How to… do pioneering mission with people of all seasons

How to… do pioneering mission with people of all seasons

By David Palmer, pioneer minister working with older people in Market Harborough and former CMS pioneer student

Starting points

Twelve years’ working with the international charity Torch Trust was foundational for what I now do as a pioneer minister. At Torch I was responsible for leading and developing the UK network of local groups of blind and partially sighted people. These were largely older people, facing isolation and social exclusion along with sight loss.

Within my own family I also witnessed decline and accompanying loneliness in both my mother and my father-in-law. Despite being in supportive care homes, they lacked social interaction and mental stimulus.

While loneliness can affect people of any age, I was struck by the previous Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt speaking of loneliness having reached “epidemic” proportions, particularly among the elderly. Priest, broadcaster and ethicist Samuel Wells describes the dangers of “ghettoising” old people. [1]

When someone stops contributing to GDP or is unable to continue an active church life, they become marginalised. They are seen as of lesser importance, a burden that needs resolving rather than an asset to be valued.


As someone with many ideas and a tendency to rush headlong into new initiatives, I found the basic premise: “See where God is already at work and join in” to be good advice. I spent around a year praying, listening to God, listening to the community, finding out what was already happening and identifying areas of need and opportunity. I talked with key people in the church and the community; I questioned the older generation.

First steps

In the end, the opportunity to be involved at a care home happened almost accidentally. The home’s manager wanted to see more people of all ages participate in the life of the home. I heard the shameful fact that only four of the 49 residents received regular visitors. With my encouragement, three different types of services began to be run each month by different local church teams.

Measuring response is not easy, as many residents have dementia. I gain motivation from Professor John Swinton’s conviction that “any diminution of the self is first and foremost a diminution of community”. [2]

The focus of the services, then, is to trigger good memories and rekindle embers of faith in imaginative ways and, importantly, to honour people and their stories.

A special highlight from last year was the baptism of a 70-year-old man from the home. This year I was privileged to attend and lead the prayers at the marriage of the manager. She and her husband are not part of any church community.

In my role of chaplain to the home, I am grateful for advice, support and resources from Bible Reading Fellowship’s The Gift of Years team. [3]

Further opportunities

Visiting the care home with its overgrown courtyard garden and large expanse of lawn at the rear presented me with another opportunity. So, supported by a team of volunteers who are mostly unchurched, Elderberries was launched: a ministry “with people of all seasons”, bringing together different generations. [4]

In the courtyard area we have created a dementia-friendly, multi-sensory space for residents to access and enjoy. Familiar texts, verses and sayings inscribed on pieces of slate are placed in the beds, each of which highlights one of the senses with assorted plants.

To the rear of the home, an extensive area has been cleared to make way for six raised beds and four ground-level beds in which are grown a variety of organic fruit and vegetables for the residents. Any surplus goes to the team and to a small ethical cafe in town – an outlet which in time could provide us with a source of income. A local doctor who is passionate about preserving fruit trees grown in Leicestershire from the late 1800s has kindly donated a dozen to our site. These, together with more modern hybrids, reflect the ethos of Elderberries – old and young complementing each other.


Building partnerships is crucial. Volunteer Action South Leicestershire run a very successful scheme called Community Champions, matching volunteers with lonely people. A number of referrals have come through this scheme, adding to our volunteer team.

Another supportive partnership has been with the Soil Association, which runs Food for Life, linking schools and care homes and addressing the major social issue of childhood obesity by promoting healthy eating. The Soil Association considers Elderberries a standard bearer for utilising green spaces and is keen to use it as a showcase to other homes in the UK. As a result of this partnership, nursery children have been coming fortnightly to join the older residents in gardening and other activities.

Practical help in the garden for the past two years has also come from employees of a local solicitor’s office who usually give us a couple of days a year to assist with various tasks.


Being intentionally missional and part of the Fresh Expressions movement of Church, I aim to make the three-way connection between land, God and community. This is achieved by using resources drawn from Iona and the Northumbria Community, and by observing traditional festivals such as Rogation Sunday and Lammastide.

Throughout my Christian journey, the opening verses of Isaiah 61 have been a source of challenge and inspiration. With Jesus as our example, our calling as his followers, under the guidance of the Spirit, is to creatively bring good news alongside the work of binding up, releasing, comforting, rebuilding, restoring, renewing. To God be the glory!

[1] How then Shall we Live?, Samuel Wells, Canterbury Press, 2016.
[2] Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, John Swinton, Eerdmans, 2012.
[3] Living Liturgies, Caroline George, Bible Reading Fellowship, 2015.
[4] Read more about the Elderberries garden on the Leicester Diocese website.