As the autumn programme of rural events continues, thirty people gather to share ideas on how to provide a warm welcome across their rural communities.
The How Village Churches Thrive series, inspired by the practical handbook of the same name, kicked off in September with the inaugural diocesan rural lecture and a rural-focused Continuing Ministerial Development day at St Mary's Convent in Wantage.
Wellbeing in rural contexts
On Tuesday 11 October, the programme continued with the latest diocesan Rural Forum, an online gathering facilitated by Helen Cameron, a theologian and research fellow at the University of Oxford. Looking at ways of engaging with wellbeing in rural contexts, the Zoom session allowed time for colleagues to reflect with one another about their own experiences and share learnings across the counties.
Speakers included Kristy Pattimore, Deanery Pioneer Ministers in Cumbria, who spoke on Renew Wellbeing centres as a local church response to rural isolation, and Hannah Charles, a community outreach worker from Chipping Norton, who drew attention to the resources of Christians Against Poverty's Lifeskills courses and Kintsugi Hope Groups as ways of engaging with rural poverty and mental health.
Extending a warm welcome
Wednesday 19 October saw the first Rural Read-along take place. All parishes who attended earlier events were gifted a copy of How Village Churches Thrive and invited to an online book group to discuss each chapter. The first session looked at how churches can extend a warm welcome and provided much food for thought.
Charles Chadwick, Parish Development Advisor for the Dorchester Area, started the meeting with a prayer before inviting the Revds Katie Tupling and Polly Falconer to speak.
Katie, the diocesan Disability Advisor, shared her own experience of the different interpretations of what it means to be 'welcoming'. Katie shared how she always starts services in the same way, introducing herself and explaining how the service will work - even if it doesn't look like any newcomers are in the room.
“If we stop expecting people to be new, we’ll never get new people through the door.”
The Revd Polly Falconer, UKME Enabler for the diocese, went on to share the importance of names in many cultures. "Many cultures present themselves differently and feel welcomed differently, but a simple thing like saying my name can be huge for people." Polly also reflected on the value of a personal invitation to join in - whether it's making a point to invite someone to stay for a coffee or asking them to do a reading in a service, a personal invitation removes the fear of rejection and acknowledges the skillset of the person being asked.
The welcome starts outside the church
Many attendees contributed to an open time of discussion. One reflected on the need for a more proactive approach:
"Why should we wait for people to come to us? Shouldn’t we go out to the people and make sure we're dropping notes through their letterbox, showing them the church magazine, inviting them personally to services or coffee? The welcome starts outside the church."
Another theme was how easy it is to consider your work 'done'; to leave the welcoming to the welcome team or to think that because you already have a certain demographic in your church congregation, you don't need to work to be inclusive anymore.
"Everybody is a welcomer. That effort won’t ever stop. You can't ever think 'we've got it sorted'."
Katie and Polly also both shared the ways in which they can help parishes. Katie is availble to walk and talk through your church building, and can then provide different ideas of how to make it more accessible - from 'pop to Screwfix' instant fixes to 'if we had the money' ideals. You can contact Katie via email. Polly and all members of the diocesan UKME Chapter are available to preach at churches - email Polly for further information.
Charles brought the evening to a close, leaving attendees with a challenge for the weeks ahead:
"When people leave our churches and spend time with others, what might they want to talk about? What memory might they be taking away?"
Join the read-along
The read-alongs continue once a month until March, looking at a different chapter each week. The next session takes place on Wednesday 16 October and focuses on life events. The book chapter was written by Sandra Miller, former Life Events Officer and member of the Dorchester Team, and the Revd Mary Harwood of the Wantage Deanery is in attendance to answer any questions that arise. You can register at any time for the remaining sessions via Zoom, and there's no obligation to come to all of them - pop in when you're able and share your thoughts.