New developments in fitness and friendship

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Pioneer minister Natalie Burfitt is in the first year of the Pioneer MA course at CMS. She explains how a simple running group has become part of her pioneering practice.

I’ve been working in a new housing development for the past year. I’m there on behalf of a developing diocesan project that aims to use sport (in its broadest sense, including fun games and wellbeing) as a means to connect with children, families and young people.

I don’t live on the estate but I’ve focused on building relationships, earning trust and piloting one or two activities. I’m not a sports minister – I’m a minister who likes running, cycling and fitness. The people developing the project talk my language – they recognise the limitations of mainline church and want to experiment with new ways of living the kingdom and exploring faith. So while I sometimes feel an imposter under the ‘sports’ banner, it’s an opportunity for me to pioneer free of the anxieties and constraints of traditional parish ministry.

One of the most fruitful things I’ve tried out is a couch-to-5K running group. I run for a club and they paid for me to attend a ‘Leader in Running Fitness’ course through England Athletics. I used the community Facebook group to gather interest. Originally, 50 people said they were interested and over 30 of those responded on a doodle poll to determine when we’d meet.

The first session attracted 20 and this settled to a group of about 12 (good number!). At the first session, I asked everyone to say their name and what had brought them out on a dark January night in lycra and woolly hats and the responses were fairly standard (lose weight, get fit). Later, two people messaged to say that their real reason was to deal with anxiety and, while it hasn’t been easy, they have said it has helped their mental wellbeing.

There is lots about this course that models discipleship and community. You have to run three times a week, so there’s a commitment that goes beyond the weekly group meeting. Friendships have formed and people have become running buddies, with a culture of mutuality and encouragement. Several have commented on how the accountability of the group has got them through the course.

Chatting helps the running go by so we were getting to know each other in natural way. I told the group at the start that I’m a vicar and that they could ask me anything about that but that it was up to them. I’ve been tempted to make explicit links (like at Eastertime) but it hasn’t felt right. This is about friendship and encouraging people in a journey of transformation that we’re making together.

C25K is a nine-week course and we went in to lockdown at week seven. We’re still in touch via WhatsApp (although the actively engaged group is now about six people) and still running. We hope one day we’ll be able to run our celebratory Park Run, as planned.

One of the runners said she expects to find it “totes emosh” as, in many different ways, it will mark a journey to health far bigger than we ever imagined.

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