Working in the disability and mental health sectors I have been a part of research and implementation for some time that focusses on person-centred thinking and how that impacts the way in which non-government organisations provide services. Over time the trend has been for organisations to move towards a consumer-based approach to service provision. This has involved setting up programmes so that when a person approaches the organisation seeking support they would be directed to the range of services or programmes that were provided by that organisation. However, over time, there has been a realisation that this is not appropriate, and it is more appropriate to treat the individual as a unique human being and to attempt to offer services in a more person-centred and individualistic way. The problem is that with low funding levels, increased compliance issues and tighter risk management practices, it is often unrealistic to offer a truly person-centred service. As a result many organisations would find it unrealistic to be person-centred even though their mission statement may indicate that preference. The move towards person-centred thinking is now seen as trendy in some government circles, but the ability of organisations to be truly person-centred is a challenge that is in most cases not fully achievable.
It is fascinating to me that at the same time that I am reflecting on this process in my work with the disability and mental health sectors, I am also going through a process of reflecting on changes within churches and am finding that there is a strong correlation. Over time churches have moved towards a consumer approach in order to become more efficient in what they do, and as part of the global trend towards a market-driven economy. Churches in general have moved towards an approach where there is a set of programmes which would include a packaged Sunday morning services, a series of programmes for children and youth, and some small groups. This is efficient because it allows for a small professional team to manage a programme that tends to meet the needs of the majority of people with whom they have contact. This is effectively market-driven because it is aimed at finding the most efficient way of providing a service to meet the needs of the majority of immediate consumers. Sometimes a church will identify another market and introduce some additional programmes with a view to attracting people from that particular market.
The problem faced by both non-government organisations and churches is that we have too often lost sight of the individual needs of our consumers in the interests of maintaining a product, constantly upgrading that product, and identifying ways to promote the product. Many churches have learnt from the commercial world clever ways of making it look like they are person-centred, however, the product, which includes the church as an organisation is still the primary focus of the church’s service provision.
I have been reflecting in recent times on person-centred planning techniques in working with people in the disability and mental health fields. This may involve helping a person to establish a network of friends and neighbours who will help them to identify and achieve their life goals. It is about recognising that a person’s disability or symptoms do not have to come in the way of a person still having aspirations and achieving those aspirations to a degree that ensures they can have a good life. There are many examples of people with severe disabilities who have dreamt of skydiving, for instance, and through the efforts of friends and others who have believed in them, have made that dream possible.
When a person starts attending a church, how often is that person given the opportunity to work towards their dream? How often do we provide the opportunity for a person to meet with a small group and allow that person to express their dream about their spiritual aspirations, their missional goals, their ideas about what God may be saying to them concerning their lives and relationships. Often when we start to talk about spiritual gifts our organisational thinking limits us to trying to find a job for that person to do, and when the jobs run out we simply accept that the person either does not fit in the church, or that they need to be more committed and get involved in other ways. When we do put people in a small group the goal is to fill their mind with information about the Bible or about the church organisation and their personal vision is made to fit into a corporate vision.
I wonder if we have stifled people’s individuality to the point that they think they have nothing to offer Christ except what the organisation of the church says they can contribute, but we have done it in the name of being Christ-centred. I am also concerned that in a risk-averse society we have turned away from faith because of the risks associated with that and have instead put our trust in that which is safe and secure. But that's a subject for another day...