R everend Neil Jones took up his post as lead minister at Barrow Baptist Church on 1st September, in very different times.
Normally, a new minister would be getting to know his congregation, with handshakes and smiles all round. But, with Covid
restrictions, few people are in the church, handshakes are not permitted - and smiles are covered by masks. “It’s difficult getting
to know people when half their faces are covered,” says Neil. “I had planned to spend a few months getting to know the church, but
Covid rules have changed everything and we just have to work within them.”
Normally, besides two services on a Sunday, the church would be bustling with weekday activities - toddler and baby groups, seniors and fellowship groups, community lunches and sports activities - an estimated 400 people would come through the doors in any given week. Since the beginning of lockdown, services have been transmitted online and when I spoke to Neil in October, they were starting Covid-secure services, with limited numbers and a booking system in place, live streaming services over Facebook and on the church website.
Neil, his wife Helen and their children Eliza, 10, and Joel, 6, have settled in happily, exploring the village and beyond, and Neil has been out with the Barrow Runners and the Barrow Baptist Cycling Group. This is a completely new chapter for the family.
Neil and Helen are both pharmacists, and, prior to becoming a minister, Neil had worked for LloydsPharmacy and Boots and, most recently, was manager of the outpatient pharmacy at Southampton General Hospital. They lived in New Milton, in the New Forest.
So, what prompted the move from pills to pulpits? Neil, originally from London, grew up in a Church of England school setting. At the time he went to the University of Brighton to study pharmacy, he had no beliefs. Then he met fellow pharmacy student, Helen. “Helen was a Christian and I fancied her - so I went along to her church.”
He questioned and challenged a lot, but slowly, faith started to make a lot of sense and in 2006 he became a Christian and was baptised. He and Helen married the following year and moved to New Milton, both working as pharmacists. Gradually, Neil felt he was being called to the ministry and, in 2017, he enrolled for a Bachelor of Theology degree at Regent’s Park College, part of Oxford University. He studied part-time, while working for a church in Hampshire and occasionally practising as a pharmacist. He has almost completed his degree and is on track for a 2:1. “I am very pleased with that, considering a got a D for RE in my GCSEs,” he laughs.
Neil and Helen originally wanted to be no more than two hours from New Milton, and Barrow was over three hours. Then Neil was invited to preach at Barrow Baptist a couple of times, they liked him, he liked the church and the move to Barrow happened several months later. Helen now has a job as a Medicines Safety Pharmacist at Queens Medical Centre and the children are at Hall Orchard. In New Milton, they were a mile from the sea, now they’re a stone’s throw from the canal. They enjoy family bike rides and are also musicians - Neil plays drums and guitar and Helen sings and plays flute and keyboard.
Neil wears a navy fleece with “Neil Jones, Minister, Barrow Baptist Church” monogrammed in white. And if you see him in the High Street, he’ll be happy to chat – whether it is through a mask or not.
Since March, Barrow Baptist Church has been running a food bank alongside other support for the village. Now it has joined forces with the Soar Valley Community Food Project in Rothley, which has bases in a number of the surrounding villages. People in need, usually through a sudden change of circumstances, can contact the helpline and arrange to pick up a food parcel at the church. Volunteers will also try and help signpost people to where they may be able to receive longer term support if required. Donations of long-life food can be left on the table at the rear of the church. Contact the helpline on 07395902961.