The Shelley-shaped holes she will leave behind after retirement
Shelley Porter has been with Truro Diocese since 2001 and when she announced her intention to retire, there was a ripple of disbelief. Shelley is so involved in so many aspects of life across the diocese, from children and families work to lay ministry and discipleship, that it’s hard to imagine how the spaces she will leave behind will be filled. Yet, in typical Shelley style, she hopes her leaving will be a catalyst for better things to come.
“I am passionate about children and families. The landscape is changing across the diocese and unless we change as well, many young people might not tangibly experience what it is to be loved by God – and that’s a tragedy.”
Shelley is one of those rare individuals that knows her job from the inside out. A challenge when considering how broad her job is. But Shelley has truly lived her work, using real life to inform the decisions and directions of her working life. For example, Shelley doesn’t just support Lay Worship Leaders (LWLs) from a distance, Shelley is a LWL herself in her home church and so acutely understands the role, its joys, frustrations, possibilities and limitations.
As long-term colleague and friend, Sarah Weply says, “Shelley really does practice what she preaches, not only has she raised the profile of work amongst children and families through her work with Open the Book and Messy Church, she also, for many years, ran the children’s work in her parish and village school. Shelley has also been a fantastic support. She’s always happy to share her extraordinary knowledge of the places, people, parishes and deaneries of the diocese – and has a huge list of contacts up her sleeve for just about every situation!”
An eclectic education in church life
Describing her upbringing as itinerant, Shelley was an RAF child, living in more places than she can remember. But faith was the constant that didn’t waver no matter how many times the family were uprooted. Wherever they moved to, Shelley’s parents’ priority was to choose a church that offered most to the children, regardless of denomination. “It was an eclectic education in church life!” laughs Shelley. “Methodists, Congregationalists, United Reformers even Anglicans! We experienced them all, denomination meant nothing.”
Shelley’s faith waivered in her teens but it wasn’t long before she felt the tug of the fold when she followed in her father’s footsteps and joined the RAF. “We overlapped by just three days; he retired as I joined!” Shelly loved the energy and dynamism of being around other young people at the training camps, sharing their faith and worshipping together but
was mortified to realise she had left her Bible at home. “I couldn’t afford to buy a new one and it was too expensive for my mum to post to me, but a young man had a spare one and just gave it to me – it was a Good News Bible and is the one I still use today, now full of notes, under-linings and worn at the edges but always special because of his act of kindness.”
That experience of being with other people of the same age, searching together has never left Shelley and informs the way she hopes everyone can ‘do’ church. “We have to be where people are and talk to them in a way that is relevant, understanding their experience and speaking into it with our own life experiences.”
Shelley as a drill sergeant?
While in the RAF, Shelley transitioned from telecommunications to welfare and discipline – “My children always said I’d make a formidable drill sergeant!” – and then administration. By that time, she had met and married her husband and moved with him and her stepdaughter to Suffolk. The family grew as they had two more children together and Shelley left the RAF before deciding to move to Cornwall. “My parents became unwell and we decided to move to be near them in Cornwall and for me to get a job with better hours to suit family life”.
So, Shelley worked as a secretary at a local school and one day received a call from her mother. She’d been listening to Radio 4 and heard about a government scheme to persuade older people to get into teaching. “I felt God’s call on me to pursue my hearts’ desire, which was teaching, and so spent four amazing years at Marjon training and six years teaching at a primary school. Then I felt I needed to spend more time with my teenage children and switched to becoming a supply teacher, giving me more time and greater flexibility, but God had other ideas.”
A nudge from above
It seems God wanted to nudge Shelley and give her skills and experience the opportunity to reach further. “I saw an ad for a Children’s Work Advisor for Truro Diocese. I thought it sounded great, it was part-time and I could still do some supply teaching, but when I saw the full job spec I didn’t think I had enough of what they were looking for.”
Teenagers are a constant source of surprise and nothing surprised Shelley more than when her own teenage daughter asked her if she’d applied for ‘that’ job as she thought it was something she’d be good at. “I was gobsmacked! I didn’t even know that she knew anything about it, let alone have an opinion!”
Further confirmation came from a Church Army Captain, “He asked if I’d seen the ad as he thought it was something I should apply for. I seized the moment and said I would if he would be my referee.”
A passion for families that leaves a long legacy
The rest is history, one that the Diocese has been privileged to share in. Shelley has seen a few Bishops and a lot of changes, mainly to her job titles. From a Children’s Work Advisor she became Diocesan Deanery Development Officer, then Project Officer to the three hats she wears today spanning children and families, Lay Worship Leaders and Discipleship.
The one constant is Shelley’s passion for families. On Shelley’s watch, Messy Churches and Open the Book grew from a niche idea to mainstream practice across the county, a feat Shelley is rightly proud of but feels there is more to be done. “I’m disappointed that the vision for ‘Who Let the Dads Out?” hasn’t caught on in the way I hoped it would. It’s such a great idea and example of meeting people where they are.” Shelley is area rep for the initiative but hopes that a man will take over. “Men like to talk to men,” she says. “And this is an initiative for men, to break down barriers, recognise changing family dynamic and offer support and encouragement in a practical way. Loneliness doesn’t just affect older people – a dad with children can still feel terribly alone, just as a young mum can.”
“We need to make families welcome and think about what modern parenting looks like and how we can help.”
Shelley believes that outreach shouldn’t be confined to children and young people, but the whole family. “We need to make families welcome and think about what modern parenting looks like and how we can help.” In her own church, Shelley recognised that the young people stopped coming and sought them out to ask why. Sunday sporting commitments were largely to blame so she asked if they’d be interested in coming along at another time. The Friday Knights youth club was born and became, for ten years, a go-to destination for young people in the area.
Shelley’s hope for children to be accepted at the Communion Table
When Shelley talks of doing things differently, she dreams of tents and allotments and really getting out there to be where people are. But she also talks of doing things differently within current church confines. “It would be wonderful if all churches could welcome children to the Communion Table, not just to bless them but to share in the Eucharist. What would Jesus do? He wouldn’t ask if a child was old enough to understand or whether he or she had been confirmed into the Church of England – He wants us all to have a faith like children, simple and accepting.”
What would Jesus do? He wouldn’t ask if a child was old enough to understand or whether he or she had been confirmed into the Church of England – He wants us all to have a faith like children, simple and accepting.”
Shelley’s faith is simple and accepting, but also deep and rich and all embracing. It underpins everything she does and has done within the diocese. She is widely known, respected and loved.
As Bishop Chris says, “It has been a pleasure to work with Shelley over the years, she brings a faithfulness, creativity and cheerfulness to all that she does. In particular her encouragement and enabling of Open the Book across Cornwall has created a situation where a generation of children in Church and State schools now know the Bible better than their parents. Thank you Shelley.”
Of course there will be Shelley-shaped holes when she retires and she will be very much missed by her colleagues and all of the people she helps and support. But rest assured, her legacy of love will endure and she will, we are sure, be making her opinions count not from the side-lines but the heart of the church, because that’s where she has made her home.