Budget cuts and deficits hit the most vulnerable the hardest

Ross Hendry, Chief Executive of Spurgeons Children’s Charity, talks about the impact of funding cuts and how charities and churches can come together to bridge the gap they leave behind.

This summer we saw several stories of Councils in financial trouble and having to make significant spending cuts. Just in the last six weeks, we have heard that Northamptonshire (pictured), where Spurgeons’ central office is based, has a budget deficit of£70 million; while Somerset may have to make 130 jobs redundant in order to balance its books.

These are not the only Councils facing difficulty: just the ones that hit the headlines. The reality is,there seems to be no area or sector of the public services immune to cuts that are biting the most vulnerable thehardest.

In a number of the high-profile cases, there is certainly evidence that multiple factors have contributed to this crisis in local funding. And in relation to children’s services, poor local decisions sometimes compound cuts of 40 per cent or more in central government funding, and a rocketing budget for child protection and care services. The result is that there is little left to fund other essential work.

For the Church and Christian charities, there is a role to mobilise a prophetic voice in a climate like this; and to ‘speak up and out’ on behalf of those who are marginalised and excluded from the pubic square.We do so on the back of lives marked by faith, hope, and love. What does that mean?Well, it means we step up to the mark and act not as groups of individuals but as a body united in Christ’s mission.

We often think of mission as an overseas endeavour, and while we are never called to limit our charity to home, surely we cannot ignore the need on our doorstep either. But how do we do that in an area as messy as local council services and funding?

It needs to start with listening, and knowing when to speak and act. To have eyes open to see those in need in our community. Not to judge without first listening. This is a lesson I am consistently challenged to apply when I go outto meet thefamilies who use our services.

When I visit our family projects in prison I know I have to pray beforehand so I do not judge the fathers by what they have done, but instead by who they want – and have the potential- to be in the future.

Two years ago I met Samson. He was serving a long-term sentence for seriously violent crimes. He was big — scarily big — and hairy, with lots of tattoos. The last guy I would feel comfortable ‘listening’ to. And yet partly hiding behind two mums that work for our project in that prison, Samson told me of the relationship he had developed with his children since being inside.

With his personal relationships healed and transformed he was mentoring other dads to be better parents. His hope and fear was about how hard it would be to be a good father and role model to his children once he was out of prison.

At a similar time I met Mary, a young mum who had been visiting one of our local community services. It had taken our staff over a year of getting to know her before she revealed to them the abuse she was experiencing at home. The abuse had been going on for years, supported by her mum who told her that it was just part of being in a relationship.

Samson and Mary are real people (if not their real names) whose stories are easy to ignore when we are worried about the impact of cuts on our own lives, of our friends, or more deserving people. But I can’t read anywhere in the Bible about Jesus making the distinction of loving some and not others. Everyone is our neighbour and we are to love our enemies. This love involves listening and acting.And listening and acting is an individual and community responsibility.

The danger can be that we do not listen. Yet my experience of church and charity is that we do listen but then choose to act alone.

One of my great frustrations in my role as the chief executive of a children’s charity, full of amazingly skilled expert professionals, is how very well-intentioned churches try to step into the space that requires professional expertise. It leads to the church either doing a well-intentioned but poor job of helping the person in need, or being scared away altogether because it just seems too hard and dangerous.

I am equally frustrated by charities who tell Samson and Mary that they can solve all their problems, when clearly they can never do that. Charities can never provide long-term community or family, and there will always be boundaries to the love they can pour into broken lives.

We are very familiar with describing ‘our’ church congregation as a body with many different parts. The challenge today is for us to see the wider Church as a body to be used by Jesus to minister into broken lives. To be emboldened by our faith so we do notbecome hopeless in the face of cuts but challenged to how we will respond.

Both the Church and Christian charities are already the glue that holds together many communities.Our challenge is to be better stewards of resources and efforts through real partnership locally and nationally. To not just offer an alternative but provide it.

Spurgeons Children’s Charity was established 150 years ago by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, as part of a great outpouring of the Church’s ability to see need and step up to provide a practical response to it.

In many ways we are better equipped to do the same today that we were then. We have wealth that we are called to steward. We have amazing talent. We have the Christian charities with the expertise. We have churches in, or ready to be in, every community across the country.

We also have the Holy Spirit to give us courage and to move us. And it is for this reason that we should have the humility in Jesus to come together as a confessional movement, not as individual organisations, denominations, churches or ‘brands’, but as gospel partners.

Only when churches understand why they need charities like Spurgeons, and for charities to understand why we need the church, will we step effectively into broken lives and step into the space being left by a State.