Learning ministry in Bristol

Through community and church placements, as well as volunteer work, our students find a wealth of opportunities to grow as ministers of Christ in the Bristol area.

Community placements

‘I’ve never really had anything to do with hospitals, but as a vicar I’m guaranteed to be responding to people dealing with sickness and death,’ says first-year ordinand Holly Smith, who completed an intensive community placement experience in February among chaplains in Southmead Hospital in Bristol. ‘I’ve only had personal family experience with hospitals, and I know it will be different when it’s not with my own family. I’m a bit scared of hospitals, too, so I wanted to get over that.’

In addition to their ongoing church placement experiences, all of Trinity’s ordinands are required to complete a 20- to 30-hour ‘community placement’ during the first year of their programmes. Ordinands receive a list of about twenty-five organisations with which Trinity is connected, and they can select from among the choices or pursue something different.

‘These experiences help students grow in their own self-understanding, integrate their theology with the practice of ministry and theological reflection, and grow in appreciation for the contributions made by secular organisations,’ says Trinity Tutor in Pastoral Studies and Ministerial Formation Revd Dr Helen Collins. ‘In many cases our students will experience situations that are new and challenging for them.’

Holly began her week at hospital shadowing the chaplaincy team. She toured a morgue, hearing from the woman who works there about how she copes around death. In the second half of Holly’s week, she and the two other Trinity students on placement there were given lists of patients to visit. ‘It felt quite vulnerable…daunting,’ says Holly. ‘I went in scared about what I’d say, but actually they just needed someone to listen. I felt privileged to hear what they had to say. My biggest takeaway from the experience was that pastoral care isn’t about you. You are meeting people in suffering. You need to be secure in yourself so that you can be what they need. And then, when it’s not about you, how do you cope with what you’ve seen and experienced? The chaplains were always reflecting together on what they’d seen to share that burden and make sure they left it there at the end of the day. The chaplains are there for people in life-and-death situations. I learned a lot from them.’

First-year ordinand Elliot Grove connected with his community placement through his context church, Christchurch Clevedon. The national organisation Transforming Lives for Good (TLG) operates one of its centres through the church. This Christian charity works with partner churches across the nation to reach out to the most vulnerable children in the UK, with expertise in school exclusions, emotional well-being, and holiday hunger.

Last November, Elliot began spending an hour a week with a Year 4 child—forty minutes of fun activities and twenty minutes of coaching on behavioural skills, coping with anger, and developing empathy. ‘TLG’s coaching programme—volunteering to give time and invest in a person who needs it—is a powerful thing. I really love doing it, seeing how he and his parents value the sessions.’ Elliot participated in a training day before becoming involved and has regular meetings with his community placement supervisor about his work.

Elliot was training as a teacher when he realised that it wasn’t the right fit and switched to youth ministry. He’s enjoyed volunteering when he can to mentor and tutor children struggling at school. But this experience has the added benefit of the model his context church has provided through its involvement in its surrounding community in partnership with organisations like TLG.

‘This is about reaching out compassionately to your community as the church. Christchurch Clevedon do so much in the community, and this is part of how I consider parish ministry. It’s an opportunity to offer yourself out to your community, to minister to the whole community—it isn’t just within the walls of the church.’

The church and social justice

Ordinand and PhD student Sam Rylands moved his church placement to Bristol Cathedral in his second year at Trinity so he could work with the Revd Canon Martin Gainsborough and the cathedral’s Social Justice Group, with its focus on homelessness.

‘There are people sleeping in the doorways of the cathedral. The group wanted to do something and began with a focus on listening and learning, to familiarise themselves on the issues of homelessness. They go out in pairs after Morning Prayer on Fridays and loop round the local area. They offer a hot drink if people are sleeping rough and ask about their housing needs.’ The Friday morning outreach visits have become part of the cathedral’s life of prayer. ‘After the walk we write the prayers of the people we’ve met; the prayers go into a basket and are prayed for in the morning and evening prayers at the cathedral.’

As Martin shifted roles to become chaplain to the Bishop of Bristol, Sam led the cathedral’s involvement in the Bristol Churches Winter Night Shelter (BCWNS), which ran for three months through the winter. Sixty churches from a variety of denominations across Bristol rotated in offering a hot evening meal, a bed, and breakfast for twelve homeless guests. The cathedral hosted the shelter from Monday evenings to Tuesday mornings for the second six-week phase, operating with forty volunteers from within and outside the church, of varying faiths or none.

‘With this arrangement among the churches, the guests know they’ll have a safe place to stay and food to eat for three months. It gives stability,’ says Sam. ‘Several of the guests were holding down jobs while homeless. Participating in BCWNS was a chance for the cathedral to embody God’s love to some of the most vulnerable in our city.’

The Friday morning conversations with those living rough and time spent as an overnight volunteer in the night shelter impacted Sam as he prepares to begin curacy. ‘It’s tough. Homelessness isn’t an issue where you can change a life overnight. You can’t necessarily see an immediate impact. I’ve found it helpful to remember Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God. Namely that it’s the small things that make a big difference. Like yeast, salt, and light, the church is called to participate with God in the midst of the world, bit by bit, slowly transforming and changing the flavour of the society around it.’

Volunteering in a prison

Third-year ordinand Caz M was on a weekend retreat with her sending church, reading the story of the feeding of the five thousand and the twelve baskets that were left over, when she felt God telling her he wanted her to work with the ‘leftover’ people of society, those on the margins, for whom the idea of God’s love might be alien. With friends, Caz began regularly visiting a worship service at a prison in London and says, ‘I felt the presence of God in that place, like nothing I ever experienced before. When we sang together, everyone was worshipping and singing at full volume; it was inspiring.’ Back at college, she began volunteering to help the prison chaplains in North Bristol.

‘I help out at the family open days,’ Caz explains. ‘Not all the guys detained there can still see their families, but for those who do, three to four times a year the prison hosts an open day run by the chaplaincy team. The men interact with their families, and they get to be just “Dad” again, not “prisoner number…”.  We facilitate craft activities, face painting, dressing up, and usually someone gives a presentation. I’ve been in the prison visitors’ hall with magicians juggling clubs right up to the ceilings, and on other occasions saw the exotic animal sanctuary team bringing unusual wildlife in through prison security. It’s surreal! But it’s great fun and the guys appreciate our volunteering to make the day memorable for their children; it is so important to keep that connection with their families outside.’

Leading Bible studies and helping with a confirmation course at the prison pushed Caz to want to get as much as she can from her classes at Trinity. ‘This has challenged me to consider what I actually believe when preparing to teach others and given me an appetite to learn more about the Bible and theology. This is so I can apply it practically through sharing that knowledge with the people I meet and do so in creative ways to help them grasp it for themselves,’ she says.

As Caz moves on to curacy, she plans to continue toward becoming a prison chaplain. ‘Many people in the prison system have been passed on their whole lives. I don’t want to pass them on, but instead help them encounter God and tell them about moving forward with him.’

Posted May 2020

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