Interview with Stephen Goundrey-Smith – Chedworth & District Churches, Gloucester Diocese
As Priest-in-Charge of the Benefice of Chedworth Yanworth and Stowell Coln Rogers and Coln St Denys, Revd Stephen Goundrey-Smith oversees three Cotswolds parishes.
Based at St Andrew’s, Chedworth, the largest parish, Stephen who arrived in 2010 is a House for Duty priest who works two to three weekdays and every Sunday in his parish work; for the rest of his week he runs his own business.
“It’s a great place to be in ministry,” he says, “there is lots of local stuff going on and good church congregations. There are also a lot of visitors”.
Clergy and Lay leaders working together
Supported by a committed and gifted team of lay leaders, it’s an example of how clergy and lay people are together effectively across three parishes; a model which Stephen believes works very well in this rural setting. Each parish has its own identity, but the benefice is united under one team and one vision.
He says: “Rather than grouping a large number of rural parishes together with a full-time incumbent, I’m a part-time priest responsible for a smaller number of parishes and supported by a team. One of the benefits of a smaller grouping is that I have more contact with the people around me and I believe I can get to know people much better than a full-time person overseeing many parishes.'
Stephen has been in a similar ministry elsewhere; in his previous diocese, Peterborough, he was a house-for-duty assistant priest in a six-parish rural benefice.
“The church is the body of Christ and I see a big part of my role as parish priest as building lay teams, and encouraging others as well as leading upfront. I want to help people develop their skills and gifts to help them to be part of what we are here. Working in this way and giving lay people more responsibilities also helps the church financially and I want to be part of the change which I believe needs to happen.”
Stephen has a team of five church wardens (from across the whole benefice) and a ministry team of five consisting of four lay people and himself. Bringing a rich variety of gifts, together they fulfil a range of roles including leading services, prayer and worship; running children’s and family ministry and pastoral care. Two of the team are licenced lay readers.
“The ministry team is fully supported by the PCCs,” says Stephen, “The diocese has resourced our team well over the years. We work in a collaborative way and that’s important in a rural situation. People often think that we operate as a single pastoral unit, but in fact in order to be effective, we need to vary the way we do things. Sometimes, for example, we run events and do ministry locally at parish level as we know this will attract local people; other times we operate as a gathered church and may come together as a single congregation.”
Building up work with Families, Children and Young People
Since his arrival, Stephen has focussed much of his effort on building up families and young people’s ministries, while recognising that, with an older congregation, the needs of older worshippers are important too. He says: “My take was that I have two weekdays and Sundays and I’ve only got so much energy - so I need to focus on families and we’re increasingly working towards attracting more families more of the time. Our hope is that the Gospel reaches people and makes a difference not just in church but in their everyday lives.”
“I believe in clearly communicating the gospel at every opportunity and, in a country setting, you have to be everything to all people. So what we do, we try to do well and to make it friendly and reflective - but in the end the rubber hits the road when people’s lives are transformed; that’s what the Gospel is all about.
Adapting the Service Pattern
“We looked at our service pattern to see how we could change it to be more accessible to families. When I arrived, it was fairly traditional with an 8am Prayer Book service (Holy Communion),Common Worship Holy Communion, with a Family Service once a month and Evensong. We decided we would make a change to the pattern for the Prayer Book Holy Communion, holding it twice a month rather than once a week; we then introduced a new informal all age service, the Tea Time Service, at 4pm.”
This Tea Time Service follows a simple format, lasting about 40 minutes. There is modern music, uses Power Point and is followed by refreshments. Stephen says that it is working well, attracting families and, he hopes that, because they have tried to build it in an “unchurched” way, it will appeal to those people who prefer a less traditional church service.
With three parishes and five church buildings, Stephen’s strategy has focussed on continuing to what they do well, but also ensuring that there is consistency – that the same services always take place at the same time and on the same Sunday each month. “We wanted to keep what was good and working; for example, Evensongs are popular and there is a really good and devout core congregation for this – it’s a great opportunity to do a good meaty sermon as the congregation really appreciate this.
“As part of attracting families, we also wanted to find a way of connecting them with the sacraments so we introduced a Family Communion into the service pattern as well as the family service. The result was that we now have something for families each week.
On the first Sunday of the month, Family Communion aims to introduce families to the sacrament.
The Tea Time Service is held on the second Sunday for those who like an informal and more contemporary format.
“On the third Sunday,” says Stephen “we hold a Family Service. This is led by children from St Andrew’s School three times a year. On the fourth Sunday, during the Common Worship Communion Service in Chedworth, we run a Sunday Club in the vicarage. My wife runs this with a helper from the congregation and this is really popular with both parents and children.
“Recognising that there are a number of families in Yanworth, we have stepped out in faith over the last year or so and have introduced a Family Service in Yanworth on alternate months on the fourth Sunday of the month, and additional Family Communions at Yanworth. In a multi-parish benefice, you have to recognise that, while the core congregation will travel between parishes, you have to do things locally to attract new people.”
Signs of Growth
There are signs of growth in Chedworth; attendance figures indicate that the average monthly church attendance (across the services of each month) has increased from 27 in 2010, to 33 in 2013. This is partly due to the new service pattern implemented in 2010/2011, and partly due to the range of ministry initiatives we have developed in the village over the last few years. At most Sunday morning (10.30 am) services in the Benefice there are around 25 people, while on the fourth Sunday at Chedworth, with the Sunday Club, there are often over 30 adults plus 5-10 children at Sunday Club. On Sundays where we have three services in the Benefice (two in the morning and one in the afternoon/evening), it is not unusual to get an attendance of over 60 people across all three.
