Few would put God on their shopping list when visiting a supermarket but Wendy Bray reports on a team of ASDA chaplains helping staff and customers remember that God loves them.
ASDA, for most of us, is the source of bread, milk and a well priced takeaway. Spiritual guidance would not top our shopping list as we enter the store. Yet retail giant ASDA employs a team of over 150 in-store chaplains in its supermarket communities countrywide. Their tale is a shop floor tale worth telling. Ed Watson, ASDA’s press officer starts at the very beginning: “In 1998 at the Bexley heath store in Kent, a colleague (as ASDA staff are known) died of cancer. He was much loved by colleagues and customers so there was an immediate need for counselling and care within the store. The store manager asked the local vicar to do some store based counselling and it worked so well that it became a regular engagement.” Dick Johnson was that ‘vicar’. As the original and first ASDA chaplain, Dick’s involvement developed within a broader vision through Kent Industrial Mission (KIM), which has more than 100 Associate Chaplains visiting people at their place of work. He now visits the Bexley Heath ASDA store-and its 480 colleagues- every week as part of a team of three. Dick explains that, ”as Industrial Chaplain in the borough and town centre it’s my role to get out of the church and try to engage meaningfully with the reality of people’s lives. A major part of this is work in the retail sector, which now employs millions.” The Chaplain’s role varies from store to store. Some chaplains focus on building relationships with colleagues, lending a listening ear and getting involved with store charity campaigns. Others help customers pack bags, talk about what was on TV last night and generally make links with members of their local community who they might not otherwise encounter: “It’s walking and talking rather than meeting and preaching,” says Ed Watson. “But chaplains do also invite people to church. With 13m customers going through our doors each year there’s a pretty big potential congregation!” The chaplain’s scheme, which is entirely voluntary, has grown organically. Dick Johnson continues the story: “Bexleyheath was key to how the scheme grew to be a national policy of the company. After I had been chaplain for about 18 months a new store was planned in Broadstairs and the manager asked me to help find it a chaplain. Through the network of K.I.M. we were able to find Alison, then a local curate. Alison started on the second day of trading and made a great success of her role. That same store manager later had to face a significant personal tragedy and Alison supported him and his wife. She was also there to care for the staff of the store who were themselves very much affected by their boss’s personal experience.” Alison’s work came to the attention of ASDA HQ, Dick contacted them to discuss more of the background to the story, and as a result ASDA decided to aim to introduce a chaplain in every store. ASDA isn’t the only store group to welcome chaplains, and many operate as part of an industrial chaplaincy or town mission initiative. Mandy Beck is chaplain at ASDA Roehampton and was invited to take the post by the South London Mission team two years ago. Mandy says: “I believe Jesus would have been in ASDA not just in church. After all, more people go to ASDA on a Sunday than come to church! I go in once a month as a chaplain and in-between to shop. I walk around the store, chat to customers and colleagues and have lunch with them, and I always go to the quiet room and pray.” Ann Mackenzie is chaplain at the Chelmsford store, Chelmer Village, an area which has been developed over the last 25 years and which is still growing. Ann says: “I see my in-store role as offering a pastoral and spiritual ear; being a Christian friend who is ‘around’. I’m here for managers, colleagues and customers: to say, ‘God is interested in you; he has a purpose for your life.’ I’m here to pray for people and situations too.” For the majority of shoppers, the presence of a chaplain is reassuring-someone who will listen, stop and chat and be available: “It’s good to know they’re there.” said one customer. “And not locked up in that church, “laughed another. Ann packs bags, helps stack shelves, walks the shop floor to meet customers and is available to counsel colleagues. Her ASDA role also has a broader community context: “At the moment I’m the only Chaplain at the store, though I am associated with Essex Churches Council for Industry and Commerce (ECCIC) and other chaplains who work in Chelmsford Town Centre. I’ve been able to work with the colleagues on some of their charity events and they help with church activities – supporting our holiday club and our Harvest for the Hungry project.” As an industrial chaplain, Dick Johnson’s focus is primarily ASDA colleagues: “We’re really here for the staff, and the context of working in a supermarket is part of why we are here. We do have contact with customers, and some chaplains major on this. But as the company has developed the