Pioneer minister nurtures faith on new estate

Rev Elisabeth Spence isn’t your typical minister. She doesn’t have a church. She doesn’t even have a congregation. In fact, as one of the Church of Scotland’s five new pioneer ministers, her task is to create a Church community from scratch.

Rev Elisabeth Spence
Rev Elisabeth Spence

Elisabeth’s ministry is designed to build that faith community in a new development, the Hopefield estate in Bonnyrigg, Midlothian. So far, Hopefield is home to 1,100 families, with housing for another 200 families in the pipeline, and more to come during the next phase of the development.

“We have no parish structures and no church,” Elisabeth says. “The reality is that I have to work out: What is the work?

“I am not here to compete with the churches. There is no sense in replicating what is already being done well. What I want to bring is something different that will nurture people in their faith.”

Field of dreams moment

Similar ministries, designed to offer spiritual support to families moving into new tracts of housing in Inverness and Dunfermline have succeeded far beyond initial expectations.

Inverness St Columba New Charge Church of Scotland grew from 20 to 90 members within 6 years and now hopes to move out of rented places of worship into its own new church.

Dunfermline East, a church which started out 5 years ago offering worship in a garage, has grown so fast that the congregation is planning to add an annex to their new church.

That kind of success is still a distant vision for Elisabeth’s Hopefield Connections ministry, but it is off to a good start.

An Easter egg Treasure Hunt for children, advertised on social media and by word of mouth, drew an astonishing turnout. The Cockpen & Carrington Parish Church ‘Knit and natter’ group made 50 egg holders, to give to children along with cream eggs. And Loanhead Parish Church loaned a double decker play bus for the afternoon.

But as Elisabeth and her small group of supporters from those local churches waited in the small car park they had arranged to use for the event, she had no idea if any children would come. Grace intervened.

“I looked down the hill and saw families from all over the estate walking up the road,” she says.

“It was my Field of Dreams moment. We had more than 80 children with their families.

“That was very encouraging. It was a very good event and people were really appreciative. It was wonderful.”

The gathering also gave her a chance to meet people and talk to them face-to- face about the Hopefield community and its needs.

First make connections

Armed with her faith, the Hopefield Connections Facebook page and the support of the traditional local churches, the pioneer minister has embarked on a three-year plan.

“The first year is for making connections. The second year is for building community and after that it will be about sharing faith, although the three do intersect and intertwine all the time,” she says.

Of course Elisabeth is already sharing faith informally when she introduces herself as a minister of the Church and welcomes her new neighbours with gifts of a box of biscuits, a bin collection timetable and a card of blessing that includes her contact details.

“In anything I write I make it clear that I am a minister and we are the Church,” she says. “I’m not here to be a community worker. I’m here to walk with people on their journey of faith.”

Sunday school

Elisabeth’s own journey of faith started in Dunfermline where she grew up. Her next-door-neighbours were churchgoers and her family was happy to send her along with them. By age 16 she was teaching Sunday School.

“I was always in an out of church, mainly because the Girl Guides went to a youth service,” she says.

“I was comfortable being there.”

After school she studied education and went on to work for eight years in an independent school for children with social and emotional needs. During that time, as a Girl Guide leader she took a group of Guides to a service in Killearnan Parish Church, and quickly became a member of Rev Susan Brown’s congregation.

A call to ministry

The call to ministry was almost immediate, she says, and she has never looked back. Since then she has served as a parish minister in Lochee, Dundee and Ibrox, Glasgow and as a workplace chaplain in the centre of Glasgow. She’s also studied counselling and mediation.

Now with 22 years of ministry under her belt, she is keen to bring all that she has learned to her new ministry. And she is undaunted at the prospect of working mainly with people who have never considered themselves Christians.

“I have long held the opinion that many people don’t have a faith because they have never really thought about faith,” she explains. “They are too busy with getting their kids off to school and whatever else they are doing. So what I would like to do is to help people explore faith.”

At first she wondered if she was having any impact at all. But when tragedy struck the community –in the form of an alcohol-fuelled killing— she reached out on social media and offered a listening ear to people who needed to talk.

“It was a very traumatic way to find myself engaging with the community, but it has been helpful,” she says.

Imagine and pray

One of the biggest challenges for Elisabeth’s Hopefield Connections ministry is that there is no obvious place in the community to gather. The local primary school is not open for public events at present, nor is there a community centre.

“Young mums in particular have told me they would really value somewhere they can walk to,” she says.

Social media has been crucial in building community and in finding out what kinds of things might bring people together and pave the way for discussing faith. What she learned has inspired her to suggest three new groups: a walking group; a singing group and a mindfulness group.

With just a little imagination and prayer, all of these activities will offer opportunities to share faith, she says.

“These are things I have done within a church setting that I think will transfer well to people who are still working out what faith means to them.”