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Interview: Ricky Sandiford, ‘mission apprentice’

11 January 2019

‘I’ve walked alongside people, and there’s a trust there’

Mission Apprentice is an amazing scheme to recruit and train new church leaders from the ground-level in the Church of England. We’re people who, without this scheme supported by the Allchurches Trust, wouldn’t have the opportunity to grow and realise our potential in ministry.

It’s not just the Church of England’s fault; it’s our aspirations, maybe. When you see very schooled, very learned ordained priests, you think it’s something you couldn’t achieve. We don’t think it’s ever attainable.

I came from engineering, leaving school with just a few GCSEs. It was a massive thing for me to walk into that school on my first day. It’s true that the Bible is full of people like us, but that’s how we feel.

But I found myself saying to another mission apprentice who was feeling daunted: “You know what? God chose us. Not other people, or the Church of England.” There’s got to be affirmation in that. It’s a massive opportunity, and we probably respect it more.

It’s not difficult — it’s a joy. If you grow up working with your hands, it’s a massive contrast with the spiritual life and pastoral care. But it comes naturally. That’s why my Vicar said: “Have you thought of this? You’re a natural at leadership and pastoral care.” And I had. I really felt that God was calling me into ministry; and when the Mission Apprenticeship was mentioned to me, this was a perfect way to see how I would fit into such a role, especially making that daunting leap from parishioner to leader.

Now I’m in it, I really do feel at home, and I’m growing as I’m going on. We all found it difficult at the beginning in September, but the growth is happening now. That’s the whole team as well: it seems to be happening at the same time. It’s an amazing scheme.

I’d worked in engineering for the last 12 years; but we — me and my wife, Joanne — made the decision that I’d leave my old career, as I couldn’t do both jobs. We’re having to pull together as a family, with me giving up my engineering. Spiritually, I have a very good network of mentors and friends, and a personal mentor has been provided for me.

I was walking away from a good wage, but this calling’s not a job, is it? The scheme is 20 hours a week; so I work for a Lottery-funded community charity on a run-down estate, promoting activities such as childcare, playgroups, yoga, Mindfulness. I swap hats, because it’s a bit like what we do at the church and it’s in the same parish, but without the spirituality.

The difference is the personal touch and pastoral care, dealing with people in need. We see people at their worst in church, as well as at their best, and that’s the big difference that the Mission Apprenticeships give. You see the difficulties, struggles, and victories as well. It’s really challenging, but an absolute pleasure as well.

People treat you differently when you’re with the Church, too. They open up more, and ask more of you. It does carry a responsibility. I’m not wearing a dog collar, am I? It’s a bit like poacher turned gamekeeper. I’ve walked alongside them, and there’s a trust there.

I hope most of all that I’ll justify the opportunity that I’ve been given, so as to lay the foundation for many more to follow us in this scheme. We pray it will continue, and bring a legacy of true mission in our parishes and communities.

We’re learning completely on the job. The fears of being thrown in from day one was soon eradicated by the true joy of the work, and the complete encouragement and support received from our Mission Apprentice team, our churches, and the teaching network at the diocese of Birmingham.

Mission for me means, first, being where I live and connecting with people, and doing life alongside people: being there in the highs and lows. The work is plenty, but the labourers are few. There are always needs to be met, and meeting those needs while evangelising the good news of Christ is a pure joy.

My first experience of God was when I was 17, after my grandmother’s death. Picking up and reading her old Bible was my first experience of God. Looking back now, I can see that that’s where the seeds of faith were very much first planted. Only God knows the destination of the path I am on.

I had a happy, supportive childhood, though there were challenges, being one of seven children and also being of mixed race. It was still a very warm and joyful time for me. I try my best to replicate that now for my two children.

I absolutely love cricket. I am a bit of a cricket nerd, I’m afraid. Warwickshire are the best! I played at school, but unfortunately I wasn’t very good. If I was, I’d be a cricketer, believe me. I was a medium-to-fast bowler years ago, and I could probably be a good medium now. I can still turn my arm over.

Before my children were born, my favourite sound would have been loud guitar music; but, now, having an eight- and a two-year old, the sound of silence is much better.

Injustice is something I really struggle with.

Time with my family is what makes me happiest.

The thing that’s taken most courage from me has definitely been my time working in my church before and during the Mission Apprentice scheme. Having to lean on God’s strength when doing mission in the lives of people, and trusting him in the lowest hours, takes a lot of courage.

The most difficult times are when you get that question, “Why?”, and there doesn’t seem to be an answer. “Why would God do this thing to me?” How do you respond to that? It’s the hardest part of pastoral care, when people feel victimised by circumstance or God. That’s when you have to say, “It’s something we don’t know. . .” It’s when the real trust comes in — not just from the people who go through it, but you are doing the pastoral care as well, because you’re investing in them, and going through the journey with them.

I hope to work in Christian mission for the rest of my life, even though I’m not sure what form that will take yet — but I’m keeping that hope in faith. I’ve had a conversation about ordination with a few people who’ve done church-plants. Where does God want me to go at the end of this? I’m totally open about it. Everyone I speak to says, “I never thought I’d be ordained”, “ I never wanted to be ordained.” God chooses, doesn’t he? I’m really torn, but I’ve got another year and three-quarters to think about it. If I did go for ordination, I’d personally want to strengthen my theology, because it’s a big responsibility.

This scheme gives me hope for the future. The fact that the diocese of Birmingham, supported by the Allchurches Trust, want to encourage people from within our urban communities to grow as new church leaders — whatever their background, education, and wealth — means so much to the troops on the ground. It gives so much hope for our future, to think that our church and our faith will be relevant in the lives of everyone. This open-armed thinking is surely Christ-led.

I pray for the people I know, and for what they are going through, and what they are thankful for. I always find praying for these people the most satisfying.

If I was locked in a church for a few hours, I’d choose Billy Graham. His talks are always my first port of call when I have time. I listen to his sermons most days. I put them on when I’m brushing my teeth or having a shower. He really speaks to me. He makes me feel the world’s all right, the way he explains it all. I can’t grow bored of him. It might be a bit old-fashioned, but I think he’s very relevant: uncompromising with the truth, but not in a fundamentalist sense.

Ricky Sandiford was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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