If you think being a Southwark Pastoral Auxiliary (SPA) is just about visiting the sick, then think again! If asked what a SPA does, I would say that we walk alongside others, supporting them in hard times, celebrating with them in good times and encouraging fellow Christians to draw strength and joy in their faith in Jesus Christ. And we can do that in so many ways and under so many circumstances.

When I first became Archdeaconry SPA for Lewisham and Greenwich, I asked local SPAs what ministries they were involved in. The result was a very long and varied list. Working through their churches, SPAs were involved in:

  • home communion – at home, residential, nursing homes and sheltered housing
  • mental health & addiction
    • gardening for people with mental health issues
    • home communion for those in assisted accommodation
    • Alcoholics Anonymous
    • art therapy
  • links with local schools – nursery, primary and secondary
    • Open the Book
    • Christmas Journey
    • Easter play
    • assemblies
  • uniform groups
  • bereavement support
  • children’s work
    • Messy Church
  • providing community for the retired or isolated –
    • community lunches
    • Horizon Club, Diamond Club, The Spire etc
    • Holidays at Home
    • craft & social
    • Messy Vintage
  • men’s ministry
  • dementia
    • dementia group
    • Age Exchange
    • Anna Chaplaincy
  • healing ministry
  • Open Church.

The Diocese of Southwark encourages SPAs to exercise their ministry beyond their church community too, and a high proportion of SPAs do just that, in areas such as:

  • debt advice and support
  • police chaplaincy
  • prison chaplaincy volunteer
    • Prison Fellowship and Sycamore Tree Trust
  • hospital chaplaincy volunteer
  • Cathedral chaplaincy
  • Multi-faith centre chaplaincy
  • firefighter chaplaincy
  • Street Pastor
  • volunteering in schools
  • outside charities
    • Helping Hands
    • Action for Refugees in Lewisham
    • LewCAS – Lewisham Churches for Asylum Seekers
  • teaching English as a second language (TESL courses)
  • Macedonian Church
  • Greenwich Winter Night Shelter
  • food banks.

Those lists are not exhaustive. It is wonderful to see how different each SPA’s ministry is, moulded by their gifts, character and the Holy Spirit’s calling.

My ‘day job’ involves supporting older people with technology, so to some extent I am able to bring my training as a SPA to good use at work, but the main thrust of my SPA ministry has been focused on church community. I have always felt that an important aspect of pastoral ministry is about building community. Pastoral care is not just something that starts at the top and works down (though leading by example is vital) but is also built on informal connections of friendship within the church. Parish weekends away can create an environment where new friendships can develop and existing ones can be further deepened, and I had learnt from my sister’s church how valuable their women’s weekends have proved to be too. The idea of organising this for my own church developed, and it was wonderful to be able to organise our first women’s weekend away in November 2019.

It was so successful that we agreed to make this an annual event, but it won’t come as a surprise to hear that our second event, due to take place in September 2020, was postponed, and finally came to fruition in November 2021. The aim was to support each other as we reflected on how to live out our Christian faith in both the big picture and the small details of our lives and to experience Christian community in its fullness. A previous curate agreed to help lead the weekend and to prepare some biblical reflections around the themes of being loved and nurtured by God, rooted in faith, and knowing His presence in our lives. Several women joined in by leading worship, prayer and music. And so it came about that 33 women were drawn together to deepen both their faith and their friendships, helped by the relaxing surroundings of Wychcroft and the hospitality of Richard and Wendy Ellis and their team. We enjoyed times of worship, Bible reflections, discussion and prayer. In the space in between there were walks, much chatting, crafts, a quiz and a movie night. Fireworks, sparklers and toasted marshmallows by the firepit made a fresh winter’s evening a memorable event. Strong friendships forged here provide a stronger framework within our church community back home. We’re looking forward to the next one in January 2023!

These events aside, I lead our pastoral team, organise a confidential prayer team, sit on the PCC, attend weekly staff meetings and occasionally help to lead services. Between Christmas and New Year, while our incumbent was on annual leave, our curate had just left, and our youth minister had COVID, I even had to step in and do a talk at our all-age service. Based on the verse “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6), I reflected on how we pray in difficult situations. This is particularly pertinent for SPAs, as we pray with and for people as part of our ministry. Are we sometimes tempted to pray that God will answer our prayer in the way that we think is best and the least stressful for us, and then worry about how we’ll cope if he doesn’t do that – our eyes still on our worries, and our faith taking a tumble when things don’t go the way we want, or think is best?

But coming to God in prayer isn’t like using Aladdin’s lamp. God is not a genie in a bottle, doing everything we want. So maybe we should ask ourselves a few more questions:

  • can we see God at work in hard times or do we just feel sorry for ourselves?
  • do we acknowledge God’s awesome power when we pray?
  • are we prepared to accept God’s wisdom when we pray about something?

And in all this – Do we know that God loves us? Do we trust him? Tough times are always easier when we know we have someone who loves us, who is wiser than us and who we can trust, not just beside us, but also totally in control of the situation. As a SPA, this is how I can encourage fellow Christians to draw strength and joy in their faith in Jesus Christ.

Looking at the verse in context, we read, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Paul doesn’t say God will answer our every whim, but he does say that God’s unfathomable peace will protect us. That is what we can offer in SPA ministry, whatever and wherever that may be.

Find out more here if you are interested in becoming a SPA or want to find out more about Lay Ministries in the Diocese of Southwark