Sue Steer was instrumental in turning an unused church space into the thriving Pathways community centre. Now she’s embarking on a new pioneer adventure.
Can you summarise the journey to establishing the Pathways centre?
The Pathways journey started through a number of events. Doing a module with St John’s Nottingham called God in the World led me to begin thinking about what it meant to be an active Christian in my everyday life. I then went with a friend from church (Hinckley Baptist Church) to a Faithworks conference and heard Steve Chalke talk about how churches could make a difference in their communities by looking beyond normal church activities and engaging with social issues. It really fired us up and we started to look at how our church buildings, which were dilapidated and hardly used, could become of use to our community.
I led a team to raise £350,000, we refurbished the buildings and we began partnering with the local community. Over the years we have partnered with various groups, including people with mental health issues, adults with special needs, children’s groups and young people. We also started a ‘silver surfers’ computer club for older people, an art group and a community cafe. Lately we have focused on wellbeing and dementia groups.
Based on your experience, can you talk about expectations vs reality when it comes to pioneering?
It’s true that Pathways took longer to find its feet than I expected. It’s grown into something I never anticipated, but it is something I feel sure God wanted.
Originally we did a community audit to explore local needs. We also looked at our gifts and talents. Church members wanted to start something like an afterschool club for local children. We also found local groups who expressed interest in using our space. These two things gave us a vision of what shape Pathways might take.
Once the centre opened, we felt that we didn’t want to set up something in competition with local childminders, so we didn’t proceed with the afterschool club. That kind of left us in no man’s land. I remember feeling lost, not understanding what God wanted us to do. It was also a difficult time as some people in the church felt I should be articulating a new vision.
I gradually felt that God was saying that we just needed to listen and love the community, so that’s what we did. Groups of people began using the building and we supported and befriended them. This was a learning curve for me as I’m a driver by nature. Now I know that it’s okay not to have it all mapped out.
The first three or four years were an emotional rollercoaster as we set up groups; some succeeded, others failed. After that, things seemed to settle as our church began to find our place again in the community. We learned so much and began to see some valuable relationships form and people’s faith develop.
One thing I expected was that we would see crossover from Pathways to people coming to church. That has never really happened, which doesn’t surprise me now, but it was one reason why I started on the pioneer course with Church Mission Society – I was trying to understand what God was up to.
Not seeing Sunday mornings grow was difficult for some people in the church. Now, I think our church has grown, but in different ways. Church happens all week, through our activities and certainly we see people growing in their relationship with Jesus, just not in a conventional way. I’m really grateful for my minister. He’s never once said, “Forget Pathways and spend your time on Sunday church.” When I look back I think how gracious and freeing that was.
Tell us about your new ‘mission field’, why you’re moving on and how your Pathways experience will be relevant.
I feel ready for a new challenge. The Pathways dream started in 2002, we opened in 2008 and it’s 2016 already! Pathways is in a really good place; it’s really well known and respected. It has changed the face of our church for the better and is financially selfsustaining. A replacement for me has been employed and we have part-time workers and volunteers who will keep it going. I guess I’ve been a pioneer sustainer for a while and I think I’m called to do more pioneering than sustaining at this point.
The new venture is about starting from scratch...again. This time though, as yet, there are no buildings, people or church! There are fields, a few builders, a new bridge across the M1 and a vision designed by the council and developers.
I’m going to a place called Lubbesthorpe on the outskirts of Leicester. The plan is to build a new town of 4,250 houses along with schools, workplaces, community facilities, shops and green spaces. My role is simply to build community. I’ll be welcoming the first people into Lubbesthorpe and those who follow. It is an amazing opportunity and I still have to pinch myself to believe I’ve been chosen to do it! Churches Together in Leicester are employing me so it is an ecumenical project.
There are so many lessons I’ve learned in Pathways and tools I have now through the CMS pioneer course that while there is a part of me that’s scared, that’s okay.
There really is no map (in more ways than one). Right now the plan centres on finding dreaming space, praying and seeking to gather those who want to join God in his mission for Lubbesthorpe. I’ll be seeking to work with other stakeholders: developers, councillors, community service providers, nearby churches. The hope is that eventually some sort of missional community will be born but when and what it will look like will be decided by God in his time.
How comfortable are you with being called a pioneer?
I’m far more comfortable than I used to be. I guess that’s from understanding what pioneering is about and realising that’s what I’m called to do. Pioneering is about stepping out beyond the norm, seeing new possibilities and being happy with not knowing the end at the beginning. When you try new things you have to be prepared to fail. Being secure in who I am in Christ means I can live with that more easily now than before.
Has the Church Mission Society pioneer course helped you and if so, how?
I can’t really speak too highly of the pioneer course and the way it has helped me discover and be secure in who I am and what I believe God has called me to be and do.
When I started I felt I had so much mush in my head around what was happening in Pathways. I was struggling to make sense of it. Doing the course has helped me articulate theologically why I do what I do. In pioneering you need to be able to do this. The Church needs pioneers to go off grid. And we need to help the Church understand why it needs to change if Christianity is going to survive in a post-Christendom society.
The Call in Action
If you feel God has called you to be a pioneer and ‘to go off grid’ like Sue, then the CMS Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course may be just the thing for you. It offers a creative way of equipping and mobilising Christians for ground-breaking, transformational and sustainable mission.
Read more about the course at pioneer.churchmissionsociety.org