A few years ago the London Borough of Barnet produced a chart that became known as the ‘graph of doom’ showing the changes in their funding and expenditure over the next decade. One thing was instantly apparent, while the cost of essential adult and child care services continued to rise funding was going down, in fact, by 2022 the council predicted it would be able to afford to do nothing but deliver these statutory services – that means parks, leisure centres, rubbish collection, libraries, would all get cut.
The impact of the cuts in services that local authorities have begun and will continue to make in coming years will affect communities across the UK. In 2013 Christians in Parliament with the Evangelical Alliance published the Faith in the Community report examining how local authorities work with churches. Following a wide ranging survey of local authorities across England, Scotland and Wales, the report found that in many places the relationship between churches and councils was thriving and delivering real benefits to communities. However, it also found there were challenges to the relationship, around capacity, organisational set up, and suspicions of what faith groups might be trying to achieve.
The report found that churches are the groups who stay around when others leave, who turn up before funding arrives and stick around when it dries up. Churches are often the last remaining focal point and play a key role in developing community resilience.
Working with local authorities and other civic bodies is a vital way for public leaders to step out and take responsibility for the communities they live in. In many towns and cities across the UK this is already happening. The Gather network has mapped out many movements where churches are working together and often in collaboration with civic authorities. By replicating these partnerships the positive effect of churches can be magnified, and many more people benefit from the good they deliver.
Five tips for working with your local council:
1. Build relationship
A key role of public leaders in working with civic authorities is building relationships with elected members and key officials. By building relationships and developing trust you can become a key contact in the community. This might mean joining meetings that aren’t particularly exciting (in fact they may well be very boring most of the time) or taking on responsibilities, but through intentional and consistent engagement you can develop relationships that can make a difference.
2. Deliver what you say you will
Credibility is vital for public leaders. If you say you’re going to do something it is essential you deliver. In the Faith in the Community report some local authorities relayed bad experiences of working with churches, where they had agreed to provide a service or volunteers and had been unable to do it, one council reported that volunteers they had trained were too busy at prayer meetings to help at the homeless shelter. By delivering on your responsibilities you can gain credibility with civic authorities.
3. Stick around
An area of frustration for local authorities was not knowing who to speak to, and this was exacerbated if church leaders kept changing, or responsibility for working with the council switched between different people. The benefit of consistency was clear. Those leaders, whether of churches, charities or public leaders committed to their communities, who stayed around and attended meetings, built relationships and developed credibility, were highly valued by the local authorities. They became the ‘go to’ voices.
4. Dispel myths
The report found that some local authorities had serious concerns about what Christians might do if they worked with them. These focused on equality, exclusivity and evangelism. What was also apparent was that in many cases once relationships were developed most of the suspicions were dispelled. It is therefore vital for public leaders to actively dispel such myths by demonstrating that they are working for the good of all in their community.
5. Educate about Christianity
By working with civic authorities and building relationships the knowledge of Christianity within public institutions can be improved. As local councils and other statutory agencies get to know Christians who are delivering change to their communities they will gain a better understanding of the beliefs, practices and motivations that characterise to the faith. Addressing religious illiteracy within civic authorities by improving relationships and establishing credibility is a vital part of Public leadership.