I've been asked to become Team Rector for West
Warrington, and take up the role on a voluntary basis in
As one door closes, another has opened. I've
had to take retirement on ill health, as some of the side effects
from my surgery are debilitating in a way that would preclude me
doing a chief-executive job and all it entails.
To be quite honest, it's like coming out of the
desert. As an NSM and a woman, you are definitely at the bottom of
the pile, so it's amazing to be recognised for what I was doing -
that my day job was as much ministry as work in the parish, and
there are different ways of doing church. I've been wonderfully
blesed and affirmed.
Illness is a very hard way to learn things, but
this has been very much a God thing.
I was the Chief Clinical Officer - the chief
executive - for Warrington Clinical Commissioning Group, which is a
£300-million organisation responsible for making sure that the
206,000 people in Warrington get the best possible health
There was no typical day. I could go from
public board meetings, to meeting with NHS England, to listening to
a patient's request for special funding, to visiting the wards of
the local hospital.
I was also a Pioneer Minister, so I combined
being an ordained minister with my senior NHS responsibilities for
We moved into a big new housing estate, built
on an old US Airforce base in Warrington, about three-and-a-half
years ago. There were 2000 houses, but no community centre,
surgery, shop, church. We had a couple of street parties, and then
set up a company to build a community centre.
We had a massive a family fun day, and then
invited the local churches round about to work with us. We built a
team of about six people who lived on the estate, and I was
licensed by the Bishop of Warrington in our local Starbucks as the
pioneer minister in a missional community in 2012.
We facilitate neighbourliness, working with
people before commitment. Love the Lord your God and your neighbour
as yourself. The core is a cell group on Wednesday nights, and a
monthly celebration that you'd recognise as church.
Everything I've learned as a leader in the NHS
will equip me well for this leadership role in the Church. The two
things go hand in hand: neighbourliness is very important. People
need to know and be known. That's part of being healthy.
I always used Christian principles in
my healthcare organisation, too. I've been able to because
I've always been the boss. I was the youngest medical director of
Leeds Health Authority in 1993. I've been a director of NHS,
private, and third-sector organisations since then, interspersed
with some periods as a GP. We won Best Health Service Journal
Commissioning Organisation of the year in 2012 - which is a sort of
Another couple moved from France to Warrington to help
us in May 2013, and I was diagnosed with Stage 3
oesophageal cancer in June.
I didn't ask: "Why me?" but "Why not me?" Then
when I had an amazing, miraculous, outcome - at histology they
could find no evidence of cancer at all. I'm now asking "Why
I think "fighting" language puts a huge burden on cancer
patients to get themselves better. People constantly told
me I was brave, but it didn't feel like that at all. Basically you
just have to get on with it. You don't really have an
I do think that a positive attitude, where you
do as much as you can and don't give in to the disease, is really
important. People constantly told me not to do too much; but I
genuinely believe that the fact that I kept going, made myself have
purposeful days, even if I felt crap, was helpful in pulling
And I had amazing support of my family and
friends. From about four days after my diagnosis until
only very recently there were always fresh flowers in my house. I
had dozens and dozens of bouquets. Oil for my itchy bald scalp,
cuticle cream for my nails damaged by chemo, jokes and cartoons,
numerous thoughtful little gifts to lift my mood.
But, more importantly than anything, hundreds
and hundreds of people were praying for me. I was constantly amazed
and humbled. People from 20 or 30 years ago sent me texts and
emails telling me they were praying, and I was on the prayer list
of their church.
My first reflection was just how proud I am of the
NHS. I was given, as all major surgery patients are, a
spacious single room with en-suite shower. The ward manager told us
what would happen for the rest of the day, and I was visited by the
anaesthetist, surgeon, specialist nurse, and ward nurse. We had a
tour of the ward, and went to High Dependency Unit and learned what
we could expect by way of pipes and tubes and drains. I would
likely be on HDU for 24-48 hours.
The consistent giving of information over and
again, from different professionals within the team,
produced an amazing sense of confidence, We all knew what was going
to happen, we all knew what we were going to face, we were going to
get no surprises. It was very impressive and hugely
Everyone from the surgeon through to the ward domestics
knew what my care-plan was. The housekeeper and the care
assistants were all aware of what I could and couldn't do at any
one time. They were unfailingly pleasant, gentle and
It was wonderful to find that, when I was really up
against it, everything I have believed as a Christian was
absolutely real and imminent. Sometimes when we are busy, and
day-to-day stuff overtakes us, God can seem a bit remote, and faith
can be a bit routine. But when the chips are down I had an
absolute, concrete certainty that God is real, he loves us, and
everything is in his hands. I could pray "They will be done", and
be confident that, whatever the outcome, I couldn't lose.
My son, Matthew is 30, and was married in
December; Naomi is 26 and married in June, so we've just had two
We love sailing, and have a yacht called
Epiphany moored in North Wales. As soon as we hit the beautiful
coastal scenery of the A55 I begin to relax. Just being on the
water, even if we don't go out for a sail, makes me completely
switch my mind off and relax. Wonderful. We'd love to see her being
part of our mission.
One of the reasons we came to Warrington, was
that my husband was made redundant, and decided that he would learn
how to be a yacht master.
I love having Radio 4 on in the background,
especially when driving. Whenever we travel abroad, turning the
radio on the way back from the airport tells me I am
My father shows me unconditional love, that
makes it very easy to believe in a loving father God. My husband
Peter is truly my personal rock. David Watson's preaching brought
me to faith. Tom Houston taught us the importance of developing
legs for our faith. Phil Potter heard what we were doing, and
encouraged and enabled it to be recognised as a Pioneer
I gobble up books at huge speed, and have a
very eclectic library. I just love books.
My prayer is that God's will will be done. I
ask: what is God asking of me today? And what am I going to do
about it? And I try to enjoy each precious moment, because we never
know how long we have.
If I was locked in a church, I'd choose my
husband as my companion. He has been on an amazing journey with me.
He has let me grow and develop and fly in my career, and he was
absolutely there for me in this traumatic past year. I can't image
my life without him.
The Revd Dr Sarah Baker was talking to Terence Handley