On weekdays, Claire Burgess serves as a multi-faith chaplain – the only lay chaplain in her team – working for the NHS and specialising in mental health and community work across much of east Cornwall, from Liskeard and Bodmin up to Launceston and Bude.

Her job involves bedside visits and end-of-life care, as well as continuing to support patients after they’ve been discharged and have returned to their homes, helping them find their places again in their communities.

“It’s about helping people to engage with their faith lives, people who aren’t able to worship in the usual place or with their faith communities,” she says. “It’s about helping people to find new ways of serving God when their lives have been disrupted by physical and mental illness.”

It also, she says, involves a very great deal of listening to people’s stories.

“I get paid to love people,” she says. “I don’t think you can really beat that as a job description.”

Her duties of care have also extended for many years beyond her day job and through into her own faith life.

Called to Cornwall

Claire grew up in Somerset and moved to Cornwall at the age of 18.

She says she’d always felt called to Cornwall. After all, ten generations of her family are buried across the Diocese – from the Roseland peninsula up to Paul in Penwith.

In the early 1990s, she’d become involved in the life of the church, in Carbis Bay and St Ives.

“We started doing what we’d now call messy church,” she says. “We were attracting about 90 children and parents. We were thriving.”

They found that local levels of deprivation were even worse than they’d expected and they started working to help families with practical support.

Then, about six years ago, Claire took courses offered by the Diocese in local worship leadership and local pastoral ministry.

She went on to serve as a local worship leader in Tregony for four years, where, working closely with the churchwardens, managed to nearly treble the size of their congregations.

This spring, she’s moved on to become focal minister for Colan near Newquay, a rural community girded round by the longest parish boundary in Cornwall.

Before she’d joined them in Colan, its church community had already articulated its ambition to become a place of healing which would promote physical, spiritual and mental health. She feels her professional experience and skills marry well with this vision.

She’s clearly excited about her work in her new parish.

“It’s a very well-used church,” she says. “And it’s so beautiful round there.”

Local ministry

Claire sees the primary duties of a local lay minister as to offer guidance and leadership to her parish, as well as to take some of pressure off the vicar responsible for the oversight of ministry in their benefice.

“A priest shouldn’t have to go from church to church every single Sunday, feeling they have to be everywhere at once,” she explains. “It makes it very difficult for the priest and for their pastoral relationships.”

She says her first priority in Colan is to maintain continuity for congregations as she grows to know her new parishioners.

“Once I’ve got to know people, I’d like to try to enable them as to how they may want to serve,” she says. “I’d like to give people the space to explore how they can best serve God, either in the church or in the community.”

In this respect, she emphasises the need to explore new ways of engaging with communities.

“We need to be more creative in how we reach people and teach people,” she says. “We need to engage with people where they are, regardless of who they are, walking alongside them. And we need to continue to enable lay people to explore and follow their calling.”

Claire stresses her belief in a chaplaincy style of ministry sustained by peer support. She’s particularly enthusiastic about an initiative run in her new benefice whereby its half dozen local lay leaders get together to meet each month.

“We try to support each other, to give each other ideas, and to help each other with services,” she says. “It’s not a competition. It’s not about who’s got the most bums on seats. It’s a much bigger thing than that. It’s about the mission of the Church as a whole.”

Her commitment to local lay ministry is similarly clear and inspiring.

“I’m passionate about encouraging people to find their calling,” she says. “Regardless of who you are and what you’re capable of, there’s something here for everyone.”