I never thought church would be a part of my life. I guess we don’t know what’s in store for us. I met Lesley just after my eldest child was born in 2009. There was something about her; how supportive she was and her relaxed attitude to my thoughts on religion that made me want to know more. That was 10 years ago. Over the last 10 years I’ve been to Lesley for all sorts of support and advice and her take on things has always helped me feel heard and get myself together, ready to face the next challenge.
I knew that Lesley’s story was interesting; ordained at 23 during a time when there were very few women in ministry and when Stu Chandler’s friend described Lesley as ‘crazy, kind and liberal’, mentioned in his 5 Minutes with interview about living with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, a few people asked to know more about Lesley.
Interviewing Lesley was an amazing experience. No subject was out of bounds. As well as satisfying my curiosity as to how people get into ministry, we discussed everything including
Are our lives mapped out for us? Where is God in times of tragedy? What does a minister actually do?
Lesley’s take on things is refreshing and reassuring. I showed her my most recent tattoo; a part of which has a semi-colon, a link to suicide prevention awareness and Lesley told me about an American campaign by the United Churches of Christ ‘Never put a period where God has placed a comma, God is still speaking’.
Can you tell us a little bit about your journey into ministry?
I knew from being a child that it was my calling. I knew when I was a kid at school – I wanted to be a minister in the presbyterian church. I had never met a woman in ministry but I knew it was my destiny and went and did it.
Do you come from a religious family?
Not really. My mother would drag me and my brothers out of bed to go to church. She wouldn’t go herself but we would go. We weren’t a bible reading, praying at home house. My brothers aren’t members of faith communities now.
What did joining the ministry involve?
I left school at 17 then did theology at Manchester. At my last year at Manchester I was assessed to train for the denomination. I went to Oxford for a couple of years then I worked in a placement in Shepherd’s Bush then I was ordained in Purley.
When you were ordained did you have to choose what type of church you’d go into?
I always knew the presbyterian church was where I was going to. When I studied reformation history I became more convinced that intellectually I agreed with it. It was where I was, my home team. It was the church I grew up in and it also ordained women. By the time I was 15 the presbyterian church had become the United Reformed Church. It was a union between the presbyterian and congregationalists and later on the reformed association of churches of Christ. It’s a mainstream protestant denomination.
‘How can we together help the world to be a better place?
An easier place for people to be good in?’
Once you were ordained what happened next?
I worked half time in Purley and half time in Wallington. In Wallington there had been two churches – one presbyterian, one congregational and the job was to bring the two together. I worked with another minister to decide which was the best building, we shut both churches then we started a new church in one of the buildings. We were able to change a lot of the practises, we brought in traditions from both churches and it minimised the nostalgia.
Do you always work in partnership with another minister?
In most cases a minister works in 3 churches. In KURC our complexity is we have a range of congregations in the one church. I work in partnership with our Korean minister.
For me, I always work in teams and my team is my elders. I work with the church secretary very closely, we meet every week, it’s a tight relationship. I’m the leader but the team works everything out together.
‘It’s about being human and being real.
Being completely human‘
What would you say the differences are between the United Reformed Church and the more traditional Anglican churches?
What makes us different is our relationship with the state. We’re not the established church in the community. The minister of the other church has to do all the liaison with the community – mayoral visits etc. Also the way the authority runs in our church. We don’t have bishops. We have our elders as trustees. On the ground it could feel the same as other Anglican churches but the admin structure is different.
My personal experience of the URC is that it feels much more relaxed and informal than other churches. What are your thoughts on this?
People are different – that beautiful worship that you get in the orthodox church – sometimes that gives people the liberty to go along, stand on the edge and watch it. We’re all in different places and that’s the cool thing about having different places to worship.
What do you think would be unexpected for someone coming into your church now when their only experience of church was through tv/media?
That we don’t think that we’ve got it all sorted. Loads of people think that Christians are the top of the tree and looking down on everyone else. It’s not like that, we’re all searching. We have each other, we have the bible to help us.
