This is a second interview in a series. The first can be read here with John Rackley. This next interview is with Tim Presswood.
Tim has been a minister at Openshaw Baptist Tabernacle, East Manchester since 1993 having trained at Northern Baptist College. In 2013 he became the Transitional Regional Minister in the North Western Baptist Association. He is part of Urban Expression. He has been a chairman at a hospital NHS Trust chariman the Manchester Credit Union. With Clare McBeath he runs a website called Dancing Scarecrow.
What’s the most important lesson you learned about ministry that you didn’t know at the beginning?
Ministry is an emotional roller coaster. In the space of one afternoon, you can go from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair. A beloved project can fall apart acrimoniously, but a pastoral visit to a dying member of the community can lift you back up towards heaven. No matter what style of prayer or spirituality you favour - and I embrace many - it is important to embed your spiritual roots firmly in God.
What led your into ministry?
When I was eighteen I underwent my second conversion experience (!) which was accompanied by a strong sense of call to mission. When I went to talk to my minister (Roger Martin), he told me to “go away and grow up.” Painful though that message was to hear, it was invaluable advice. But the sense of a call to ministry never went away. After university I worked in sales for four years before applying to YBA for ministerial training. Just two weeks after I was accepted by Northern Baptist College (as it was then called), I was sacked from my job, which I took as confirmation of my call.
What keeps you going?
When David Coffey visited Openshaw he asked our late Treasurer the same question, expecting a deeply spiritual answer. The reply she gave has gone down in Baptist legend. “We’ve no flamin’ option.” So we are the church with “no flamin’ option.
Apart from all the obvious answers about family and prayer, I cannot imagine ministry as anything other than a team. Clare and I have operated a model of shared leadership since she came to Openshaw as a student. Theological reflection is built into the way we work together - and this finds its way into our broader church life. We meet to eat and break bread together - and from their earliest days our children have been engaged in theological conversations. Sometimes with devastating results. Our services are open and inclusive, encouraging folk to contribute - and thereby challenging and nourishing me.
You’ve been at Openshaw a long time, has there every been moments where you felt like giving up and walking away?
When the local drug dealer took a dislike to what we were doing and put a brick through our window for the second time a friend very generously told me where the key to their holiday cottage was kept and suggested that if we ever needed place of sanctuary we could use it. That was a huge comfort – but it also brought home to me just how much power and control over my own life I have – and that many of the folk among whom I work don’t have that luxury. I have a good education and that can’t be taken away from me. I have a loving and supportive family—and friends spread around the world. I have so many choices. Choices which are denied to those around me.
I guess my theological model for ministry is incarnation—which sounds a bit presumptuous. Ultimately, though, Jesus didn’t have the option of walking away, so although there have been many moments when I have been at my wits end – and tempted to despair, I don’t think I have ever really been close to giving up.
What one thing should ministers do more of and what one thing should they do less of?
More: listening. Real listening, open to be changed by the person who is telling you their story.
Less: telling. I am deeply suspicious of certainty.
Is there anything your certain of?
When I was at school, I did O-level physics. I was taught that light travels in straight lines. We did experiments which proved that light travelled in straight lines.
My friends went on to do A-level physics (while I gave up on scientific methodology and went on to study French existentialism!). They told me that in the first week of the A-level course they were told that everything they had been taught so far was wrong. Light travels in waves.
We are now told that light is actually made up of quantum particles which move in an apparently random pattern. That light is bent by gravity and that in theory at least it could be bent so far that it meets itself coming back in time.
The German Romantic poet Rilke wrote:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
That seems a pretty healthy attitude.
Has there been one book or theological voice that has shaped your ministry?
Rubem Alves - The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet
I don’t know the book, but great title. Does this reflect the way you’ve seen your ministry in these three words – poet, warrior, prophet? Or maybe is this has what has been required of you in East Manchester?
Neither Alves nor I are big on the warrior bit. At my ordination I chose the Nazareth manifesto from Luke 4. Heather Walton, the preacher, accused me of arrogance in claiming the prophetic mantle for myself—and went on to describe the prophetic task as rightly belonging to the community. So I guess that leaves the poet.
What does being a Baptist minister mean to you?
I am white, male and middle-class. It is easy for me to say that the status of being a Baptist minister sits fairly lightly on me. I am conscious that for many others they feel - rightly or wrongly - that they have had to fight to have their call recognised by our denomination. So I would never dismiss ordination or accreditation.
