Going Public – interview with Andy Morgan

Meet Andy Morgan, pioneer minister in West Bromwich and pilot year student with CMS. Starting a cafe church in the town’s main art gallery – and commissioning a major art installation there – as well as giving pastoral care to YMCA residents – have all been part of his story. Perhaps surprisingly, his next step is to train for ordination as a ‘traditional’ parish priest. Helen Harwood found out more about his intriguing pioneer journey…

HH: Hi, Andy, can you tell me what you have been doing in your mission as pioneer minister at West Bromwich Network Church?

AM: Day one of becoming the temporary pioneer minister and I found myself in a juvenile court providing an alibi for a young person who broke the curfew of his tag because he was at a church bbq. I knew then this was no ordinary job and that I would never know what would be around the corner.

During my two years as the official pioneer minister God has continued to surprise me, using many of what I considered my weaknesses to be used to transform lives. A big part of my role is being chaplain at the local YMCA. In this role there are two young people in particular that stick out. One struggled from being a compulsive liar; through working with her key worker we were able to get her to agree to have mental health counselling. She became pregnant during this period and through all the support she received she was allowed to keep her baby, without the counselling she would have been made to give him away. The other young person, a 20 year old lad, had been abused as a child and been exposed to drugs at a young age. His key worker suggested he met up with me as he was very concerned he could self-harm. We talked through his addictions and trouble forming new relationships, after a couple of months of meeting up I was delighted that he won the ‘resident of the month’ award. There are many other young people where it breaks your heart to think these things can happen in 21st century Britain and this need will stick with me wherever I find myself in the future.

The area I have struggled with the most since being in West Bromwich is how to use my worship leading skills. I will never forget one of our early services back when I was the worship and outreach leader. I was stood at the front playing my guitar and a troubled young resident shouted out in an aggressive manner, “Are you going to sing then?” They didn’t engage with Christian worship songs and we didn’t have many Christians in the church to sing out. When I became the pioneer minister I began to rethink this area of my ministry and I saw that there was a lot that we can learn about God in secular songs. I began to play them and explain a little bit about God through some of the words. An example of this was during a service at the YMCA for a national youth festival. I had about 90 young people, probably about 85 of whom didn’t go to church, and I was asked to lead a Sunday service for them. During the service I told them that despite what they had done God still loved them just the way they were and I played the Bruno Mars song Just The Way You Are. Other songs I have used include Elton John’s Your Song and Katy Perry’s Firework.

One area that I have been overwhelmed by is the work I have done with The Public, a multi-million pound art gallery in the centre of West Bromwich. When it first opened it was a national scandal but now under new management they get around 10,000 visitors a month. When I first approached them about doing something I was told, “We can’t have religious activities in this building.” I continued to build up a relationship with them and in the last 10 months we have had a Churches Together social event, carol singing around the Christmas tree on the Saturdays in the build up to Christmas, a major art installation called Noesis, an ecumenical service as part of the Good Friday walk of witness and the starting of a monthly Cafechurch. For Cafechurch The Public are promoting it around their building and on their twitter feed, and they aren’t charging us for room hire or using their sound system!

Noesis was a major piece of art that had 70 members of the local community involved in making it. It was displayed for two months including the Easter period and explored the idea of sacrifice, what that means today and is it still relevant. The exhibitions manager of The Public said this:

“We were very pleased with the installation Noesis at The Public. It was installed in the lobby in one of the most visible parts of the building and was therefore seen by about 500-1000 people per day. Many people remarked how much they liked it, both as a contemplative work but also because it was spectacular. The size and colour absolutely stood out in the very colourful and busy lobby. Part of our mission as a building is to attract people who do not usually see and engage with art. The fact that we had sometimes to barrier the work off was evidence that people not used to going to art galleries became emotionally and physically involved with the work, so a success all round!”

What led you into your current mission?

Five years ago I remember hearing about a new initiative being set up in West Bromwich to reach out to 18 to 30 year olds. I thought to myself that sounds amazing but someone like me could never do a job like that. I was working in a nine to five job down the road in Walsall whilst coordinating a youth friendly evening service. I met the person who got the new job as pioneer minister and he told me of the vision that he had. My wife, Claire, and I both felt it was time to move on from our old church and so we became part of the core team of this exciting new initiative. After a year I was being made redundant and the opportunity arose for me to work alongside the pioneer minister as a worship and outreach leader. This was a difficult time as I learned to adjust my whole way of working, losing any sense of regularity in my hours. About six months into my job and the Pioneer Minister announced he was moving on for family reasons. Suddenly I found myself leading a new church with no training and being asked to complete a parish profile – I had never even seen one before. After two rounds of the application process we found no one to become pioneer minister, in the first round no one applied and the second time one person applied and seemed perfect but then pulled out as he felt they should offer the job to me. The deanery then asked if I had considered it and the conversation started.

