Ruth Hassall, the Director of Discipleship for The Church of England in Lancashire (Blackburn Diocese) has reached six months in her new role and, if her diary is anything to go by, it’s already shaping up to be a busy first year for the former children and young people’s pastor.
That diary is filling up nicely with parish visits; PCC away days; Vision Champions meetings and many other opportunities to meet people across the Diocese.
Ruth wrote the new Diocesan booklet ‘Knowing the Scriptures Better’. She is pictured with copies of the booklet at one of the recent ‘Primary Visitations’ held across the Diocese.
Ruth’s role involves heading up the ‘Making Disciples Team’, based at the Diocesan offices on the edge of Blackburn; encouraging an energetic focus on whole-life discipleship across the Diocese as part of Blackburn’s ongoing Vision 2026 strategy.
As Director of Discipleship Ruth, who lives near Forton, works closely with The Venerable Mark Ireland, Archdeacon of Blackburn. The Archdeacon has the 'making disciples' brief on the Bishop's Leadership Team as one of the senior clergy of the Diocese.
Ruth also has a key role in the transition of Whalley Abbey (the Diocese’s existing retreat and conference centre) into a centre for prayer and discipleship. She is pictured with Archdeacon Mark Ireland at Whalley Abbey in the Ribble Valley
Archdeacon Mark said: "It has been a busy and fruitful first few months for Ruth and she has risen to the many challenges already presented to her. It is a joy to have such a gifted and passionate advocate for whole-life discipleship on the team.
"The role of Director of Discipleship is a crucial one for us as part of our Vision 2026 Healthy Churches Transforming Communities.
"Ruth brings lots of experience and creative ideas to this important area of work and I am excited about where God will lead us as we continue to focus on discipleship in the coming months and years."
It was with children and young people where it all began for Ruth. Her home church was in the village of Lapworth in Warwickshire, where the children’s club of her church on a Friday night regularly attracted 90 per cent of the village school’s children!
“The village church I grew up in had a strong ministry to children and young people. That was the main outreach of our church, and so I grew up not appreciating that ministry to children was something you were called to; to me it was something you just did! And it was my first experience of leadership in the church.”
After leaving college, Ruth trained with the Institute of Linguists as an interpreter/translator in French and Spanish and then had the first of two stints for the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS) working for three years as an administrator in their Youth and Children’s Team.
Ruth continues her story: “Whilst at CPAS for the first time, I got to know Penny Frank, who was very influential in the church’s ministry amongst children and young people. I became Penny’s PA and working with her galvanized my commitment to this age group.”
Ruth then moved up to Lancaster to train at St Martin’s College as a primary teacher.
“I knew I didn’t want to do teaching long-term however; I felt my true vocation was to be a youth and children’s pastor. By the time I was graduating, St Thomas’ Church in Lancaster was advertising for a youth and children’s pastor and I got the job, which I did for six very happy years before leaving in 2003.”
A stint in London followed working for two years with the Church Mission Society as their National Children’s Work Advisor, before Ruth then moved to Leamington Spa for a second stint for CPAS as a Leadership Development Advisor.
Following that role, there was a move to Birmingham, to the parish of St John’s in Harborne, as their Pastor of Discipleship for five years, followed by three years working for Birmingham Diocese as the fantastically-titled ‘Director of Growing Younger’, where she was responsible for the children and family missioners’ programme as well as holding responsibility for children and family work across the Diocese.
“Discipleship has always been at the heart of what I have done in the church. How do we help everybody take hold of this life of faith whatever age or stage we are at and know that there is a place and a role for them?” she said.
“At the start of my working life it was children and young people who were the focus, but I worked in larger churches with adult volunteer teams and it was then I began to appreciate the wider vision for discipleship.”
Ruth recalled that one of the best things achieved at St Thomas’ in Lancaster was to start a mentoring scheme for teenagers.
She explains: “People were talking to me about the impact the scheme had on their child and were even asking if it would it be possible to have a mentoring programme for parents!”
When Ruth went back to CPAS for her second stint, she held the post as Head of Pathfinders, but soon switched to being Leadership Development Advisor.
“I discovered that you cannot separate out leadership and discipleship; that before you lead anybody you need to ask who it is you are following.
“It was that broadening of my perception of discipleship that led me to the Harborne church and Pastor of Discipleship.
