East Clyst Churches Vision Day.
(Including St Mary’s, Whimple)
A short while ago a group of 50 us met to plan a future for our ten combined churches across our mission community, in the light of the many challenges they now face, I thought it might be helpful for folks across the parish to see the result of our conversations.
The calling of the Church is to respond to the gospel of God’s love in Christ and to live out its discipleship in worship and mission.
This calling applies to every church, but its outworking will look different in different places.
The sense of tiredness and despondency was clear from our initial conversations, this echoes much of what I hear in many of my conversations out in our parishes. We are short of church officers at many of our churches and have a very limited pool of volunteers taking on increasingly large burdens of work. We also have a shrinking number of people contributing to the financing of our church life who are being expected to increase their giving to make up a deepening shortfall. This is likely to get worse as the diocese struggles to balance its own books in the new post covid world. Our buildings are beautiful and much loved, but money pits. It is true that keeping them open can add to the challenges of spending time on mission and ministry, balancing these seemingly competing goals is a big issue.
Our survey clearly identified a great affection for many of our traditional services by those who currently attended, most people want those services in their own parish church. This is not surprising, the age of most of our congregations mean these services are ones they have grown up with and enjoy. It must also be recognised that it has been these members of our congregation who have sustained the life of our parish churches for decades. Many members of our congregations are aging so transport and parking is an increasing barrier to visiting other churches for joint services.
However, as we also identified, attendance at the traditional services is falling, and they are rarely the sort of services younger people enjoy and virtually never have any appeal to families. Many people, in both our questionnaires and at our vision day were deeply concerned about the lack of younger people and families at the vast majority of our services and understand this is a direct threat to the survival of our churches, but more importantly, also a challenge to our ability to spread the good news of the gospels.
Many people in our churches still feel that unless a service is led by a stipendiary member of the clergy they are missing out. Likewise, many feel ‘no one from the church has visited me at home’, unless a member of the clergy has. Several people felt part of the strategy for church growth should be clergy doing more home visiting. We discussed at the vision day how the reality of modern ministry means that baring serious, possibly terminal illness, there is no way stipendiary clergy can visit even a tiny fraction of those who might like a visit. One of the aspirations articulated at our vision day was maintaining clergy numbers, the reality is this will only happen if we succeed in growing our congregations and income; continued decline in numbers will result in a reduction of clergy, it is simple economics.
We agreed that communicating what is happening in our churches to those outside our congregations is not as effective as it should be. That we need a broader approach to utilise many different forms of communication: from traditional printed media such as posters, fliers, and parish magazines, to emails and social media. It is vital we succeed in this; no matter how interesting our events or wonderful our services people will not attend if they do not know what is happening. Likewise, no matter how challenging the issues we face, people are not going to offer assistance or financial support if we do not honestly and widely inform them.
We agreed many of our churches are completely unfit for purpose with no decent heating, toilets or even running water and access to most of them makes visits for those less able or parents with buggies hard work. Changing this feels like an uphill battle. In essence we are focusing a lot of our time on just surviving. However, we also came to a consensus we must try, focusing on those churches which offer the most opportunities to provide warm, accessible, and flexible spaces which are in locations which provide opportunities for growth. This will not be an easy process. Experience has shown that often the strongest resistance to change comes from people who rarely use our churches and so are not overly affected by some of the issues we have identified but enjoy the sepia toned vision of an unchanged church when they visit for Christmas or Easter. This process will require us effectively communicating the challenges our churches face and the likely consequences if we do not urgently address them.
Our next steps.
The next phase of forming a concrete plan is to take these commitments to our individual PCC’s to work out the details.
This will be a real challenge because it is easy to commit to these goals in the heady atmosphere of a vision day, on the assumption that it will be down to others to make the goals achievable; but quite another when faced with not seeing a vicar very often because they are focusing time on youth and families elsewhere, or not having all the traditional services one would like.
Proposals for PCC Consideration.
Families and children.
We identify our three largest churches are ‘hubs’ for MC family and children services. These are Broadclyst, Whimple and Cranbrook. Broadclyst and Cranbrook both have family friendly services. Broadclyst Messy church for example now regularly draws 20 plus children and the same number of adults. We plan to start a something new at Whimple in the new year and use our Christmas events plus social and other media to publicise it. This will require a team of people to plan, set up and run it. Volunteers very welcome.
Our clergy will need to spend considerable time focusing on these hub churches.
A proportion of all fundraising at a MC level (such as MC service collections) is dedicated to outreach to families and children.
Actively seeking funding from outside sources. Including within our own parishes and congregations. This too will require a considerable amount of time but is essential.
We explore the possibility of creating a part time post for a families and youth worker.
These need to improve.
Although our hub buildings are currently our best equipped, they are far from perfect. Access at Whimple is poor, its toilet in need of decoration and the space available to ‘free play’ or flexible use limited. We have already secured the services of the community payback team to redecorate it and plan (with the help of a generous donor), to install some grab handles to assist those with limited mobility and a folding baby changing station. We need to go further. It is essential we explore the possibility of improving access to the grounds and church for buggies and the less mobile. I have arranged a visit with the officers responsible for building matters at the diocese to seek advice and will update the PCC in due course. Ideally, we would like to identify a small group of people, who need not be church goers, whose life and/or professional experience could help us with building projects: from research, to fundraising ideas to faculty and project management.
Some years ago, we discussed the concept of a chaplaincy team to expand the work of our amazing pastoral care team, Jude Carter was our first community chaplain and it is impossible to overstate the blessing of her work at Cranbrook. We need to actively seek to identify members of our community who would like to become ‘parish chaplains’. This role would not be to evangelise but to be a point of pastoral care, to visit the isolated, lonely or ill and listen, have a cup of tea and just be a friendly christian face to those in need.
My friends we are at a tipping point. It is unlikely, baring considerable numerical growth, that we will have more clergy or lay leaders than we do now. Unless something dramatically changes our finances are unlikely to be better than now. Given the general feeling of exhaustion in many of our parishes it is also unlikely we are going to have any more energy than now. So now must be the time we think radically and boldly of a different future for our churches, both its people and its buildings.