I was invited to attend a meeting of "third sector" organisations which happened today. The Third Sector refers to voluntary, community and faith organisations, in case you didn't know! We had a really helpful presentation of the new government's flagship policies and some discussion about how they might affect the VCFS organisations.
Of course the major factor will be in funding. Much of which will simply disappear as the collective belt of local government is tightened by central government. But that was going to happen whoever controlled the purse strings. What was interesting was the idea of a Big Society. Two principles should get us thinking.
First the idea of a return to philanthropy. If by that we mean people giving in order to care and support the disadvantaged, maybe all well and good. However, do we really want to turn the clock back to a time when the rich cared for the poor and society didn't? Perhaps I'm being unkind to the idea of a new philanthropy. I'm just not keen on leaving the poor and disadvantaged of our communities in the hands of the wealthy.
The second idea concerns volunteering. If people are going to get involved in their communities we will need to crack the issues and challenges surrounding volunteering. Do people readily volunteer in today's society? In church we rely heavily on volunteers to get everything done. But even in church we never seem to have enough of them. Mostly it seems to be a function of time. Not enough of it to do the things everyone wants to do. People are too tired or too stressed or working too many hours to be able to give much time to volunteer.
If we want to release people in order to be able to volunteer in the community, churches will have to look at what they expect of members and we will need a new imagination of volunteering as a society. I certainly don't believe compulsory volunteering is an answer. I'm not sure how we do this, but I'm also not convinced that the community at large is ready to take on the tasks and responsibilities required in the big new society envisioned by government. We have a lot of work to do.
Maybe churches can lead the way as we release our people to volunteer beyond the church. Instead of pressing more people into action to run more programmes in the church, maybe we should be reducing our programmes in order to free up time to serve our community where it needs it.
I don't know. But it's something we are all, church or non-church, are going to have to come terms with in this brave new world of smaller government.