Looking Back, Looking Forward, Stepping Down, Moving On….

Dr Martin J Hodson

Happy New Year! The New Year is always a time for taking stock of things, and this will be my attempt to do that from my personal angle within JRI. What I write is not “official” JRI policy, but here goes!

JRI was founded in 1998, and will reach its 25th anniversary next year in 2023. I began working for JRI in 2009, and that is a little over half of the time we have been running as an organisation. Last summer I told the JRI Board that I wished to step down from the paid staff at the end of June 2022, and so I am now in my last six months of working for JRI! I will return to the reasons for this move, and my future plans, but first let us look back a bit.

When I reached my 10th anniversary of working for JRI I wrote a blog then (May 2019), considering the first ten years, and I don’t want to reiterate all that here. But do read that blog as it sets the context for what follows. The truth is that even since May 2019 things have changed a lot, and the demands on JRI have increased in a major way. What has happened? Well, for sure, there has been a massive increase in interest in the environment within the church in the UK, and that is reflected in some other countries as well. And COP26 will only increase that interest.

One obvious sign of that growth is the Eco Church award scheme administered by A Rocha UK. As of December 2021 over 4,500 churches had registered for the scheme, and many had gained awards. The success of Eco Church has tended to drive a whole lot of other activity. So requests for speakers in all kinds of contexts have markedly increased. We do not have many requests coming directly into the JRI Office, but our best-known speakers, Richard Clarkson, Dave Gregory, my wife, Margot, and I get large numbers of personal invitations. We also try to help out A Rocha UK when we can, as they are often besieged with requests. And we not infrequently get requests to write articles and blog posts in a very wide range of publications.

Ross-on-Wye sunset

At least partly because of the growth of Eco Church, we have seen a phenomenal growth in the distance learning course, Christian Rural and Environmental Studies (CRES), which we run jointly with A Rocha UK. I have been Principal Tutor of the course for even longer than I have worked for JRI!! In the early years we thought we were doing well if we had three or four admissions in a year, and we were often worried that we would not have enough students. Now, if we were not careful we could have 20 or 30 in a year. The course is almost entirely run by volunteers, and at present we just cannot take that kind of number without the wheels coming off. So in June 2021 the CRES Steering Group took the sad decision to pause admissions until January 2022 to allow us time to catch up and to take the heat out of the situation. We set a target of twelve students for 2022, and already have five people from our waiting list signed up. In addition to the increase in student numbers, we are much more international, with students from around the world. This has meant that we always need to think about the international context in revising our modules and in the way we run the course.

In the early days of JRI, the Board were very keen to introduce environmental themes into theological education institutions (TEIs), but despite lots of effort there was little success. Colleges did not seem that interested, often claiming that there was not room in the curriculum. But again that has all changed recently. Things had been building for some time, but undoubtedly the consultation JRI was involved in organising in 2020, and the subsequent report (2021) have given this area real impetus. We have seen greatly increased interest from TEIs, with many requesting teaching sessions, days, or in one case a whole week!

So JRI is seeing incredible growth on all fronts except one- finance! In terms of staffing we are still approximately the same size as when I started work for JRI in 2009. It is not that we are in financial difficulties, but if we really wanted to grow the work described above we would need significantly more money to employ more people. The snag is that raising finances takes time. I am as guilty as anyone, but generally JRI has been more interested in “doing the work” than in spending time generating finance. We are very grateful to those who have supported JRI financially down the years, and we would not have achieved all we have without you. If you would like to help, even in a small way, please follow this link. Or maybe you are a person who could help us raise funds- we would really like to hear from you!!

I said at the beginning of this post that I would step down as Operations Director in June 2022. I will continue on the JRI Board, and as Principal Tutor for CRES. There are several reasons for this move. Partly, I am thinking of succession planning- none of us get any younger! The Board will advertise a post in the next few months to fill some of the roles I carried out as Operations Director (the exact shape is still being worked out, and I am not involved!). Hopefully, we will appoint a person to the new role who will be able to take the JRI work forward. But I will then be freed up to concentrate on developing CRES and on speaking and writing. So, in effect, we will expand our operations without spending any more money. Of course, if more money were to come in that would be nice, and we could do even more!

Serving JRI as Operations Manager and Director over the last 13 years has been a wonderful experience. With absolutely minimal resources we have done some amazing things together. I look forward to seeing how JRI develops over the coming years. Thank you for all your support!

Dr Martin J Hodson

JRI Operations Director

Photo: Ross-on-Wye sunset (Martin Hodson)