Things that are wrong with the Church of England #26

One of the joys of job-hunting in the Church of England is that you come across some priceless examples of self-delusion. Take for example this job in a rural diocese. In the extended advert there is this brilliant final line:

On his retirement from the benefice the previous priest wrote in the Church Magazine : “In my years of ordained ministry the last six have been the best time of all.”

Wow – he must have had some brilliantly productive and fruitful ministry in order to be able to say that.

Read the parish profile however and you see that the situation is not exactly rosy.

Attendance at non-festival services at AAA, BBB and CCC by residents of those villages rarely exceeds 10 in each case. People from the other villages can add to the number, particularly at AAA and BBB when there is no morning service at DDD. Normal attendance at a Communion Service at DDD is around 15 – 20.

We now admit children to communion before confirmation. Four families make use of this at the moment but otherwise children and young people do not attend communion services. Currently only one family from the village with children attends any service at AAA and only two at CCC.

The profile tells you wonderful things about the bells and the war memorial, but not even a whisper of a suggestion that they want anybody to come to the Lord and be saved.

Frankly, I would consider somebody leaving four churches with an aggregated congregation not even reaching 50 and only four families attending across the four churches as a complete failure. Once you look at the Acorn profile for the area and see that it is rated high for proportion of families the extent of the inability to engage is simply accentuated.

Of course, examining the diocese you can see the problem isn’t just local to these churches – while the Church of England lost an average of under 1% of its congregations in 2007, this diocese managed a whopping 6.25%. Neighbouring dioceses with the same kind of profile however managed respectable rises in attendance. So what’s going on?

When the retiring priest said “In my years of ordained ministry the last six have been the best time of all”, is that because he sat around being able to do absolutely nothing but listen to the Archers? And what is the Church of England doing about clergy like this who are manifestly failing to have any impact? Sending them on advanced jam making courses? That would match the key first image to reflect the church that you come across on the profile – a badly arranged bunch of daffodils and higgledy-piggledy jars of home-made marmalade.

This kind of profile raises key questions about the management of churches like this where mission is manifestly not happening, yet nothing is done about the clergy who are failing in their duty.

/rant mode off

Some details have been changed to protect the blatantly guilty.

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10 Comments on “Things that are wrong with the Church of England #26

  1. Having lived abroad for years, where the churches have to be self-financing, I know that to be viable a church needs at least 100 regularly attending members.

    If only the Bishops would make this clear, by moving the focus away from the historical “parish system” and onto future “viable churches”, clergy would know what they have to do!

  2. I disagree with David about churches being self-funding, simply because I am aware of a number of people being incredibly effective in preaching the gospel and seeing the grace of God in saving people in areas where there is such poverty that the church couldn’t self-fund. Meanwhile, churches in more affluent areas enjoy the privilege of giving to fund church planting and growth in areas that couldn’t self-fund. Problem is, the deanery and diocesan structures are often abused with affluent churches being ‘obliged’ through the parish quota to fund neighbouring churches where the gospel isn’t preached and, as with the case that Peter highlights, there is steady decline.
    To Peter’s example scenario: the man should have been sacked a long time ago. Developing it a little, I think that there is a sadly common occurence of clergy ‘treading water’ and enjoying a ‘long goodbye’ in the years approaching their retirement. I’d be interested to see a study comparing church growth/decline with the age of the senior clergy lead.

  3. Please excuse my ignorance on this my first visit to your blog, but in view of my current Reader Training assignment (post my licensing last week) on mission:
    – what is the “Acorn profile” of an area, and how does one get it? it sounds like it might be useful!
    – and how do you find out parish/diocesan statistics on attendance? (without asking the latter, the former being unlikely to know… they just fill the form in annually!)

  4. TimButt,

    I agree with some of what you are saying.

    Still I maintain that the best way for large churches to help smaller ones is not via a centralise distribution system (of financial support and pain) that cuts of the successful from the struggling. It would be more efficient to have direct, targetted, support (financial and personnel) from the larger to some small churches (if they have potential to grow). That sort of direct partnering does happen in churches outside to the UK.