Nevertheless, I tend to view ministry functionally. I have received certain training and have skills and gifts which the church recognise as necessary for ministry. If, at some time, the church decides that it needs other skills and gifts - or I come to believe that my skills and gifts can better be used outside of the church, then so be it.
So why are you a Baptist? Accident, conviction? Are there things you treasure about the Baptist tradition?
Accident and conviction aren’t mutually exclusive! After several years of avoiding the Baptist church, I actually joined the youth group because of a girl. She dumped me on my first night at church – which I took as a sign that God wanted me there. Over the years, though, I have come to value so much about our tradition. Congregational church government and freedom of conscience under the Holy Spirit would be two aspects that I hold particularly dear. Now that I am a Regional Minister, it does me good to remember that I am not a bishop – and we won’t be repeating a creed on Sunday!
Tell the story of how Openshaw lost their church buildings. How has this changed you and the church?
It’s a VERY long story! I first discussed the possibility of the council acquiring our buildings in about 1999! I was chair of the East Manchester Regeneration partnership and it was already clear that the Toxteth Street estate on which we were located was heading for significant demolition. Our buildings were both in poor condition and not suitable for the kind of church we were developing into. The council agreed to look at resettling us and as the plans developed, our site was included in the plans. Unfortunately, we struggled to find a suitable site. We were, of course, reluctant to invest money in repairs. When the heating packed up, we were quoted £38,000 to install a new system - on a building that had been valued at only £60k and which was scheduled for demolition within eighteen months. Six years later the building was still standing - and we were being instructed by our surveyor and lawyers to keep the building as a ‘going concern,’ otherwise the council would be able to deny us compensation. So for six years we worshiped huddled around a couple of Calor gas heaters (which, if you don’t know, should be avoided at all costs as they throw out vast amounts of moisture into the atmosphere - which brought about other problems wit the building.
Eventually, we gave up on the whole process and decided to spend considerable time bringing the buildings back up to some kind of usable standard. We organised a “work party” weekend which we called “Worship in Wellies.” BU President John Weaver came up to help - as did folk from a number of other churches around the north west. We spent a glorious weekend cleaning the church and throwing out 50 years of accumulated rubbish.
Inevitably, it was that weekend that I received the letter from the Council informing us that they had agreed to pay us “full and equivalent” reinstatement costs through the Compulsory Purchase Scheme - over 10 times what we had previously been offered.
So we now find ourselves as a tiny, homeless church. Which is a real blessing. There is no obligation on us to maintain any of the structures we inherited, but which no longer meet our purposes. We can meet whenever and wherever we want. So there have been Sunday mornings where actually just sitting together and having a cup of coffee has felt a much more appropriate pastoral response than offering public worship. On the other hand, we are able to meet in our local SureStart children’s centre and run a storytelling project one Sunday afternoon per week, drawing in many of the folk who use the centre. We have developed a much closer relationship with our local URC - with whom we are aiming to merge soon. We have also - as a congregation - gone to visit other churches both to learn from what they do, and to share some of our story. This too feels important. As a small church, it is a huge encouragement to us that others feel that we have something to contribute.
Do you think as a result of having no buildings the church is more present and engaged (to steal a phrase from Rev!) now in the community?
Last night we had a meeting with Chris Duffet. He discussed the “Come and Hear” culture as opposed to the “Go and Tell.” He asked us what percentage of our efforts were spent on each. In our case, it was a clear 100% for “Go and Tell!”
Do you miss having a permanent ‘church’ building? Have there been downsides as well as upsides?
Oh yes. We have to work hard to ensure that the community knows the church is still here. And all age worship is made much more complicated by the fact that we have to carry all our resources with us rather than having somewhere to leave them.
Hospitality is at the heart of our mission – but it is not easy to make the unloved feel welcome when we don’t have a building into which to welcome them.
With your co-minister Clare McBeath, you run a website called Dancing Scarecrow full of self-penned prayers that have arisen from your leading of worship. What are the virtues/values of Dancing Scarecrow?
I can’t put it any better than the page on the site:
Here hangs a man discarded,
A scarecrow hoisted high,
A nonsense pointing nowhere
To all who hurry by
Can such a clown of sorrows
Still bring a useful word
Where faith and love seem phantoms
And every hope absurd?
We want to answer Brian Wren’s beautiful question with a resounding “Yes.” God is still active and Jesus Christ is still relevant in the modern world in which we live.
Sadly, it does seem as though much modern worship does not accept even the validity of the question.
Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit are addressed interchangably. They are imaged as “King,” “Lord,” “Saviour,” and occasionally “Brother.” All are, of course, male. They are described as mighty and victorious.
This all has little relevance to our inner city context in one of the most deprived areas of the UK. To speak of God as Father here is to risk conjuring up images of absence, neglect and even violence.
Of course, there aren’t many scarecrows here either! Although if you wander down onto the allotments, you may find one or two dancing in the breeze alongside the dangling CDs and other improvised bird scarers!
We offer Dancing Scarecrow as a resource for any and all who are searching for worship resources that reflect the reality of 21st Century Britain.
We will not shrink away from addressing the pain and horror of our community with a sometimes brutal honesty. We will not use language which excludes on grounds of race, colour, disability, age, gender or sexuality.
We will use humour. We will reflect upon the issues which face us in daily life, whether in our immediate neighbourhood or the wider world. We will draw upon contemporary media and will use images from film, television, novels, popular music, the internet and anything else which takes our fancy.
Our scarecrow dances, blown by the wind as it hangs precariously from a cross. Perhaps the dance is the agonising death throws of crucifixion. Perhaps the dance is the drunken stagger on the way home on a Saturday night. Or the disturbing dance of a woman with schizophrenia driving demons out of buses in the middle of the night. But maybe the dance is the exuberant whirling of a little girl revelling in the sensations of her own body. Or the celebrations of 15,000 home fans at the City of Manchester stadium.
As the Iona Community put it:
Jesus Christ is dancing,
Dancing in the streets,
Where each sign of hatred
He, with love, defeats.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I should triumph too.
On suspicion’s graveyard
Let me dance with you.
How do you see the relationship between church and mission?
To talk of a relationship is to imply that that church and mission are separate entities. A church which does not engage in mission is not a church. A church which exists purely for its own sake is not modelling the self-sacrificing love of Christ - and cannot own the label Body of Christ. Ultimately, therefore, the “institutional” church is called to follow Jesus to the cross and sacrifice its own existence for the salvation of God’s creation. Which is an interesting position for a Regional Minister to take!
Can you tease out a little what you mean by ‘sacrifice its own existence’?
It seems to me that many ‘new church’ initiatives are aimed primarily at reforming and revitalising the church. Surely, this should be, at best, a by-product. The prime purpose of our mission must be the salvation of God’s creation.
If, for example, a church is expending all its energy on maintaining a building, it will not be able to focus on the needs of its community. If, on the other hand, it engages in mission, it may find that the much-loved building is no longer meeting the needs of the community. Ultimately, this may even lead the church to follow Jesus into forms of mission which actually are no longer identifiable as “Church.”
Whilst being a Baptist minister you have also held important roles in the public service ((e.g. the NHS). What impact have these roles had on your ministry?
I remember one occasion when I sat in a board meeting and took a decision about a project which would cost us over £2 million. As I came out of the meeting, I realised that I didn’t have enough money in my pocked for my bus fare home! For a minister of a church with less than a dozen members, it was a huge shift in my thinking to realise that we were having an impact on a far wider scale.
Tameside Hospital, of which I was chair, serves a patient population of over 250, 000. Working on that scale has undoubtedly brought me skills in terms of governance. Ultimately, I was responsible for around 7,000 staff and a budget of £175 million per annum. You cannot operate on that scale without having systems and processes in place to ensure that your decisions are based on the best possible information. This, in turn, has helped me to develop some of the other projects in which I am involved. Manchester Credit Union, for example, now has over 16,000 members (from 85 when I first got involved). Again, we have to have systems in place to ensure that our members’ money is secure.
On the other hand, of course, I have come to appreciate that, even as the Chair of an organisation, I am only one cog in a much larger machine. Whilst it does my ego good to have a PA who has a pot of coffee on my desk as I arrive in the morning, you soon come to realise that the world does not revolve around you. Since I left the hospital it has not fallen to pieces. I think most ministers would do well to remember that the church is far bigger than they are - and that ultimately, the church belongs to the God who is beyond all human knowing.
Do you think more ministers should seek this kind of public office? A wider question might be what place should the church have within society in terms of education, health, law and order, government?
I don’t believe in a state church. In none of my roles in public office have I been a “representative” of the church. Similarly, I don’t believe that ministers should seek public office merely to be present in society.
However, I would strongly encourage churches to engage with their communities. I have a degree in languages. When I began going to public meetings about the regeneration of our community I found that I was in a unique position to “translate” between the world of the highly paid regeneration officials and the people whom they for the most part wanted to help.