“We’re now looking at how to provide for and encourage our young people as some of our core families have children who are now young adults, and are outgrowing children’s activities. We’ve established an informal link with Cirencester Baptist Church and the youth work there, but it’s interesting to find that that some of our young people prefer to stay with us and take on a helping role on a Sunday. Involving younger people is something we’re trying to encourage across the board; for example, we now have younger people on our PCCs and are keen to recruit more to key roles in the church.
The emphasis on families is not limited to Sundays and the church puts on three big children’s/families events each year:
- A Summer Holiday Club – games, teaching and worship with a particular theme, held in the morning followed by a picnic at lunchtime. Over the last few years, this has attracted around 30-35 children and Stephen says increasing numbers of those are not regular church-goers. In the first year or two, this was held in the Vicarage garden but then moved to the Village Hall after a deluge meant everyone decamping to the vicarage!
- Autumn Light Party – an alternative to Halloween, focussing on Christ the Light of the World; this too attracts 30-35 children and is held in the Village Hall. However, two years ago, the event was held in collaboration with the school and a live music band “Taste” was invited to play and talk about their faith – an event which proved very popular with up to 80 children, many of whom were not regular church attenders.
- Advent Messy service: held on the second Sunday of Advent, this has attracted a total of around 60 people - adults and children.
Working with the church school
The relationship with the church school is one which Stephen says is crucial in a rural parish and which works two ways – it is good for the school and good for the church. He says:
“I go into our school, every week, and have built up a really close working relationship with the staff. There is a great head teacher and we all work together to help the school keep a distinctly Christian ethos.
“I lead worship once week and am involved in classes regularly but it doesn’t all focus on or depend on me as there are three foundation governors who are also members of the PCCs. This is really bearing fruit in a big way. The school was judged by Ofsted as good with outstanding features (for pupil behaviour, and social moral, spiritual and cultural); for the SIAMS (Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools) the school was judged outstanding across the board.”
Stephen adds: “I think it’s important that younger and energetic people are recruited to posts like mine as it means they are able to build natural connections in this context – that’s much easier for me here as a father with children.”
Challenges of change
Having a vision for growth has meant a lot of change for some in this rural context. Stephen recognises that some people have been naturally nervous about some of the changes he has introduced, including less frequent prayer book services and introducing new things like using Power Point in services. This fact was underlined for him six months into his role at a wedding reception, when he was introduced as “the new vicar who is causing quite a stir”.
He admits that handling some of the relationships has been challenging and suggests that the personal touch is needed. “If you know someone is worried, talk to the person. I had a church warden who really preferred the traditional services and told me so; I always kept a conversation going with him. Two years ago, he moved out of the area, but we were on the very best of terms – through talking we had learned to respect each other; he respected that I needed to change things and I respected him as one of our key people, with strengths in organising things and sorting things out – we were a good team.”
Stephen believes in talking about the Gospel at any opportunity and making the very most of “evangelical airtime”. He says: “Feedback on what we’re doing is good and people have started and kept coming because they like what we do. But in the end I always have to ask, why be a Christian, if it isn’t going to make any difference? In that respect, it’s always a challenge to find ways of moving people on in their faith, especially when some are new and others are long-term members; everyone is at different stages of faith.''
Stephen wants to encourage people to read the Bible and pray on their own at home, or in small groups. Having inherited a pattern where groups met for Autumn Bible study and a Lent study, he has tried to maintain those gathered groups. Over the last few years, a Benefice Home Group has been established, but the church has struggled to grow this group from a small nucleus.
Stephen is keen to try different and ways of helping people engage with the Bible and faith: “This year, a traditional tea party with a short Bible Study slot to help whet their appetites. I hope it will be a positive way of enjoying time together while at the same time getting people to ponder what it’s all about.”
Three years ago, the church ran “Drink Deep”, a discussion group in a local pub about what it means to be spiritual. Stephen says: “It got the Gospel into the pub, and therefore into the public square. We had some great conversations which were the channel for other things”. Since then the pub has been closed, but now that the pub has reopened, we hope to do a similar event again in future.
Last Autumn, the church ran a “Christianity Explored” in the Village Hall using the Rico Tice DVDs. “This was very powerfully spiritually “ says Stephen, “and not only for those who came: also for those leading. One or two people made positive comments, which was a tremendous encouragement. This is something else we’re going to repeat as a follow up to the first course. “
Involvement with Village Life
In a rich and vibrant rural community in the beautiful Gloucestershire Cotswolds, which welcomes visitors all year long, there are 26 local clubs and societies, which means people are busy. But the setting also provides many other opportunities for the church to get involved in ways which are unique to village life.
The local community magazine, the Hill and Valley News, for example, is produced and edited by the church management team under Stephen’s leadership. Alongside local articles, news and events, there is a monthly message from Stephen as vicar, which he uses as a chance to communicate with people offering the Gospel message in an appropriate context, for example around the church festivals and with significant national and local events, such as the recent General Election.
Raising money for the church, he says, isn’t too difficult and in a generally wealthy setting people give generously. The Friends of St Andrew’s, Chedworth (FoStA), a registered charity, supports the heritage and work of the church and produces its own glossy leaflet which helps to raise the church’s profile and raise funds. In such a beautiful location, people visit all the time, and the church is a popular wedding venue – all of which are viewed as opportunities to welcome people.
Finally the Chedworth Games have been a way of the church reaching out to people of all ages in the village. The event was first organised in 2012, to coincide with the London Olympics, and then repeated in 2013, and has attracted 300 plus people. The event will be run again this year. .
“The great things about the Games,” says Stephen, “was that people entered into the spirit and we had a wonderful time - but also that they were saying: “Is the church organising this? It’s… fun….?”