How not to Engage


OK... I have breathed repeatedly into a brown paper bag before this one... but my head is still on the verge of exploding...

As a number of faithful readers may have guessed by now, there are any number of things that will send me into a spiral of barely contained rage... Including organisations who sell programmes and packages to churches as the answer to all their possible needs in a particular area... A tendency that owes more to the franchising movement of the commercial world, than to scripture... It produces fads and fashions in ministry and mission... Alpha... Christianity Explored... Cafe Church... Fresh Expressions... Seeker Sensitive Services... Purpose Driven Whatevers...

Most of these are great in their own right... And sensitively used can contribute to local mission... But they need to be carefully contextualised... Alpha, developed for the beautiful people of the dinner-party set around Knightsbridge and Chelsea, needs to be appropriately tailored for working class Ballybeen in Belfast...

The sheer money involved in purchasing these packages, however, and the relentless marketing of follow-up resources and new products that results froom you being unwise enough to allow your name to go on a database somewhere would drive you insane.

It is in the light of this that my current bete-noir raises its smiling face... Care for the Family's current roadshow with Rob Parsons, entitled "engage" (note the trendy lack of capitalisation!), soon to arrive in Belfast (I'm not telling you when or where... I refuse to give them easy free advertising). I like Rob Parson's books... I appreciate the emphasis and programmes that Care for the Family have developed over the years... But I REALLY don't appreciate a national organisation wheeling in a bunch of people from mainland UK to tell us provincials how to engage with local communities... Engage!? How about engaging with those who have been doing this sort of thing over here for years? One email I received has promised input from local churches in the programme, but so far I have seen no publicity telling me who they are...
As well as emails, I've had leaflets through the door, others foisted on me at last week's Re:Call, and an advert cunningly disguised as an article in that wonderfully discerning organ, the Methodist Newsletter. Apparently the conference only costs £99 per head for the day. OK if you get over 10 to go and book soon you can get it down to £44 each... But sorry, that is a scandalous price... Particularly for those smaller churches in working class areas, who need most help in seeing how best to engage with their communities. I see that two of the experts flying in are going to tell us how we can partner with government in our work... Experts in the Byzantine workings of the Northern Irish Executive and the very good working relationships and unique partnership programmes that are already working here are they? Do they know anything about the implications of the new Charities Commission and the effects of the Review of Public Admininistration here... I doubt it...

This is one of the worst cases of patronising, glossy salesmanship under the guise of ministry that I have ever come across... (And I have come across many in my time). I have no doubt that we have things to learn from Care for the Family and other outside agencies. I have no doubt as their publicity material claims, that people will come away encouraged and inspired... But my fear is that they will also come away somewhat poorer having bought a mountain of books and bought into one programme or other... Or will go away enthused but confused as to exactly where to go next.

What ultimately prompted this rant was the fact that over the weekend I was asked by someone in another church who was thinking about how to get involved in their local community, whether I would recommend this event... I said that I respected the work of Care for the Family, both nationally and locally, but that I for one would not be forking out between £44 and £99 to go. And so instead of recommending the conference I said "Why not get in contact with the Churches Community Work Alliance here in Northern Ireland. It's not the best publicised organisation in the world... A fact that drives me and others who know about it insane... But the depth and range of the collective knowledge of community engagement within that organisation is unparalleled..." I also admitted that I may well be biased, as I currently (though not for much longer, thankfully) chair it... But I certainly don't make any money out of it... And they won't make much money out of anyone who contacts them, as any initial consultation is free, and membership of the Forum is also free, providing you with ongoing information about developments in the sector.

It may not have glossy publicity or come with a cheesy smile... But its real...
ps. Want to apologise to "early birds" who picked up this post in an uneditted form... I wrote it last night and thought I had saved it for distribution tonight after a chance to re-work it... But I got my dates wrong... Something to do with finishing it after the Superbowl probably...
I should also say that I have had the chance to talk to the person whose email stated that there would be local input, and he tells me that this issue was raised a number of months ago by local representatives and partners, in the face of what they saw as a "colonial" attitude by headquarters. I hope HQ takes note and that the conference will be suitably contextualised. I still won't be forking out to go to it though...

Comments

the snowman said…
I don't really care about the particular prog you've got in the cross-hairs of this post - what depresses me is that your post (perhaps unintentionally) reminds me of that wonderful spirit of NI-exceptionalism which sings a constant refrain of: "There's no-one like us, we're so unique." Sadly this is evident in every sphere of life here, but the truth is we're really not that different from anyone else. Yes - contextualisation is important, but isn't that the job of people in a particular local community, to take something from elsewhere and adapt it to work in their own particular context?

