Are pioneers born or made? – interview with Sarah Hewitt

Smiling picture of Sarah

"I have found being part of the CMS family so incredibly important." Sarah Hewitt, and inset, leading worship with husband Neil "at the church I accidentally started".

I asked DTh student and – as of yesterday – brand new pioneer deacon Sarah Hewitt about her pioneering journey so far and how it felt to find her tribe at CMS.

Sarah, tell us a bit about your background and how you got into pioneering.

It’s quite a long story, but basically, I found myself for the first time in an Anglican Church in Studley, Warwickshire, with this fantastic husband and wife team as vicars – Richard and Margaret Deimel. Richard had this way of observing everyone’s giftings on his first meeting with you. I think I started attending St Mary’s around Rogation Sunday* – so a few weeks after Easter – and there was a walk and a picnic between the two churches of the benefice. By Christmas I was in the worship band and on Christmas Eve, Richard interviewed me about my faith! After that I started speaking regularly, first at the residential Home and then in church. Richard and Margaret helped everyone flourish to the best of their abilities, but I woke up with a new idea everyday (the first pioneery inkling!) and Richard would just say: Sounds great, when do you want to start? The church didn’t have a worship style as such, because there was everything from Quaker style silence, Celtic worship, traditional Anglican and full on evangelic big band and I was involved in all of it in some way.

When I had to fill in my application form for the Pioneer Panel I started with this story of me as a young child – five maybe – with my sister (who is also an Anglican priest) putting on shows for our long suffering neighbours and family and charging an entrance fee. We would send this money to the children’s hospital in Birmingham, so maybe I was born a pioneer? Are Pioneers born or made? Discuss…

What is your current context, the working one as well as more about your study on the DTh?

I feel a bit sad about this question. I had been working as a Lay Stipendiary Missioner in a town in Worcestershire but after almost eight years, diocesan financial pressure and a pandemic they needed my stipend and house for an ordained priest and a new direction. I was encouraged to move to a 12-month post with a church in another Worcestershire town, which I did. I’ve just finished there and can say that not one piece of pioneering took place, mainly because it really wasn’t wanted, and our theologies were at opposite ends of the scale. So, for 12 months I only did desk based work. However, on 4 July, I start my pioneer curacy with St Stephen’s in Redditch town centre, and I am really excited about getting stuck in with whatever God points me at.

I have also been taking part in a one-year bespoke ordination course at CMS and Cuddesdon. Everyone will want to know why only one year…! Basically, I had already put myself through the certificate and diploma courses and was in year two of a professional doctorate with CMS and Roehampton – part of the first cohort to take part. My BAP [Bishop’s Advisory Panel, now replaced by a new process] felt I needed to take part in this curious thing called formation, so this is how it ended up as it did. My doctoral research revolves around Christian-led social enterprises and their role in pioneering church. With my research proposal now approved I’m starting the actual research once my ethics application has been approved. I am feeling a bit of trepidation wondering how I’m going to fit in a curacy and a fourth and fifth year of doctoral research, but I’m sure it will work itself out. I’ll let you know!

Can you tell us how you came to be a student at CMS, please, and how you have found it?

So, my being part of CMS is actually my husband Neil’s fault! We went to Greenbelt in 2013, the year my lay stipendiary role started, and came across the CMS tent and Neil picked up the brochure for the certificate course and enrolled for September. I was so envious! It looked like an amazing course and just the sort of thing I should be doing, but with starting a new job didn’t feel it was the right time to be starting anything new and besides was waiting for a PhD to start with Glasgow Caledonian, which never materialised.

In May of 2015 I enrolled on the Missional Entrepreneurship module as a stand-alone module (now called Make Good) and as I had to take a business idea with me, came up with the idea for a social enterprise to take care of children in a wrap around facility based in local CofE schools. Shine Out of School Clubs (an Ofsted Outstanding club) are still going! We survived the pandemic, just, but have risen phoenix-like and are heading into new waters offering children fully funded places who wouldn’t normally be able to access these kinds of things.

So back to the story… I then decided that while I was waiting for the PhD to materialise I could pop a little certificate course in and then that also became the diploma. I love being at CMS, it really feels like I’m with my tribe, we talk the same language, have the same challenges, get excited by things other people baulk at!

You’ve told me that you find pioneering never dull, that it makes you push your own comfort zones and helps you learn new skills…fast. Can you say more about what you have learnt and what it is like outside your comfort zone?

You never know what the day will bring or what opportunities God will show you for mission, which makes it never dull! This does, however, mean pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, or at least it does with me. I’m not sure where the boundary of my zone is any more after many years of being a pioneer. For example, when I’m working with diverse communities there are so many ideas offered for community building and connecting, many of which I would never have thought of myself. There is a good amount of me having to let go of my own vision of how something is going to look and allowing the ideas of others to flow and mould knowing that God speaks to all of us. This has brought huge amount of blessing. I see myself often in a facilitator kind of role holding the space for others to shine and lead in various initiatives.

I know you think that pioneering also “messes with your preconceived ideas” and “can be isolating and lonely”. Can you tell us more and also any ways you have found to manage or overcome the loneliness?

In pioneering you have to set aside your idea of how things ‘should be done’ to let the Spirit flow and do her thing. This alone can be isolating, especially when clergy colleagues don’t get what you’re trying to do or at worst are openly and vocally dismissive. The way I dealt with this was to just get on with the work I felt called to and let God decide whether it was good or not. If something flourishes I take that as a sign that I am on the right track. If it crashes I take that as a sign that I should be putting my attention elsewhere. The community that grew as a result of my ministry between 2013 and 2021 were my constant source of encouragement. In addition, I have one or two close pioneer friends who get it, which is really important. This is why I have found being part of the CMS family so incredibly important. No explanations are needed when you discuss your ministry, no side glances or raised eyebrows, just encouragement and more ideas and the bouncing around of how things could look if there were more of us!

Lastly, Sarah, how can we pray for you?

I was ordained on 3 July as a Pioneer Deacon so would welcome prayers for that. I have no idea what my life will look like from 4 July onwards – I mean obviously I have a good idea of what a curacy looks like, but no idea how that will translate itself into my day to day activities or what pioneering opportunities will reveal themselves. Please pray that the Spirit will lead my ministry going forward and that I’m aware enough to notice the prompt!

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