Paul Griffiths leads Towy Community Church in Carmarthen, South Wales. He is also an entrepreneur, running a bowling alley called Xcel Bowl. This may seem an unusual combination, but unlike other bowling alleys, Xcel Bowl funds a wider social enterprise called the Xcel project. All profits go towards supporting local people in need through Carmarthen foodbank, a money advice centre, a furniture centre and a community shop.

Paul has a background of music, design and video, and for a long time was self-employed as well as working for a church. In 2009, he was asked to help with the project. He ended up creating the business plan and becoming project manager. Six years into the project, Paul also became senior pastor.

I spoke to Paul in mid-May, just days before Xcel Bowl was able to open its doors to the public again.

Paul on starting a bowling alley

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Along with his team, Paul approached the county council to ask if they could renovate an abandoned warehouse in the local area, once a cheese factory, into a church hall.

At one point in the building’s history, there had been a plan to turn it into a bowling alley with the aim of investing in the local community. However, due to the 2008 economic crash, the funds dried up. The council told Paul they could have the building, but only until someone was able to come along and convert the warehouse for this specific purpose.

The leadership team brought this back to the church, and after thought and prayer, came up with an idea. They could have a church building and partner with the county council on their goals for the local community, by running a bowling alley themselves.

Setting up a social enterprise would not only enable the church to fulfil our social aims for the community, but would also produce a venue that would give people a place to socialise,” Paul explains.

Even though finances were tight, historical grant pots were available and the county council helped the church as they explored different avenues. Through a scheme the Welsh government were running at the time, the local authority were able to give the church a 100 year lease on the site, as long as the buildings were used for the community. The church then found grant funding and raised money to bring the project to fruition.

We’re not just telling people that we love them but showing them. The bowling alley funds a foodbank, a furniture recycling centre and a community money advice centre. We’re not a rich church but the bowling alley generates the income that allows us to bless the community with the work that goes on there.”

Paul on creating jobs

Paul and his church saw an opportunity to change lives by offering employment. They wanted to provide a safe working environment for people from all backgrounds as well as those who might not receive equal opportunities elsewhere – such as those with mental health problems and disabilities. Through offering employment within people’s abilities, they could increase their employability and independence for the future.

70 per cent of our volunteers are not from the church. They just love what goes on at the site. It is a bowling alley, but it’s more like a big community centre that happens to have a bowling alley in it.”

The bowling alley has about 150 volunteers, and employed 51 people pre-Covid, making the enterprise one of the biggest employers in the community. But, when Covid hit, the bowling alley had to close. The church relied on the income of the bowling alley to run the entire site, so without that, the future looked uncertain.

If you had talked to me eight months ago I would have been wondering if we were going to exist this far.”

They applied for every grant available, but when October came around and the furlough scheme threatened to end, they started a voluntary redundancy scheme, and the staff are now down to 31.

All the staff that left us went to other jobs. We were really pleased about that, because we had a wonderful staff who enjoyed working for us. Everyone knows that the parent company is a church so we just do our best to treat them as they should be treated, and create the best possible working environment.”

Paul hopes that as lockdown lifts and the bowling alley opens again, they will be able to employ more people in the next couple of months.

Paul on churches seeking to create jobs

If the church is looking to create jobs, it has to be in line with the vision of your church.”

The mission of Towy Community Church is to reach people and change lives. Paul admits that it would be very easy for the business to take over the vision of the church, so it takes constant re-evaluation to make sure it’s still in line with God’s will. The business has to make money in order to fund the food bank and the furniture centre, and pay for the staff there. Paul makes it a priority never to serve the community at the expense of the people who work for them, but there is a balance between making money and fulfilling the objective of loving the community as a church.

It’s given us a great voice in our community. We’ve asked the local authority what their 10 year vision is for what they’d like to do, and how our projects can work hand in hand with what they’re doing, so that together we can make a difference.”

Paul affirms that creating jobs is a fantastic way to bring a sense of God’s grace, love and mercy into the community.

Paul on evangelism

It was clear that Paul never wanted to use his position as employer to force the faith of the church on anyone working for him. I wanted to know how this worked in tension with the desire to see more people come to know Jesus.

Paul was clear that sharing the gospel starts from relationship and from being consistent, and that it also requires patience.

I’ve found in my life that if someone on staff is sharing something with me that’s going on in their life, if I then don’t offer to pray with them, they’re now disappointed in me.”

When in-person meetings can happen, the church runs their Alpha course from the bowling alley. Staff and visitors of the bowling alley have been interested to find out more about Jesus and have come along.

God’s always gone before me. He’s in control. If you’re prepared to put your head above the parapet, you are going to have things come your way. You’ve just got to pray and seek God.”

Takeaway

Paul saw a creative opportunity to serve the local community, in line with the church’s goals, and went for it, with much prayer. Employment has the potential to transform lives, and with the reputation of Jesus as their motivation, Towy Community Church seeks to be a transformative employer.

My conversation with Paul is the sixth in a series of interviews I have conducted with Christians in leadership as part of our Job Creation Project. The Evangelical Alliance seeks to encourage the church to step into the unemployment crisis wherever possible, to love our neighbour and demonstrate the character of God to our communities.

We're not just telling people that we love them but showing them.