Durham County Council is the large unitary local authority covering the diverse and vast geographical area of County Durham. The Council is keen to work with local faith communities, seeing them as key partners and critical friends, and recognising their unique and pivotal role in local communities and their contribution to a socially just and inclusive society.
The Council has 14 Area Action Partnerships; local boards consisting of members of the public, elected members, statutory agencies and business and voluntary organisations who come together to identify local priorities and how to tackle them, and can allocate funding to local organisations. As a member of one of the local boards, it was apparent that there was a lack of knowledge about the AAPs by local faith groups, and also a lack of knowledge about what local churches were doing.
We raised the question of how we could celebrate and support the good work that faith communities were doing, engage them more in the local board decisions and build better communication and sharing of information. Working in partnership with the Council, who provided funding, we began to trial a series of workshop events bringing people together.
We began in 2015, and events have taken a similar pattern, bringing people together to talk about their local area, to celebrate what was already being done and to look at how churches and other partners could work better together. We involved local Churches Together groups or key church leaders in the planning stages in order to get the best time and place to host the event and to ensure everyone was invited. Invites were sent to every worshipping community in the Partnership Area, asking them to send representatives willing to share stories about their activities and the needs of their local community. Local elected members were also invited, along with representatives from other key voluntary sector organisations.
The format was simple; refreshments, an introduction from a local councillor, an explanation of the AAP, input from the faith communities about what they were doing and then round table conversations about what wellbeing might mean for their community, what might be the issues and barriers to wellbeing, and what role faith and the faith community have in supporting a sense of community wellbeing.
Over the last four years we have held workshop events in 12 areas, and they have highlighted so much good work being done. Local churches are often central to bringing people together at lunch clubs, toddler groups, children’s activities, visiting the sick and the elderly, providing foodbanks, debt advice and so much more.
The workshops have helped build relationships, encouraging lively conversation about local communities and the issues facing them. We have seen new projects emerging from the discussions, including lunch clubs, film clubs, dementia-friendly activities, holiday clubs and various interest groups.
Churches have been able to access start-up funding for projects and funding for ongoing projects, as well as funds for adapting buildings. Through the partnership groups have also been able to access support, additional volunteers and better advertising, as well as sharing of information. And most importantly relationships have been improved, both among churches and between churches and other partners.
Rev Joanne Thorns is Regional Officer for North East Churches Acting Together.