Is it more efficient to give people money at the foodbank – rather than food?

In an age when Neo liberalism has reduced all public services to the sum of their profitable and efficient parts, there could be a case to apply the same logic to the vast, and i mean vast, attempts to solve poverty across the UK.

Because – frankly – the burn out rate of foodbanks is going to be soon.

And, with many nearing their 5 year mark. Questions about their effectiveness in reducing poverty, food poverty have to be asked. It is undoubted that their need is greater than ever. But is there a better way to reduce poverty, other than the stop gap of a variety of emergency foodstuffs, sanitary products. clothes, shoes even and other items for a 3 day period of time.

Think for a moment how much human costs are involved in running some of the most busy foodbanks in the UK, warehouses, store houses, travel, collection points, cooperation from supermarkets, publicity and ongoing requests for items – its quite a lot when its added up. For – a number, a large number of people. Seems so, far alot of effort. Then theres the few people in each foodbank who are paid as overall supervisors. Funding for which has to be obtained.

A question – why, in the beginning of setting up this kind of provision – would there not be a question about just giving people money, and not the items?

Would it not be far far more efficent, in terms of time, energy, resource, effort to just give people say £50 or £100 when they came to the foodbank. Wouldnt this be a better way of solving poverty?

Sounds bonkers doesnt it – but what money do in the hands of someone who was already going to a foodbank for them?

A number of things.

  1. It would give them dignity, control and choice – about what they would spend money on. This was brought home to me recently when i talked with a homeless young person who recalled how having enough money to choose her breakfast, and buy some make up was hugely important, compared to the well meaning who handed her a sandwich or half eaten packet of biscuits. Money gave her choice, dignity and something of a level playing field.
  2. Money would eradicate poverty. And giving it to people for free would have a significant effect. Yeah, free money. Where poverty is not just money – in the vast circumstances, not having any, and the stress of that has a deliberating effect. As, the film, I Daniel Blake showed.

But thinking about it further, why is it ok to give people free tins of food etc and not the money with which to buy these things themselves?

Is it because there is a thought that this money would be spent on things that arent food related, maybe even fags, drugs or drink? or -what is there are fights outside when people start being mugged if people found out that there were people leaving with £50 each time?

Both seem slightly judgemental dont you think? – but what about the evidence – given that food to food bank recipients has been helpful – but poverty really hasnt gone away anywhere.

Strangely, the evidence, from research, is that people who are given money who least expect it, and who need so many things, spend it on… the things they need, and at the same time the human difference is significant.

A project in London in 2009 on homelessness, there was a realisation that 13 known regulars had cost the economy £400,000 on rehab, social servs, police, court costs etc per year over a period of 6 years. So in 2009, instead of handouts, these 13 were given luxury treatment, of £3000, and were asked ‘what do you think you need?’ Though social workers were initially sceptical. The reality was that in most cases each of the 13 men were thrifty and only spend £800. The reality was that money empowered people, and all 13s lives were turned around. The total cost of the ‘experiment’ £50,000 per year, including social workers costs.

So, not only did the experiment work for the individuals, it was efficient. The Economist newspaper wrote : ‘The most efficient way to spend money on the homeless, might well be to give it to them’  (Example taken from ‘Utopia for Realists’, 2017, Bregman)

We assume that poor people can handle money (Bregman), assuming that they once had money and spent it all so they cant handle it, some may never had any in the first place. Money may have arrived in return for completion of assistance programmes and job clubs -but this still suggests that people who are given free money will make people lazy. The evidence is contrary. Give the poorest money and they will more than likely know what to do with it to make them better, healthier and escape the situation they find themselves in, rather than be told and have no agency.

A program in Uganda that gave every poor woman £150, realised that within 2 years each of their incomes increased by 100%. Bregmans thesis, is that free money works.

The big reasons that poor people are poor is because they dont have enough money, and it shouldnt come to any surprise that giving them money is a great way to reduce that problem (Charles Kenny, economist)

Im not going to labour the point too much further. I realise that there might be restrictions on charities giving money – but might those restrictions be actually preventing people for alleviating poverty, and doing more to keep the charity in ‘business’ and activity instead. The University of Manchester concluded that after researching the cumulative of 110 million families in money give away programmes, they realised that the benefits were:

  1. households out money to good use
  2. poverty declines
  3. there can be long term benefits for income, health and tax revenues (people who have money spend it)
  4. the programmes cost less than the alternatives.  (Bregman 2017,p 31)

So – what about the homeless and poor in the UK – well £200 free cash in Liberia to the most desperate only caused them to spend the money on food, clothes and a small business. So if they knew how to spend free money – so  might people in the UK in a similar situation. When the poorest receive free money – they tend to work harder ( Lancet, June 27 2009)

If efficiency really is the name of the game and councils want to save money – then it might be more efficient to give money away – and alleviate poverty poverty that way, given that poverty might, no is, the key factor in so many of the issues in society. Escaping (or feeling like alleviating)  poverty causes people to do costly damaging things, so, maybe its poverty that needs to be addressed. I wonder if  the most efficient way to get people out of financial poverty is to give people free money.

