20 Golden Nuggets on Civic Engagement
14 May 2013
Key experienced practitioners met together in March 2013 at the Gather “working together” consultation, regarding how church can connect with civic authorities. These are their words of advice:-
Understand this is a new day
There was a time when churches may have been treated with some suspicion and ignorance by civic authorities and a general unwillingness to engage. That attitude has fundamentally changed in most place over the last few years. Participants at the consultation spoke encouragingly about the new opportunities being afforded them and a new respect for the work of the churches. Churches are seen as a significant service provider, with staff, buildings and large numbers of volunteers. The financial crisis has now given even more impetus for authorities to partner with churches. With budgets being cut they are having to find new ways of delivering services and the door is wide open for dialogue, partnership and effective engagement.
Do it in unity
The consultation involved some of the key unity movements around the country who are effectively engaging with the civic authorities, and they all underlined the importance of approaching the statutory authorities as a group of united churches and not just as individual churches. The authorities want one phone number to ring, one group to deal with, not several individual churches all competing for time and resources.
Go to the top and work down.
Take the initiative and ask to meet with the chief exec and leader of the council or the chief superintendent of the police or the chief executive officer of the housing trust. If you go as a small team on behalf of other Churches they are often more than willing to have a conversation with you. Try and begin the engagement at this level then work down to the more local and junior level. If you get the buy-in with those in most authority, it will make your local work much easier.
Ask them what they need.
Don’t focus on your needs as churches, but go to the authorities and engage them in a conversation specifically asking them about their key priorities. Ask them to give you 3 things they need you to help them with. You may not be able to meet all those needs but you would be able to meet some of them.
Be professional in your approach, do your research into who you are meeting and what you want to talk to them about. Make yourself aware of other third sector organisations operating within your community, what other statutory authorities are involved in and what are the agreed actions plans already in place.
Deal with the Elephant in the room.
If they do have hesitations in working with you it may be because they have had experience with some church groups who sought to use public money to proselytize or they were not inclusive in the service of they offered. Its often best at the start of the engagement to name the elephant in the room and deal with these misconceptions.
It's important to state that you are there to serve everyone and not just one group and that although sharing your faith is important to you, you will not use publicly funded initiatives to do that. If the people you serve wish to connect with your other church activities then they are very welcome, but assure them no-one will be forced or coerced into church. If there is a very negative history you may need to go into much more detail and develop a code of practice.
Building relationships is vital.
A long lasting fruitful engagement will only be achieved through building strong relationships with the key civic leaders in your area. This is simply about making friends, beyond the meetings, taking an interest in their lives and serving them when needed. It's about a calling to be pastors of the area not only of the Church, to care for people with significant leadership responsibility.
Build the case for Church partnership
Generally in society the level of faith literacy is very low, with little understanding of the nature and value of faith groups. You may need to consistently state that faith groups provide the largest voluntary cohort in the area, probably they employ the most youth and children's workers and studies have shown they provide over 50% of any social capital in the area (the warp and weft of what make a community flourish). They are on the ground, with buildings and volunteers and mostly pay their own way. Some unity movements have conducted very helpful faith audits that statistically scope the work of the faith sector.
Learn the foreign language.
If this is your first time in engaging with statutory authorities you have just entered a foreign land where you need to learn the language and culture of civic organisations. The jargon is at times impenetrable, and the cultures are very complex. Its even worse if you are dealing with several authorities at the same time, with each one having its own distinctive. We need also to understand that church culture and language to the outsider is also just as bewildering.
The important thing is to keep asking questions, challenge the jargon and learn as fast as you can. Some unity groups talked about specific people who worked in the public sector in their congregations who greatly helped then in understanding the complexities involved.
Get the right attitude
Its very important to approach the engagement process with the right attitude. Most civic authorities expect local community groups to be negative, perhaps demanding and at times critical. If you can be positive, appreciative, thankful and respectful you will go a long way in enabling a long term relationship to produce some significant fruit. A number of groups began with an event that invited the key civic leaders together to simply thank them for their service to the community. We don’t have all the answers, we often haven't engaged in the past and we have much to learn about the process of building community, cultivating an attitude of humility will pay long term dividends.
Serve don’t try and rule.
The right attitude is fostered by a spirit of service to the community and its leaders. The Christian language that we sometimes use, of ‘conquering’ or ‘taking the land’ has some negative connotations. We are here primarily to serve as Christ served, to build friendship, to seek the peace and prosperity of the the place God has called us to.
You are part of a bigger picture.
It is important to see ourselves as part of many others within the community. We are part of the wider faith community and alongside many other community groups and associations who often do a tremendous work in serving the needs of an area. From sports clubs to scouting groups, from allotment associations to support groups we must remember we are not the only show in town, however we do have a unique contribution to make, but it's alongside others. We need to not only engage with the civic authorities but also the wider voluntary sector.
Remember you are unique
Setting ourselves in a wider context then allows us to know the unique contribution we can play. We are a large voluntary force, with significant assets serving in every neighborhood of the area. Our faith is the driving force behind our activity, resulting in great commitment and ambition. It's vital we don’t loose our unique identity and become just another type of third sector organisation.
Faith sharing in a part-publicly funded project is appropriate when the conversation is initiated by those you serve, it's also often appropriate to advertise and invite people to other church activities you are running. Prayer is the underlying activity across all our areas of service, and the offer of prayer for individuals is often appreciated.
We must maintain our integrity to be ourselves and to be honest to our calling. The more you are able to prove your reliability with excellent outcomes and gain a proven track record, the more that increases trust and allows you to have more freedom to express your faith based uniqueness.
Don’t forget the Church.
The engagement process in the eyes of church members can appear strange and even viewed by some as a distraction or worse. As we engage with the civic authorities we also need to engage with our local churches. We need over time to teach churches about the need to have a heart for the city, to seek it's peace and prosperity. We need to encourage members to take up positions of responsibility in civic life, to highlight the Monday to Friday callings of those already in our congregations who work in the public sector. It is good to regularly pray for those in authority in church services and to invite civic leaders into special occasions to interview them about their work and talk about their main priorities.
Be led by the Holy Spirit.
Engagement is ultimately not about taking opportunities, being strategic and forming partnership it's about responding to the calling and direction of the Holy Spirit. If this is not soaked in prayer, led by divine guidance and enabled by the power of God, our plans and dreams will not succeed. Engagement is about prayer walking, listening to Jesus about his dreams for our area, praying for the civic leaders, battling with the principalities and powers effecting our societies. All the effective unity movements that have pressed ahead with some outstanding civic engagement work have been founded and fueled on prayer.
With the power of the Spirit behind us, the experience we have in building community and engaging in mission, we also have the resources to be creative and think outside the box. The mantra in the public services due to the huge budget cuts is to think differently and do things more creatively. We can often approach things from a very different, and at times refreshing perspective. We know what makes community work, we know how to do ministry for very little money, we know how to work together and draw the most from volunteers. We will learn much from this engagement but they will also gain a lot of new insights from us.
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