Bridge Builders, 1996: Working Exclusively Within a Faith Tradition

Alastair McKay
Alastair McKay, MA ’99, at one of his last trainings as executive director of Bridge Builders, the organization he co-founded in the 1990s. (Photo by Christopher Dobson)

Of the 12 peacebuilding training centers around the world developed by alumni of EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI), only one focuses exclusively on conflict within a religious tradition.

And that is Bridge Builders, headquartered in London. It focuses on conflicts within churches throughout the United Kingdom.

“For churches to provide space for healing, we must intentionally prepare faith-based leadership to engage conflict constructively,” says John Paul Lederach on the Bridge Builders website.

Alastair McKay, the founding director of Bridge Builders, points out that “very few people in the world are doing this work” – that is, addressing how the church deals with its own issues, such as congregational disenchantment with members of the clergy, usage of limited church space, modern versus traditional styles of worship, extent of outreach to outsiders, and priorities for the church budget.

“We have to effect conflict transformation within the church itself for it to spill out,” says McKay. “Then the church will be a more dynamic witness to the world.”

Officially founded in 1996 at the London Mennonite Centre but operating independently since 2011, Bridge Builders also happens to be the oldest training center connected to SPI and its parent organization, the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP).

Inspiration for Bridge Builders can be traced to a three-day mediation course taught by Ron Kraybill in London in February 1994, says McKay.

Bridge Builders’ ties to Mennonite-style Christianity are extensive. Alan and Eleanor Kreider, Mennonites now living in Elkhart, Indiana, developed the London Mennonite Centre into a resource for British churches from 1976 to 1990.

Successors to the Kreiders included Nelson Kraybill, a Mennonite church leader in the United States (who is also Ron Kraybill’s brother) and Mark and Mary Thiessen Nation, who co-directed the London center from 1997 to 2002 and who are now faculty members at EMU’s seminary.

McKay, raised nominally Anglican, became a member of a small Mennonite church associated with the London Mennonite Centre, and grew to play a leadership role in many of the Mennonite-initiated projects in that city.

One of those projects in 1995 was a voluntary community mediation service in one borough of London. Within a few months, it was clear that well-meaning individuals couldn’t maintain the service in their spare hours. This was an early lesson in the need to secure a financial base for conflict transformation work, so that staffers could be hired.

Preparing to lead

In the fall of 1997, McKay, his wife Sue and two children moved to Virginia so that McKay could pursue a master’s in conflict transformation and thus be better equipped to follow his calling. “There were various conflict resolution MA programs in the UK,” says McKay, “but their focus was largely international” and none offered him the opportunity to concurrently take seminary classes for credit, as EMU did.

After studying with Ron Kraybill, John Paul Lederach and Howard Zehr, among others at CJP, McKay felt he had gained a “wider perspective, thinking not just about mediation, but systemically about conflict.” He next did a seven-month internship at the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center outside Chicago. By the time he and his family returned to London in 1999, he felt he had “brilliant preparation for launching a pioneering service [Bridge Builders] on a full-time basis.”

Lederach became a member of Bridge Builder’s “council of reference” from the start and has remained so. Current CJP faculty member David Brubaker and McKay maintain regular collaboration on both sides of the Atlantic – McKay will be co-teaching “Leading Congregational Change” with Brubaker at EMU’s seminary in a summer 2015 session (he also co-taught a seminary course with Brubaker in 2006).

Stronger churches handling conflict better

The Mennonite congregation in London never grew beyond a few dozen people, and currently has less than 15 active participants, probably because it never viewed its mission as gaining recruits or church planting, says McKay, but rather as introducing the Anabaptist-Mennonite approach to Christianity – especially pertaining to war, violence and peacemaking, as well as living out one’s beliefs. Along the way, the Mennonites realized they also could help British churches to function more healthily.

McKay became the first full-time director of Bridge Builders and remained so for nearly 16 years, while adding a doctorate of ministry from the University of Wales and embarking on a path toward being an Anglican clergyman. At Bridge Builders, he was assisted by a succession of young Mennonite volunteers from North America, including Sharon Kniss ’06, who majored in justice, peace and conflict studies, and Sam Moyer, a 2014 nursing graduate. In March 2015, in anticipation of being ordained in the Church of England and assuming a half-time curacy, McKay handed his executive director responsibilities to Colin Moulds, a Bridge Builders’ associate who had been running his own mediation and training company.