This isnt new by the way, I conclude with this:

Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness, it certainly destoys liberty and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult (Samuel Johnson, 1782)

Poverty isnt a lack of character… its a lack of cash.

Think of it another way – what would have happened in the last 10 years if food banks gave £50 per person rather than the food handouts instead… ?

Would this have been more positive or negative? – the truth is we dont know, but maybe theres got to be a change, and a change to make eradicating poverty in an efficient way. Currently its costing millions – and is it working?

References

Bregman, Rutger – Utopia for Realists, 2017

Thoughts on Liberation Theology Conference 2019; feeling theologically home

I wonder whether you have ever had the feeling of feeling theologically home?  Not being around people where theres a grating or an edge, or where its about justifying a ministry, an outcome, or even, where theology is best left for others, and only a proof reading of scripture is done.

Today I felt theologically home.

I have felt it before, and regular readers of this blog will know that I have felt this amongst the pioneer youth workers of FYT, at our national gatherings. But this was the first time i have felt this in a non youthwork related conference space. Big time.

A few notes on the outline of today, a beginning in which prayers where held an equally participated in the yurt, inside Sunderland Minster (yurts also feature at FYT, maybe theres a theme), a time of reflection and sharing. This was followed by a session by Symon Hill on the infleunce of the military in society and thinking this through theologically. A fascinating conversation.

Then Sue Richardson used liberation theology to facilitate a collective interpretation of the symbols and metaphor of the clay pot, in both the Old and new testament, the process of bringing experience to the text, and developing interpretation and trusting in God in the space to prompt and provoke was just amazing, with a number of threads of questions, inspiration moments.

After an amazing lunch, vegetarian soups, quiches and fruit

The afternoon session included a discussion from Church action on Poverty about developing church on the margins, and how this is about learning, reflection, being with, and time to share practices across the room. It feels as though this conversation is repeated often, usually emerging from all those who have sought to adhere to youth and community values, of participation and empowerment, democracy,inclusion and justice. The challenge will be how this has any traction, even collectively across so many organisations into culture shift of the church.

Following this we heard from 2 protagonists who took part in, and were arrested at the XR protests in London recently, and the daughter of one who took part in and led climate change protests in their local school.  Much of the incidents, but a stark reminder that there are causes worth being arrested for, and that it is a privilege to be able to choose to be arrested.

I left before the final Taize worship, but before this there was chance to collectively reflect on the day. The most inspiring was from a young person who passionately exclaimed that we should have the courage to do something.

Definitely with so many thoughts around my head as i drove home, so much to process, but an enduring feeling like this was was space that did provoke and challenge, that did bring people together doing some amazing things, whether protesting, whether working in communities, whether studying for ordination, whether working for charities, a deep richness of perspective, a deep and broad awareness of experience. It wasn’t that it wasn’t provoking, or challenging, but it was as if the process, and the essence behind it could be trusted. It was as if the common good, the goodness of the world is at stake and faith is the mechanism, indeed the story and drama that we participate in with others to try and make this happen. Today was about learning and reflecting on our collective lines for this.

Often a conference is rescued by its networking. Liberation conference 2019 didnt need to, there was depth in the talks, depth in the room, and yet, the breaks yielded some fascinating conversations, my introvert self didn’t pursue many, but those whom i did were of real interest, in which there was deep theological conversation, on theory, on practice, space in not too long to share and be part of a community and movement. A space to feel theologically home. When so often spiritual homelessness is felt, especially in the big get togethers. Maybe that’s it, maybe i find home in the small get togethers of reflective creative practitioners. With people for whom theological reflection is core to action, core to faith, probably no wonder i felt at home. Home in which there wasn’t an unease, and a space in which there was risk taking, invitations to genuinely participate, learning, value and reflection. Theological and theoretical homelessness might not be a bad thing, in the process of change and renewal, but always feeling like in those spaces and putting on a face can be significantly tiring. Its good to know whether theologically and spiritually, theoretically and in practice its possible to feel like the slippers are on, as is the fire and it feels home. Homelessness can be stressful, and tiring.

And as for some of the detail of the sessions, far too many to share here, subjects I hadn’t considered, subjects i seem to know only so well, and the inspiration of those who have acted. Just a brilliant, inspiring, hopeful, energising day.

Thanks to Chris Howson, for Ray Leonard who organised and promoted this, and for all the participants, new friends and community.

10 Commandments for Youth workers

And lo, as the great throng of youthworketh did gather on the plain, the sound of hail and thunder roared and a dense cloud overcame them as they camped, they were all covered. Then there was the smoke and the whole mountain shook, and the youthworketh did appoint two leaders,   managers facilitators , sorry i mean spent 2 more days developing junior leader to go upeth the mountain to represent the youthworketh to hear from the great gods about what their key instructions should be. Image result for 10 commandments

The gods of youthwork commanded the appointed ones (unnamed due to child protection and lack of consent, for they were now 2000 miles from their parents) to go up the mountain and wait for the commandments to be passed down.

