Introduction to the Role of the Dean of Smaller Churches
Dean of Smaller Churches is a role new to the Diocese of Worcester in 2021, nationally funded and, at its inception, nationally unique. Borne out of the recognition that there are specific challenges faced by our many smaller churches to remain or become ‘Healthy and Sustainable’, the purpose of the role is to work both proactively with individual smaller churches in their context and to work strategically to find ways of supporting the whole population of smaller churches. This paper is intended as an introduction to the latter area of work, the approach to the former will be dealt with separately.
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Smaller Churches Definition
Smaller Churches have been roughly defined as those churches with an ‘Active Church Membership’ of 20 or fewer in the 2018 Fairer Share survey. Active Church Membership was a local count of people who are engaged with or supporters of the life of the church, whether or not they regularly attend worship. In many if not most cases, this number will have declined since 2018. This definition is intended to be a start point for conversation. Some churches included within these parameters will be well resourced and independent and not wish to be seen in this way whilst others will recognise that despite having numbers greater than described above they otherwise fit the characteristics of a smaller church.
This definition has led to the inclusion of 120 churches (buildings) in the category, 45% of the churches of the diocese. Some are parish churches, usually within multi parish benefices, some are churches within multi church parishes, and some are Chapels of Ease. They are 95% rural and the majority are listed buildings. 15% of the Active Church Members of the diocese are within the Smaller Churches which serve 10% of the population of the diocese.
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Half of the Grade I listed buildings in England are Church of England churches. Of the 120 Smaller Churches in the Diocese of Worcester, two thirds are Grade I or II* listed, defined as being ‘of national or international importance’. Only 17 have no listing. Without explicit intention, the Church of England has adopted the care of listed buildings as a core activity of the church. Increasingly stretched resources are raising the tension around this unintended priority.
The focus of the parish and its church building for the provision of pastoral care to every person in the country, brings additional challenges. There is one model of being a parish church which carries obligations of governance and conduct and expectations of ministry and service, all based on a scale of operation that bears little resemblance to the reality of smaller churches. In some cases, this is due to decline in the active worshipping community but in many cases, it has always been true. What has changed is the ever-increasing formalisation and regulation of practice. Much of what went ‘under the radar’ in decades past is no longer acceptable and the burden of achieving compliance is being carried by ever fewer, often aging, volunteers. The most critical resources of the small churches, volunteer energy and finance, are being directed towards the unintended priorities of complex governance and building maintenance, at the expense of the mission and ministry.
The model of ministry provision is also challenging. Historically, we have made no distinction between the nature of ministry provision in the smallest church and that in a major church of some standing. As the ‘one priest one church’ model has come under pressure, we have sought to solve this by clustering the smallest churches together with a view to creating an appropriate critical mass to underpin the organisational model. Whilst this has undoubtedly worked to ‘keep the show on the road’ for a period, it fails to acknowledge the extent to which it is the unintended priorities that necessarily get serviced, at the expense of investment in local mission and ministry. Ministry focus can be de-localised; this is much more difficult for buildings and governance. The de-localisation of ministry unsurprisingly results in increasing disconnection with the local community and too easily results in a gap between the church and its neighbourhood. The efforts of local churches and their leaders to keep everything going has, in many cases, been little short of heroic but decline of existing congregations and a paucity of new engagement has become so common as to be seen as ‘normal’ or inevitable. At the same time we believe the gospel to still be relevant and attractive and see evidence in all walks of life of peoples’ quest for God by many other names.
A strategy to serve small churches well needs to de-prioritise buildings and governance and re-localise mission and ministry. This will require a willingness to review the life of the church ‘being’ independently of church building and to re-consider the relationship of church ‘local’ with the wider church in the area.
Four Key Building Blocks of Smaller Church Strategy
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Buildings – sharing the blessing and the burden beyond the church
As we know all too well, the drawbacks of our buildings often mean they are experienced as more of a burden than a blessing. Care and maintenance demand a greater draw on resources, human and financial, than is viable and they are often not fit for purpose to deliver the comfortable, modern, appealing worship and meeting space to best enable a church to thrive.
For many, church communities church and building have become unhelpfully co-terminus. There is no vision for a thriving church beyond its expression in the particular building, which shapes and defines the very nature of the church. Churches need help in order to imagine life beyond the building and communities need help to understand that they are custodians of the building. The decision about the future of the buildings is different to and concerns a wider stakeholder group, than the future of the church.
Aim B1: Support the planning of the future life of the church using each building only to the extent to which it enables the delivery of the vision.
Aim B2: Create an understanding in each community that their local building is there for their use and, provided this does not undermine the delivery of Aim B1, we will seek to support and enable that use.
Aim B3: Acknowledge and enable the ways that each building can independently support the telling of the gospel
Aim B4: Minimise the risk that the building becomes the unintended priority of the church through provision of practical maintenance support and help in accessing funding.
Governance – streamlining to fit
Aim G1: Work with churches who are finding the burden of governance too great, to review their needs and make recommendations towards a sustainable future with ‘fit for purpose’ governance
Aim G2: Explore the use of Joint Councils as a means to reduce the burden of governance
Aim G3: Explore the use of ‘Festival Church’ and ‘Chapel of Ease’ as designations to reduce the burden of governance
Mission and Ministry – Prioritising and affirming the local
We have moved a long way from those days! It is now the ‘norm’ for each incumbent to be responsible for more than one church and in the case of smaller churches, often for several. This inevitability creates distance, both physical and time terms, changing the relationship between the incumbent and each church and their community. This has created a ministry gap into which lay leaders have or could step to become the local contact and gathering person; the person who enables the church local to exist, thrive and engage with the wider church. This may need us to think differently about the nature of leadership, both lay and ordained, and how we affirm and authorise people.
Aim M1: Understand and affirm as appropriate, models of lay ministry already being exercised that are outside current guidelines of authorisation, including making recommendations for changes to guidelines as necessary.
Aim M2: Explore new models of ministry currently being described nationally and recommend adoption locally as appropriate eg Focal Ministry and Local Ordained Ministry, including making recommendations for support, training and selection.
Aim M3: Understand what support and training existing clergy need in order to enable them to work well with new and developing models of ministry and make recommendations.
Administration – making it happen, efficiently
The areas that could be included are:
- Parish Giving Scheme promotion
- Use of ‘A Church Near You’
- On-line Giving platforms
- Setting up Contactless Giving in Church
- Arranging service cover including Occasional Offices
- Annual Returns submissions
- Gift Aid reclaim
- Treasury and Independent Audit
- Monument approval
Support for many of these areas is already available but is not always being accessed by those who need it most, possibly because of the fear that being seen to struggle might mean they are seen to be ‘non-viable’. Support therefore needs to be offered within the wider context of health and sustainability.
Aim A1: Set up an Admin Service for smaller churches to deliver some or all of the identified tasks to be known as Active Smaller Churches Admin Service ASCAS.
Aim A2: Work with Smaller Churches to identify areas of necessary administration that are too cumbersome for them and find ways of delivering alternative provision through benefice, deanery or ASCAS.