Embrace the still small voice inside – interview with Libby Hawkness-Smith

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Helen Harwood meets Libby Hawness-Smith, third year diploma student with Pioneer Mission Leadership Training at Church Mission Society.

HH: Tell me a bit about your past life, before CMS, and how you are here with us in year 3 of your diploma course with us?

LHS: Wow, that seems like such a long time ago now! I can’t believe I’m almost at the end of this beautiful period of incubation. Before CMS, I was the director of studies at a large international English as a Foreign Language college, and exploring vocation to ministry.

I grew up mainly in police states across the world, the daughter of two pioneer ministers who specialised in setting up international schools, EFL colleges, new forms of children’s ministry and alternative expressions of church. When I was exploring my vocation to ministry, my mother (a very wise soul) recommended I train on the Lay Pioneer track at CMS as she thought it would be sufficiently eclectic, wide-ranging and missionally focused for me. Now, here I am – studying hard, teaching a few hours of English a week, heading up a local branch of School Pastors and heading up a Community-in-Mission, Journey On.

School Pastors is a form of detached Christian youthwork focusing on mentoring young people who struggle to engage with their peers. Similar to the more widely-known Street Pastors, we share the love of God through listening and pastoral care. We are the only branch in the country not linked to a branch of Street Pastors. Journey On is a sodal Community-in-Mission for spiritual seekers on the autistic spectrum.

I know you have told me that Pioneer ministry offers “…both a gift and challenge in not fitting in. It’s a gift in that most pioneers tend to think outside the proverbial box – assuming that there is one – and come up with creative ways of ‘doing’ ministry and thinking theologically.” Can you say a bit more about your own gift of not fitting in?

I struggled for a long time with knowing that I’m different yet not quite being able to put my finger on how or why. I grew up in the mission field and came back to the UK (“my passport country”) as a teenager, but that only partly explained my differences. I wrestled with trying to be like other people around me yet feeling that by doing so, I was being inauthentic and shunning the beautiful differences that make me unique. The foundational diploma in Mission, Ministry and Evangelism has been instrumental in giving me the cognitive and physical space to re-engage and embrace the ‘me’ I tried so long to hide. It’s also giving me the impetus to identify others who are struggling to live up to other people’s expectations of them, instead, encouraging them to embrace the still small voice inside that so longs to be heard, acknowledged and loved. It’s a lot easier to minister out of a place that you know well and which you have come to embrace.

I am also aware many find pioneering quite hard. You told me “It’s a challenge in that many struggle to explain their passion in a language that others understand and can get on board with easily.” Can you tell us about some of the struggles and also some high points for you personally?

Since having written this initially, I’m not sure it still holds true. I don’t know if this is because I’m becoming better able to express myself or that I’m increasingly surrounded by a society and church who are starting to see the advantages of pioneering and are desperate to find out more for themselves. I think a lot of it is to do with education – through having the courage to keep speaking up and trying to identify areas of opportunity for kingdom growth and ‘Holy Spirit movement’, others love the passion and insight that pioneers offer and are keen to join in different projects and initiatives, whether or not they entirely understand where we’re coming from or whether or not they ‘get’ what we initially seem to be saying or doing.

I am delighted to hear that CMS has been a good thing for you, you told me “For me, discovering CMS Pioneering has offered me a much-valued support and way into approaching ministry that is akin to my teenage discovery of TCKs, or third culture kids, that is, others like myself whose ‘home’ country was not my passport country. Once again, I am reminded that, for me, home is not a place but a people group.” Can you say a bit more about this and also the phrase you used with me about ‘finding my tribe’?

At the start of the course, I would say that I was quite restless and rootless and fed up with trying to be who others expected me to be – to pretend to be someone else in an effort to fit in and be part of the crowd. CMS was the first institution that not only accepted who I am, but encouraged me to be different. As a colleague who’s a spiritual seeker put it so eloquently recently: “It sounds like you’re all a bit odd but it’s great that there’s a place in the church where all those who are different can have the freedom to be different, that there’s a unity and support in all being a bit odd together. I think the church can benefit from these alternative viewpoints and actions that you all offer.” As a friend put it yesterday, “Isn’t pioneering just living out a vocation we all have to be Christ to the world around?” I think there’s something really important about being able to minister out of who we are as individuals, and being able to see the unique gifts and vast range of experiences that we can all bring to the proverbial table. It’s hard to get that initial courage and confidence to step out into the unknown, but the new land discovered is so worth the challenging journey to get there. Throughout my time at CMS, my life anthem has been Avicii’s Wake Me Up, and it’s fab to be able to keep coming back to a song that so succinctly sums up who I am, where I’ve been and where I’m going. If you don’t know the song, Google it now. 🙂

I know the course ending is a way off but can you think ahead to what you may be doing in the future?

It’s hard to say! Each week brings change, challenge and an increased awareness of my vocation. I’d like to think I might be doing more of the same. I would hope that I’d still be teaching and involved in ministry with young people, as well as with those who are overlooked and marginalised because they’re cognitively different. I think the church needs to be a lot more attentive to those who are mentally or physically unwell, disabled – or just ‘different’, seeing them not as problems to be solved or people to be avoided – or patronised, but as who they are, loved children of God, and fellow brothers and sisters who have their own unique gifts and skills that they can offer the world. It’s hard to say where God will call me to be in the future, but I think it will centre around: restoring people through non-judgmental listening and genuine respect; enabling people to be reconciled to themselves, to each other and to God through coming to a deep acceptance of who God has created them to be; and helping to reconstruct broken communities and shattered lives in a very local, and probably unseen, way. I love what Shane Claiborne (Christian activist and a leading figure in the New Monasticism movement) famously says “Get ready. God is preparing you for something really, really small.”

Lastly, Libby how can we pray for you?

There’s lots of brokenness in the areas where I pioneer: broken communities, broken lives, broken bodies. Please pray for all of those I come alongside that they will experience God’s peace and presence in their dark hours, and will be able to experience life in all its fullness (John 10:10). Please also pray that I will always remember to look after myself and my own needs in the craziness and busyness of life, and to take time out everyday to dwell in God’s presence.

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