Ministers are often the only “professionals” who actually live in the communities in which they work.
Can you tell a story of where something didn’t work or that you failed?
How long have you got? I am the kind of person who has twenty ideas before breakfast - all of which are bad ideas. I need others around me to help sift the wheat from the chaff.
One of the projects I helped to establish in the early 2000s was a computer recycling company. We hired the wrong manager and were working in a business in which none of us had any experience. We thought we had a ready made market for refurbished computers - we had another, related project that was putting computers into people’s homes and we offered them a refurbished computer for £30 - or a brand new one for £200. What we had underestimated was that almost everyone chose the brand new option - paid for with a loan from the credit union. The recycling project very quickly collapsed.
Do you see yourself as an evangelist?
I have a gospel to proclaim and am always ready to give account of the hope I have in Christ. That said, the word evangelist has many connotations with which I am not comfortable, so it isn’t a word I ever use.
Does this link back to your suspicion of certainty, and I guess to often too many evangelists seem to have certainty all wrapped up? If that is the case is there the possibility of a different kind of evangelism?
Yes. I think the old liberal v evangelical, social engagement v proclamation distinctions no longer hold the power they used to have.
What role, if any, does tradition play in ministry, in church, in mission?
When I arrived in Openshaw - 23 years ago - it was with a clear vision to ‘re-invent’ the church. But it rapidly became clear that one of the main barriers to change was that folk didn’t feel that their history, their achievements over the years were valued. So a lot of our ministry has actually been about helping folk to tell - and celebrate - their tradition, their history, precisely so that they can let go of it and move on.
Are there any ways which were particularly helpful in helping people to tell their history?
Our folk seem to respond more visually. We tried storytelling and asking folk to write personal histories, but that never really took off. But crawling around the floor drawing timelines almost invariably stimulated some amazing conversations.
Where are you most incompetent as a minister?
Pastoral visiting. I’ve never really understood why I was sitting in someone’s front room while they politely wonder why I am there. And I am sure that my discomfort communicates itself to them. Mind you, I remember visiting the same ‘no flamin’ option’ treasurer just before Christmas and being given a large tumbler of whisky. By the end of that visit I was much more relaxed!
I recognise some of that. Does this mean you avoid it by making it someone else’s responsibility, or does it remain an inescapable part of being a minister?
Whilst I will always visit if there is a particular need, the days of spending afternoons routinely visiting members of the congregation have never been part of our church. It was never expected, or wanted.
Are you hopeful for the future of Baptist ministry and/or the Baptist Union? Why or why not?
Brian Haymes used to draw a distinction between hope and optimism. I am always hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic. The current situation presents us with huge opportunities to redefine ministry and the church as a whole. In order to do this, though, we have to accept that we are entering Post-Christendom.
Or have we already entered?
I think it is still early days. Many Christians still seem to believe that if we get back to traditional values—or preach the gospel more clearly—or speak with greater certainty, that the church will somehow regain a position of authority in this country.
There is a clear trend away from ‘traditional’ ministry. In the north west at least, the majority of new ministers are now coming through the locally recognised route. As an Urban Expression team leader, I welcome this flexibility. As a Regional Minister, though, I do recognise the challenge which this presents to any kind of national accreditation scheme.
London and the south east feel like another country. Many of the churches in the north of England appear to be in terminal decline. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Unless a seed falls to the ground… However, it presents us with significant challenges in developing denominational structures which are flexible enough to support the new and emerging patterns of church - especially when many of them do not even identify as church! I have been to two Home Mission funded churches recently which spoke proudly of themselves as ‘non-denominational!’
I’m concerned by some of that answer. I guess particular the line about being non-denominational, which seems to ignore the dependence upon the “denomination”. I fear sometimes our rush for the novel means we can be to quick to jettison some of that which makes both ministry and church possible. We need to tell a better narrative of how our institutions are life-giving as well as being admittedly life-restricting. Does any of that resonate?
Entirely. I wasn’t using the example of the ‘non-denominational’ churches positively. Unfortunately, ‘denominational’ seems in many minds to be associated with a focus on the institution over and above the life which it can bring. Whilst there is much that I would like to change about Baptist life, I have, for the most part, been energised by my engagement with its structures.
