ONE of them listens to and lets a physically and emotionally exhausted doctor unwind. Another delivers a goody bag to an overseas university student who has arrived here knowing no one, and has had to isolate.
Yet another gives out knitted hearts to members of a family who are unable to visit their dying mother in a hospice. Another copes with the aftermath of all the people affected by a suicide on the railway line.
Each of these people is a sector minister, or chaplain, working in institutions and locations outside the parish structure. Each has had to respond in different ways to the coronavirus pandemic.
Historically, sector ministers were priests who worked full-time in a few established institutions: hospitals, prisons, the army, universities, and schools. The terms “chaplain” and “sector minister” are used interchangeably by most people.
In Liverpool, we use the title “sector minister” to separate us from other chaplains who work in ecclesiastical settings: for example, in the cathedral, or in ministry to Readers and ordinands. It possibly has a slightly more modern ring to it, and, as sectors, we recognise that we belong to a greater whole of ministry, not just to our individual institutions.
People in different fields of sector ministry tended to stick together, not really looking beyond their compartmentalised institutions. Today, though, the situation is very different. In Liverpool, we have formed a network as a diverse group of more than 100 people: ordained, Readers, and lay. Some work full-time, others part-time, and many others as volunteers. Employees are usually paid by their institution, and rarely by the Church.
ALTHOUGH sector ministers are still present in all the established institutions, they are reaching out into many new territories. We have people working for hospices, the Railway Mission, waterways, and among army veterans.
We are also represented in the Deaf community, among the homeless, in sports clubs, the fire and rescue service, and with seafarers. In partnership with Mission in the Economy, we are also present in retail and business parks, the airport, the police, and the YMCA.
Sector ministers share in a ministry of service, compassion, and care. They are in places where people are not looking for them, but they are on hand for anyone who may be going through a crisis or difficulty and may need someone to remind them of the presence of God. Often, they offer prayer and signpost people to other sources of help, if needed.
Much of their ministry involves just listening and responding with compassion. Outside the walls of a church, they meet people who are on the edge, often not even thinking of faith. To those people, they can minister the love and compassion of Christ, which may change and challenge them, besides bringing comfort.
SECTOR ministry in every diocese has flourished during the pandemic, albeit in changed and evolving forms. Sector ministers like to talk about “Christianity on the ground”: they are not bound to a particular church or building, and so have been free to reach out to people directly at this, the direst of times.
Most sector ministers have been continuing to work in their normal places, and have been putting themselves in positions of vulnerability to carry on doing so. Like most churches, they have become flexible in their approach. Prison-sector ministers have been able to broadcast services through the prison radio into every cell. Two mental-health ministers received more than 1000 phone calls from distressed and anxious patients during the first six months of lockdown.
The waterways-sector minister has been supporting the “boat people” who have no licence on the waterways, and so have to move on every few weeks, which makes Covid testing and vaccinations difficult. While retail and business parks have been closed, sector ministers have been maintaining contact wherever possible; they have also been walking in the vicinity, praying for those who they know should be in the buildings.
At the airport, with only a handful of staff left, management requested that the sector minister remain, as she was needed just to be there. At this time, when access to church remains difficult, it is so encouraging to know that people out there are, in the name of the Church, available and ready to listen and present a gospel of care and compassion.
Many sector ministers work alone or in small groups, and, in Liverpool, we have found that there is much to gain from engaging across all traditional barriers to make an inclusive network of people who now meet regularly in person or electronically to share ideas and concerns, to learn and pray together. We are planning an annual commissioning service of all involved in our diocese, and also an away day, when we can learn together.
What is the relationship between sector ministry and the Church? In “normal” times, sector ministry often feels very much on the edge of the Church, and sector ministers operate largely on an independent basis in the structures of their institution. We are developing far more connections through deaneries, so that sector ministers do not get forgotten and their work is affirmed and encouraged.
Their experience and expertise have much to teach the Church, and, by their own pattern of working together, whether ordained or lay, they are presenting a clear method of mission which reaches people in the community in a natural way. We are even thinking of the possibility of combining parish/sector ministry positions for clergy, which would work well financially with a shared stipend/salary, while bringing mission from the outside in. Sector ministry is also seen to be a specific vocation, alongside parochial ministry.
When we finally emerge from the pandemic, there will be people who may have met a sector minister during this time, and have begun to think more about the big questions of life. The Church needs to be ready to receive such people, who are open to understanding more about the Christian faith.
If Covid has taught us nothing else, it has reminded us of the transiency of life, and the importance of looking at things from a spiritual point of view, and we need to encourage and nurture the people that have been reached through sector ministry.
Canon Katy Canty is Dean of Sector Ministers in Liverpool diocese, an NSM, and a former prison chaplain.