I was definitely not training for Baptist ministry!
I had attended various churches over the years but had become a Christian over a period of time at the age of 15 through the welcome and witness of Seaford Baptist Church (SBC) in East Sussex. SBC was, and I’m sure still is, a church which took young people seriously, listening to them and helping them grow. At 18 they encouraged me to spend time with them doing youth and children’s work and start the day-a-week theology certificate at Spurgeon’s College.
Even when I moved to Spurgeon’s fulltime in 2008, having decided that a Theology degree would be good for whatever came next, I was adamant that I didn’t have the pedigree to be ordained, and gave short shrift to anyone who suggested otherwise. Instead I felt I was called to be an ordinary Christian, out in the workplace.
In the summer of 2009 I sat at the ordination of a friend (an occupational hazard) and listened to the words of Jesus in John 21; ‘Feed me sheep’, and the nudging of the Holy Spirit in the back of my mind, “Why wouldn’t I ask this of you?” I was both overwhelmed and a bit grumpy. It was too late to fill the gaps before I finished my degree.
With great support from Spurgeon’s and the London Baptist Association I went into settlement instead. I would be ordained in July 2013 having been at the church which had called me three years earlier as one of their ministers.
I felt I’d found my footing, I was amazed that God would take someone young with so little Christian experience and yet there I was.
Less than a year later it seemed things were up in the air again. The church was looking to tackle a financial deficit and felt the need to make my original post as Minister for Youth and Children redundant. I really wasn’t sure what God was doing, or why.
At the same time I was starting a placement at Fair Havens Hospice in Southend as part of a placement for an MTh module on chaplaincy. Going to the hospice was a long way out of my comfort zone: I was worried about the smells and the clinical reality of dying and death. I very quickly realised that the hospice was a place of laughter, struggle, joy in the little things, black humour, board games and a lot of cake. After a couple of weeks I was speaking to a friend who commented on how much I was enjoying it. She gently asked whether God might be stirring something in me in this time of uncertainty. I didn’t quite dare hope to believe this but spoke to my NAM mentor, Alison, and other trusted friends. Alison had been both a hospital chaplain and a nurse before that, and was emphatic in her encouragement. With strong support behind me I started to look at jobs, having been advised that hospital chaplaincy would give broader experience to someone just starting out. I chose to take the offer of redundancy, left my church at the end of August and was amazed just a couple of days later to have been shortlisted for the post in Milton Keynes. The rest, as they say, is history.
I felt then, and still do, that I had found a Sarah-shaped hole to fit into. As an introvert I had found a setting where small talk was few and far between – like the hospice, this was an honest world. A bad day, frustration and devastation would not be ignored in favour of polite conversation. I also found too that in a world where ‘proselytising’ was off limits (I’ll be honest I had to look it up at first) there was a wonderful freedom to respond to the questions of patients, visitors and staff about Christian hope and why Jesus might care about them and their situation. It’s a great privilege to know that many of the people I speak to each day will never go to a church service but might know something of God’s love and care through me. I feel very passionate about being a minister ‘outside’ of a congregation, building bridges and seeing God’s grace at work in and through people with no knowledge of the Christian faith.
I also feel extremely fortunate to be able to be a person with influence over the life and culture of an organisation with more than 3500 employees and see a big part of the role as encouraging and supporting those staff in their work. This manifests in various ways, but the biggest element has been setting up the Peer to Peer Listening Service for staff and seeing more than 50 volunteers support over 1400 members of staff in the two years we’ve been running. It’s great to be able to share the belief that every person matters, regardless of their job or performance, but just because they do. I am still fervent in my view that the role of the local church is vital in order that we might see communities impacted by the Christian story and blessed by the Christians living alongside them.
It’s hard to pinpoint times where being a woman has affected my experiences in ministry. I imagine as someone (until very recently) in their 20s, my age and gender have meant perhaps not being taken seriously. However, I also think that this has been an asset in rooms where being a young woman has been a disarming element or where a different style has enabled people to think again. We need to see diversity in those who lead us, in every sense, and we need to be communities who are growing spiritually in order that those leaders might be equipped to take their places, not just in the church but in the public sector, the market place and beyond. The female leadership I have known, in our Baptist family, in local church and family life has been an enormous blessing to me, alongside the support and encouragement of many men who are proactive at seeing women heard and represented.
Ultimately, I am constantly encouraged by the knowledge that the work is God’s; whatever we do, whoever we are, we join God’s work. Our goal should be faithfulness to being the people we are called to be, wherever we are, and to seek to notice God at work around us. Justice and inclusion will always be at the heart of this.