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Interview: James Laing, director, Allchurches Trust

01 June 2018

‘I love meeting people and helping them to flourish’

I had no grand plan for my career, but I believe God does. I just wanted to be faithful to him and use what talents, resources, and contexts he gave me for good in this world.

I’m convinced that charities and churches can benefit from the rigour and focus of business, while business can benefit from the ethics and outward perspective of charities — whether I was using cutting-edge advertising and marketing techniques in public health in Zambia, or helping multinationals engage with their communities to build their businesses and prevent the spread of HIV in Africa.

Now I’m at Allchurches Trust, using the profits from the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group to benefit communities across the UK.

A couple of days before I took up this post, I attended an international leadership conference where there was a great deal of talk about giving back to society through business. The era of rapacious capitalism is being questioned, and businesses such as Ecclesiastical, who have Christian ethics, at their heart are showing their true mettle.

It’s a charity founded in 1972 and one of the UK’s leading grant-making trusts. Last year, we had the joy of giving £15.6 million to churches, charities, and communities addressing difficult social issues.

Our purpose is to promote the Christian religion, as well as other charitable works such as providing IT equipment to St Basil’s, in Manchester, to help homeless 18- to 25-year-olds get into employment, education, or training; or funding a community and visitor centre in the New Room in Bristol, which is the oldest Methodist building in the world.

We’ve even provided a grant towards the Grade I listed Holy Trinity, Sunderland, which houses the Canny Space cultural centre led by Dave Stewart, of the Eurythmics.

The joy of the Christian life is the journey, the adventure of discovering and fulfilling the potential and identity that God created in us. For me, it resulted in a move from a well-paid City job to seeking to serve and give.

The joy of my role now is being able to give both of my own experience and to give funds and resources to enable our grantees to give more of themselves to their communities. Many of them are so inspiring, such as Ros Holland, who leads the Boaz Trust, who, at the end of a long, stressful week, reopened her office to give a homeless asylum-seeker shelter, a shower, and a hot cup of tea — not just telling her to come back on Monday morning.

I trained as a management consultant for my first full-time job, which was a fantastic introduction to the world of business. Business can also be a force for good, giving people purpose and self-worth, as well as meeting social needs and putting food on the table.

I then worked with an online start-up, NGOs in international development, and, more recently, the Church of Scotland in Jerusalem, and the Council of Lutheran Churches in the UK. This means I can talk the business language I need to at Allchurches Trust, but also understand how churches and charities work.

Until we moved to Jerusalem, I was only dimly aware of Lutherans, and assumed that they were iconoclastic Puritans. How wrong I was! We found ourselves living on a Lutheran campus in East Jerusalem, worshipping in Arabic, Swedish, German, and English as part of a global Communion. I appreciated their rigorous but accessible theology of God’s grace, and our faith in Jesus and the cross, and their enjoyment of fellowship — which Luther brought together in his “table talks” — and their keen sense of social action.

As the child of a diplomat in the Middle East, I picked up some conversational Arabic, and then read Islamic and Middle Eastern studies. The Middle East has a rich, complicated history, and I loved digging into that and finding out why things and people are the way they are, to find the divine spark. Now, home life is more stable, revolving around our children and helping them on their journey.

Everything is political there. Where you buy a pint of milk becomes a political statement when you’re living in East Jerusalem. Knowing the culture really does make the Bible come alive, even the parts which are difficult to relate to, such as some of stories in Judges. What I have to keep reminding myself — and my ten-year-old son — is that the Bible is the story of God’s relationship with humankind, and, though it’s sometimes difficult to square tales of violence, revenge, anger, and human brokenness, with that, the broader story is about how God is continually here, with his creation. Our job is to honour that as best we can. All it takes is for us to turn back to him, and his love is constant, waiting for us.

The Church of Scotland there talks about “geo-piety” — but that doesn’t mean that there should be exclusivity or violence. The Israelites were told to remember how they were nomads, and to welcome the stranger, widow, and orphan as a witness to God. And the forgotten minority of Palestinian Christians are there as a bridge and to provide interlocutors for peace there.

I spent time in Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon, at the same time as I took formative steps in my personal faith. I learned that, while there may be national characteristics, stereotypes are rarely helpful. Also, within a particular linguistic and cultural context, traditions or rules can make sense, even if they may seem odd from the outside; but there are still universal truths about how to live well.

Whether I’m in the Middle East or the East End, I love meeting people and helping them flourish, if I can.

I was brought up in a Christian family; so God was always present, as a sort of family friend. I was led to think more personally and deeply about him when my grandfather died. I was at university, questioning everything, and the student worker at the local church pointed me to Isaiah 40.31 and the sense that God has a purpose for us all. This was a good foundation for my year working at Kids Alive [now Stand by Me], a children’s ministry in Lebanon. It also stood me in good stead later when our prayer triplet prayed: one of us was led to mission in Zimbabwe, another to releasing slaves in Bangalore, and we to Jerusalem.

I made a personal commitment at an Alpha course at a London church that had a strong sense of social justice.

I love family, friends, and fellowship, as God created us relational; walking up a new Munro mountain in Scotland with my father; wild swimming with cousins; or having parties with my friends and their friends.

Singing can take us into a different spiritual place — especially if my children are singing in the choir. The hubbub of people having fun together, of conversation, exchanging heartfelt views and making personal connections.

Waste and injustice make me angry. I do all I can at home to minimise waste, and I’m proud to be supporting Allchurches’ grantees in tackling inequity.

I’ve seen in my own life that, when I think all is lost, [if I ] stop trying to do everything all by myself, reach out to others in their strengths, and depend on God, then wonderful things happen.

I pray most for love — for more people to know God’s love and see it in action in their lives.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Martin Luther — someone who was on the path to being a small-time lawyer in a provincial Prussian backwater, but couldn’t square the loving God he encountered in the Bible with the medieval structures of his time. I spent a lot of time with his writings during last year’s Reformation quincentenary, and I’d like to know him better. He was supposed to be a great wit, and enjoyed his food, beer, and fellowship; so it should be fun.

James Laing was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.allchurches.co.uk

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