Engaging Churches and Local Authorities
In May 2011, the Gweini National Board and Local Gweini leaders met to share their experiences of working with Local Authorities (LAs). Despite the cut-backs, the mood of the meeting was upbeat, and here are some of the conclusions - and ideas for taking action.
The good news is that LAs are now generally more willing to work with churches than in the recent past:
- 'Religion or belief' is now one of the equality targets, along with race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and age. This offers ways to be involved in local compacts, local health boards, and many other official bodies“ LAs are keen to be seen to respect diversity goals;
- LAs have less money to spend than in the past and are seeking out good partners wherever they can find them;
- LAs often understand that the churches are major actors in social provision (and the Faith in Wales report helps convince them of that);
- LAs often realise that they cannot hope to provide adequately for the social and spiritual needs of their clients“ at best they can cover the physical needs (see the Adopt a Care Home project in Swansea for just one example);
- LAs increasingly understand that churches are capable of delivering social services without proselytising.
Scenes from Church life in Wales set around Cardiff's County Hall
Here are some key ideas for getting alongside LAs
- Get networked with other churches first, for example, through your Local Gweini! LAs find it impossible to deal with tens of churches one by one. They are relieved and impressed when churches approach them as a co-ordinated group;
- Join one of the Christian policy networks in Wales to share ideas with other people. Ask the Gweini Policy Director Jim Stewart for more information;
- Use the media to raise the profile of what you are doing with the public and with government newspapers are always looking for heartwarming local articles;
- Be pro-active. LA staff are busy people and often change jobs send them regular news about churches activities if you can find the time;
- Setting up special charities works well for large projects, but for smaller ones it is often better to work under the radar using unincorporated associations, needing less paperwork and admin. They can be multiplied as the work grows;
- Use all the contacts you already have on the inside, e.g. Christians working in LAs with influence (ideally Chief Executives!);
- Offer to provide for spiritual and social needs to complement what LAs are doing (e.g. the Adopt a Care Home project in Swansea);
- Work with Christian groups who already have good contacts and profile. The new 'compassion ministries' can be an important resource here (see articles on this web-site about CAP and Foodbanks, for example);
- When you have been funded to carry out a social action programme, do just that, and do not try and build an overtly 'religious' element into it;
- Join your Local Community Forum;
- Beware of 'tokenism', where faith representatives are invited to serve on committees just to tick the appropriate box;
- Pray for people in your church who work in government. Consider organising meals and events for people who work in particular areas, such as local teachers, to affirm them and show your Church's support of for their work;
- Put explicit goals about engaging with local communities into your church's mission statement.
Working with well-established social action ministries, like CAP and Foodbanks, or Care for the Family, can have many advantages for churches wanting to serve their communities:
- They have already built up a strong profile and are well regarded by government;
- They provide valuable tools to help people, such as debt counselling and relationship advice. These tools are not usually overtly Christian, but designed so that evangelism comes naturally as a by-product. People often ask what motivates the work, or spontaneously request prayer when they know they are dealing with Christians.
Working with people who are not Christians, or with non-Christian organisations, can often make a lot of sense.
- As well as surveying the needs of the community and the strengths of the Church it is good to work out what other people and organisations are already doing, and avoid duplicating work done by other organisations, Christian and non-Christian;
- Partnering with them can be more efficient, challenge them to consider the Christian faith, and lead to more opportunities for evangelism.
John M Evans, Gweini