“There I had responsibility for the church ‘home groups’ and developing ways of moving from being a church with small groups to being a church of small groups; spaces where the real issues of life can be discussed and related to our faith.”
Fast forward to now; Ruth spotted the vacancy at The Church of England in Lancashire at the last minute, submitting her application two days before the closing date while en route to a wedding! She explained: “I sat and read the job description and thought ‘If I could write my own job description this would be it’. It really was God’s timing that I spotted it.
“With the Diocese’s clear Vision 2026 Healthy Churches Transforming Communities strategy, with its focus on ‘whole-life discipleship’, to have the principles of ‘Setting God’s People Free’ as a key part of the role was wonderful: all of God’s people equipped for all of life wherever they find themselves.”
(Setting God’s People Free is a programme of change in the Church of England to enable people to be able to live out the Good News of Jesus confidently in all aspects of their life.)
Ruth continues: “Being able to come back to the County I really regard as home was also another key factor in my application.”
And her enthusiasm about Vision 2026 is palpable: “I really welcome the Vision. It addresses the fundamentals of discipleship and making disciples: prayer rooted in Jesus and growing Godly leaders. When we pray ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ we start asking what that really looks like and how we all partake in it.”
Ruth mentions more than once the importance of going out and meeting people in parishes to find out where they stand in relation to Vision 2026. She says: “It is important for me to hear the stories of those church communities and help to decide the next steps for them; however they are expressed.
“I want to know the things holding us back; and where it is that God might be leading our communities. We need to listen closely to each other and bring those communities along as we progress with Vision 2026.
“If all of God’s people feel equipped and have that sense of Christ’s calling in their lives, living His life, then I think that helps things bubble up in local parishes; parishes responding to the needs and hopes of people in their immediate areas.
“Vision 2026 gives churches the permission to think creatively about the barriers to engagement for people in their communities and how we, and they, can make it easier for people to find us and to see the church as theirs; their home.”
Ruth is relishing the challenges she faces and is getting a steady stream of questions about the issues surrounding the development of discipleship.
As well as the work mentioned earlier Ruth has also been busy in other ways: from coordination of the Diocese’s local response to the national Thy Kingdom Come prayer initiative in late May and early June (including the launch service at Crossgate Church in Preston and the closing ‘beacon service’ at Blackburn Cathedral) and attending Bishop Julian’s ‘Primary Visitations’ in parishes across the Diocese in May and even writing a new booklet entitled ‘Knowing The Scriptures Better’!
This booklet forms part of the ongoing ‘Bishop’s Bible Challenge’ and was introduced by Bishop Julian himself at the Visitations. Parishes can order copies from the Diocesan Offices – just visit this page on our website: http://bit.ly/2VaZDYN
Meanwhile Ruth also attended five ‘clergy study days’ at venues across Lancashire where she met a substantial number of clergy from across the Diocese. The most significant message she has had from these encounters is that Blackburn Diocese is a great Diocese to be part of. Ruth expanded on this thought: “It feels to me that many people are on board with Vision 2026 and that there is genuine, real momentum in relation to the Vision in all parts of the Diocese.”
But that’s not all! One of the key priorities within the Vision 2026 theme of making disciples for Jesus Christ is to commit to praying with greater depth and urgency for the Kingdom of God to come.
Ruth said: “To support and resource this, several ‘Pathways to Prayer’ events are planned this year to provide an opportunity for all people of every tradition to explore fresh perspectives on patterns and styles of prayer, contemplation and meditation, through a diverse range of workshops.”
The next ‘Pathways to Prayer’ is on Saturday, July 6 with further events on September 21 and October 19. More information and booking details under ‘News and Events’ on www.blackburn.anglican.org
As mentioned previously, Ruth’s immediate year ahead will also be dominated by the transition of Whalley Abbey into a centre for prayer and discipleship
Ruth is working with a steering group to establish the Abbey as a refreshed retreat centre with a flourishing prayer community and looks forward to increasing the Abbey’s presence as a pivotal place in the life of the Diocese and Lancashire as a whole; supporting discipleship across the County.
“To sum up,” Ruth adds, “through my work and the work of my team, I would love to see more and more people confident in their faith, are more supported and are free to share that faith with their family, friends and neighbours.”
Feature by Mark Ashley