After a short while, the junior leaders descendeth from the mountain and passed to the youthworketh community gathered there and gave them these commandments

We, Brew*, Jeffs and Smith, the great community of thy historic informal education have rescued thee from formality, the place of your slavery and command thee:

1. Thou shalt have no gods but youth work, though shalt not comprehend or understand what thee is

2. Thou shalt not make for thyself any form of statue or create systems of power for yourself, you are forever be commanded to empower young people and promote these

3. Thou must not misuse the name of youth work, some may call thee youth work, faith based youth work, detached youth work, centre based youth work, these will come and go, but the name youth work should remain

4. Remember to keep the notion of a day off, sometime. Just sometime, have a bloody day off. And use it well, treasure it, and dont feel guilty for having it, you may be rewarded for more should you enjoy this first one. 

5. Honour the values of your forefathers, of the great gods, of Aristotle, to promote Human flourishing, of the sacred texts to treat others better than yourselves, or from thy holy text in which we have made these things plain to you (Informal education (third edition revised and updateth 2005)) ; Respect for persons, promotion of well being, Truth, Democracy and Fairness and Equality.

6. Thou must forever more consider all experiences ‘learning opportunities’ or ‘learning experiences to reflect on’ – they are not in any ways to be termed as failures. 

7. Thou should where possible resisteth the temptation to cower away in enclaves and write reports on the darkness that swirls you, for thy great power of truth, of goodness can overcome. 

 

8. Thou shalt commit to build communities and networks for thyself, for it here where thy strength is held i commandeth thee to build up a collection of thee coffee shop loyalty cards for this very purpose. 

9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbours mini bus (its about to disintegrate full of young people half way down the M5), thy resources and thy money, insteadeth write politeth letters to borrow and share thy resources, for thy hath provided sufficient for all the youthworketh around, for youthworketh is in the heart and mind and conversation, not in thy neighbours gold plated canoes, or thy neighbours 3 million pound buildings. Do not covet. Neither do not destroyeth thy neighbours resources when thy have undertake to borrow. 

10 Thou must not give falseth testimony to thy great stakeholders, the funders. No really. I will commandeth thee great fundeth to eventually understand the value of thy youthworketh practice, and thee has the great task to evaluate and review effectively, but thou shall not lie, no really.

And the great junior leaders sat down on the makeshift chairs that the youthworketh had laid before them. The youthworketh were stunned. They trembled at the great responsibility that they had now been given. The junior leaders did then say that a final command had been given, for all the youthworketh; ‘do not be afraid, for if you are to be obedient to these commandments, thou will realise that in conversations you will see beauty, and you will find deep satisfaction that is unmeasurable, and an pride that transcends all in the midst of purposeful relationships, this is a call that will fulfil no other, not teacher, not police, not social worker, for thee youthworker are thy great special people, thy will find beauty and significance in the small moments, be encouaraged’

And the greateth youthworkers assembly left the plain, as not only was the bar about to close, but thy holy Costa of the plain was offering free coffee, and they had papers to write.

(With apologies to anyone who thinks i murdered the original text in Exodus 20… )

*Josephine Brew wrote a book called ‘Informal education’ long before Jeffs and Smith – I referenced it here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1Gd

Should discipleship be ‘action’ first?

Does anyone still use that phrase ;

its always the 20% of people in churches that seem to do 80% of all the work?

It got banded around for quite a while, though I’ve not heard it recently. It was, at best a passive aggressive way of encouraging people who only sat on pews every week to make more contributions in the life of churches. It neither rewarded those who did get involved, nor was much of an encouragement. However. We’ve moved on… haven’t we?

Though there is still a really ethereal conversation about discipleship that still happens, its as if there is a magical way that discipleship happens, that seems to be in need of being continually redefined, rejuvenated and energised. A cynic in me (yes there is one) might think that these attempts are to ‘sell’ the latest fad, model or concept, and with it a whole load of resources and practices. (and yes i do have an inner cynic)  The grown up in me might pose the question about whether there really is anything that can be humanly done about discipleship through churches. This is most pertinent when there are countless research on the ‘state of discipleship’ in churches (LICC have recently done one) . What they discovered that a significant number of active people in churches also self identified that they didnt feel that discipleship was happening. Yet, they were busy.

Maybe theres a few things to say here.

The first might be that a definition of discipleship that looks like Bible reading/prayer/study on a personal level might be genuinely not happening when a person is also involved in so much of the church’s activities. Its more group discipleship, than individual. Potentially.

So there may be a Definition problem.

