Learning with the public sector – what does it mean to be a 21st century public servant

Since I have felt called to the diaconate I have become a bit of a servant-geek. (Possibly because the word deacon comes from the Greek word Diakonia which is often translated as servant.) So when I heard today that the Birmingham University and Birmingham City Council where thinking about the values and attributes of a 21st Century Public servant my geeky heart just skipped a beat.

Here is a visual representation of the characteristics identified in the report:

main themeLooking at this postcard the overlaps were immediately obvious. Weaving and Storytelling are recognised as two key roles of a deacon as both lead to the linking, connecting and bridging which is central to the work of a deacon. Networking too – enabling non heirarchical groups of connected people – is another metaphor for diaconal ministry as is navigator – the deacon at the doorway and on boundaries helping people across thresholds and into new places.

The summary of the report  outlining 10 characteristics of a deacon offers more parallels and challenges the church to hold on to some of what we have learnt over centuries while challenging more negative habits we have picked up on the way.

Here are the characteristics taken from the report about each role and compared with my understanding the role of a deacon in the 21st Century:

“1….is a municipal entrepreneur, undertaking a wide range of roles“. This seems to be about flexibility and also operating on minimum budgets. Both of these are essential for a deacon in the church and almost of the essence of the role. As the ministry of a deacon is being redefined from being about one to one pastoral care and service to the poor to having a wider and prophetic ministry, a kind of ambassador for God, the need to switch roles and modes is an essential part of the job. Improvising, responding creatively to circumstance, making the most creatively of given resources – these seem to me to be essential for a deacon.

“2….engages with citizens in a way that expresses their shared humanity and pooled expertise”. This is a challenge for us in a church which draws  clear boundaries between lay and ordained. I think the deacon has a special role to play in challenging this separation of clergy and people, expert and non-expert,  by being neither a priest or a lay person. Pooled expertise, skilled and articulate lay people, clergy that share their humanity – these are definitely the direction of travel for the Church in the current context. We see churches developing ministry teams, certificates for lay people to study theology, more lay engagement in services and new roles for people who are not ordained such as mission apprentices in Birmingham. In a favourite quote of mine, Dr Rowan Williams says, ‘There is no-one inside or outside the Church who cannot help us read our Bible with more understanding.” Lay or ordained we are all disciples (learners), church-goers or devout atheist we are all made in the image of God and have much to learn from one another.

“3….is recruited and rewarded for generic skills as well as technical expertise.”  One interviewee admits that engaging with citizens is a newish skill for people who work in local authorities. Before we laugh I wonder how many people work for the Church and yet find relationship building in their communities daunting. Deacons are called to relationship inside and outside the Church. According to the Church of England’s guidelines for those selecting someone wanting to train as a deacon has to show they have to show:
• evidence of ability to relate to people of different ages and social contexts
• an instinctive ability to get alongside people and speak their language
• pastoral skills that point to an ability to care for others appropriately.

“4…..builds a career which is fluid across sectors and services”. Many deacons will have to work to get paid. Those paid by the church could find themselves in any number of roles at any given time. The same document for selectors and vocations adviser says the deacon needs to be happy behind the scenes oiling the wheels and in the public eye leading a service, they need to be pastoral enough to get alongside lonely and vulnerable people while being able to challenge injustice and oppression and they have to be a servant without being a doormat and a leader that allows others to lead. Sounds pretty fluid to me.

“5….combines an ethos of publicness with an understanding of commerciality“. Commerciality is probably useful for a church leader who needs to ensure bills are paid, buildings maintained and vital staff get their wages but I am not sure that’s our big tension.  I think the balance for the deacon is the balance between church and world or tradition and innovation. Most deacons see themselves at the doorway. The vocations document places deacons in three places: the church, the world and the boundaries. Balancing the needs of those already in church with the needs of those who might one day come is an inevitable tension of diaconal or any outward-facing ministry. Any institution exerts a pressure – for a local authority it is commerciality, for a church it can be financial, it can be the weight of tradition, it can be theological or it can be maximising scarce resources. Which takes us on to…

“6…..is rethinking public services to enable them to survive an era of perma-austerity“. Cuts that aren’t going to go away. We’re probably all in the same boat.

“7….needs organisations which are fluid and supportive rather than silo-ed and controlling“. One interviewee said: ‘We are trying to be 21st Century public servants in 19th Century organisations.’ Even an organisation as small as a parish church can have silos – clergy, church councils, choirs, organists, Sunday-school teachers, people on the coffee rota, welcomers etc etc. They don’t all get on all of the time. I think it would be much easier to minister as a deacon in a church where these people were enabled to work together and is part of the ministry to enable these people to work together.

“8….rejects heroic leadership in favour of distributed and collaborative models of leading. Hero leaders aren’t the answer. Rather than emphasising the charisma and control of an individual, new approaches focus on leadership as dispersed throughout the organisation.” This probably my favourite. And this is what the Vocations document says about leadership :

• the ability and willingness to work in a team
• leadership gifts that reflect a willingness to be a leader who assists rather than always takes the lead, and does not unsettle or unseat others who have either long term or short term responsibilities
• a person who is capable of being a public representative person for the church, who is competent and comfortable in the public eye, whether in liturgy or the life of the world
• organisational gifts that equip and free others to do their work well

So not heroic but hopefully enabling.

“9….is rooted in a locality which frames a sense of loyalty and identity” One interviewee suggested that people above a certain pay grade should have to live locally as part of their contract. That has been our practice for some time and I think its an important principle. It is important for us that our ministry in ‘incarnational’ – that we inhabit fully our place of ministry. But how rooted are we as paid clergy? We know we can’t commit to stay for ever as individuals. That is why it is so important that we are not lone ranger heroes. Because the church is not its paid workers – it’s the whole body of people and that body will change its membership but it is there for the long haul.

Today I was talking about working in communities with public sector workers  several of whom had been in post a matter of days or weeks. They were wondering why their services were not connecting with communities. And listening to them I was suddenly grateful for the symbolism of our churches whose grand, solid buildings and soaring spires suggest (among other things) deep foundations and a rooted commitment to a neighbourhood.

“10….reflects on practice and learns from that of others” This is what the Bishop says on the day I am ordained: “Deacons are to seek nourishment from the Scriptures; they are to study them with God’s people that the whole Church may be equipped to live out the gospel in the world. They are to be faithful in prayer, expectant and watchful for the signs of God’s presence, as he reveals his kingdom among us.” If we can’t learn together and from each other our ministry will be seriously impoverished.

So what could the local authorities learn from organisations that have been training deacons or servants for generations:

  • We think deacons are formed as well as trained and taught. What values are necessary to shape the characteristics and attitudes required?
  • Deacons often weave people together as well as resources – how can people learn to be connectors?
  • So far, for me, friendship has been a key motif of my ministry and I am not expecting that to change. Jesus says we are his friends rather than his servants. Could public servants be friends with their neighbours and communities and catalysts for friendships? I believe friendships are at the heart of flourishing communities. We don’t ignore the needs of our friends and we don’t back systems that oppress them.
  • Deacons have a role at the table (the altar) in a Church service. Sharing food together leads to conversation and shared lives – that’s another way to build strong communities. How could hospitable living be a part of the life of a public servant?

Perhaps we could begin to overlap as we train and form servants fit to serve people and God in the 21st Century. Perhaps we could encourage each other not to crave slick institutions, heroic leaders and glossy programmes and perhaps we could celebrate together the invisible work of humble, rooted, committed people who might not share the same faith but most definitely share values and good practice.

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