In every other field of life, education, business, culture, government, science etc people from the "UK mainland" and farther afield will be invited to NI to share knowledge, experience and innovation - surely this is a good thing? Is the churches sector in NI so special that they don't need to hear from 'outsiders'? I don't think the key to engaging is knowledge of the NI Assembly or the Charities Bill - again these can be dealt with by local experts. Surely churches in Glasgow, Manchester, London, Southampton and Belfast will all face similar challenges in getting local churches to engage (whatever that means) - or is Belfast so different from these other cities?

Oh but I agree with you re: the price of this thing.
whynotsmile said…
See, the price tag could be a blessing in disguise, in that those churches with few resources will automatically be excluded and can therefore concentrate on useful things. But then it doesn't tend to work like that, and very often those churches will spend their small amount of money precisely on going to this kind of stuff 'cos they like the glossiness and believe the hype.

Snowman, I disagree with some of what you say - I think there's everything wrong with the kind of 'one size fits all and we're going to tell you what it is' approach that these big organisations tend to take.

NI is not totally different from other places, but it does have it's own challenges that other places don't (and vice versa). By all means we must get outside input, but (1) at £99 a pop? and (2) very often my experience of these programmes has been that they're fairly light on the need to contextualise - they state the obvious and then leave the hard bit up to the participants - which is grand if it's 20 quid each, but for £99 I'd like my own personal consultant for a few days.

Not that I know anything about this specific programme, I'm talking in sweeping generalisations here.
"We're unique - just like everyone else."
Actually I have absolutely no problem with people coming from outside NI and sharing their experience, expertise and insights with us... In fact it is vital that they do, so that we can get different perspectives... and I have facilitated, and benefitted from such events in the past. But there is a question of tone, content and cost here that I have major problems with... Perhaps it is just that I am still smarting from a similar "We'll come in and show you how to engage with government and community" event a few years ago that I am still mopping up some of the debris from...
As well as recommending the ongoing work of CCWA I should also have flagged up the "Jesus in the City" congress that will be meeting in Belfast in June 2010... where practicioners from cities all over the UK and beyond will be coming here to share their insights... And I can do that without any accusation of bias as I have absolutely nothing to do with it!
Anonymous said…
I only came across your blog today, when some of your Methodist colleagues told me about your rants on the recall conference. But it seems you rant about everything. Why would a minister have so much time to waste just being angry about everybody and everything? The idea that care should put something on for nothing is just not in the real world. Why should they not get properly paid for what they do? I expect you do! Or if not, maybe you should join me on the dark calvinistic side. But lighten up a bit, pal. Your blood pressure must be sky high.
miserable calvinist
Miserable Calvinist... You could well be right about me needing to lighten up a bit... You have managed to catch me at a time when I recognise I have not been at my brightest and best (please note my response, in part, to your comment elsewhere)... But I have spent too long with groups and churches in poor areas trying to scrape together enough money to employ people to do the sort of ongoing work that is needed in the communities, to be overly worried about what people are paid in an overpriced one day conference.
Anonymous said…
Have you ever considered that people may have requested that Care for the family come across to NI?
What about trying it before you demonise it? Hey, it may not be for you but it may be worth just opening your mind a tad to the possibility that others may find it useful (I being one of them).
Isn't it easy to criticise?
Please note: I have generally been a supporter of Care for the Family's Work, recommending their material to others and financialy supporting them for some years. My criticism is over the nature of this conference and others like it, which are priced out of the range of some of those who could best benefit from being there; which bill themselves as "one stop shops" for whatever the particular issue is, which is rarely if ever the case, even less so in the case of community engagement which is a massively complex and nuanced area, and is best looked at through the lens of a broad-based partnership, not a more narrow focused organisation such as Care for the Family, which majors on family/relationship issues, and finally, which, gives the impression that the expertise for such initiatives can be bought/brought in from outside of the local situation, whereas, the fact is that there is a huge amount of untapped experience much closer to home. It may not be so well packaged, but it is likely to be more contextual and cheaper. I DO appreciate input from outside agencies, but it is best offered within a framework of partnership. I DO think that Care for the Family have an enormous amount to offer, and hope they will continue to do so for the church for years to come, but they should not claim to be something they are not, and community development specialisation. I DO hope that Saturday's conference will encourage people to take community engagement seriously, not just as a means of getting bums on pews but as a means of fulfilling Jesus' mission statement of being "good news to the poor." But I will not be advocating that people fork out £99 for that... I'll be there for the morning, as Jean Gibson at Care for the Family has very graciously invited me along, despite my vituperation... So I'll get to see whether the glossy publicity delivers. By Monday I may well be eating huge portions of humble pie.

Popular posts from this blog

A Woman of no Distinction

An Epistle To Our Elected Leaders

A Psalm for Sunday: Praise to the Lord who Listens...