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Growing the Church: initial responses

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Posted by Ros Clarke, 4 May 2021

Ros Clarke analyses the responses to the Growing the Church survey so far

There’s still time to complete the ‘Growing the Church’ survey. We’d especially value more responses from those with experience of team ministries or non-parish projects, but please do tell us about your joint benefices as well!

We’ve been looking at two things: combining parishes (whether into united benefices, teams, groups etc) and non-parish projects (e.g. deanery projects, diocesan projects or detached projects). While the number of responses is still too small to be statistically significant, I think there are a number of useful observations already.

No numerical growth
There is no evidence at all, so far, that either of the approaches we have asked about leads to numerical growth.

Of course, especially with the combined parishes, usually they have begun in a period of decline and it’s hard to say whether the joining of the parishes has hastened or slowed the decline that would have happened anyway. But we are no longer in a position where ‘slowing decline’ is good enough. In order to return to financial stability, most dioceses actually need churches to grow. We need congregations to grow, because that is the only way that giving will grow.

So far we only have four responses with complete data to compare electoral roll, usual Sunday attendance and parish share paid before and after the combining of parishes. Across those four:
i) The electoral rolls dropped by an average of 102
ii) The usual Sunday attendance dropped by an average of 97
iii) The parish share paid dropped by an average of £36000.

This sample is obviously far too small to be statistically significant, but it is notable that only one respondent reported any increase in the electoral roll (of 2!) and one reported an increase in parish share paid (of £4000). There were no reports of increased Sunday attendance at all.

Change of role
A number of respondents added further comments based on their experience. One commented that a recent appointment had taken a three-parish benefice to a five-parish benefice which would become part of a fourteen-parish team. This multiplication of combined parishes is not unusual.

One respondent commented on the implications for incumbents of moving to a joint benefice:

The extent to which the role of the Incumbent changes is massive. You move from becoming a parish priest to overseeing several parishes and that inevitably leaves you detached from the congregations. The role needs to be re-interpreted to take into consideration this oversight role, and it needs to be recognised that this isn’t the role that we were trained for. We end up leading the leadership teams in different congregations.

Others commented on the implications for the congregations:

There could be a number of reasons for the reductions. A number of people have died, and the churches have moved in a more evangelical direction which has led some people to leave (and others to join). But we have certainly had to make compromises in structuring church life in order to accommodate the two parishes having one incumbent.

Many in the congregations will struggle to come to terms with their changing experience of ministry.This isn’t simply a structural change, it significantly changes people’s experience of church and of worship, and contributes to the less regular attendance of members of the congregation. Change takes much longer to implement as you are spread over a number of congregations. The relational impact can be significant, as both clergy and congregations can be left feeling disillusioned.

The problem of projects
The direct impact of non-parish projects on local churches is harder to measure numerically. Of the projects that have been reported on, the local churches have all contributed some combination of practical help, financial help and volunteers. The outcomes have varied from very ineffective to somewhat effective in terms of the goals of the project. Most also reported that the projects had no effect on church growth, although one project did have some positive impact on church growth (this was a project focussed on evangelism and discipleship of older people). The projects were aimed at young people, older people, evangelism, discipleship, and church planting.

The youth projects were rated particularly poorly:
The idea was to create youth workers that would enable youth ministry across a deanery. We contributed financial support and volunteers.” This was marked as ‘very ineffective’.
In another deanery, a youth worker had been appointed jointly. After a few years, every church agreed that the scheme was a failure, because it was not grounded in the life of any local church. The same youth worker was then employed by one parish church and went on to do some really good work there over a period of several years.

Projects were often funded by the Strategic Development Fund that dioceses can apply for. SDF money is not usually available to support normal parish ministry.
It’s taken a huge amount of money (SDF) and time and energy (parishes and in building a Deanery wide ‘para-Church’ structure that is well staffed).  It has centralised decision making which means parish Churches are less able to develop their own vision if they are involved with it; folk from congregations are ‘seconded’ to the project in a variety of roles; and any new development of outreach / Church planting is claimed by the project.”

If you are involved in a local diocesan or deanery restructuring plan, it would be worth getting the Statistics for Mission data for your diocese from the past ten years or so. Identify which benefices are increasing (electoral roll, usual Sunday attendance, parish share), which are declining and which are stable. Which of those are single-parish benefices? Which are in teams? Which are in multi-parish benefices? Are there any patterns? Finally, gather any information you can on the non-parish projects that have recently been funded by deaneries or the diocese (or via the SDF). Get in touch with the local clergy and ask them how effective the projects have been and what impact, if any, it’s had on their church. Even anecdotal evidence is helpful here.

Ros Clarke is Associate Director of Church Society

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