Stories at the centre of life and work

If you get the chance to meet the Uniting Church WA’s new Presbytery Minister Mission, Rev Alison Gilchrist, you’ll soon find out that she’s ready to get into the thick of it and get the job done – she’s a ‘doer’.

Alison was ordained in the Church of England and came to Perth six years ago to work with the Anglican Diocese of Perth. Having started her role with the Uniting Church WA in September last year, Alison has already begun making her mark, with the introduction of the ‘Light on Every Street’ campaign. The campaign saw congregations sharing the light and love of God in the lead-up to  Christmas by giving candles and postcards with a message to people in their communities.

Alison has been involved in many successful projects, both in the United Kingdom (UK) and in Perth, which have helped grow the church, and grow people in faith.

She’s worked in towns with some of the lowest socio-economic statistics in England and helped people connect with the church by listening and being with people in their times of need. Having come to faith via many challenges of her own, Alison understands the journey.

Alison was born in the north of England and, by her own words, had an untraditional childhood. Alison’s early life was spent in and out of foster homes, where she experienced abuse of varying kinds.

“The interesting thing about my childhood is that it wasn’t traditional,” Alison said. “I spent a lot of my childhood in and out of children’s homes and foster care which has been a very big marker in my life.

“I have a very deep-seated passion to see people flourishing; that people aren’t inhibited to be flourishing to be all they need to be.”

In her young adult life, Alison married, had two daughters, and worked in a few different jobs, including in education, employment services, and with the British Armed Forces. Weeks after giving birth to her first child, Alison’s marriage ended. While painful, this journey led her to Robert, her second husband – a former drug addict whose faith led him to sobriety.

“Our backgrounds don’t lend ourselves to traditional Anglican ‘clergy-ness’, Alison said. “Most clergy are kind of middle class, tertiary educated; and that wasn’t our background.

“We came to ministry from a very different background.”

After attending an Alpha course, a course introducing the basics of Christianity, Alison came to faith herself at the age of 29. Prior to her ordination, she spent six years working as a church evangelist in an area with a lot of need, where she planted her first church in a local council estate and saw another grow from almost closing, to holding seven worship services on a Sunday.

One of Alison’s first placements was with a colleague in a tiny church in Lancashire, England, who were still using a Common Book of Prayer which was written in the 1600s. During her time there, the church grew from about 40 members to around 250 – while continuing to use the dated book.

“As somebody who works in mission, what I learnt in that time was: it’s not about being happy clappy, it’s not about having big screens, it’s not about having any of that stuff. It’s about how you use what God’s put in your hands to enable him to be himself.

“Actually, it’s about you owning yourself. Knowing who you are as a group of people under God, because research tells us clearly if churches understand themselves and are intentional about growing, they grow.

“That for me is really important stuff because people think they have to change, but what they actually have to do is recognise themselves again.”

One of Alison’s most profound experiences was developing a pilot project for the Church of England, aimed at supporting small, struggling congregations by inviting members from surrounding  congregations to consider leaving their church and joining smaller ones for three years in order to encourage new life. Six people joined the project from surrounding Anglican churches, and another six from Pentecostal and Baptist churches.

“After doing the contextual work, learning what the place needed, we became the UK’s first urban monastic church. We called ourselves the St Hilda’s Church Community.

“We took some of the strengths of monasticism to help us steer the life of the church. That was how we resourced our spirituality in order for us to do the work,” Alison said. “We had an ideal and we developed a small rule of life that we would live by as a team. One of the key things was that we would eat together everyday at lunchtime during the week, and we would invite anybody at all  in the community who wanted to share our table.”

In Australia, Alison has worked with a number of Anglican churches, including in Guildford and Bassendean, helping them to realise where their skills lie, and how they wanted to use them to  connect with their community. She also has worked as the Mission and Evangelism Enabler with the Anglican Diocese of Perth.

She believes that stories are at the centre of her work and life.

“The Bible is a story essentially, and we are the people of the story,” she said. “It’s more powerful than people give it credence for.

“The way for someone to be the whole of who they are is for someone to give them the space to tell their story. It is really powerful.

“I’ve learnt over the years that people come to healing by themselves as they tell their own story. They hear it out loud and you reflect back to them what you’re hearing and they begin to talk themselves into their own healing. I think churches do the same thing if we give them the space to do it.

“Usually from that situation, as they’re doing that, God gives them the spark and I don’t have to do anything. All I have to do is enable them to make that spark work.

“They’ve got their own answers. It’s just that nobody’s enabled them to hear.”

In her new role as Presbytery Mission Minister, Alison will be working with congregations, listening to their stories and helping them bring their ideas for mission to life.

“My work will be basically focussed on the ground with congregations,” she said. “I want to be out with the congregations, helping them do the mission. I’m not the mission planner, I’m the mission minister. This is about congregations, churches, ground level stuff; helping you do mission on the ground where you are.

“It’s obvious already that the challenges are the fact that we’re very dispersed and we’re quite small, but I also see that as a massive plus point because the core of what I do is about being in the place with the people; hearing their story, helping them know who they are and being intentional for the future.

“So although it’s got its downsides, I believe God’s very clear: never despise the day of small things. And I actually believe that’s a God-given gift for us.”

Alison was inducted as the Presbytery Minister Mission for the Uniting Church WA in October last year. For more information about how she can work with your congregation in mission, call 9260 9800 or email alison.gilchrist@wa.uca.org.au.

Heather Dowling

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