scheme they have moved from seeing it as a piece of customer care and service, to recognising its value in colleague care.” “The workplace is God’s Place” Dick continues. ”God is at work there too. He is present with us in all places-including our work. It is where we express our creativity, find our identity and exercise our God given gifts: forming relationships, making friends, living our lives. This is about how the Church reaches out into the world, and about that world itself. “We are Presence (Incarnational), Pastors (caring for people), Prophets (people who challenge world values with God’s Kingdom values) and Proclaimers (of the Good News).” In practice, that means that Dick walks the store, shares coffee and lunch with colleagues in the canteen and spends time in meetings with key managers. He has conducted a wedding and christening for colleagues – although not in the store - as well as two memorial services. Dick adds, “A lot of the time conversations are not profound in the least – and yet they are often deeply spiritual. As we build trust, people speak about deep things – their work, their families, themselves. “My ASDA work means I can make connections between the reality of people’s working lives, the commercialism of the high street, and the church and its priorities. Sometimes that’s a struggle: it feels like being in two different worlds. But I am convinced that both are God’s worlds and that both need each other.” David Gillham is chaplain of the ASDA-Wal-mart store in Livingston; the largest store in Scotland: “I see my role as befriender: someone who is independent of the store and who can be approached in confidence. I’m not in store as often as I’d like, but frequently make both official and unofficial visits. Every four weeks I hold the official ‘surgery’. Staff and customers know that I will be in store and know where to find me. At other times I simply mingle. It gives me the chance to meet people in an everyday environment rather than just at church on Sunday. I am more visible where people actually are. “For the last two years we have held an ecumenical carol singing event the week before Christmas, when most of the Livingston churches join us. We haven’t had any weddings in store yet, but the aisles are ready and waiting!” Does David think church and shop mix? "Church and shop’ are a focal point simply because this combination does work. Most denominations in Scotland now appear to be committed not only to town centre chaplaincies but also to working in partnership with each other. Church and shop works simply because shops are where people are to be found.”
Ann Mackenzie’s experience reflects David’s: “Here in Chelmer Village the ASDA store is at the heart of the community. It’s most people’s corner shop as well as their supermarket. We need to be ‘Church without Walls’. This is such a great opportunity to be Jesus to those who’d never normally come to church, or hear about Jesus.” Mike Leader, formerly chaplain at the company’s Charlton store in south east London, agrees that the mix of church and shop may be a key ministry focus for the future simply because of the neutral location: “Many people do not feel comfortable about ‘going to church’.” says Mike. “This sort of ministry enables us to take the church to people where they are.”
As ASDA chaplains have written themselves such a success story, how would Dick, the ‘original’ ASDA chaplain, like to see that story develop? There is no hesitation: “More stores with chaplains in a more effective network in order to begin to tackle some of the underlying issues about commercialism and the high street, consumerism, credit, debt and so on.”
As shopping increasingly becomes a leisure activity, it also becomes the source of what Wal-Mart call ‘retailtainment’. The supermarket is increasingly a place where people linger, relax, have lunch, even base part of their social and leisure activities. The down side of such a trend produces the largely store based issues which Dick mentions, and which directly impact the wider community in which the stores are based.
ASDA, however, are keen to develop and promote store based community support, of which the chaplain’s network is now part. The company’s ‘Stores in the Community’ programme, an initiative which also has a ‘Bobby Lobby’ involving local police and an MP’s surgery, is part of a working link with the community. The potential for store based money management advice, counselling, basic skills help, parenting and Alpha courses as part of this community focused environment is clear. And it raises challenging questions for conventional church outreach: “There is great potential for developing Christian ministry in this context” says Ann.” Hundreds of people work and shop here. Jesus always went where the people were-so must we!” “This is mission,” Dick affirms”, and it is out in the real world, where God wants us to be.”
The ASDA chaplaincy network has proven that supermarkets are a marketplace for the gospel not just the groceries.
Wendy Bray is a writer, speaker and freelance journalist based in Devon.