What has been the main shape of your ministry? (e.g. pastoral carer / leader of worship / missionary / networker / fundraiser / social worker)
I have been all of these. Antonio Gramsci speaks of the ‘organic intellectual.’ The reflective practitioner who is embedded into the life of her or his community. That doesn’t seem to be a bad metaphor for ministry. The pastoral cycle begins with the experience of life in community, analyses that experience through a broader lens, reflects upon it in the light of Scripture and tradition and moves into transformative action - which, of course, brings further experience with which to begin the cycle again.
I like that, but I wonder if many churches might be suspicious or find threatening the language of ‘intellectual’.
Probably. It is though, crucial that we are honest about who we are. If I pretend to be ‘down wid da kids,’ they will not only rapidly see through me, but will have every reason not to trust me.
I am not suggesting that everyone has to become an academic. We are, though, all called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength and (crucially) with all our minds. We can all develop reflective practice.
Questions of finance (not surprisingly) seem to be in the mix of so much of ministry, church and mission – what have you learned, if anything, from how to deal with the issue of scarcity?
I’m not sure what this question means. If by ‘scarcity’ you mean a lack of resources for the church to engage in its mission, then my honest experience has been that money can be found if the project is genuinely worth doing - but you might have to work for it. It is often easier to raise a million pounds than it is to raise a thousand - and you have to understand that funders are not simply going to hand money over for you to do whatever you want with it. My first real experience of funding was going to Manchester City Council with a business plan written on the back of an envelope (actually two sides of A4) to ask for £30,000 over two years. We happened to meet their requirements in terms of outputs and outcomes and walked out of that meeting with £60,000 - because we understood that we had to deliver some of the things that they had to deliver. It was the beginning of a genuine partnership.
If by scarcity, we are talking about personal poverty, then it is all too real. The first time you are faced with the absolute desolation of someone who genuinely has no income and who does not know how they are going to feed their children is a devastating moment. That there are people in twenty first century Britain who are absolutely destitute should be a national scandal. That, as a nation, we offer subsidies to employers through such ‘in work benefits’ as tax credits, which allow them to pay wages too low to live on is an outrage.
Foodbanks, credit unions, money advice and budgeting are all sticking plaster solutions which enable the poor to survive, but which do nothing to address the underlying causes of poverty and injustice. Capitalism, in its present form, is not sustainable. As a Christian, I believe we have a horizon which is able to point us beyond the here and now and to offer alternatives.
If you could write your own obituary what would it say?
As a poet, when I write something, I am conscious that I put my meaning into the words, but I am equally conscious that the reader will bring their own context and experience to my words - and thereby change the poem. Each time it is read, it is different. The poet cannot control the meaning of his or her words.
Writing my own obituary feels a bit like a vain attempt to control how (and whether) people remember me.
I have found that too often in church we are not that bothered about mission – has that been your experience and why is that?
Most churches speak about mission - but mission often seems to be “converting them to become like us.” It seems to me that the missio dei -God’s mission - is actually about empowering people to transcend the limitations of the present age and become all that God wants them to be. That may not look very much like me - which I find challenging.
Have you found that worship transforms people?
Rarely. We bring so much of ourselves to worship. We are strangely reluctant to allow the Holy Spirit, who works in relationship and community, to reveal God to us through the ‘other.’
Does it matter if worship does not transform people?
Can I encounter God without being changed by that encounter?
The temptation of much ministry both inside and outside the church is to be “nice” – is this something that troubles you? Have you been able to resist it?
Are you asking me whether I am “nice?”
It is sometimes necessary to make difficult choices. Occasionally, I have found myself in the situation where the choices I have been presented with have all seemed wrong. Life is not clear-cut and it is sometimes necessary to choose the least bad course of action. I’m not afraid of taking such decisions, but know all too well that this doesn’t necessarily make me popular. The decision to downgrade a hospital may be the right one from all medical and logical perspectives - but people respond with emotion too.
I do believe though, that while part of ministry is about taking such difficult decisions, that must not prevent you from responding pastorally. We may have had a vigorous debate in the church meeting, but we need to move beyond our disagreement. One of my key achievements with the NHS was to move management out of the offices and into the public arena. We had a number of awful public meetings - and I have, on occasion had to be escorted out of buildings by security personnel - but it does feel crucial that we remain accountable for those decisions we take. If - as happened - your loved ones have been let down by the system, it feels only right and proper that I am accountable to you for what has happened.
And there have been times when that has been a very painful experience.
Is social media a blessing or a curse?
No. It is a tool. Like all tools it can be used for good and it can be used for evil.