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Researcher of the Month, November 2023: Andrea Still

CRPL research
Postgraduate student research
Researcher of the Month

"Andrea Still is a part-time PhD candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds and a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life. Her research focuses on religious and faith awareness and influence in parent-toddler groups of The Salvation Army."


Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now? 

I do not consider myself to be an academic. I say that because my student journey has been motivated by self-development, and grappling with tough questions within the context of ministry in The Salvation Army, rather than by a desire for formal study. This adventure began probably before most of the readership of this forum were even born. My husband Alec and I were ordained in 1992 (training was unaccredited in those days). Our background in church leadership became planting in inner cities, taking us to Manchester, Glasgow, Chatham, Southampton, Portsmouth, and now Leeds.

The work was tough and exposed us to people facing issues we never knew existed. We lived incarnationally among our people, and our children’s friends were often among the poorest in the UK. In order to make a difference, I needed to discover how to make Jesus real in chaotic neighbourhoods with little concept of positive community and even less hope. So, in 1997, working full-time, with 5-year-old twins, I embarked on a BA Hons in Theology with the Open Theological College. It took 6 years to complete. This sparked a love for study, for critical thinking and writing. The modules on Mission in particular, informed our practice and thinking.

It was always on my radar to do further study, but with another toddler (who may well have been an only child had he come first) there was little time for formal reflection. In 2006 my world fell apart with a serious diagnosis of cancer, 5 months away from my beloved ministry that had become my life. During this time God very clearly pointed out that in my quest to be a good Salvation Army Officer, I had lost sight of my primary calling, to be a follower of Jesus. The theological grappling went in a different direction where Christian community and discipleship became the focus. When my son was 5 and settled at school, I began an MA in Emerging Church with Cliff College, which also took 6 years. Suddenly, much of my questioning fell into place. My dissertation, looking at the true meaning of Sacrament revolutionised my thinking but also clarified what I already knew. Church was not a place people went to but was a bunch of people rolling their sleeves up and making a difference for Jesus. Angels in Wellies was the title of an article I wrote at the time. I recognised the greatest gift the church could offer was to model supportive community, and that actually, it had very little to offer until it learned to throw better parties!

Being the church provides safe spaces for people to experience love and explore faith. We should not be creating consumers of church programmes but participants in the Kingdom of God. So, I guess for me, ‘research’ has been a lifetime of practical theology, which I bring to my current PhD project.


Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area? 

Last year, The Salvation Army advertised two PhD studentships in partnership with Leeds University. I received an email with a link from a friend: it simply said, ‘I think this is right up your street’. One of the profiles was in fact, just that. The Salvation Army wanted to research the impact of Parent and Toddler groups on the practical and spiritual wellbeing of families who attended. They wanted to map good practice and explore what it might look like to support those with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) in a trauma-informed way. Family Ministry is at the heart of ministry for me. Although this time I didn’t have 5-year-olds in the house, for various reasons the timing wasn’t great, and the deadline was tight, but I did some reading and put a proposal together. The more I read, and prayed, the more I recognised this might be an opportunity to share what I had learned about being the church and how we listen to those without a voice and capture their stories. If I can in some way contribute to a body of knowledge that informs church practices in how we support families in their parenting and open up faith journeys, that would be such a privilege.


What are you currently, or about to start, working on? 

Starting the PhD, I felt totally out of my depth. I had not done a research degree before, or indeed really ‘been to Uni.’ Last time I studied, Zoom, Zotero and Web of Science didn’t exist, and getting my head around the various processes was a challenge. But a year on, with a robust training plan behind me, I am more settled. Unsurprisingly, there has been little academic research into parent and toddler (P&T) groups, and so my research is set in a wider contexts of changing church paradigms, family ministry and toddler spirituality, where there are some exciting current studies. My research will look at the experiences of families who come to Salvation Army P&T groups, how different family models, such as same sex or single parent families, are accepted, and what practical support and interaction with the wider church community they have. It will include a mapping exercise of how many groups there are and who comes, and a focused field study into 30 groups, with opportunity to evaluate resources through focus groups. A fascinating exploration will be how are P&T groups changing the culture of how people view and experience ‘church’?

In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two? 

The Salvation Army has a reputation for ‘being present’ in communities through formal social service contracts, and through 630 churches, most of whom offer some form of community outreach. How the Bible has influenced and continues to influence attitudes and public debate, and if the Salvation Army’s unique form of evangelistic Christianity provides a relevant expression of Christian teaching and ethics, are key questions. Society and politics define people groups by their circumstances: homeless, asylum seeker, addict, broken families, and suchlike. The role of faith-based groups in society is perhaps to model a different perspective, by seeing the person, and their potential to become.

Religion in public life is not about church attendance and running programmes. In a post Christendom society, where attractional models of church no longer engage people with the Gospel, the Gospel needs to be experienced, in order to be seen. Countless unsung heroes over the years who have faithfully led P&T groups in creative ways have influenced and inspired me. The role of faith in their lives and leadership as a lived experience, in turn creates an environment in which others can grow and flourish. Acceptance and love is the medium of hope for those experiencing hopelessness, and it is when love is received and journeys shared sacrificially that it is possible to encounter the Living Christ Jesus.