Working with faith communities

Below I share a few thoughts from my experience of working with faith communities.  One of the most challenging aspects of working with faith communities is that it makes you, in a very explicit manner, consider your own beliefs and opinions.  It is not just a matter of intellectual knowledge or professional skill but you are forced to reflect on your own fundamental convictions.  I will therefore first of all look at issues of personal awareness and personal commitment before going on to look at issues of knowledge and community work skills.

Personal awareness

What is my faith commitment?

There are, perhaps, three ways to answer this question

1.  I have a clear faith commitment.  This may be religious or, perhaps, something more secular such as Marxism or, as is very common nowadays, a personal amalgam of different philosophies.  My challenge now is to look for the resources within my tradition(s) which will provide me with the means to work with people with a commitment to a different religious tradition.

2.  I am unsure what my faith commitment is, or whether I have one at all.  I would suggest that this is going to make it difficult to work with people with a strong faith commitment.  They tend to have more trust in people who know what they believe and openly articulate it, providing this doesn't mean disrespecting their faith. 

3.  I have no faith commitment and distrust faith of any kind.  This is, perhaps, the most problematic position as it tends to imply that I have a rational attitude to life whilst religious people base their lives on superstition.  It is difficult to see how this will not lead to a patronising way of working. 

Religious people believe that rationality is a tool rather than a basis for life, we all have fundamental beliefs in which we put our faith and we use our rationality to work out the implications of these faith commitments.

What has shaped my beliefs about faith and religion?

The above has perhaps raised some questions for you.  What do I believe?  Is religion rational or superstitious?  It is worth reflecting on where my beliefs about faith and religion have come from. 

What was I brought up to believe in?

What has been my exposure to religion?

Has that exposure been balanced?

What are my preconceived ideas about the religions and faiths I encounter?

We will all, inevitably, bring preconceived ideas when we encounter people of a particular religion.  We have been made particularly aware in recent years of our preconceived attitudes to Islam but we also need to reflect on our attitudes to other religious traditions.  I have particularly noted how people have limited and prejudiced attitudes to black Pentecostalism.  This illustrates how attitudes to religion and race can often be intimately related but we also need to be aware of how, for instance, the comic stereotypes of vicars can give us a false picture of the Church of England.

What resources do I have for working with people who have a different faith commitment?

Some of these questions raise important personal issues which I am arguing we need to address if we are to be effective in working with faith communities.  But, nonetheless, we need to focus on our professional work with faith communities rather than our own faith journey!

We should be able to identify what are the resources we have to bring to working with faith communities.  Obviously if we are from a particular faith community we often have an advantage in understanding that community and being accepted by it.  We may also be able to help them connect their faith to the community work they are doing.  But it is not necessary to share a faith in order to work effectively with people and sometimes not being identified with a particular strand within a religion can give us a helpful neutrality.

We should also be able to identify what our problems are.  Maybe we have particular experiences which make it is difficult for us to respect a particular faith tradition.  Or maybe we just feel so ignorant that we lack confidence.  It is important for us to be open with ourselves and, hopefully, with any supervisor concerning what problems we are struggling with.

Knowledge base

What do I need to know?

Some knowledge of the religion we are working with is always going to be necessary and useful but intellectual knowledge can be overdone.  What people actually believe and do can often be very different from what is written in books and pronounced by religious leaders!  Many religious people are more than happy to talk about their religion if you are genuinely interested in it and it is this knowledge that is perhaps more important than what is written in books.

To what extent do I understand the diversity and complexity of the faith communities with which I work?

A common problem with people coming into a faith community is the failure to appreciate the diversity within that community.  In Hackney, for instance, where I work the traditional churches still have a strong presence but it is pentecostal churches who are stronger.  Having representatives from the Church of England and other traditional denominations would not mean you are hearing the Christian voice in Hackney.

Sometimes identifying with one strand of a religion will make it difficult for you to work with others from the same religion.  It can be difficult to hold this tension with understanding rather than an impatient attitude of superiority.

