Learning, Listening and Leading

Community Organising, The Centre for Theology & Community, Urban Leadership School l

Our Director of Leadership Training, Miriam Brittenden, reflects at the end of our twelve-month programme of lay leadership training

Over twelve months, 17 extraordinary lay leaders from seven churches in East London participated in our last Olive Wagstaff programme. As it came to an end, I found myself thanking God for the hopeful signs of sure and steady growth that we witnessed over the year.

The Olive Wagstaff Programme, named after a member of a congregation in the East End who was committed to prayer, worship and social justice and part of CTC’s Urban Leadership School, is a training programme for lay people in the tools of community organising, rooted in theological reflection and prayer. Since 2020, we have trained over 50 lay leaders from eight churches and a range of backgrounds. 

Listening to God, ourselves and one another, and the stories we have to share,  is at the core of our programme. One of the primary ways we do this is through the relational meeting, or the 1-2-1 conversation,  an intentional, mutual conversation which enables us to share of ourselves and see one another, our hopes, dreams, fears and gifts, as God sees us. And it is at the foundation of how we build the relational power in our communities necessary to make change. 

Leaders from the English Martyrs Catholic church intentionally listened to young people in the parish, seeking to understand their experience – their needs, hopes, aspirations and passions. Out of that listening has come a regular youth group, which is co-created and led by young people themselves. Participants from both St Andrew’s Stamford Hill, and in the latest cohort, Trinity Saints in Haggerston  have  been listening to their community about how to use the church space outside of Sundays.  Leaders from St Barnabas in Walthamstow have been listening to members of the community who use their Warm Space, in particular a group of families who are asylum seekers staying in a nearby hotel. Out of this listening they have been able to identify a need for spaces to cook proper meals from their home countries  and are now collaborating on an initiative to provide space for families to cook together  in the church hall.

In the second term, we examined the theme of power. We explored examples of both dominant and relational power in the bible, and Jesus’ use of power – and reflected on where it lies in our own churches and communities. Who has power? Who doesn’t? Who do we overlook? John from Holy Trinity Church, Leytonstone,  who has been part of a campaign to get lighting in the local park – developed the relational power of his campaign team,  and strategically built relationships with those in positions of power in his local area.

We also examined what it means to be a ‘relational’ leader, and how some of the most effective leaders in the bible and indeed in history, were not necessarily loud and charismatic, but were curious, passionate and interested in the development of others, from Barnabas the great encourager, to Ella Baker – the often unsung hero or the US Civil Rights movement, who developed and coached countless civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King.

Shortly before the final term of the first programme began we heard the tragic news that Fr Marco Lopes had passed away unexpectedly, leaving his congregation of St Martin of Tours, Plaistow, including three participants on the Wagstaff course, shocked and devastated.

In this context, as we explored the cycle of prayer and community organising,  we reflected together on the theme of lament and its role in the discernment that precedes action.

Our instinct can be to rush towards action when we encounter tragedy or injustice, but our Christian faith prompts us to bring everything in prayer before the Lord, not only in thanksgiving but sometimes in lamentation and grief. Psalm 13 asks “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”

In Isaiah 43:19 we read that God is ‘doing a new thing’ even in the ‘wilderness and wasteland’, and it is for us, as part of our collective discernment as churches in places of pain and sorrow as well as laughter – to ‘perceive’ the signs of the new creation that are before us – even when they are difficult to see.

The theologian Emmanuel Katongole writes that the practice of lament is a ‘political practice’ revolving around four tasks of presence – staying, gathering community, mobilising resources and committing to the effort of running and sustaining an institution.

I have seen this ‘political’ practice of lament, and hope (for hope, as Clifton Black writes, ‘is the spine of lament’) in the determination of the participants from St Martin’s to reach out to, connect and listen to their congregation at this time through 1:1s, discerning a way to share in their collective story: to lament together, journey alongside one another and to imagine and build a future for the church.

Despite almost everyone expressing confidence in the ability to build relationships and make change in their churches and communities,many participants were still hesitant in the final evaluation to describe themselves as leaders. And yet, they are each uniquely remarkable, relational, often unsung leaders in their parishes – doing the slow, patient, kingdom-work of building relationships, running activities, leading worship, acting for justice….sewing seeds that will in time bear much fruit.
The Olive Wagstaff Programmes is a 13 week lay leadership course that runs each year. We are currently piloting a shorter “Listen and Lead” course to enable a wider group of leaders to have a “taster training”

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