The highs and lows of life as a Church Warden

Sue Swailes, Church Warden at St Thomas the Martyr, Up Holland shares her experiences of the highs and lows of being a Church Warden. A daunting prospect initially, but a vocation that is a manageable size for Sue by sharing responsibilities with fellow warden Kay.

In my Christmas update to friends last year I told them I was now a churchwarden and it was the best job I've ever had…a bit like being responsible for the Pastoral Care of a whole year group in a large secondary school with the role of caretaker thrown in.

The first thing that came to mind, my greatest high, is that the person who I really wanted to work with actually said ‘yes’. She’s such a busy person; I hardly dared to ask her. She’s the brains behind the whole thing. I couldn't do it without her.

We are both high in our solid oak wardens’ pew dating from the 1700’s. It’s wonderful box pew, up a couple of steps and we can look across at the congregation from our elevated position. We’re even thinking of having an en suite put in, but haven’t applied for Faculty yet.

And now to the contents of our pew…here we have
WD 40
Tool box
Log book
Prayer books
Water, plasters, sellotape, pens, POST IT NOTES.. I could go on.
[I would really like a 50’ napping pole which could reach to the pulpit, but that might be going a bit too far.]

And being a churchwarden in my case reminds me of a Joyce Grenfell sketch. The Lady in Church’ who begins by singing the first two lines of a hymn, then her mind wanders, and she panics and she remembers that she’s not switched the gas off under a pan of soup before she left the house.
My version goes something like this:
PRAISE MY SOUL THE KING OF HEAVEN,
TO HIS FEET THY TRIBUTE BRING
OH THERE’S CHARLIE! I MUSTN'T FORGET TO TELL HIM
THERE’S A FUNERAL IN THE MORNING AND HE WON’T BE ABLE TO GET DOWN TO THE VESTRY TO PUT OIL IN THE CANDLES
PRAISE HIM, PRAISE HIM,
PRAISE THE EVERLASTING KING

My co-warden runs the Explorers’ Club which takes place during the Sunday 10.30  service. This is for children from 3 years upwards, whose parents are at the service.
It is always a hive of industry and the children love it. For me, it is always a high
when I can pop in to see them at work.

In the past few years some of our dedicated church workers have had to give up their roles. They have been a hard act to follow. We had one person who practically lived at church, knew everybody and did an enormous amount of work without telling anybody. Sadly, she has lost her memory. We’ll never know all that she did. Sometimes we find out the hard way, and that’s a low. The low came when people visiting graves noticed that one particular grave had become untidy and neglected. Flowers had died and not been replaced. Weeds grew in front of the headstone. The grave belonged to a benefactor of 20 years ago, a person who with her bequest had allowed us to have a meeting room and kitchen built at the side of our church. Our verger had always maintained it, refreshing the flowers and cleaning the headstone. None of us knew this. It looked as though we were inconsiderate - taking willingly without a care.

I asked my husband what he thought were the highs and lows of being a churchwarden. He just said, “Well you like working with people”.

We had the funeral last month of an elderly member of the congregation. He’d been in the RAF and the RAF veterans made a guard of honour outside the church in the cold and rain of a January afternoon. Members of the British Legion raised and lowered their standards. The Last Post was played. The church was packed. People had to stand at the back of church, there were so many there. I felt a huge sense of privilege to be part of it all.

Of course there aren't enough hours in the day. My heart sinks when I see someone coming towards me when I’m working at church during the week, someone wanting to talk and talk about their family history and where their great-grandmother MIGHT be buried. They are having a pleasant stroll with all the time in the world. I have a list as long as my arm of things I’ve got to do. I would love to have Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak.

There are those heart-sinking, ‘will-I-ever-get-everything-done’ moments and then Tuesday afternoon comes along. I’ll tell you about our Tuesdays. It all started last year when one man just decided to come down and put in some plants he’d bought. Another man, visiting his wife’s grave, got talking to him and said he’d give him a hand next week, dig up some of the weeds. They decided Tuesday would be good day. I said I’d make them a cup of tea. We now have a keen group of between 8 and 10 people, who just come along. They’re made a difference and the church grounds are being transformed. It’s a real high. We have tea and crumpets on cold days and cool drinks and scones on warm days. There are sometimes wonderful bonfires too.

When we became wardens, we wondered what would be the best way of saying thank-you to the two men who had held office for so many years. They would be sad to hand over to us. They had both given so much to the church.  We wanted to make a presentation to them so decided to do a little sketch.

I suggested we dress up as two rugby players (well we are near Wigan). Kay came up trumps. She brought her son’s rugby kit. We looked enormous with that lot on I can tell you. We even had those bandages round our heads to protect our ears. At the end of their last service we went running down the aisle passing the ball between us. The sketch went well. I forgot my lines (and I’d written the script) Kay prompted me. Everyone laughed and Ray and Alan were given their presents. It all ended on a high.

Having to apply for Faculty Permission for some alterations to made in our church is at present a steady low. There’s so much to account for – BUT hopefully in a few months time we will all see it as a resounding high and a huge contribution to our church.

Since we have become wardens there have been two major initiatives GIVING IN GRACE and OUR CHURCH OUR FUTURE.  Our Church Our Future has encouraged us all to look at the way forward. With prayerful and dedicated teamwork at the core we have seen change embraced in way we could not have dared hope for. People in different areas of our church life have been energised and there are many enthusiastic people who are working away quietly in the background. It is a joy to be with them. The Giving in Grace Scheme has not met our financial needs and we have many in the congregation who are on retirement pensions. We have also lost a significant number of elderly people who were very generous givers. This all reflects in our weekly collection and is not aided by the increase in our Parish Share, so all is not rosy on that score.

On a lighter note, when I asked one friend’s advice about becoming churchwarden he looked aghast and warned me that the church was like a big monster that could gobble me up. He said I must on no account give up my painting, swimming and Latin dance classes. Another friend looked equally appalled and worried. I can happily tell the one that I have even taken up another Latin Dance Class and the other friend put a delightful collage at the back of our wardens’ pew showing all the great double acts of film and t.v. If Kay doesn't mind being Marilyn Monroe, I’d be quite happy to be compared with Jane Russell.