A leader in faith; an inspiration in life: Celebrating the ministry of URC Rev Alan Poolton
After 11 years’ serving the Cheadle Hulme community, the Reverend Alan Poolton is counting his blessings ahead of his retirement at the end of spring – the same time that Cheadle Hulme URC will celebrate its 150th anniversary.
Alan has devoted more than a decade to local ministry, serving both Cheadle Hulme and Bramhall URCs. Living in the Bramhall manse with his family for the past 11 years, Alan was born in Birmingham but his family home – which has been tenanted for all this time – is actually based in Cheshire, and it’s here that Alan and his wife Karen are in the process of returning to.
Family man Alan has led the two local congregations in faith for many years with his deeply spiritual yet completely down to earth approach to life. Now, Alan is looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren and deepening his faith on two wheels by cycling along fascinating pilgrim routes around the UK and beyond.
Before he signs off, Alan gave us some key insights into his journey in life and in faith.
Your early years were spent in Birmingham – what was life like for you as a child?
“I was born 1955, my father was a self-employed builder and we lived in a small terraced house in an area of back-to-back houses and tenement buildings. Although we had very little money, my father was ambitious and determined, he made sacrifices so we could have a better life. We later moved to Sutton Coldfield, which was like a different world! My father was a wonderful man who showed me that anyone, irrespective of where they come from, can go on to better things and be much more.”
What was your background before you became a minister?
“I worked in senior roles at local authorities for years in Salford. Before then, I worked in housing advice in Warrington. I was in charge of homelessness, hostels and housing advice in general. The roles I held really opened my eyes to how different our realities across society can be.”
What prompted you to go into the URC?
“I’d been a Christian since my early teens and was ordained into the URC in 1998, in my early 40s. The URC resonated with me and I began training for the position in my late 30s on the sudden realisation that the church needed the support of non-stipendiary ministers if it was going to continue being financially viable. I worked in the position voluntarily, alongside my day job, while also studying a theology degree – I’ve always been interested in deepening my understanding of faith.”
What’s been your experience of ministry?
“Being a minister has been an unbelievable experience. The URC is a ‘thinking’ denomination – the wider church has more PHDs than anywhere else outside the medical profession. I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the world as part of my ministry, working alongside churches in places like Johannesburg in South Africa, alongside the Peace Centres in Northern Ireland and also working in Jerusalem – experiences I would never otherwise have had. I’ve always worked with the poor and needy, which is so important – Jesus spent his life with those in need.
“I’ve also worked with a fantastic growing LGBT church in Manchester which functions exactly as a church should – it’s an open, honest environment in which to share faith without judgement. Both Cheadle Hulme and Bramhall URCs actively support an agenda of inclusivity for the LGBT community and I was honoured to be the first minster in pastoral charge to perform a civil ceremony in a northern URC church.”
Why do you think church is so important to the community and has its role changed?
“Decades ago, churches were where lots happened. Football teams, amateur dramatic societies and other clubs were all connected with churches. Society has changed and it’s important that churches respond appropriately to stay relevant.
“By incorporating community activities like mums and tots sessions, reading groups and messy church, and by expanding networks, attracting services and participating in social enterprise, churches can remain important community hubs that benefit local people.
“Cheadle Hulme URC, for example, has established links with a local pre-school and dance school, and these connections not only ensure that financial overheads can be met but also attract people to the church itself.”
How have you found getting both the URC in Bramhall and Cheadle Hulme working together?
“Society is very different now from how it was 40 or 50 years ago, and congregations have had to come to terms with this. Both churches have strong traditions and are very community minded. Each church needs to relate to its people – after all, it’s only as strong as its congregation. We’ve been lucky that both Bramhall and Cheadle Hulme URCs are full of incredibly gifted people, not least Elaine at Bramhall and Don at Cheadle Hulme, who both do a fantastic job of taking charge of organisational and other matters.”
What have been the best parts of ministry for you?
“Being a URC minister is both intellectually stimulating and touching on a human level. I have always enjoyed working with people and supporting those in any kind of need, seeing people rise above and finding God’s grace. Fundamentally, the church is at the heart of the community, and the URC congregations in Bramhall and Cheadle Hulme are filled people with big, good hearts, who are willing to help where there is need – a great example of this is the support Cheadle Hulme gives both to local causes and to the Mae Gone orphanage in northern Thailand.”
Any particularly memorable moments from your ministry?
“More than anything, I’ve focused on being there for people in times of need. During one pastoral visit, which I made on a whim, I found a lady in the act of taking her own life. I was able to talk things through with her and I’m happy to say she is still with us. Since announcing my retirement I have been overwhelmed by the kind words and tributes from members of both churches – I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some exceptional people during my ministry and I will certainly miss my congregations.”
You’re planning to follow pilgrim routes in your retirement – what does that entail?
“I’m very interested in walking and cycling pilgrim routes. The foundations of Christianity in the UK actually came from dispersed church in North Africa and along trade routes from Northern Ireland. I’ve cycled 600 miles along pilgrim routes, two of which I completed last year. I followed routes from Birmingham, through Leicestershire and Norfolk to Walsingham, which is essentially a shrine that attracts millions of people. I’m deeply interested in finding out how and why these places become shrines.
“I also cycled from Glasgow down through Ayr and to Whithorn in south west Scotland, where St Ninian built the first stone church – it’s been archaeologically proven. The pilgrim routes pay respect to the saint who travelled them; I feel a special sort of tingle in spiritual places like these, as well as at Coventry Cathedral and especially in Jerusalem – my spiritual antenna went wild!”
What are you looking forward to once you retire?
“I’m looking forward to spending time with my grandchildren – I have one and another on the way. After 11 years of living in the manse, it’s time to return to our family home in Cheshire, which has been tenanted all this time. We’re moving back in summer, so there’s lots to organise.
“I’ll also be spending time at our other property in south-west Scotland, exploring faith along the pilgrim’s route near Whithorn. My good friend Jim also runs a cycling charity and I’d like to help him with that – I’m still very much committed to helping others.”
What challenges do you think churches face?
“Relevance to today’s world and always looking forward. We are now asking more important questions about faith and the world around us, which is to be encouraged. The URC is a very supportive and congregational church in which members have the chance to get involved and lead celebrations of faith. Having a single voice always speaking only gives a single outlook; it’s important that churches represent the broad spectrum of their members.
“Being there for the community is so important, too – people rely on church in times of need. All denominations are facing challenges but I’m confident that both Bramhall and Cheadle Hulme URCs will rise up and meet those challenges head on.”
Cheadle Hulme URC will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in June with a whole host of events, everyone is welcome to come along and give Alan some wonderful final memories of his ministry!