A few months ago I helped interview an outstanding young man for his role convening and supporting the Church of England Learning Community. Church House had had trouble filling the role as whenever an interested applicant googled the job they found reams of articles denouncing the ‘talent pool’ ‘management training’ ‘Bishop fast-track’ ‘corporate sell-out’ that the learning community was perceived to be after the Green Report.
The wealth of critical insights from esteemed figures like Martyn Percy and David Runcorn, have been embraced by the excellent team organising the programme and the results have been quite spectacular. Ben and his colleagues have undoubtedly benefited from these critiques and the emerging programme is life giving, life enhancing and already shaping the church of today as well as tomorrow.
Contrary to the sense that the learning community would simply be a managerial development exercise designed to produce generic episcopal replicas of former oil executives, the programme so far has been far ranging and moderated with great skill. Modules vary from theological reflection (Prof David Ford is booked), to sociological critique, personal development, action learning, and yes some very helpful managerial insight from a top coach (Jim McNeish). The community have engaged with a range of leading church figures (lay and ordained), from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the principal of Mirfield, a very thought provoking dean of women’s ministry, church commissioners, a sociologist and the inspirational figure of Mark Russell who has been CEO of Church Army since his early thirties.
The community consists of priests in various stages of ministry, aged mid/late 30s to early 60s (the priest in her early 60s seems one of the most energetic priests in the country and probably with a huge ministry still to work out). Some are archdeacons, some theological educators, some in sector ministry, some in multi-parish benefices, some in rural ministry, some in inner-city, some in larger church contexts. All dioceses have now put forward candidates for the community and after specific encouragement to those putting forward candidates the second year is more diverse than the first, and with slightly younger candidates.
The community is not a fast-track to somewhere else – not least as there are 50+ members a year in a national church where most roles are focused on parish ministry -where most leadership and fruitful ministry is carried out. Instead the course does what all good discipleship courses should – equips you for where you are now, while enabling the possibility that you might be better equipped for the future as a result of what you are doing now.
The course is not perfect. Many of the participants have a deep sense of ‘why me’, knowing that there are scores of people who might equally benefit from the opportunity we are enjoying. But the course should have (and I believe is having) a ripple effect on scores, hundreds and even thousands of other leaders lay and ordained because these people were invested in for the sake of the many. I’ve used things I have learnt for seminar leading, investing in staff and lay leaders more intentionally, handling our committees better as we go through massive changes in Christ Church W4, and gaining a broader understanding, awareness of and synergy with church contexts outside the London bubble (including reconnecting with my experiences in the Lichfield Diocese where I was privileged to be a Synod rep). After 360 reviews, feedback, psychological profiling, peer mentoring, and the chance to rub shoulders with some excellent and inspiring people, I feel like a safer, better and more equipped leader just 15 months or so into the programme.
But, not knowing how many of the (many) learning community members who are on synod will feel able / want to speak up in the debate, please can I make an appeal to synod: For the sake of the wonderful staff running this programme whatever reservations you may have please pause to say a little thank you to the team in Church House and all the contributors to the sessions and learning. It’s already bearing significant fruit.
Worth a read: Sam Wells on Renewal and Reform