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Interview: Mark Sheard, CEO, World Vision UK

26 November 2021

‘I have a real passion to help those who have been denied the opportunities God created them for’

World Vision

Bob Pierce, who was a Christian minister, decided to help an orphan that he met. This led to him founding World Vision, over 70 years ago, to help children of all faiths. It’s the world’s largest children’s charity, working across almost 100 countries, in some of the most dangerous places in the world.

Our model of child sponsorship has developed from its rather paternalistic beginnings. We now take sponsors’ offers to a community and allow the children to choose their sponsor, which transforms the sponsor’s relationship from power to service, and the impact is astonishing. The relationship continues traditionally with exchanges of letters and birthday cards, and we channel the sponsorship money to the individual child through programmes like providing microloans to mothers, and health programmes (including Covid issues at the moment).

Our field offices connect us with governments, other NGOs and, increasingly, local community-development groups, asking what is needed, and co-ordinating with other work.

We’ve had a whole range of programmes in Afghanistan for over 20 years, and our director there — a woman — made a powerful statement in August when the government fell. We’re staying. It hasn’t been easy, and there are logistical challenges like the banking system not functioning, making it difficult to buy things or pay staff, but we have stayed. We’ve been working in more and more fragile contexts like Syria, Lebanon, and with the refugee crisis in Jordan since 2011. In the Horn of Africa, South Sudan — wherever you find a refugee, you’ll find someone in one of our orange polo shirts caring for them.

Isata was 12, from rural Sierra Leone. Isata’s mother borrowed money for school fees, but Isata went to school tired from long walks every day to collect water, and always hungry, as the family couldn’t afford enough food. Frequent diarrhoea from dirty water, and malaria, were wearing the family down. We installed a borehole and taps. Isata’s mother was helped to start a business, and she can now buy better food and support Isata’s education. The frequent illnesses are a thing of the past.

Anuska, from Vaishali, in India, was six when her father died. Anuska and her sisters had to leave school and join their mother working as farm labourers. When we gave her mother a cow, the milk improved their diet and was an additional source of income. Soon, they were able to buy another cow, and Anuska and her sisters have returned to school.

I have a real passion to help those who have been denied the opportunities God created them for; so it’s thrilling to lead World Vision now, after serving on the board for nine years.

Bob Pierce prayed: “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” If you live in London, you can’t be insulated from the poor. I find it hard to walk past a guy sleeping in a doorway. My mother worked with deprived children in Barking; St John’s has a very active work among the homeless. The first time I was asked to preach, I chose to preach on Amos’s God of justice. I’m privileged to do something to turn that into action.

I bring commercial skills from building an advertising and marketing agency, and some experience of international development through volunteering with a Ugandan NGO. I can harness talent to build teams that make a real difference.

I sold my business to a multinational group, and worked for them for 18 months; but I never wanted to pursue a career in a big corporate. We had major clients — Coca-Cola, NatWest, Renault — but felt I knew all my team and that was really important to me. But of course, World Vision is a global business.

Ephesians 4 talks about equipping people for service. I was invited to join the Archbishops’ Council in 2017, to support the Council’s engagement with mission and evangelism. We’re a trustee body, and trustees provide foresight, insight, and oversight, and I also see my role to be a critical friend. I was asked to chair the Mission and Public Affairs Council, and then co-chair the evangelism and discipleship steering group.

The group counsels the National Church Institutions [the Archbishops’ Council; Bishopthorpe Palace; the Church Commissioners; the Church of England Central Services (HR, Finance & Resources, IT, Legal, Communications, Record Centre); The Church of England Pensions Board; Lambeth Palace; and the National Society] on the shaping of direction and resources that they provide to dioceses and parishes.

It’s important that the Church of England brings the gospel into the public square, or, if you prefer, the “Westminster bubble”. We have a unique opportunity to contribute to the formation of government policy, through briefing bishops in the House of Lords about issues like gambling, the Universal Credit cut, welcoming refugees, medical ethics, and freedom of religion and belief.

We also need to translate the Archbishops’ Council’s work into valued resources for mission, evangelism, and discipleship for dioceses, parishes, and individuals — like the Church of England’s digital work and their forthcoming Christmas campaign.

The aim is to maximise Christmas’s “occasional visit opportunity” — but now, also, with our experience from Covid, to build that into a relationship of spiritual nourishment over the 12 days of Christmas. The pandemic taught us that we can engage with people even when the church building is shut. People have time to reflect at Christmas; so how can we encourage them to explore faith? How can they find God in the New Year? We’re offering lay people and clergy posters, banners, invitation cards, a book of reflections, and a daily email that they can use to reach their community.

I’m the eldest of four children who grew up in a little village in rural Essex, in a happy stable, churchgoing, close family. The village gave me a lifelong interest in Thames sailing barges, cricket, and following West Ham United.

Now I’m in rural Suffolk with my wife, my elder son, and two dogs. Home life’s changed so much over the last two years. I spend a lot of time in virtual meetings, and certainly spent more time in my garden, which has been a real blessing.

I’ve always known that God’s been there, and, eventually, I realised I could have a personal relationship with him. As a slightly rebellious teenager at a single-sex school, I found our local Crusader class a very attractive alternative to church. It had a great football team, and girls, but it also presented me with the gospel week by week. Following an episode of teenage heartbreak, I turned in desperation to God, and prayed a prayer of commitment.

I joined the University Christian Union, and then St John’s, West Ealing, where I’ve worshipped for 40 years. Over the years, good friends have often pointed me back towards God when I’ve gone wandering. Like most people, I’ve had mountain-top experiences, valley experiences, and deserts, and learnt that in all those places God can still be found.

I’d love to travel a little bit more. I’d also like to grow old gracefully.

Sadly, so many things make me angry: deceit, pomposity, and the abuse of power. And people stacking dishwashers badly irritates me intensely.

Really simple things make me happy. One is mowing the lawn. You can look back with satisfaction over a job well done.

Growing up, I had wood pigeons outside my bedroom window, and it was a very soothing sound. Now, we hear an owl regularly at night, and squawking seagulls remind me of happy seaside holidays.

Do I have hope for the future? Romans 8 says that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that in all this we are more than conquerors. How can you not have hope when those things are true? And I work with so many people who bring hope into the darkest places.

I pray the Lord’s Prayer every day: “Thy Kingdom come.”

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Lois, as she’s the companion that God’s given me for 35 years. I’m certainly not tired of her friendship and her ability to point me to God. And she also makes me laugh — often at myself.

Mark Sheard was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.



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