There is also an expectation problem. Not unlike conversations about ecclesiology and models of churches (Healy 2001)- an almost impossible view of discipleship can act as a hindrance rather than an encouragement, its as if a ‘perfect’ process of discipleship is out there (though still yet to be defined) and until that happens there’s a striving, with often other metaphors like ‘whole life discipleship’ – that rarely about the struggles of life that include poverty, suffering, health and family issues – these can feel at times ‘in the way’ of ‘perfect’ discipleship. Almost that these are to be put to one side – God isnt in these… discipleship is somewhere else… at least that can be the implication. Discipleship doesnt = attendance or involvement – so what is it?  And theres nothing against the continual search – but the human search is for God, not for process or concept (Acts 17)

The problem with discipleship is not that we cant define it from the Greek (Mathetes) , not that we don’t see this as some kind of apprenticeship, or follower of Rabbi status (and i’m referencing Jo Dolbys PhD here) , or looking at Gospel discipleship – because thats been the church for 2000 years effectively – how to follow Jesus model/practice of it – but do it in the institutions of the church created since 70AD. The packages and resources have been written with every new discipleship package being better than the one before. It feels as if maintaining the church as an institution – with all the voluntary giving of time to enable this – doesn’t necessarily equate to the definition of discipleship – yet church maintenance is still good right?

We are urged to be disciples and witnesses in Jerusalem, Samaria and the ends of the earth – (Acts 1:8) – the Wednesday morning community project may have all the semblance of the ‘ends of the earth’ compared to Sunday morning. But theres only a call to stay in those places not move people. We may have to reflect on what discipleship in the ends of the earth may look like. It probably wont look like what Jerusalem discipleship did. So  what might that be.

I’d like to end this piece with three thoughts that hopefully add something to this discussion. Practice, Theory and Theology.

One significant thing comes from my practice.

A number of years ago i was the project coordinator of a detached youthwork project in Perth, Scotland. Because of the nature of the role expected of volunteers, they underwent training, on the nuts and bolts of detached work and also, we spent time looking at values, principles and thinking theologically through a practice of being out on the streets, being vulnerable, and how this might be mission. What i didn’t realise, or at least, what was a great joy, was that in the months and years that passed of walking and participating in the practice, how often each of the volunteer reflected on how being involved in the project was a place in which they were doing discipleship, doing mission was discipleship. It shouldn’t have blew my mind, but that it came from the participants and not me, sort of made it real. Did it help that I had framed the action as a missional/theological one.. yes. Did it continue to help that there were spaces for theological reflection ongoing in team time, session reviews and in the growing of this community, well, i guess so. But still, i wonder if there’s just something to be said with how ‘volunteering’ is made a discipleship activity. I think.

From Theory, I wonder where the discipleship conversation converges with the Faith Formation conversation. Are the two the same. Maybe. Its not often a conversation about discipleship from the platform of a UK conference also includes reference to faith or spiritual development (fowler/westerhoff etc) – but neither, does it look beyond a glimpse of the need, to the culture and a few biblical principles. What Andrew Root (in faith formation in a secular age)  does is look at how Spiritual and faith formation needs to take root in the culture that we are in. I cannot in this piece go into his detail, and I have written 5 pieces on his book Faith formation in a secular age (2017) already (links at the bottom of this piece) – but Roots suggestion is that Faith formation is a process of ministry, and ministering and participating in the tasks of God. Where he argues consuming church, spiritual experiences, and personal faith journey all meet culture that is looking for authenticity that is found wanting. Simply put, every one wants authenticity, and there’s nothing more authentic than a real church that transforms the world rather than creates enclaves and avoids it, equally, its not just a current age thing, or Generation Z thing, its everyone. Look at micro breweries, farmers markets and bake off, the desire for the authentic pint of ale, the real news is there, its not just an adrenaline experience… but a real one. A danger, Root argues is that Churches have embraced youthfulness in an attempt to be authentic, culture has won, they have stopped being actually authentic. Practical faith formation for Root is a process of ministering and ministry. Is practical faith formation discipleship? Its not far off… but forming is for performing, and performing is also forming…

The setting for discipleship though, is not the church though is it. Church is the place for the faith formation, discipleship happens on the stage of the world, in which the church is also a part. And this is where the third thing, Theodrama, for me comes into play. Understanding the theological, physical and social context of discipleship might reveal that being in ministry in the world is closer to discipleship.  Theodrama provides a metaphoric platform to imagine/realise that the whole of the worlds timeframe is Gods, that the whole world is a stage in which all are participating in a Holy redemptive drama, just that not everyone is aware of it. From those drinking in the wetherspoons that i am sitting in,  to the drivers on the bus, and the market sellers in the shopping centre, the teachers in the schools and youthworkers on the streets. The framework  of theatre, and drama, takes the notion of connecting stories further, and to consider the artistic and dynamic view of participation (which is Biblical) in God drama, as the context of discipleship. So therefore the church is a principle actor, guided by spirit, to act on the stage of the world in accordance with a number of prompts past(trinity, kingdom, bible etc), and present (spirit) to act in the future. Personal discipleship, may well be a community venture. Personal discipleship is about be more fully aware to these prompts in the every day. It is not the amount of bible studies, prayer times, daily reading notes that have been completed, its being aware of these to act appropriately in the every day. To act in the world where there are competing values (Von Balthasar) where there are prompts to do so and goodness, truth, love and peace to be appropriated. Discipleship may well be a process of awareness and a new reality. Its being able to respond to the voice of God in the midst of the action. Not avoid the action and head to the nearest 5 evening  a week bible study and avoid the world.  (Theres more on Theodrama in other pieces on this blog, see the categories)

