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Wrestling With God - Sam Foster

 

Sam Foster is Fresh Expression pioneer minister in Scarborough Deanery, working with traditional churches as well as leading mission initiatives on the street and beach. She was ordained at the age of twenty three, and at the time was the youngest woman to become an Anglican priest. Sam features as part of the book ‘John Sentamu’s Faith Stories’ published by Darton Longman and Todd (Feb 2013). (ISBN: 978-0-232-52978-4). Watch a short video of her faith story here:

 

 

“I knew from about the age of 12 or 13 that I would be a vicar in the Church and I wasn’t even going to church!”

Sam Foster says: “It was very odd, I know how weird that sounds – it was a feeling, dreams and what other people were saying to me.”

Sam’s mum always had faith and she said “I was brought up knowing Christianity was special but didn’t really feel that it was for me.”

One Sunday morning having moved to a new area, her mum had expressed a desire to go to church.  Sam, the youngest of three girls, was particularly close to her mum and said that she would go along with her despite not really wanting to go.

“I remember as though it was yesterday, looking over my shoulder to see if any of my friends could see me.  I darted through the church doors.  It was just what I expected church to be like: predominately older people, a few children, not people my age.  Traditional worship, but it was lovely, really nice.”

She remembers very clearly a group of vibrant elderly ladies and one in particular, named Ethel.  Sam says: “They welcomed me and loved me unconditionally through some difficult teenage years.”

“They made faith real to me, particularly Ethel.”

Despite the fact that Ethel was in her 70’s and Sam was only 14, there was something about Ethel that made Sam think: “Wow, I want to be like that – what is it?!”

Later when Sam became a Christian, she realised that Ethel was pointing to something beyond herself - Jesus.  For Sam, this was evangelism and discipleship.

That early experience has really helped Sam with her faith, particularly with how important it is to share and get alongside other people.  She says “that’s been a huge part of my ministry as well.”

From about the age of 14 -19 years, Sam explored the possibility of ordination.  She describes this exploration as “a lot about wrestling with God and running away.”

During this period she didn’t share with anyone what she was going though.  Although she says that she can laugh about it now, at the time she felt that she “was having some sort of emotional breakdown. Who in their right mind thinks at that young age of becoming a vicar?”, she says.

 

This week I think God is calling me to be a …

At this time, she wasn’t aware of any problems going on in the Church of England about women’s ministry – the first woman vicar she was aware of was ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ on TV!

Then a female vicar came to the church that Sam attended and she really helped to nurture Sam’s faith. Sam is very grateful to her for all the help she offered.  They would meet every 6 weeks and each time Sam would say something along the lines of “I think God is calling me to be a Sunday school teacher” or “I think God’s asking me to get involved in …”

Sam knew that she was negotiating with God.  Her prayer life was “Now Lord, if I do this, you’ll leave me alone, won’t you?  And I won’t get ordained – because that’s too much thanks.”

One day the vicar pre-empted Sam’s latest career choice and said “Look Sam, before you tell me what you want to do this week, how do you know that you haven’t got a call to ordination?”

Sam says that she doesn’t know where the words came from but she answered: “I have really, but this is an easier option isn’t it?”

Having finally admitted this to herself, Sam said that the weight just lifted off her shoulders.

 

How to tell friends ?

Having finished their education degrees, Sam’s friends were starting to apply for further courses but she held back.  She explains: “How do I tell them that I am possibly going to be training for ministry in the Church of England?” It was such a completely different route to life that she was considering that it took her three years to pluck up the courage to tell her closest friends.

One of these friends finally asked her outright about the ‘church work’ interview that she was due to attend.  When she told her, the response was: “It’s what we all suspected; it was only a matter of time really.”

Sam can only assume that they reached this conclusion because of her involvement in the church, the way she dealt with people and the fact that her faith was always important to her.  She says: “I wasn’t afraid to share the fact that my faith was at the core of my life, my friends knew who I was and what was important to me.”

Sam said that she became a Christian because of other people and seeing the Gospel lived out, more so that reading the Bible.

But through Bible notes, teaching and courses she grew to love reading the Bible and how it could be applied to her life, to other people’s lives and how it could give people hope.  Sam wants other people to feel like that as well.

 

Theology training

Sam trained at Cranmer Hall in Durham, where she was the youngest by several years.

She found that the teaching there opened up a whole new world for her.  Although she feels that she probably didn’t appreciate it much at the time, she feels now that she has friends who will support her throughout her life in ministry and “that’s been the most important part of that community.”

Looking back she says: “It was great privilege to be able to train in the Christian community for three years. It was so new to me, it was another world but you don’t realise that at the time.  There are a lot of things you take for granted.”

 

Doubts

Did she have any doubts along the way?  “Oh yes” she said.  In her second year at Theological College, she struggled with depression and panic attacks.

She said: “It just came out of the blue.” Sam tried to hide it from the community and now she thinks that the experience has helped her to minister to people and helped her to acknowledge what she was going through at the time.

