Debbie Thrower tells Andrew Stone why she left her TV and radio career to work as a chaplain
AS a young girl, Debbie Thrower always had a sense of what she would do for a career. ‘I would write little stories and stencil news-sheets, then go round selling them!’ she recalls, adding that, even then, she loved speaking with people and hearing their stories.
‘I had a curiosity about people right from the word go. I loved words and English. Being a journalist was always in me. I do remember saying to my parents that I wanted to work in journalism and my mother saying, “That’s a bit seedy”. But journalism doesn’t have to be seedy.’
Growing up, Debbie attended a Methodist boarding school in north Devon, as her parents were keen for her to attend a faith school.
‘The school had a strong Christian ethos,’ she remembers. ‘We were told that if you were given gifts, then they should be used in the service of God.’
Believing that she could be a Christian presence in a newsroom just as much as she could in any other workplace, Debbie became a journalist for local newspapers before being taken on as a reporter for BBC local radio. She then moved into regional TV roles – and she loved her work.
‘I was invigorated and excited by all the opportunities I had,’ she says as she explains how she tried to live by herChristian values when carrying by her duties, particularly when she was with people who were going through a traumatic time.
‘People who are in the news are often at a crisis point in their lives,’ she says. ‘As a cub reporter I would be sent to see a family when, for example, somebody had been killed in a road accident. While you’re with them, you have to get round to that difficult question of whether they have a photograph of the deceased which you may use in the paper.
‘I remember thinking there were ways to go about that. You could be as sensitive, tactful and respectful as you possibly could be, or you could just go in and get out fast.
‘With TV reports, I believed that in the editing process I was dealing with the precious stuff of people’s lives and owed it to them to reflect their story in a way so that, when they watched it, they would recognise it. It needed to be as truthful as I could make it, within the constraints of having to tell a story in a minute and a half, or three minutes if I was lucky.
‘That’s an art and a skill, but it’s also a duty. You shouldn’t leave the person feeling felled by the experience. They’re often on their knees anyway because of what’s happened to them. As a Christian journalist, it was up to me to be as decent, truthful and accurate as I could be.’
Debbie’s career continued to develop. As well as working in regional news for the BBC and ITV, she presented the main news bulletins on BBC One before being given her own series, The Thrower Report. Her career moved away from news and current affairs when she began standing in for regular daytime presenters on Radio 2, which in the mid-1990s led to her hosting her own afternoon show.
‘It was a departure,’ Debbie says. ‘I was interviewing film stars, musicians and entertainers. I hadn’t really done anything like that before, apart from standing in every so often. But I did enjoy the opportunity.’
The timing of the show also benefited Debbie’s family life. It meant that she was able to take her children to school before travelling into London and was able to be home in time to put them to bed. Not having to work newsroom shifts also meant that Debbie was more available to her parents, who were having a difficult time as they were growing older.
Even though Debbie was busy with a career in broadcasting and caring for her family, she also found time to train as a licensed lay minister in the Church of England.
‘I felt a strong sense of calling to some form of ministry,’ she recalls. ‘But I didn’t know at that stage if it was ordained or lay ministry. In the end, I was impressed by what licensed lay ministry offered as a bridge between the secular and the sacred world. I wanted to demonstrate how you don’t have to be a priest to be a good Christian.
‘Helping my parents opened my eyes to how much faith can grow in later age. But there seemed to be a mismatch between that and how much the Church actually seemed to pay attention to older people. I would always hear that we must pass on the faith to younger people and children – which, of course, we must – but the Church didn’t seem to pay the same amount of attention to the spiritual needs of people in the second half of life.
‘It seemed so obvious to me that the big questions of life, such as “why am I here, what am I doing, what will my legacy be, have I lived a good life and what’s next?” are the ones that assail us in our later years. The Church ought to be good at helping people to think through those big questions and, yet, sometimes it’s not as good as it ought to be.’
As Debbie wrestled with those issues and continued with her work as a lay minister and her broadcasting career, she received an email advertising for a chaplain to older people. Thinking that her experience of looking after her parents had been a ‘masterclass’ in preparing her for such a role, she applied for the job.
‘I thought it would be nice to sit with people, listening to their stories without too many time constraints or having to rush back to the newsroom and cut the story to get it out on air,’ she says. ‘I could focus on hearing what they had to say and, perhaps, help them to think through some big issues.’
Debbie established the role so successfully that the chaplaincy model she developed, called Anna Chaplaincy, has been adopted by other people around the country as part of the Bible Reading Fellowship’s Gift of Years programme. The Gift of Years has more than 9,000 contacts each month with older people. The network of Anna Chaplains (and others in equivalent roles) work in villages, towns and cities, helping older people, families and care home staff in a variety of ways.
‘Anna Chaplains are there for people of strong, little or no faith at all,’ Debbie explains. ‘It’s about serving older people whether they are churchgoers or not.
‘The whole ethos of chaplaincy is that you are there as a gracious gift to people, to serve them as they are. We won’t even talk about religion or God unless the person asks the question or invites us to give our view on what the afterlife might be like.
‘We don’t hide our Christian background or our Christian credentials. However, our service is carried out in a gentle, non-assertive way. We are there to meet people’s spiritual needs, but only if that is what they want.’
Working as an Anna Chaplain meant Debbie left her successful media career behind, but she did so without any regrets.
‘Working in TV and radio really isn’t very glamorous,’ she reveals. ‘Behind the cardboard sets there are polystyrene cups and wires, and it can be quite seedy – just as my mum said.
‘In the interviews I conducted I sought to get to the nitty-gritty, but often there was an agenda. If you’re talking to a politician, they have a particular message they want to get across, or a celebrity will have a book, play or film to promote. However, if you’re talking to an older person and, for whatever reason, they’re struggling, all the masks are off and it is a very authentic conversation.
‘There is something special about hearing the genuine stuff of people’s lives. That was something I was seeking all the way through my broadcasting career.’
For more information about the work of Anna Chaplains and the Gift of Years programme visit thegiftofyears.org.uk
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