Coming back to the 80/20 thing – there is a new issue in town. Its that because of a lack of volunteers, and also the exponential growth in community work projects and ministries in churches – 100’s of volunteers for these things are being grown from within them, food kitchen receivers become servers in kitchens, young people in youth clubs become junior leaders – all in the name of good empowering community practices. The question could be said that these are good ‘social action’ and ‘not mission, or discipleship’ and it could feel as though the powers, and the 20% who’ve gone through the ranks properly and have a mission/discipleship resource to sell, cant conceive that there might be another way.  We might ask a question – how might people be already disciples through the ministry of serving in a community that they feel home in and welcome (and want to create for others) ?  and not that all this serving is only a step to a ‘real’ discipleship elsewhere, that can look like ‘going to a study group’ or ‘alpha’ – the real discipleship could already be happening – from a point of action.

A task of the church, might be to develop practical theological reflection and participation through these serving moments at the time – because im not sure any church has a luxury of increasing barriers to faith – when clearly there are many who want to participate in the good that a church can do.

I would hope there is a space, or a awareness that an action first discipleship can sit alongside a ‘traditional church attendance discipleship’ – because for one thing, people are joining in the action of the mission of God because it looks like something that heals, does good and is something to believe in – because it is making a difference. They are already participating in Gods mission before knowing full well who God is. Well, to be blunt, none of us know who God fully well is. For some people they might be closer to the actions and drama of God in their participation of it in a food kitchen than hearing about it and the stories of those before them.

The task might be to increase theological reflection – not import a model view and make discipleship  unachievable. Root may be right, thinking of discipleship as a faith formation process causes a shift to think of people as ministers and helping people to ministry, and this can start from the food kitchen, the holiday club or the social enterprise. Real discipleship is practical and takes place in the world, that where the tensions and drama takes place, the choices and prompts by the spirit occur. When we talk about discipleship otherwise its often more about faith formation and learning. Discipleship on the stage of the world might be less about doing more faith formation (something measurable by attendance and vocational calling) and more about becoming more attuned and aware of God in the midst of the whole world. Being aware that God might well be in wetherspoons right now, and asking me to have compassion on everyone drinking here at 10 in the morning. Can hearing God in the midst and acting on it in the improvised moments, in the participation of conversations of ministry be measured as discipleship?  I hope so. But discipleship is also volunteering, and starts with the provoke to be part of building Gods kingdom in a place. I cannot argue otherwise that this isn’t the person who has relied on a food bank, a youth club, who is now participating in making this goodness happen for others. God is active and on the move. And its risky and challenging.

References

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a secular age, 2017

Hans urs von Baltasare – Theodrama Vols 1-5 – 1980

Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Wesley Van der lugt – Living Theodrama, 2016

Nicholas Healy, The church, the world and the Christian life , 2001

Mental Health and Young people in the Church – Guest Post by Jenni Osborn

Mental Health and Young People in the Church

If you were to send a message to your younger self to reassure or encourage them or even to tell them something that you think they need to know: what would you say?

I start my training with this question because it’s important to look back at the way life was when we were a young person and remember just how uncertain and chaotic that time was for all of us, even if we didn’t have additional struggles with our mental health at the time!

Scientists define adolescence as the period of life that starts with the biological, physical and hormonal changes of puberty and ends at the stage when an individual attains a stable independent role in society. We often define adolescence as roughly 11 -18 but this definition makes a good case for including ages up to roughly 25!

There’s a lot happening in the teenage body and brain. It used to be thought that our brains were fully developed before adolescence kicked in but since the use of functioning MRI scans (that is the ability to scan the brain whilst performing various functions) we are finding out more about the adolescent brain in particular, discovering that there are significant differences in the functions of the adult brain. It used to be thought that the reason teenagers didn’t weigh up risk or pay much attention to another person’s point of view was because of a flood of hormones, now we know that the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain which helps adults make decisions, plan for the future, inhibiting ant-social or inappropriate behaviour or speech and take another person’s point of view into consideration, is not yet fully developed in the adolescent brain meaning they are simply unable to do these things. Adolescents have to rely more on impulse and pleasure seeking because these are the functions of the parts of the brain – the limbic system and the amygdala – which ARE fully functioning.

Throwing these challenges of brain function together with hormonal surges and the keen feeling of peer pressure, we begin to see the unique challenge that adolescents have to deal with.

Add to that the backdrop of the 24-7 news cycle, environmental issues that threaten natural life as we know it, increased awareness of the need to live healthily whilst being presented almost daily with contradicting messages about how to do this, the distorting lens of social media and the pressure to maintain an online presence, global political upheaval including the rise of the far right, the Austerity agenda which has led to family chaos, increased reliance on foodbanks and a whole host of other factors and it’s no wonder we are in the midst of a mental health crisis of epidemic proportions.