The thing is with the bible the more you study it, the more you realise that the teachings are parables and metaphors. Of course Jonah wasn’t in a whale, it’s what the metaphor stands for that matters.
As a minister there are a lot of parts to your role – what are they?
People is what it’s about. Talking, listening, meeting up, checking in with them. I read, study, reflect, learn. When I’m studying I’m always thinking ‘this would be a good thing for xxxx to look at’. It’s about how can we together help the world to be a better place, an easier place for people to be good in?
If you have a neighbour who is trouble my job is to help you think about how you keep going and how we explore what forgiveness looks like. We might think about your safety. All I can do is be interested in you/the people in the church and be interested in people who are precious in God’s sight. whether they’re part of the church or not. If somebody wants to talk to me, I want to talk to them.
‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out’
It tells us the darkness is real but it’s not the winner.
How do you cope with coming into experience with a lot of tragedy & knowing that tragedy challenges peoples’ faith?
There are a number of layers to that – there’s how it feels to hear some of these stories which can be gut wrenching. Looking after myself in that. I remember talking to an undertaker when conducting the service for a stillborn child. She was speaking of herself and said ‘if you can do this easily you should stop’. You have to feel it but it is personally expensive. You feel it then you go away and you sort yourself out. The other element of this in face of tragedy and ‘where is God?’ it’s about the fact that God is God. He knows that sometimes life is hideous for people and God is there in the middle of it. With people, crying with people. If the crucifixion tells us anything it’s that God knows what it’s like to be tortured to death, to have people laugh at you, to have people leave you. God knows. He knows what it’s like when you’re left alone. God can cope with us being angry at him and refusing to have anything more to do with him. It’s not my job to protect God. Allowing people to rant at God gives people a safe space.
Do you think there is ever tragedy without purpose?
There is learning always. Personal learning. The learning of strength. How the hell do people keep going? How strong these people learn to be. I do not believe that God is a hideous character out of the picture setting things up to make us stronger. For some people the fact they have all their clothes on and brush their teeth on this day, is miraculous.
People talk about free will and God’s will. In your opinion what are you thoughts on whether people have autonomy to live their lives or do you think there are a certain amount of our lives that are predetermined for us?
I think that God has a plan and a purpose and that we journey through time with God. How that works I don’t know. My job is to be the best person I can be and to help others be the best person that they can be. Also to recognise that God is with me, journeying through this day with me. I am a co-creator of my day with God. We do it together.
What are your favourite parts of your role?
If I say funerals will it sound ridiculous? You know when something terrible happens and everyone wants to do something but can’t do anything? I can do something. I can say to somebody ‘let me help you. I can do this for you’.
What part of your role would you rather hand over?
Admin is not my strong suit.
When some of that negative noise is going on in your head,
that chatter that destroys people you can say
‘No, I’m not having this.
The Lord is my light and my salvation and I will not be afraid.’
At Christmas time ‘who would think that what was needed’ written by the Ionian community.
The worst hymn for me is one my congregation don’t know, the style is old fashioned and the words are unhelpful. There are so many great modern hymns why sing outdated Victorian stuff?
(This is Lesley’s diplomatic answer as whenever I request a particular very popular hymn it gets met with a definite eye roll).
I never realised hymns were a form of worship before joining the church…..
One of the things is to have hymns soaked deep in your soul so that when you’re dying you have some words and when someone else is dying you can hold their hand and sing. To learn them and learn some of the scriptures and take them in so that when some of that negative noise is going on in your head, that chatter that destroys people you can say ‘no, I’m not having this. The lord is my light and my salvation and I will not be afraid’.
‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out’ tells us the darkness is real but it’s not the winner. Think of a candle, a tiny candle in a dark space, it looks so feeble and yet it wins.
Is there anything you’d like people to know……
It’s about being human and being real and completely human. Not just allowing bits of yourself. It’s what the religious life is about. I get that some churches aren’t the most welcome places but there’s room. There’s room for everyone.
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