Blog — 8th February 2021
Previously working with a Glasgow organisation that serves those experiencing the challenges of homelessness, Shirley Berry desired a deeper theological grasp of how to help. In 2015, she enrolled in Nazarene Theological College-Manchester’s (NTC) Master’s Degree in the Urban Theology pathway, and graduated in 2019.
“I wanted to have a bit more understanding of how I could speak from the Bible into this, and not just around community or experience, but have actual knowledge,” Shirley said. “I also wanted to reconcile some of the experiential side of the ministry with an academic knowledge base.”
A call to the community
When she was a teenager, Shirley’s father gave his life to Jesus, quickly followed by her mum, and they got involved in their local church. Their conversion challenged her own prior experience with God.
“That’s when I made a commitment to follow Jesus. And from that moment, I felt called to the local community that I was born into. I had a love for people and just really threw myself into that.”
“I began to be challenged on how I wasn’t really living the relationship [with Jesus],” she recalls. “That’s when I made a commitment to follow Jesus. And from that moment, I felt called to the local community that I was born into. I had a love for people and just really threw myself into that.”
Shirley’s calling to her community started by getting to know the church’s neighbours. As she discovered their challenges and needs, she created a small charity to come alongside and support the families. It grew, and soon other churches wanted to become partners. The need grew, as did the charity, until the charity reached the limit of its capacity to help.
Shirley reached out to Bethany Christian Trust, a larger, nongovernment organisation operating in the east of Scotland, with a vision to expand into the west.
“About 70 percent of the families we were supporting, the core issue was a housing issue of some sort. At that point, we decided to merge with the larger charity, and that became the basis of this community support arm of the work.”
Theological study fuels ministry
Throughout her faith journey, Shirley says that hospitality has held a central place in her practice of serving others and sharing community. It was something she pursued instinctively, without coming at it from a theological perspective.
When she began studying for her master’s at NTC, her dissertation looked at hospitality in relation to grace, especially the two millennium-old church practice of gathering around a table for a shared meal.
“That really has very much shaped this next part of my ministry,” Shirley said. “I can now see the potential in what I did and thought was a good thing; I can see there’s something so much more involved in salvation and in discipleship through nourishment.”
As she researched hospitality, she focused on the prolific writings of the theologian Robert Capon, especially, The Supper of the Lamb, and The Parables of Grace. Inspired by his ideas, she began hosting “Magdalene Meals,” which gathers people around a table to share food, as well guides them through discussion of a theological topic.
NTC itself set an example of putting into practice a “real love for all God’s people, and really drawing out potential,” she said. “Sometimes people can say that in a mission statement, but it doesn’t transfer into the actual learning. I just really felt the staff have a real intentionality to see what God sees in people, and listen and hear as well as teach. I really valued their style and their heart.”
Gaining confidence in theology
Shirley had never formally studied theology, and lacked certainty in her ability as she entered the program.
“It was the right level. I didn’t have the confidence, before, to pick up a theological book. The course totally blew that out of the water.”
“Yet, it was at a time in my life when I had all this experience and practice, and it was the right thing to do,” she said. “It was the right level. I didn’t have the confidence, before, to pick up a theological book. The course totally blew that out of the water. It reframed what theology is, and I reconciled that with my own relationship with God, which has been phenomenal. I just love it.”
She was attracted to the Urban Theology pathway because she wanted to know what the Bible says about ministering to people who live in cities. Her studies ignited an ongoing passion for theology.
“What the master’s did for me was opened up a world of theology that had much more to say, and a global setting (beyond the local church),” she said. “It lifted my eyes, it lifted my dreaming and my possibilities from a very localised expression, and connected that with a bigger picture.”
She studied part-time, while working with Bethany Christian Trust, raising three children with her husband, and being involved in their local church. She resigned from the Trust in 2019 to focus on completing her dissertation, alongside a sense that God is leading her in a new direction of Leadership and prayer ministry within the local urban church alongside her Chaplaincy and Charity Foundation role with Peter Vardy Ltd.
“It’s exciting, and some of the things I learned in the master’s have been really helpful in navigating that and explaining it.”
“It’s exciting, to see now why God led me into this learning opportunity. It has provided the right platform to work from in developing both roles.”
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