    I’d also agree about making a special case for supporting a genuinely successful ministry in deprived areas that can never be self-funding.. HOWEVER, there is a slight danger that every minister, however ineffective their ministry, might attempt to depict it as in some way “successful” (and just, unfortunately, in a difficult area)!

    ps There was a recent book that looked at factors such as the correlation between incumbents ages and lengths of incumbancies against church growth / decline (across a ramge of churchmanships). I think it was this one: B. Jackson The Road to Growth: towards a thriving Church; (London: Church House Publishing) 2005.

  5. There are some that believe with the arrival of Common Tenure, that ‘ineffective’ priests will be able to be removed more easily. Whilst I can think of several examples of priests whose useful ministry in a parish may have reached a natural end, I am somewhat suspect of going down a route that sees short term appointments as the norm, as it begins to move into an area more akin to managers of football clubs, dismissed after a few matches if the results don’t show an immediate improvement.

    As always with the Church of England, there is a difficult balancing act to follow. The security of freehold is an unbalanced system, but the proposed alternative seems to me to be unbalanced the other way.

    Do we want to go down a route of targets and quotas and a numbers game where in most places they won’t add up? How do you judge the success of a priest – is his/her entertaining but ultimately nothing but froth putting bums on seats but no more names in the book of life. Does the priest with 10 parishes on the North Norfolk coast measure their success by a doubling of the congregation in two parishes, in both cases from 8 to 16, or by the 2 families whose lives have been changed because they have met with God.

    There are no easy answers – but I hope that when the time comes, I’ll know where God is telling us to go, and when our time there is at a useful end, we’ll know for the good of ourselves as well as the parish that it’s time to move on.

    Incidentally, the book that David mentions is excellent, but for those of us of a certain age (just, and only just, the wrong side of 40) the time that we are likely to do our most productive work is now.

    Pressure on.

  6. In this corner of the Lord’s vineyard, where many churches are experiencing growth in fact, my close colleagues and I are now beginning to spend some time on the stats for the past five years. They aren’t as complete as we would like in some deaneries, but there are some surprising tales of growth and decline in there, within a general trend which is rather more encouraging than Fleet Street would lead you to expect.

    All ministry is contextual, and what would be counted as success in one place might not seem so in another — although tailspin decline is tailspin decline wherever you find it.

    Many of the HR techniques of the world are about ratcatching or regulating, and neither of those activities, necessary as they may be occasionally, is really going to grow the Church in the way for which I long.

    That’s about prayer, inspiration and faith. I am always immensely sad when colleagues lose the script, because at one time I assume they had it. I value the freedom colleagues have to fail. I feel a duty to at least try and be honest about it when that happens. And I pray for the grace to help them recover the sense of God in their lives which drew them into ministry in the first place.

    Not an exact prescription, I realise!

    • Thanks Alan. If we’re honest we should acknowledge that there are great leaders like yourself who are willing to look at the figures and analyse what’s going on as much as there are other leaders who seem to be in a state of denial about the reality of ministry, or lack of it, on the ground. Of course numbers aren’t everything, but a collapse in church attendance should be a warning sign that something is up.

  7. Just off to check the figures for Bath and Wells…..

    There have been such warning signs in churches I know about, but at present it’s virtually impossible for anyone to do anything about it unless the incumbent is willing to be helped. There is also a bit of a correlation between struggling vicar and non-attendance at things like Deanery Chapter, and the sort of meeting where we catch up with one another and see how things are going. Without a much clearer form of mentoring/support for clergy, it’s easy to slip unnoticed into problems.

    Btw, if that wasn’t one of ours, there are a couple of jobs coming up in rural groupings near Yeovil, if that’s the kind of thing you’re after…

    (‘melanin accidentally’ as the word verification? peculiar)

  8. As an Ordinand at Trinity College, Bristol, I recognise both Bishop Alan & Rev Peter's valid points, we were discussing last week how number crunching is hopefully getting more up-to-date with good correlation software. However, there seems to be a lack of qualitative feedback going on because just as struggling Clergy aren't being kept accountable, outwardly successful Clergy can get good numbers and be "promoted" without really developing an atmosphere of discipleship and empowering fresh leaders. It then falls to the next incumbent to tell the faithful few that re-envisioning is required. I have been wondering if the Clergy reviews and tenure is manageable with the current role of Rural Deans & Bishops in their current form…?

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