Frontlines / Christians at Work: The Council Planning Manager

in this edition of Frontlines, Gavin Matthews spoke to Steve Matthews (no relation!) who works for Sefton Council in the North of England. Local government might appear to be a place which is hostile to Christian witness, but the workplace Christian group there has many opportunities, as Steve explains.

Solas: Tell us a little about your job? What are your roles and responsibilities?

SM: I am Planning Manager within the Planning Department at Sefton Council. I manage a number of teams providing different aspects of the planning service. I co-ordinate reporting the more contentious planning applications to the monthly meetings of Planning Committee.

Solas: What’s the best part of your job?

SM: I love trying to get the best out of people, helping them to do their jobs to the best of their ability. I often have to deal with complains about our service – when things go wrong or people feel aggrieved by planning decisions. It is a privilege to try to respond positively to these issues and to improve our service where we need to. I really enjoy the working relationship with Councillors.

Solas: What are some of the challenges that you face at work – and how does your faith in Christ help you to navigate those?

SM: Managing people is not straightforward and it can be difficult to be even-handed in my dealings with the team. I have been challenged that my work is actually part of my worship so I know that God is intensely interested in all I do and that it matters to him. So I bring each day to him and ask him to guide me through it.

Solas: Does being a Christian make a difference to the way you approach work?

SM: Yes – no problem is insurmountable with God’s help. And if things go well it is good to remember that it is God who gives success. I trust God to help me order my priorities, to know how to handle problems most effectively, and strategies for relating to individual people. I have found it’s important to praise colleagues when they do well, and to admit it quickly when I get things wrong.

Solas: Do people you work with know that you are a Christian? How do they react to that?

SM: My colleagues know I am a Christian. We have a white board on which we write when we are out of the office. When I was working in the office, I would jot down on the board when I was at the Christian group meeting on Thursday lunchtimes. Colleagues with whom I have never had an opportunity to talk about my faith would say ‘I know you’ve got your group meeting coming up now – I’ll speak to you when you get back’.  I have put up a poster about our Christian group on the office notice board and publicity about Alpha.

Solas: Have you ever had opportunities to share your faith with people you know through work? What things have helped you to have good conversations about faith? Did you deliberately set about to have these conversations, or did they occur naturally?

SM: Yes, in small ways, offering to pray for people in times of crisis. This has been natural as people know I am a Christian. Our Christian workplace group was invited to put up a display about Easter in the foyer of our Council offices. I had the opportunity to invite some of my colleagues passing through the foyer to write a thought or prayer related to an Easter theme (e.g. suffering, injustice) and to attach it to the display. I am praying that as I try to model the Christian faith at work I will get more opportunities to speak to people about it personally.

Solas: How do people react when you talk about your faith in Jesus? Interested? Angry? Apathetic? Do they ever raise objections…. What were they and how did you respond?

SM: Colleagues are often apathetic … most have said ‘No’ to Alpha when we ran it a few years ago, though one or two have come along. I am disappointed that I haven’t had that many in-depth conversations with people about faith, though hugely encouraged when one colleague decided to come to Alpha a few years back when I was sure he wouldn’t be interested! When we offered to pray for our senior management team, one of them replied with specific prayer requests and wrote about how delighted he was to have this support from the workplace Christian group in the staff bulletin that goes to everyone we work with.

Solas: Why do you want to talk to colleagues and friends about Jesus?

SM: Jesus offers forgiveness from the past, purpose in the present and a hope for the future. This is such good news for everyone – why wouldn’t we want others to know? This is especially so during Covid-19 when people may be anxious and fearful, and are more likely to be open to thinking about all that is going on around them and why. The challenge is finding ways to open up conversations with colleagues. We are planning to run an online Alpha in Spring 2021 to give people an opportunity to find out about the Christian faith.

Solas: What advice would you give a young Christian entering your field of work who wants to be faithful to Christ there?

SM: Take it step by step – God will open doors for you. Be yourself, be natural. Look for ways to bless your colleagues – be genuinely interested in them and their families and how they are doing in their work. Making a coffee for someone when they’re under pressure or leaving chocolate at their desk if they’re having a bad day (in the days we worked in an office!) goes a long way. In these days when tolerance is such a prized virtue, people are very open to the idea of faith even if they might think it is just your thing.
I would encourage young Christians to look out for other Christians at work and to try to join a Christian group or start one. There are tremendous opportunities to influence an organisation when you meet and pray with other Christians. Transform Work UK will help to support you in this. Go for it, you have nothing to lose!

Solas: Thanks for chatting to us Steve!