Rev Sharon Murphy has been driven by a 20-year mission to minister to people living on the margins – especially young people impacted by alcohol and drugs


Someone who’s not afraid to get stuck in, and quite literally get her hands dirty, is an apt description for Rev Sharon Murphy. She can often be found in the vicarage gardens, where her church runs a gardening project with the local community.

For the past 18 months, Sharon has been the curate leading Derwent Oak in Derby city centre – a Fresh Expressions church ministering in one of the most deprived communities in the region. She sees her mission within the community as one of bringing purpose and hope. Sharon and her team often go on trips out of Derby to gain insight into different traditions within the Church of England.

Addiction is a social justice issue

Alongside the community gardens, where the focus is on growing fresh vegetables to supplement people’s diets as well as providing breakfast, the church offers a weekly lunch with communion, and runs a mental health support group.  

Reaching the broken with God’s hope

The Sunday before this interview took place, ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ was on the church calendar and the keynote verse was John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” – a verse that is dear to Sharon’s heart.

“I’m passionate about people living the life that God intended, and understanding who God created them to be and knowing that he loves them totally,” she says.

The challenges life throws at people are visually illustrated in a picture painted on a fence at Derwent Oak – based on the ‘jars of clay’ verse in 2 Corinthians 4:7: “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us”.

Part of that picture of living life to the full also includes freedom from addictions. In her vision for a community that nourishes life in all its fullness, Sharon draws deeply from over 20 years of involvement with national Christian drug education charity, Hope UK – as a trained voluntary drug educator with the charity, a member of staff for several years and also as a trustee.

“We are all broken in some way, and there’s something about the work that Hope UK does that speaks to this human condition. It’s about admitting that there’s a problem but then looking at how we can help to restore people to life in all its fullness.” 


In Lichfield Cathedral

Called to young people

Sharon’s journey with Hope UK started 23 years ago when she was working as a nurse in a GP surgery: “A young man came into the surgery in a terrible state. When I looked at him, I saw someone’s child trapped in a spider’s web desperately trying to get out and it broke my heart.” That young man was addicted to heroin. A few days before, the surgery had received a flyer from Hope UK about training to become a drug educator – Sharon wasted no time in getting in touch and joining their voluntary educator programme, which trains Christians to deliver drug and alcohol awareness sessions in their local communities. 

That was in the mid-1990s. Then came a call into full-time Christian ministry, which took her family to Manchester, where Sharon took up a post with charity the Message Trust. All the training she had done with Hope UK was to prove extremely useful in her work with young people, which was mainly done within the local community. 

Over the years Sharon has worked with young people in several different roles. One of the activities has been running a mobile alcohol-free bar – teaching children and young people how to make delicious alcohol-free cocktails using recipes they could then share with family and friends. The ‘bar’ visited many different church youth and community groups – generating curiosity and interest. “It was a fun way to get engagement from young people in the youth groups we visited and it would lead naturally into a discussion about alcohol and other drugs.” 


Outside Derby Cathedral with members of Fresh Expression church, Derwent Oak BMO

Stepping into full-time church leadership

Sharon heard God’s call to full-time ministry in the Church of England at Easter time in 2017. She began her ministerial training, which led to a three-year curacy with the Bishops’ Mission Order, part of the Fresh Expressions of Church movement.

Sharon has found she has called on her training with Hope UK time and time again. “The information is at your fingertips because you absorb a lot of knowledge about drugs and their impact,” she says. It has informed her understanding of addiction, which she sees as a social justice issue, inextricably linked to poverty and deprivation in marginalised communities, part of a bigger national picture of health and wealth inequalities.

“I’ve had so many casual conversations with people over the years about alcohol, about pain and the use of painkillers and cannabis. It’s so useful to be able to talk practically and knowledgeably.” Conversations with teenagers often lead into the realms of cannabis and alcohol use. “They think they know a lot but when you tell them some real facts, they realise they don’t know so much!”

It’s so useful to be able to talk practically and knowledgeably

She recalls another recent conversation with a woman who was struggling with alcohol issues. Sharon sat down with her and helped her to work out how many units she was drinking each day – the total was around 30 units. “She was so shocked because although she knew she was drinking a lot, she didn’t know how many units that was. She came to the point of realising that she needed to do something about the situation and we’re now working together with the NHS Community Alcohol Service on that. That was a real ‘stop and think moment’.” 

As well as working with children and teenagers, Sharon has used her training to support parents, including the parents of a young person who was taking ecstasy. They wanted to learn some coping strategies and understand where to go for further help in their community.

“I look for opportunities all the time to put my drug education training and knowledge into practice,” she says. “Every time I preach, for instance, I will draw on some of the basic training around session planning and the four different learning styles, as it’s so helpful when you are working in such a diverse community where people may also have additional learning needs. It helps me to make sure I’m really engaging with everyone.”


In the Garden at Derwent Oak, Fresh Expression church in Derby

Experiencing the love of God 

Sharon’s passion to see lives changed is driven by the reality of the love of Christ coming into her own life. At the age of 23 she experienced a miscarriage, her first significant encounter with grief and bereavement, which caused both deep physical and emotional pain. She went to sleep one night and had an encounter with Jesus, who appeared to her in a dream to tell her that her baby was OK and safe in the arms of God. On waking up, Sharon realised her pain had gone away and she knew that she had met Jesus – although she had little understanding of what this all meant, having no church background and only a few hazy memories of attending Sunday school as a child.

Determined to find out what had happened to her, she started to attend the church where she was going to toddler group with her two eldest children. She then became pregnant again and met a Christian woman at her ante-natal class who befriended her and taught her more about the faith. It was the beginning of a personal spiritual journey that also saw her husband come to faith himself three years later.

The latest step in Sharon’s journey involves a move to a church on the edge of the former industrial town of Workington in Cumbria, where she will take up the post of ‘Pioneer Priest in Charge’ of St Mary’s Westfield. This move was something of a curve ball – a friend sent her the job description and upon reading it Sharon felt the job was written for her!

“It’s a new adventure – me, as their new incumbent, and a few faithful parishioners who have worshipped in the church for years wanting to see God move in their community.” Yet more confirmation, if any is needed, that Rev Murphy is not one to shy away from a challenge.

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Words by Mary Deller