“As people of faith in the United States, we experience vast differences in what we believe and how we practice those beliefs; however, I am convinced that what we can agree on is that there are too many children in this country who live in poverty, and one of the ways to right that is through learning, growth and achievement.”
Dr Irvin Scott, Founder and Director of the Leadership Institute for Faith and Education
It was a great privilege to attend the inaugural convening of the Leadership Institute for Faith and Education (LIFE) at Harvard Graduate School of Education together with Dr Barbara McDade from Stranmillis University College and Fr Patrick White, Director of Youthlink NI. The work of the national inter–church structures – the Irish Council of Churches and the Irish Inter–Church Meeting – has a strong focus on promoting the common good through common Christian witness and collaboration between our member churches. The need to tackle educational disadvantage, across the island of Ireland, has been identified as a priority area of concern in this work. The opportunity to learn from leading experts in this field, from across the faith sector and beyond, about the challenges, opportunities and best practice emerging in the US context was extremely valuable.
As Dr Irvin Scott, Founder and Director of LIFE, explained at the opening of the event, a core objective of the Institute is to harness the potential impact that faith communities can have with the communities that struggle the most with educational achievement. The key to achieving this is to intersect more strategically with key actors and stakeholders within the education sector. He invited participants to reflect on how faith communities and education communities might create an environment which enables them to exchange the social and educational capital they both possess.
The US context is undoubtedly very different in terms of the role and influence of faith communities in the education sector, with a strong emphasis on the separation of Church and State, but there were many common concerns and challenges. As the role of faith communities in education is subject to mounting and multiple pressures in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland an exchange with US–based experts is particularly valuable.
With sessions on the community–building work of the faith sector, advocacy, partnership working, family and community engagement and collective impact, the learning opportunities extended far beyond our work on educational disadvantage. Some of the main themes arising from the discussion are summarised below.
We need to be confident about what we bring to the equation: Religious belief plays an important role in shaping personal and community identity. It can provide answers to questions that are not addressed in the secular curriculum. Faith communities often have a trusted leadership role and can use that convening authority to bring people together.
Trust is an essential foundation for partnership: Building trust requires visible action – people need to see you active in the community to know who you are. It requires consistency – they need to know that you will deliver on your promises and won’t abandon vulnerable people, compounding the harm they have already suffered. Clear boundaries are vital: partners need to know you won’t overstep or exploit the access you have been granted for purposes other than those that were agreed.
The right to challenge needs to be earned: People will not be receptive to challenge from anyone who has not journeyed alongside them, who appears disconnected from their struggle and has not demonstrated commitment.
We need to achieve the highest professional standards in all areas: In order to protect both those we wish to support and the volunteers who are offering their service we need to ensure best practice in terms of training, safeguarding, vetting and record–keeping. This includes training to equip people to respect cultural diversity and build relationships across cultural boundaries. We also need to think about data–gathering, again ensuring the highest professional standards, so that we can demonstrate both the impact of our work and the evidence–base for our advocacy.
Take time to reflect on the bigger picture: There is a risk that faith communities can be so focussed on addressing immediate needs – like providing supplies to children in schools that are struggling – that they don’t stop to reflect on whether there might be something they could do that would have more long–term impact i.e. why can’t this school afford adequate supplies for its pupils? What are the long–term policy decisions that we could influence to bring about positive change?
The work of justice can be political and polarising: If we are advocating a fairer funding model for schools, for example, this is likely to involve re–allocation of funds away from a group that has previously had privileged access to funding. In a church context this can be divisive and met with resistance. It can take courage to risk unsettling some relationships as we seek to stand up for those on the margins.
Love is central to true leadership: Talk of love may appear to be associated more with ‘soft’ rather than ‘strong’ leadership, and yet when we think of the examples of truly great leaders what comes to mind are those who devoted themselves to their community. The kind of connection that allows people to share their vulnerabilities and insecurities as a leader, so that others will open up to them, and share power in order that everyone can build each other up, is an expression of love. Faith communities need to be more vocal in articulating the role of love in leadership.
At the beginning of the event Dr David Ireland from Christ Church NJ reminded us that “the shadow of religion in its community should be one of safety”. Across the island of Ireland our member churches and inter–church groups seek to provide a place of safety and support for those who are struggling. Sharing good practice is essential to sustain and improve that work. I am very grateful to Dr Scott and all at LIFE for the opportunity to be part of this important event.
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