The good news is that belonging to a loving, caring community of people is a significant part of the answer for those struggling with their mental health. A church and/or youth group that encourages young people to be open and honest by providing a safe space for them, that discusses emotional health and the impact our emotions can have on our faith and our overall sense of wellbeing, that shows love and care through listening carefully and talking about deep issues of faith and life, these are the spaces our young people need in order to navigate this difficult time of brain development, identity formation, fluctuating hormones and potential poor mental health.

I ran a survey recently asking young people from within church groups what they had to say about their faith and their mental health and it was so interesting to see a really wide range of responses about how their church or youth leader had supported them. Some said their youth leader was amazingly open and honest, encouraging them to talk openly about how they were coping with life. Others said that they hadn’t ever talked to their youth leader about their diagnosed mental health condition because they didn’t feel comfortable enough to be that open or that they had a difficult experience because the church had not tried to understand the problem they faced.

Many of us in churches feel out of our depth when faced with statistics that say 1 in 4 of us will experience mental health struggles in our lifetime and the actual numbers of young people, which is likely to feel like more than 1 in 4, in our care who are either diagnosed with, talking about, or showing signs of a mental illness such as depression or anxiety. We need to equip ourselves to do the best we can to support our young people, recognising that we are not all psychotherapists or counsellors.

I have written a Grove Book with this aim, to help those who work with young people understand a bit more about mental health and the impact this can have on our young people. You can order copies on the Grove Book website here.

I also offer training in a number of areas of youth work, mental health is one area that is particularly popular at the moment and my latest training session on Mental Health and Young People is in East Sussex on Thursday 14th November. You can buy tickets for this here. If you’d like me to deliver training to your church or organisation then get in touch in the comments.

If you’d like to read the story of someone who struggled with depression and anxiety as a teenager then I can recommend Rachael Newham’s ‘Learning to Breathe’.

If you’d like a resource book which gives you, the youth leader, a set of sessions you can run with your young people on emotional health then I can recommend Liz Edge’s ‘Exploring Emotional Health’. (in the north east a copy of this is in the Religious resources centre)

Thank you to Jenni for writing this piece for this blog, If you have a burning issue, a challenge, a question or a reflection you would like to share, please do so using the details above. Youth work week is upcoming, so if you have something youd like to tell with the regular audience of this blog, then please do get in touch.

Full of Character (Frances Ward, 2019) – A Review – Do the characters obstruct the education on offer?

Full of Character (2019) – A review

Although there may not be a rush to get book reviews out into the public space, this book is still only just released and is 2019, writing this review has felt as though it has been on my ‘to do’ list for over 4 months. I read it when i was relaxing and basking in the sun in Tunisia, in June, and so, was fairly chilled and relaxed in reading it, indeed, my copy now has a few suncream finger prints in it, and has been well travelled.  My other perspectives that i come to this book are as a parent of an 18 and 16 year old, who have experiences both Scottish and English Education systems, as a youth and community worker for 15 years and more recently as a worker for the Durham Diocese and involved in supporting a poverty proofing schools programme.

Opening the book itself, doing so, on day 2 of the holiday (it wasnt first book on the list), the contents page that includes sections on Thankfulness, Character education, Playfulness, Fruitfulness, and Hopefulness, I am immediately intrigued as to the angle that this book is about to take, given a wade into thinking about what seems Christian Virtues and how they might relate to Education, it brings to mind Danny Brierleys attempt to join up Youth and community work Values with Christian practices in 2003 (Joined up, Su Press, 2003)  So, given the breadth of the topics this book is about to cover, I am intrigued.

Following this. I would consider the strengths of this book to be, that it does make a useful, practical attempt at times to appeal that the christian values is extols are regarded higher in the process of education in the UK. My only misgiving with the list of 12 things that have been chosen in the 13 chapters (chapter 7 is a focus on the digital age, half way through) – there is an element that all of the 12 feel a little individualist, and about a persons individual process through life, so, whilst references like Community are featured within a few chapters, this seems lacking (especially as the whole platform of the discussion within is a community of people), as do aspects of the Christian story, including Justice, Peace, and Story itself.  This aside, and Ward does say that the book could be easily extended to include others.