What will be the implications of the lack of knowledge that I have?

You will always lack full knowledge.  This in itself is not a problem people are expecting you to be open, respectful and reliable rather than the font of all knowledge.  In fact they are likely to be suspicious of someone who parades their knowledge of the faith community of which they are not a member.  What is important is to be aware of what your lack of knowledge means for your practical work.  When is it appropriate for me to give my opinion on the issues for a particular community?  And when is it better to confess ignorance?  When do I need to be aware of treading carefully because I don't understand?  When might it be helpful for me to challenge attitudes and practices?  Sometimes lack of knowledge can mean we don't take action when it would be appropriate.

Identifying opportunities and problems

What is important to the people of faith which I am working?

Working with faith communities is not really different from working with other communities.  Their needs and aspirations need to be understood, these need to be articulated and solutions found together.  The process is the same as any other kind of community work.

Where do our values and opinions clash?

What is different is that values and beliefs are more explicit in faith communities and they are held within a clearer structure.  There is therefore less pragmatism and beliefs can at times rule out options which might otherwise seem desirable -- many faith groups, for example, are uncomfortable about receiving lottery funding.

Where will people not be able to go -- how much of a problem for me is this?

It is probably fair to say that faith groups often adopt more socially conservative positions than other faith groups.  This is particularly evident over the issue of homosexuality.  In some groups an overt homophobia is evident although it is also true that there are some groups committed to gay liberation.  Generally faith groups will have a cautious approach to equality issues when they involve gay and lesbian people.  You will have to think carefully about how you address this issue.

Considering the positives

Recent research has criticised the treatment of faith in the training of social workers.  In this context faith only ever addressed as a problem -- e.g. in the negative attitudes to homosexuality mentioned above.  The positive impact of faith in empowering individuals and creating community was never explored. 

What religious faith very obviously does offer in our largely secular society is a different perspective.  It is less likely to be influenced by fashionable policies and more likely just to carry on doing what it believes is the right thing to do.  This is often facilitated by the fact that it has its own internal financial resources and is less dependent on government funding.  Sometimes this means that faith groups will act in ways which seem to you brave, courageous and radical but at other times they will appear reactionary and bigoted.  This is the tension that anyone working with faith communities must face -- it is a tension which not only requires a high level of professional skill but also considerable personal awareness and, if at all possible, a dash of wisdom!

Working with Churches in the East End

a reflection on Social Action for Health seminar on Mental Health and Christian Faith Feb 2010

The process is all based around trust and this is the key skill for anyone working in this field – they must be able to create and build on a trusting relationship with church leaders and church members.  Within this a three stage process can be discerned:

Face to Face Work.  Emails, letters and the written word generally will not be effective.  Even telephone calls are of limited (though important) use.  The first step is to create relationships through face to face meeting.  This enables the worker to enter into churches and establish relationships with church members as well as church leaders.

Once the trusting relationship has been established then the worker is able to Create a Safe Space inside the church.  Perhaps surprisingly these kind of safe spaces are not often created within churches – there is a tendency for churches to expect particular beliefs, language and actions from their members.  An outside worker can create a safe space where people can share their real experiences rather than merely saying what they think they ought to say.  This is particularly so if the experience is in some way liminal e.g. an experience of mental illness.  Nonetheless if it is to be a genuinely safe space it must use the religious language appropriate to the church alongside the language of the experience.

This sharing within a safe space creates Stories.  It is the creation of these stories that is the major outcome of this kind of intervention.  These stories enable people to give meaning to their experience.  They also enable other people to hear and understand, so promoting the creation of community.  These stories can also be collected and published in some manner so that they can challenge and influence policy.

So in summary: trust leads to relationships.  Relationships create the possibility of fashioning safe spaces.  Safe spaces allow the emergence of stories which generate wholeness in the individual, community within the congregation and learning in the wider society.