Is McKay still a pacifist, as he was as a Mennonite? “Absolutely,” he says, “I see this as integral to faithful Christian discipleship.”

One of the ongoing challenges of Bridge Builders has been financial solvency. Bridge Builders got off the ground initially and added staff in the middle 2000s with core money funneled through various Mennonite church agencies. But it has needed to be self-supporting since 2011 through a combination of fees collected for services and fundraising. And that has not been easy.

McKay, Moulds and the other trainers charge for their services, of course, and their carefully planned and timed trainings receive rave reviews. But UK churches have slim or no budget lines for educating and equipping their staff and lay leaders. “Eventually, I hope it will be embedded in churches’ DNA that they need to allocate funding to obtain support for transforming conflict and functioning healthily,” McKay said.

Bridge Builders courses range from one-day sessions with a limited agenda – such as “facilitating difficult meetings” and “leading well under pressure” – for a cost of 60 British pounds (about $90 U.S.) to five-day residential workshops for an average of 745 British pounds (about $1,124 U.S.), including training, materials, room and board.

Careful resourcing

The advanced residential sessions – where people who have been through foundational courses are then empowered to themselves be trainers – are offered in comfortable, but not plush, retreat or college settings, with a maximum enrollment of 20.

Participants receive print and PDF versions of material copyrighted by Bridge Builders. Some of the material would be familiar to people at other Mennonite-inspired peacebuilding training seminars, such as an adaption of the MCS version of Ron Kraybill’s Personal Conflict Style Inventory (which is a combination of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and the Gilmore-Fraleigh “style profile.”)

If participants want to use the Bridge Builders materials to lead their own trainings, they are asked to pay fees. For each 50-page training manual reproduced in full, for example, the charge would be 5 pounds (about $7.50 U.S). “We want to know how our material is being used,” explains McKay, “and the fees charged for using our materials provide us with a small additional revenue stream.”

Five thousand trained

Bridge Builder's "training of trainers"
Two participants in Bridge Builder’s “training of trainers” course held November 11-13, 2014, at St. Michael’s College in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Christopher Dobson)

McKay estimates that Bridge Builders has reached 3,800 people through its shorter workshops and 1,300 church leaders through the five-day foundational courses.

As McKay was wrapping up his work with Bridge Builders, he sought feedback from the network of people he had trained over the years. In the last Bridge Builders newsletter prepared by his hand, he wrote:

The overall impression that these responses have left me with is that Bridge Builders’ training courses have achieved much of what we set out to do; that they have had a lasting – and sometimes life-changing – impact for people who have participated in them; and that we have made a real contribution to our wider goal of transforming the culture in British churches of how leaders lead and the way they handle conflict. This helps me to finish my work with Bridge Builders with the sense that we have served the Church well, and contributed to her life and her service of the world in fulfilment of God’s loving purposes. That’s a good note to be leaving on.

All Bridge Builders’ trainings are tightly programmed, down to 15- and 30-minute segments of time. Want to know what you might get from a training? Just peruse the Bridge Builders website,, where (as an example) you’ll find these outcomes for the five-day foundational Transforming Church Conflict training. By the end of the course, said the website, participants can expect to have:

  • Developed greater awareness about their communication style and its impact on others.
  • Reflected on Biblical resources related to conflict.
  • Enhanced their skills for communicating effectively in times of conflict.
  • Experienced and practiced skills for facilitating meetings.
  • Learned ways of building consensus and working with resistance in groups.
  • Developed their ability to analyze conflict and to identify what intervention may be most appropriate, such as mediation.
  • Considered ways to nurture a culture of creative engagement with conflict.
  • Reflected on the type of leadership needed in times of anxiety and tension.
  • Discovered ways that conflict can offer opportunities for growth.

A key takeaway from Bridge Builders: This group has honed a series of smoothly flowing workshops – where no important points get squeezed out of the agenda and all necessary reference materials are efficiently supplied. Within a British cultural context, Bridge Builders is a model of quality organization and delivery, perhaps because it does not try to be all things to all people. It limits its focus to improving one particular aspect of the United Kingdom – its churches.