What Ward does do successfully, is provide an accessible, easy to read (it is easy to read) text that gives insight into the 12 aspects that she has selected. Setting the context is done through a look as the cultural situation pretty much defined by the political news, so Trump and Brexit effectively, the digital revolution, and a number of films that the characters in the book have recently watched. Again, its all a matter of perspective, but there is a sense that the overarching media is the dominant lens of culture in this book. We hear little of local contexts of towns, cities, volunteering, the positive news that is easily not taken into consideration. This does mean that there is a sense that the book is rebalancing, or articulating an alternative to fear, a fear which has been said to dominate from the news, and the view of culture which is stated. It is the same in regard to the section on the digital age, it was as if only the negatives were realised. If only one of them had read Bex Lewis book Raising children in a digital age – instead of worrying about AI…the rest of the chapter may have been different…

Frances Ward then describes that Human Flourishing is at the core of the book. This is undoubtedly welcome, it has felt like Human Flourishing has been an ongoing topic to define, for well, the dawn of time.. but its is often proclaimed as a great unifier within youth and community work across the sacred/secular mythical divide (cf Smith, Stanton, Wylie et al, 2015), and theologically this is suggested by Vanhoozer as one key aspects of the entire Christian drama (Vanhoozer, 2005, p15) ‘Following the christian way promotes human flourishing (shalom) and leads to the summum bonum, life, eternal and abundant’ – The question I continue to have, and the book doesn’t address is how much of this is an individual venture or a community one. For, whilst Ward critiques Rousseau, proponents of critical and community education have been ignored within the development of these ideas. (Giroux, Freire to name two) and yet they also propose community and human flourishing through education.

It feels like I am already criticising, and these are the aspects of the book that I appreciated the most. There are other nuggets within this book that are useful. A chapter on self forgetfulness in an age of ego proclamation – is pertinent – and i wonder how this might lead to a broader self awareness of persons in education, the systems and structures – and how a school might self forget being competitive? not laying all the responsibility with the individual child. There are others.

However. Though it was an easy read, it is accessible. I struggled to like it. The problem for me is that, whilst it is easy to read, whilst it is accessible, and whilst a number of philosophies, theories, ideas and concepts are brought to the attention of the reader in a relatively simple way. The wider premise of the book was far too irritating. And i’m not sure why, overall it was needed.

The premise of Character Education is set at a New Years eve party, a party in which 6 ‘characters’ – apologies if they are real people – gather having had a year of watching movies, the news, and being super amazing people – though none with any children, except Maddy (who had just put Emily to bed). The premise for this book is their hopes and fears and the conversation that ensued (over ‘sweet potato and bean chilli and sticky toffee pears’, p12). Much of the book is framed as if its a conversation, activities and insight that each of these 6 people have brought to it. For me it irritated.

Craig and Maddy are very much in favour of free education and Maddy went to see the headteacher who ‘looked harassed’ (the thought that her conversation was about to be noted down and written about didn’t cross Maddys self awareness, and the headteacher was tired of avocado eating middle class parents helping her with educational discourse and having to regail the latest from the national headteachers conference and Ofsted- just so Maddy could add her post university insight on character education – page 80-81)

On other occasions, Craig would go to onto google and look up a theme, Maddy would research an idea, hear a lecture (p143), then they would get excited about what they found out, and be unable to have a lovely conversation about it, because the other ‘was engrossed with Emily, planting seedlings’ (p204) . Maybe its me, but this dinner party seemed to go on all year, and the book feels like an out-working of 6 peoples privileged to access meetings, research and have the time to do this. Call me an inverted snob, but poverty doesn’t seem to feature in their lives, they don’t have to go to the public library, and none of their friends loses their job, or needs a food bank handout. Whilst they have hopes and fears, they have considerable agency. And a privilege they seem blind to. I cant imagine a group of people in areas of the north east, south wales or (pick an appropriate town) acting in this kind of way. They don’t spend a lot of time in the queue at Asda or volunteering – other places to learn.

I’m left with the thought that the characters in the book Character Education are the main parts of it that let it down. They just appear to be floating on air and have all the time in the world to share and talk about these ideas, whilst also having perfect lives with time to do so, probably between dissecting an avocado. They couldn’t be more millenial or middle class sounding if they tried.

The problem… is that all this feels completely unnecessary, and for me, what Ward proposes has some merit, in terms of values, fruitfulness and human flourishing. The characters get in the way… and this context leaves me thinking that the Character education proposed might be more middle class and academic than it need be – merely because it is framed by these 6 people who go on a self learning adventure to benefit us all. Its like Eat Pray Love – but on education at times.

There are, within some fascinating insights into aspects such as resourcefulness (not that different from agency)

It is an ongoing seeking after wisdom (p137)

Resourcefulness is stronger than resilience, in enabling more creative engagement with what challenges people of all ages (p137) – though Ward steps short of challenging a resilience narrative (something youthworkers are keen to do) – there is merit here in suggesting an alternative.  Other chapters on Truth, Fullness and flourishing combine the theological, with the sociological and psychological, and are, generally, accessible, useful, provoking and pertinent. Ward proposes thinkers from a wide range and not all academic. Its because of these good solid theoretical chapters where I wonder if the whole book could be written like this, and the platform of the 6 characters is an unnecessary distraction.

The most frustrating when we are indulged in hearing an entire lecture that Maddy once heard which forms the basis of the chapter on fullness and receive her insights of it.  I just found the tone set by the 6 people irritating throughout, and clouded my view of what were some valid accessible concepts, and some theological thinking that would be useful in creating an education system that had at its heart, not fear, numbers and outcomes, but the kind of character, values and kingdom aspiration that might be considered christian.

