Interview: Sarah Baker, doctor and pioneer minister

12 September 2014

'It was wonderful to find that, when I was really up against it, everything I have believed as a Christian was absolutely real'

I've been asked to become Team Rector for West Warrington, and take up the role on a voluntary basis in October. 

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 care. 

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 ten years. 

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 industry accolade. 

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 me?" 

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 option. 

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 through. 

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 reassuring. 

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 cheerful. 

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 weddings. 

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 home. 

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 Ministry. 

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 MacMath.

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