Enabling all ages to grow in faith

Farewell to Sue and Andy

On 31 March two energetic pioneers of Messy Church in Canada retired after more than a decade of passionate service. Eley McAinsh met up with Sue and Andy Kalbfleisch via FaceTime and found out more about their Messy story.

11 April 2021

A new direction

Sue and Andy Kalbfleisch (pictured, right) came to Messy Church via an interest in Fresh Expressions, several trips to the UK and a memorable lunch with Messy Church founder, Lucy Moore in 2009. ‘Her hospitality was just amazing,’ remembers Sue: ‘Here we were, a couple of people over from Canada who didn’t know anything about anything, and she said, “Come on, let’s have lunch,” and it was just delightful. Her descriptions of a Messy Church session were so intriguing, we thought we had to find out more and have a go at this!’

Based in Ancaster, Ontario, and now in their early 70s, Sue and Andy got married while they were still at university. They had a quiet, locked-down golden wedding anniversary last summer. Sue left university early to train and then work as a teacher, while Andy finished his engineering studies. Andy was born into the Lutheran Church and Sue the United Church of Canada. Their involvement in the church has been lifelong, but it took a different path from 2008, when Andy made a momentous trip to England.

‘That was my first foray into Fresh Expressions,’ he says. ‘I visited Ian Mobsby, the Fresh Expressions pioneer, and Nicky Gumbel’s church, HTB, in London, and a couple of other Fresh Expressions churches. When I got home I said to Sue that it’s time to retire from the business, as we had a new direction to take.’

‘I saw the Spirit moving in this new ministry model.’

They had run the family skipping-rope business for several years, manufacturing the ropes, producing books and training videos, and developing a display team that once featured on the legendary UK children’s programme Blue Peter.

But, as Andy admits, ‘We were getting bored with the business. I’d been doing it for 25 years and was ready to retire. Anyone who is crazy enough to build a jump-rope business has to be an out-of-the-box thinker. It wasn’t hard for us to think of doing new things. When I saw the Spirit moving in this new ministry model, I just had to convince Sue and then we both got on board and got involved.’

A good team

Sue shared Andy’s excitement. ‘What we found so exciting was that Messy Church was so missional,’ she says. ‘Fresh Expressions and Messy Church looked to take the faith outside of the traditional church programme. We started looking at how we could be part of that: how we could serve people and do something different. As Andy said, we had the time, because by then we’d retired, but I think the Lord was saying to us, “Come on, you need to look at different things,” and we were just delighted to look beyond the traditional way of doing things.

‘Between the two of us, Andy is the more creative, and I’m the detail person. Andy will say, “I’ve an idea, why don’t we do this?” And I’ll say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” And he’ll say, “OK, so go figure out how to do it!” We have different gifts and we’re a good team.

‘Writing the skipping books gave me the skills of analysing things and putting stuff into words, so a lot of the organisational stuff with Messy Church fell to me. But we really both worked together on Messy Church and started to promote it in Canada back in 2009.’

‘We started looking at how we could serve people and do something different.’

In the early days Sue and Andy worked closely with Nancy Rowe, a part-time priest in the Anglican church in Georgetown, Ontario. Sue explains: ‘We made contact with Nancy and said we’ve just been to England and we’re so excited about this, and we asked her if we could work together on Messy Church. Nancy was happy to do that. She had started her own Messy Church in 2007, so she already had her feet wet. We started to learn a lot, stayed in close contact with Nancy and Lucy, and began doing presentations and workshops.’

You say fairy cake, we say cupcake

Because they were retired, Sue and Andy had time to travel more and more widely across Canada’s six time zones, leading workshops, attending conferences and promoting Messy Church. But how easily did Messy Church transplant into Canadian soil?

Andy answers first: ‘The big difference between the UK and Canada is the hierarchical structure of the church. In the UK you’ve got the established church with a top-down structure. If the Archbishop of Canterbury says Fresh Expressions or Messy Church is something we’re going to do, it’s easy to get money to make it happen. In Canada it’s very fragmented. Each diocese does its own thing and generally they’re all broke so there’s no secure funding for churches.

‘Sue spent a lot of time “Canadianising” the Messy Church books.’

‘Secondly, a lot of these older churches have declined in membership and attendance, and thus financially. So what we’ve found over time is that people come to our Messy Church workshops and we think they’re interested in Messy Church, but really they’re only interested in how they can boost their membership and attendance. It’s the same in the UK, of course. So that is an issue, but without a presence in the hierarchical leadership it’s very difficult to get a formal, national view as to which ministries are viable and well-tested.’

Sue spent a lot of time ‘Canadianising’ the first two Messy Church books when they were being published by the United Church. ‘A lot of the spelling is pretty close,’ she explains, ‘unlike with American English, but so many of the words are different. I was trying to work out how to give the Canadian publishers the changes they needed to make and someone in the company told me just to highlight the words that needed to be changed. Well, there are words on every single page that we had to change! Not just a few! For example, for the craft activities, you use a lot of sugar paper, but in Canada that’s called construction paper. You have fairy cakes and we have cupcakes. You have lollipop ladies and we have crossing guards. And the food sections were untranslatable!’

Dozens of workshops, thousands of miles

What sustained the Kalbfleischs’ vision and energy through their Messy Church years: the dozens of workshops and conferences, the thousands of miles they travelled, not to mention running their own Messy Church from 2012?

‘Craziness!’ Sue laughs, but nods her head in agreement as Andy adds, ‘We just wanted to spread the gospel message through this ministry. Obviously, we enjoyed the travelling. We both enjoyed meeting new people and, although it wasn’t all plain-sailing, we loved what we were doing. We had a passion for the work. We’d come home after a workshop or a Messy Church session and we’d be absolutely exhausted. But it was a wonderful feeling.’

A worldwide network

Sue and Andy have spent much of this pandemic-dominated year promoting the free, six-part online Messy Church Canada course. The course covers discipleship, evangelism, working with families, spiritual disciplines, what is Messy Church and how to start a Messy Church.

The course was developed in 2019 with a team of writers to provide more access to the ‘workshop model’ for anyone across Canada and beyond. In hindsight, their timing was perfect!

‘We did it as a reading course rather than talking head lectures,’ they explain. ‘We felt it was important to be able to modify it, in response to feedback and new information, so we do have some videos as part of the course, but the format we chose is much more flexible. It’s a living thing which can be adapted and changed over time.’

‘The beacon throughout our Messy Church journey was the fact that Lucy Moore was always there.’

They’ve appreciated the stream of new resources that has come out of BRF and the Messy Church team throughout the pandemic. And, Sue adds, ‘We’ve been in touch a lot with our Messy friends and colleagues in Australia – they’ve been putting out some really good stuff – as have Messy Church folk in the US. So now more than ever we see ourselves as a worldwide network, where everyone shares. So even though this has been a difficult time, some wonderful things have come out of it.’

We’d talked for almost an hour, but Sue had one more thing to add: ‘The one thing I really do want to say is that the beacon throughout our Messy Church journey was the fact that Lucy was always there. She was just a great support and encouragement right from the beginning.’

So, full of gratitude for all they have done for Messy Church, we bid Sue and Andy a fond farewell and wish them well for whatever new direction their lives now take.

Sue and Andy Kalbfleisch

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