'Loneliness' might have been the theme for our Gathering of members of the Anna Chaplaincy network, but as far as those past three days have gone… it's been a very companionable time.
With so many of us coming from all over the country – 72 in all – it was the largest Gathering so far, with many delegates becoming old friends as well as colleagues now. The schedule – and the decibel level – was full-on! It was gratifying to see, though, that more than half the members were new, having never attended an Anna Chaplaincy Gathering before.
We also made time for worship and times of silent reflection, which lent a retreat-style air to proceedings – once the lively conversations had died down.
Starting with twelve
After Anna Chaplaincy became part of BRF in 2014, we met at Waverley Abbey, Surrey, and I recall there were just a dozen of us there for that first one, and most of those were from the Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF)! But twelve is a good biblical number, and from that modest start we've grown to a network of 90 Anna Chaplains (and those in equivalent community-based ministry among older people) and this week's Gathering at High Leigh in Hertfordshire was the biggest so far of the five we have held every autumn since.
The exponential growth can be explained by word of mouth interest spreading – one church gets an Anna Chaplain for Older People, and then neighbouring churches cotton on and say 'that's a good idea'. Curiosity is also piqued by articles written and publicity given across BRF's other ministries, such as Messy Church and Parenting for Faith.
Waking up to a changing demographic
More and more churches are waking up to the ageing demographic and asking for advice on how to meet their growing responsibility to care for men and women in their later years. As well as a biblical imperative to 'care for widows', churches also want to benefit more intentionally from the men and women in their midst who are laudable examples of lifelong discipleship and have much to teach younger generations. Ros Simpson of Southampton charity Caraway, which has recruited several Anna Chaplains recently, led sessions on how to discover what the true picture of ageing is in one's locality.
Gaps on the map
We now have Anna Chaplains in the West Country, the south coast, the Home Counties, London, the Midlands and the north-east. But there are significant gaps on the map, and we want to see the network expand into Wales, the north-west and Scotland.
Taking the first step
Once a church lets us know they're interested – of whatever denomination – we arrange to visit, ideally to hold a public meeting so the widest spectrum of people in the community who are interested can hear more and be inspired. We give advice on how to recruit the right person – male or female, lay or ordained. Every Anna Chaplain is accountable to a church which line-manages and prays for them; the chaplain is sent out on behalf of a praying community and in whose name the work is done.
Our annual Gatherings aim to motivate as well as improve the skills of chaplains and their equivalents, who may bear another title such as Older Person's Pastor or Director of Older People's Ministry. This year, our talks and workshops explored topics such as: spiritual needs and spiritual care, making church accessible, working ecumenically, as well as a practical session on Messy Vintage (Messy Church for older generations).
Among those joining us were individuals sensing a vocation to this ministry and discovering what such a calling might mean for them. Others were church leaders, policy-makers, coming to find out how Anna Chaplaincy might make a difference in their part of the world.
Alone with no visitors
I led a more reflective evening session thinking about loneliness and faith; how we might become the sort of older person people gravitate towards rather than feeling left without visitors, alone and bereft? You can click here to listen again to a similar talk I gave recently at Space in the City, Winchester.
Like a thread throughout the three days were our times of worship, devised and led by Jill Phipps (from BRF's Messy Vintage team). There was plenty of time made to hear from new recruits to the network and to share good ideas between those who have long experience in this field.
Keynote speaker Jeremy Sharpe, director of Linking Lives UK, which pioneers befriending groups around the UK matching lonely people with volunteer visitors, spoke about the church's response to loneliness. Jeremy's charity is a fellow member – with Anna Chaplaincy – of the coalition Christians Together Against Loneliness (along with Salvation Army, Livability and other faith organisations).
Writing to thank us, here's a sample of how people described these memorable three days, using words such as 'sparkling', 'wonderful' and 'inspiring'.
'Thank you for another brilliant Gathering, which was full of excellent speakers and sessions.
It was also good to catch up with friends we have met over the years and to make new ones, as well as the opportunities to share thoughts and ideas as well as the problems and frustrations associated with our ministry.'
'The thought, forward planning and vision that went into the whole time was so evident. Nothing was left to chance, which could be seen by the way everything went so smoothly.'
'Well done for what I thought was the best Anna Chaplaincy Gathering so far. It was an excellent event and so rich in so many different ways. It was great to see so many familiar faces and to meet new people.'
'I was excited by the variety of initiatives and the depth and breadth of commitment by those “gathered”. Not hard to imagine how gratifying it must be for you to witness Anna Chaplaincy “going viral”, or I think I prefer, “taking flight”!'
'Helping to improve our skills'
One person was encouraged by the way her minister had greeted news of her interest in Anna Chaplaincy: 'Of course, the person who does the training and/or is appointed an Anna Chaplain shouldn’t be doing all the work. They should be helping all the rest of us to improve our skills in ministering to older people.'
There's no doubt that what people want to tackle is better support for people with dementia and for all who care for people in frail old age. Loneliness is a pressing issue for society at large and for churches to seek to address in their own communities.
Church leaders also seek help in managing volunteers and in making more positive use of older people – especially in their early years of retirement – who have so much to offer and time to give and who can be helped to fulfil their potential in a variety of ways through Anna Chaplaincy in their own congregations.
For some churches, it's also a question of how to get started with Messy Vintage, and to give greater meaning and purpose to housebound individuals who can, nevertheless, offer prayer support to younger people and to church projects through their revitalised prayer ministry.
Like a visit from us?
If you would like to explore Anna Chaplaincy and its benefits for yourself – as a new ministry to undertake where you live and for the wider good of your church – contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We're keen to help you get going!
Finally, we can't forget Oscar the ostrich, who left an indelible mark on us this past week in Hertfordshire. He helps Anna Chaplain Sylvia Munns, working in Perry Street in Northfleet and Rosherville in Kent, connect with younger as well as older people living with dementia in the mental health units she visits.
A round of applause for all our network, including Anna Chaplain helper and furry friend, Oscar!