Good News Stories

From parish priest to secular employment – changing ministry

Mark ThomasIn the summer of 2012 I had been Incumbent of St Chad’s and St Alkmund’s Shrewsbury for 11 years. We had successfully completed a £1.25 million project at St Chad’s and both churches and church buildings were in good order. After 34 years’ parish ministry I was feeling rather stale and ready for change, but aged 61, thought that the opportunity to move had passed. Out of the blue I met the Dean of a famous southern cathedral, who invited me to apply for the post of Residentiary Canon, and to my surprise I was shortlisted.

I wasn’t appointed, to my initial disappointment (the family were very relieved!), but the experience had fanned the flame of my restlessness. My wife, a GP, Professor Keri Thomas, had been working for 15 years in end of life care training within the NHS and then continued this by forming a not for profit Community Interest Company, The Gold Standards Framework Centre (GSF), in 2010, to take forward her pioneering work. I had been a Non-Executive Director from the start, and had always taken an active interest in the work, linking as it did with my concern as a parish priest to care for the dying. During my annual Retreats a desire to work more closely with GSF had often surfaced, and now seemed to be the moment to take the plunge. So I told Keri, rather to her surprise, in the autumn of 2012, that I wanted to leave stipendiary ministry and work for our Company; she quite rightly insisted that this mustn’t just be a sinecure, but that there must be a proper role to move to.GSF General - Low Res

My final Sunday in Shrewsbury was Easter day 2013, and I joined GSF as Development Director in May, with a threefold brief – spiritual, communications and international. Later I made an Ignatian Retreat with the Chemin Neuf community in Sussex, at the end of which they offered either the laying of hands or baptism in the Holy Spirit; this was definitely not my tradition, but when it came to the point, that’s instinctively, from the right brain, what I asked for: it felt as if I was being re-ordained for a new ministry.

23 months later, aged 64, I love my new work. I have written a spiritual care of the dying course which will be launched on DVD as the tenth of GSF’s training programmes later in 2015. Our international work is growing and in 2014 we travelled to China and South Africa to work with doctors and nurses to develop and improve their care of those in the last years of life. GSF is now the largest provider of training for generalist health and social care professionals in the UK, and I have some responsibility for the promotion and communication of our work. I am employed for four days a week, and most evenings and week-ends are free. My salary is supplemented by 34 years’ worth of C of E pension. I also joined a new church outside Shrewsbury, retaining my PTO, and I preach and celebrate at least once a month, and am part of the ministry team.

Clearly there is much of this experience which is unique to me, but there are lessons which I offer in some humility to others who may be feeling a little stale in their present post in stipendiary ministry.

  • Many of those I now teach and work with say of themselves “I am not religious but….”. I feel I am ministering to that “but”, and have discovered a real spiritual thirst among many who are suspicious of the institutional Church.
  • This has been very liberating – both from the sense of serving the kingdom of God outside the institutional church within the wider reality of the secular world, and also because I can enjoy Sunday worship without worrying about the organisation behind it.
  • Moving outside my comfort zone has been both challenging and refreshing
  • My new job has clearer boundaries than that of a parish priest – the day has a beginning and an end.
  • The move has been good for the soul: from being a big fish in a small pond, I am now a smaller fish in a bigger pond, and am learning more about the human being behind the dog collar, the person God created long before my ordination.
  • I would encourage any of those who read this who may be stale or tired in your present work, perhaps counting the days to your retirement, to be brave and confident in your God-given abilities. Those of us who have been employed by the institutional church have many transferable skills which God can use beyond parish ministry – or perhaps as well as parish ministry. Take the risk!

Mark Thomas

April 2015