It was that i didn’t want to offend Craig, Maddy, Sam, Natalie, Benji and Dan, that i struggled to write this review. Its probably 18 month since their new years party, and so they can probably take the criticism now…

This book is written for parents, according to Ward. I think the problem with this, is that a countless number of parents do not have the capacity to read something like this, with 3 children, trying to work, getting dress up ready for world book day, exam stress and merely survival on the next food bank handout to consider a future of education shown to us through the lens of toffee apple eating Craig and Maddy. As a parent reading this, and having had two children now complete education (at least to 16) i would know than in my deepest desires i might have wanted an education that could look something like what is described. The reality is that academies, the extensive data collecting through multiple series of exams in 4 years, and limitations of choice, mean that reality is so far from this ideal. Yet, as i have reflected before, i might have thought that some of these ideals were possible in my own education 30 or more years ago, when at least an individual child was the focus, not school competition and organisational survival, schools run as businesses.

Back to the book, if you can cope with these 6 people, and want an accessible book that looks at aspects of a christian education that has values and principles at its heart, then this will be a good starting point for that conversation. There is enough in here for that to begin.

References,

Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Freire, P, Horton – We make the Road by walking, 1990

Giroux H – On critical Pedagogy, 2012

Smith, Stanton, Wylie, et al – Youthwork and faith Debates, delights & Dilemnas 2015

Brierely – Joined up, SU. 2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can buy a copy of Frances Ward’s ‘Full of Character here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Full-Character-Christian-Approach-Education/dp/1785923390/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=frances+ward&qid=1571393767&sr=8-1  (other book sellers are available)

 

Can church be developed and defined from its action?

Regular readers will know that this is something that i have teased at this quite a a while ago, amongst a variety of other pieces. I just thought it might be good to give it a rethink. I’m realising more and more that the broader church had a habit of wanting to redefine and re- strategise it purpose, often adopting marketing and business methodologies, or hankering after a new testament church model, that appeared in a bygone context, or develop a version of its nature (ecclesiology) so aloof from reality. One example being church as a holy separate people or a bride.. metaphors so alien, and not reflect the often reality of the present, the broken and the infiltrated by culture, yes sin, that church often is.

The danger too, that a kind of aspirational ecclesiology doesn’t nothing but frustrate and point out the inherent current frustration and failings, rather than acknowledge the good of what currently church is or does.

Nicholas Healy makes an interesting point, in that thinking about the church theologically, in the grand narrative, the theodrama, causes church to consider its present in light of both past and future. To recognise its role now, its link to past and the remembering of, but also how its future it’s to be, in dramatic terms rehearsed and to be looked forward to. Signposts and markers. Grief and hope. Past and future.. in the present.

And so, as a collective church, we are not as business leaders would have us do, try and imagine a blank page.. because. The church is part of an already bigger story. It’s a participant in something with already guidelines, it has a direction and a history, a director and a principle actor, a guiding spirit in the action. So it is no fresh start, but an imagining of authentic purpose that fits the task of participation in something, that a church has agency and will in, and is similarly guided and prompted.

Simply put, Nicholas Healy writes that a church in its participation in Gods Theodramatic missional story is one that is both practical and prophetic.

Whilst this might be most relevant if the temptation to separate the churchs mission from its ministry, the closer reality is that both mission and ministry occur within the same theodrama, and therefore ministry reflects the same practical a prophetic emphasis. For.. isn’t prayer both, and might praise and worship?

But thinking of Mission for one moment.

There could be a temptation to separate the prophetic activities from those that ard practical, when it is more realistic to consider both along a sliding scale or graph, where some activities might have higher or lower of each.

A solely practical activity might show love, but no voice to challenge the status quo..

Yet a solely prophetic activity might create change but lose touch with being loving and listening to those for who are affected, taking away agency from those in suffering. Potentially.

So there are scales. And I wonder too whether many actions by churches are implicitly more prophetic than they realise. But maybe not explicit in this.

Something prophetic need not necessarily be politically directly prophetic, but theres a difference between treating a young person as merely a token or consumer of an activity, than being a contributor and having choice within it, therefore a prophetic act in a society or even church culture that might not regard young people highly in terms of participation. The same might be for recipients of food, of freebies and handouts. Yes, all practical. But might prophetic action increase, for the individual, within community and also in the broader political structure also.

There may well be default lobbyists (prophetical) and default helpers and responders (practical).

But i am thinking that it may well be in the intersection of both where the church might find it’s true identith and purpose, theologically, socially and missionary, as it fcussed on having an identity orientated around its ongoing action, rather than an ideal, and keep on a cerebral study of redefinition. Rather, build an church from the place of its action.

References.

Nicholas Healy, 2000, The church, world and Christian life

Vanhoozer, Kevin, 2005 The drama of doctrine, 2012, Faith speaking and understanding.

Avery Dulles, Models of the church.