Stornoway community project celebrates success after royal opening

Rev Tommy McNeill and his wife, Donna, with Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex.
Rev Tommy McNeill and his wife, Donna, with Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex.

A bold new Church of Scotland community project in Lewis is already operating near full capacity just six months after it opened its doors.

The Shed at Martins Memorial Church in Stornoway received a royal visit from Prince Edward the Earl of Wessex and his wife Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, during the General Assembly last May.

The royal seal of approval has been followed with the enthusiastic support of the local community since The Shed got up and running.

Separate initiatives helping young families and teenagers, as well as addiction support services, have been established.

They’ve enjoyed such rapid growth the main problem has quickly become the need for more space. Their success could help other churches identify new opportunities to connect and serve their own communities.

“We were convinced there was a need for something like The Shed in Stornoway,” says the minister Rev Tommy McNeil.

“I strongly felt God was calling us to build bridges with our community. We had just completed the total refurbishment of our main sanctuary, but I knew we could do more and with wonderful support from our congregation we were able to raise the necessary finance to turn this dream into a reality.”

The Shed is working in partnership with local agencies to provide services the Congregation identified Stornoway was lacking.

The mother and toddler group has quickly become so oversubscribed it has been moved into the main church hall.

Youth activities, particularly a much needed after school club on a Friday lunchtime, have also grown rapidly thanks both to word of mouth and social media.

“We post on Facebook about almost all the activities we run here,” says The Shed’s project manager Murdo McIver.

“I counted our last 15 posts have received 12000 views. That’s incredible given the population of our island. Everyone is talking about The Shed, and they want to find out more about what is going on here. It’s fantastic.”

It is the provision of social services that provide the most exciting prospects for future growth at The Shed.

“When we first told people we were going to do this for the community with no hidden agenda I could sense some folk were thinking ‘aye, right’”, says Tommy. “But now we’ve been open for 6 months, people can see we meant what we said. They are not going to come in here and get hit over the head with a bible.

“We are here to meet people wherever they are in life, whatever challenges they are facing, and we want to let them know that we care about them and through experiencing what we do they may come to understand how precious they are to God”.

With a new youth worker, Kathryn ‘Goongie’ Macleod, coming on board, the team at The Shed are confident the new year will see them expand the range of services on offer to the community.

They are in active talks with local agencies to expand the drug and alcohol addiction support.

Tommy believes this is a vital aspect of the congregation’s mission. “I think many churches feel challenged by the sense of a growing distance between them and their community. But I feel we are living in days of profound opportunity, where communities, families and individuals are struggling, relationships are suffering, there’s unemployment, financial worries and all these issues.

“One of the phrases that’s driven our vision and work is ‘we wanted to move from being a one day a week service church, to being a seven day a week serving church. The Shed enables us to do that!”

Putting that plan into action needn’t require a large financial outlay, or even significant direct support towards maintaining the services.

Tommy says: “I would just encourage people to look at their communities and ask the question, what could we do to help people? You might not need a purpose built new facility. If you look to partner with local agencies and contact them offering the right facilities (church halls, etc) you can form partnerships and benefit from their resources and expertise.

“I think communities throughout Scotland would welcome this, and it’s up to us to show the gospel as well as preach the gospel.”