Depression hasn’t really affected her since but she is very much aware of how difficult it was at the time.  Not just because of the depression but the whole community which she describes as “a bubble of Christian living”.  She said that every term she was ready to pack her bags.

At the time of her illness, Sam says that there was a lot of stigma attached to depression and taking anti-depressants and she feels that this is still the case and wishes it wasn’t.

Looking back, she knows that she is a different person now.  She says that she “was a kid” when she went to college.

 

Further Training

Although, Sam trained as a traditional vicar and served out her curacy in Fulford, York, she said “there is something within me which is always being a pioneer, always wanting to try new things.”  Thankfully, her curacy allowed her enthusiasm for new things to develop to the extent that she said that they sometimes had to say: “Look Sam, can you just calm down a bit?”

She really loved the ministry aspect of her curacy but she felt most call to be with people who weren’t necessarily coming to church on a Sunday.  So, she relished any opportunity she got to be in the community, whether it was the school, the army barracks, or residential homes with staff and patients.

Sam says she was really comfortable “anywhere, where I was outside of the church.”

When she was thinking about the next stage of her training, Sam felt a call to more mission-type work but she didn’t think this was possible. Through prayer and messages from other people, she got a strong sense of “being a church without walls”.

She says: “If I could have dreamt my dream job, I just felt it didn’t exist but I’m doing it now.”

Sam is extremely driven, bubbly and confident.  She loves her work in Scarborough because of the people.  “They are so open to new things”, she says, and she credits the Deanery for the opportunities that have been presented to her.

 

The Early Days

It was important that a team was brought together early. As she travelled around the Deanery, Sam tried to identify people with enthusiasm and vision whom she could work alongside and help to enhance what was already happening.

She knew that they needed a different mindset for this particular mission and she says: “It’s credit to the Fresh Expressions team, which is full of volunteers that are enthusiastic about inherited or traditional church as we know it and also doing new things and working together.”

 

Churches Together in Scarborough

Churches Together has been around for some time in Scarborough, but has been more active during the last three to four years because of the missions that have happened each year.  Church leaders pray together every Wednesday morning at 7am and Sam feels that a lot comes out of these relationships between the church leaders.

Fresh Expressions is an initiative set up by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Methodist Council. It came into being in 2004 and Pioneer Ministry came from that. There is now an active Pioneer Ministry in Scarborough.

Sam’s role is unique within the Diocese and she hopes that more jobs like this will be available.  In Scarborough, everything Fresh Expressions does is opened up ecumenically.  Sam says: “We don’t just see ourselves as an Anglican group.  We look at people’s skills, gifts and availability and if they are willing to work with us then we just do things together.”

“We are just a group of Christians meeting the needs of the community and at the same time sharing faith as well.  We go where there is a need.”

 

Projects

Setting up an Alpha Course in a Travelodge in town, they brought together a lot of different people. Some were church goers, and others came to prove them wrong.  Sam laughs when she says: “These were the ones who ended up being baptised; God’s got a sense of humour!”

The course utilised Alpha material along with input from local people.  They would come in and give their personal testimonies and the emphasis was on sharing and interaction - making it real to people.  By week five, she realised that a lot of people were thinking: “This has been really significant for me, these relationships and this journey.  What do we do after this?”  So they decided to set up ‘Hub Groups’ which are nurturing and discipleship groups.   There are several groups now which have been running in homes, pubs and offices for around 2 years.

Sam feels that the people in these groups are more committed to these groups than they would be to Sunday morning church because they’re small, they’re intimate and they can share.  She says: “It’s safe and it attracts people that church wouldn’t normally attract.”

“We want people who don’t have faith but want to know more.” She says she has also seen people grow in their faith.

In addition to weekly hub groups, they have trialled new things.

‘Summer Night, Sacred Space’ was one such experiment.  For one evening, people came to light candles in lanterns and spread them on the beach.

It was advertised as ‘A chance to explore your spirituality.’ And the leaflet said: “Light a candle, it’s free, no strings attached.  In memory of a loved one, to give thanks for something, or for a troubled situation.”

Over 300 people lit candles in Scarborough that night.  These were typically not church-goers but rather holidaymakers, people passing by, and dog walkers.

During the event, the team prayed with and blessed an elderly couple who had returned to Scarborough for a special wedding anniversary.

Common practice is for people to write a name or draw pictures in the sand and take photographs and send them to someone.  Sam says: “There is something quite amazing going on when you walk into that sacred space. It’s a special time for people having a special moment.”

They are always thanked by people for coming out of the church and making themselves and this initiative (Sacred Space) available.

Looking back at her three years in Scarborough, Sam says: “It has been a massive privilege”.

Part of her work is to help churches with their mission, so they help them to develop ideas and help with training and helping to bring the Christian message to life.

Sam now has a full time Church Army Evangelist working with her so both the team and the work is expanding.  She loves the fact that it doesn’t depend on her, as she says that this is really important for long term sustainability and she wants to give people hope for the future through faith.