How has the project developed since you took on the lead role

Under the previous pioneer minister the main focus was to build a modern contemporary Sunday service in a community building. We built it up to about 15 adults and 8 kids when he made the decision to move on. Unfortunately when he left we lost all the families because I did not have kids, this left us with just the YMCA residents. It became more and more difficult to maintain the service and I was getting very tired and running out of ideas. I spent time praying about what to do and felt it right to just stop the service. This was a brave thing to do because I had no idea what to replace it with. I then spent about six months walking around, talking to people, trying to get an understanding and feel for the town, both now and more importantly what it might look like in a few years’ time. It became clear that instead of setting up a separate service my role was to try and bridge the gap between the church and the community. I began to focus my attention on two main areas: the YMCA and The Public. I have already described some of the events at The Public; at the YMCA it has been a different challenge. They are on a journey to put Christ back at the centre of the organisation and so I have spent a lot of time talking with senior managers exploring what this might mean and look like, whilst still supporting people pastorally. I have also been very involved with Churches Together in West Bromwich and taking a place on the committee, seeking to promote unity among the churches and encourage outreach into the community.

How has the CMS Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course supported and helped – or encouraged or challenged you?

Because I had no theological training part of the condition of my appointment was to find suitable training. The diocese came across the pilot for the CMS Pioneer course and asked if I was interested. It seemed a wonderful opportunity and as the diocese where willing to pay for the course and help me with travelling expenses it seemed a no-brainer to say yes. The thought of going back to studying part time was very daunting as although I did already have a degree I do not consider myself academic and I struggle to engage with traditional forms of teaching. The CMS course has been excellent at using different styles of training and helping me with some useful tips to make studying easier.

The first couple of modules also provided another challenge as I had to do a lot of reflecting on who I am. It had been very easy to drift through life without ever stopping to think where I was going or what plan God might have for me, or even who God wanted me to be. This involved having to be very honest with myself but also being vulnerable and honest with the other students in the group. Although it was difficult and not something I had done before, it opened up a new side to me. It helped me to drop my defences, making it easier to meet new people and it was the start of giving me a new confidence which had a huge benefit to my ministry in West Bromwich. Later modules gave me an understanding of how Christianity spread around the world and how it looks different dependent on the local culture. This has really helped me to broaden my thinking and be able to see just how big God is. I have also enjoyed modules such as Missional Entrepreneurship and Missional Leadership which look ahead to the new challenges we will have to face in the church.

You discerned a call to ordination after having started the course, how did that come about?

Before I started the course people had asked me if I had ever thought about ordination and every time I would laugh and say no I am too busy doing ministry to think about something like that. Whilst that was partly true, there was also a deeper issue of lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. As I said in the previous question the course has really helped me through these issues and helped me to accept what God has been calling me to. So when my wife, whilst walking along a beach in Devon last year, asked me if I had thought about it, I knew it was time to see my Director of Ordinands and start exploring. It was great to have many meetings with him and talking through the nine criteria of the Church of England. When I went on my Bishops’ Advisory Panel back in May I knew this was not only something I believed I was called to do, but more importantly for me, something that I wanted to do!

You have not gone for selection as a pioneer; please can you say something about that? You clearly are pioneering or at least have a mix of gifts with pioneering amongst them. How do you sense what you have learned about pioneering might help you in whatever comes next?

During one of the meetings I had with my Director of Ordinands he asked me was I going forward as a pioneer minister. I replied, “No actually, I was thinking normal parish priest.” He said, “I am really pleased you said that, because I was feeling the same way but didn’t know how to bring it up.”

There are two reasons why I have made this decision. The first is because of what lies ahead for the Church of England. I have never been afraid or worried about facing challenges and being a member of deanery synod in West Bromwich, I have heard of the many challenges that parish based priests will be facing and the very different role that they will have to fulfil. As part of facing this challenge I believe the Pioneer training and experience I have now will be of enormous benefit to my ministry within a parish church, helping them to reimagine what their ministry could look like. The second reason is because of what I have seen and heard on the CMS Pioneer course. I have come to realise that I am not as pioneering as others and that I do actually feel quite at home in a traditional parish church. I have also come to realise that many who are involved in pioneering feel very isolated and separate from the parish church structure. I believe if we are to face the challenges ahead we need to do it together and so I want to be in a parish church that will support pioneers, continuing to learn and be challenged by one another.

You’ll be leaving us shortly, please give us a few thoughts on your time training with CMS and the others in the pilot year, and what you will take forward with you?

I really have enjoyed my two years on the course and made some good friends that I hope I will be able to stay in touch with throughout my ministry. As I said earlier I do not consider myself academic but thanks to the confidence I have gained from doing this course I am ready to take on possibly my biggest challenge in September as I go off to do a Masters in Theology at St John’s Nottingham. The one thing I hope I will always remember from my time on the course is to never presume I know everything about God; that I will continue to learn and deepen my understanding as I see God working through both culture and scripture.

Andy will have completed a Certificate in Ministry with CMS and so will be able to use the credits from that to start at the next level in the residential training he is moving on to.  We will miss him! You never quite know what path life is going to take and we hope that the mission framework (that you just can’t help getting with CMS) will shape his ministry into the future.

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