South Yardley Methodist Church in Birmingham has a congregation of about 40, most of whom are in their 70s but there is a lot going on.
It’s in an area where many people are on low incomes and the church has a tradition of running food-related projects such as, lunch clubs for elderly people, afternoon teas, soup and sandwich lunches, Caribbean evenings etc. It rents space to organisations like Narcotics Anonymous and to community groups such as sewing and self-defence classes. They also host a French-speaking Church.
‘Even before Covid, all Methodist Churches had been encouraged by The Connexion to think about how we could utilise our buildings differently, for service and mission within our communities,’ says the church’s minister, Rev Karen Webber. ‘We recognise that this may mean our ministry looking very different from what we have come to know and love.
‘We knew as a Church we felt called to open the spaces we have and meet some of the massive needs in the area. The problem is we are an ageing community with very few people who can actually do anything at all. Added to this COVID then came along which meant most of the congregation fell into the high risk/vulnerable category.’
Close by the church, in Hobmoor Road, Andy Brown, Manager of Oasis Hub Hobmoor, was looking for a venue from which to run a more permanent food poverty project. Together with the council, local churches and other charities, he had been delivering hundreds of food parcels to vulnerable families since the start of the pandemic.
‘It wasn’t sustainable on that scale,’ says Andy, ‘but to simply stop would have left huge hole in community provision, so we began looking for an alternative.’ (continued below)
Another local charity put Andy in touch with South Yardley Methodist Church and within weeks they were working together and Oasis Hub staff and volunteers had installed shelving and fridges for a new style of ‘social supermarket’.
‘When the idea was put before Church Council it really was a no brainer,’ says Rev Webber. ‘We are a community that has always enjoyed feeding people, so it made sense that our building should continue to serve that purpose despite the fact most of the members are still isolating.
‘It seemed to us like an ideal partnership and one that the whole of Church family is fully supportive of. We had just refurbished exactly the sort of space Andy needed and we had all the health and safety compliance in place.’
The social supermarket they set up is part of a charity franchise called ‘Your Local Pantry’ run by Foundations Stockport and Church Action on Poverty. People on low incomes become members and, for £4 per visit, they can buy groceries worth £25.
‘It’s not a handout,’ says Andy. ‘It’s like a normal shop and there’s a choice of goods. We have special offers and discounts when we have over supply. We opened in September and over 75 people signed up in the first month.’
We couldn’t stop the volunteers!
The congregation at South Yardley Methodist Church are delighted that the church buildings are being used for this purpose. ‘Some members have been volunteering from the beginning but we have advised them to take a break for a while until all have been vaccinated,’ says Rev Webber.
‘For now our role as a church is mainly, to make sure the space is safe, heated, cleaned and ready for the Pantry volunteers and shoppers. Once we are through this pandemic however, we look forward to being more of a physical partner. The vision post COVID is for a creative well-being cafe space which will offer targeted specialist advice, or just be a general safe listening space.
Off the back of all this, Church Council also made the decision to remove all the pews from our worship space in order to make the sanctuary a flexible space for use throughout the week and not just for Sunday Worship.
‘We are definitely on a journey now and we are looking forward to seeing how God will lead us into new ways of being church that will bring life and hope to the community we serve.’
The ‘Your Local Pantry’ at South Yardley Methodist is a great success story but can any church set up a similar project?
‘Yes, they can,’ says Andy Brown, ‘but they need to think differently and work in partnership. What causes many church-based community projects to fail is lack of knowledge about grant funding from local councils or trusts and the accountability that goes with receiving that funding.
Churches are also a bit fearful of systems and processes and health and safety regulations but you can get a lot of help with this, especially if you work with others. Congregations can sometimes underestimate their resources – buildings, health and safety compliant kitchens, pastoral support, community contacts and volunteers. They’ve got a lot to offer!
Ask what you are good at
‘Diminishing congregations means church ministry may well need to change and grow in new directions, which can feel daunting but also really exciting,’ says Rev Karen Webber. ‘Post Covid, we have the opportunity to re-think our mission strategies and ask some hard questions about who we are and what we are about.
‘At South Yardley we asked just that, “What are we about? What do we do best and how can we offer that for life and ministry where we are?” The answer for us was, food! We love food, feeding people and eating together. So for now, we are building everything around food, in worship, study, service and evangelism.
Maybe all churches should ask the same question. What one thing are they good at and how can that be offered for life and ministry in each community?
And that might mean looking for partners like the Food Pantry to work and grow with.’