people want things 'done' – like baptism or a wedding – they actually still tend to look for a tower or spire but for those who are unchurched, a church building and a normal church service is too much. I'm not in the business of forcing people to come into traditional church.

In another development, Age Concern used to run a weekly lunch club in the community hall but said they would have to close it because of cutbacks so I stepped out in faith and said the church would keep it going. I now have a team of helpers so I go there to cook, complete with dog collar and apron! We have up to 20 regulars – where would they have gone if the club had disappeared? It has been good to see where God is already at work in Innsworth and join in with it, who knows what will happen next.