A blog with ideas above it’s station…

CHURCH BUILDINGS: Opportunity Knocks?

The relationship between a vicar and their church building is complicated.

On the one hand a building presents a great opportunity. The aesthetics of your archetype church building refer to history and presence in a neighbourhood. The church building is part of an ecclesial brand, an important continuity, reassuringly static in a changing world. Of course church buildings change – without expensive upkeep they fall apart. And getting a building refurbished or modernised – or even built, becomes an obvious way of evidencing a priest’s work.

On the other hand the church building is a nuisance. Talk to most clergy and they’ll tell you how the building clogs up their work and the agenda of their Parochial Church Council or elders. Occasionally they’ll snap out of it and wonder how, when their passion, vocation and calling is about people and community, they give over so much to bricks and mortar and role as a pseudo heritage officer.

As soon as an incumbent starts in their parish they’re handed a bunch of keys. Incumbent to the building, keeping it open is a critical measure of success. For most clergy lumbered with a monster building the challenge soon becomes the huge headache and distraction.

I’m interested in inventive ways clergy manage their building – rather than the other way round. All to often it’s the building managing the clergy and their congregation.

I’ve been in Cornwall recently, meeting a vicar set free from managing his building. A trust has been set up to manage a massive rural church building. Independent of the Parochial Church Council and without the local vicar as a board member the PCC and vicar are liberated to focus on their work. And the Trust is enabling those outside the church interested in the building to get involved in overseeing and developing the space.

I sat in on a meeting of the Trust and PCC as they agreed responsibility of everything in the building – who looks after and oversees what? Like a couple deciding who had custody over what, this was in a brilliant exercise in pragmatism – with the PCC prioritising use of space within the building and responsibility only for those items required for a worshiping congregation.

The priest is clearly happy to loose responsibility for the upkeep of the building, while wary of loosing control of their space, outside regular use on a Sunday and occasional meetings and events. It seems like a good deal – isn’t this loss of full editorial rights to a self proclaimed ‘Christian organisation’ a small price to pay?

The devil is in the detail and it’s very early days for the Trust but this new approach raises important questions about a neighbourhood and the population’s relationship with the local church building. What does a phrase like ‘our church’ actually mean to people in and outside of the church? Who is responsible for the public face of the church building? And what are the priorities for small congregations with limited resources?

A church building is a burden and an opportunity. Get it right and opportunity knocks any burden for six!


CONSULTATION: Is there a ‘con’ in consultation?

Over the last 20 years an estate I’ve been working on – the largest in Hammersmith and Fulham – has been included in most of the big regeneration and development programmes. Hits include the European Urban programme (£2 million), Single Regeneration Budget (£15 million), White City Opportunity Area programme (£3 million). Latest schemes include ‘Big Local’ involving various small grant and ‘Community Budgets’, pooling statutory funding to help vulnerable families. Alongside are a list of statutory schemes as long as your arm, related to housing, employment, crime and anti-social behaviour and public health.

Consultation – the process by which the public’s input on matters affecting them is sought – has been a precursor in the delivery of all the above schemes. That’s a lot of talking.

Consultations raise various challenges.

“People have been consulted to death…”

With estates the target for numerous initiatives, charity workers, teachers and community workers agree with residents that people are ‘talked out’. People are hungry for action and change. Consultation is ‘all talk’.

“Are you asking everyone?”

Here all kinds of tricks and tactics had been attempted, using budget to set up community radio and festivals, while infiltrating clubs and organisations. All good if you have funding and a budget.

Don’t miss out what’s under your nose – the local marketplace. Here, it was the parade of shops – the centre of the community.

Newsagents and grocers have a huge footfall. An estate I once surveyed, invited residents to return completed consultation forms to the local supermarket, the completed form became a £1 off discount coupon in the local grocers. The survey received 45% return rate – really good!

“We thought they would listen…”

Consultation creates expectations amongst participants. This can generate disappointment and resentment when outcomes don’t turn out as anticipated. How do you manage expectation?

“They don’t ask around. They don’t pull out whatever report was done…”

Staff turnover in local authority departments generates an ‘institutional amnesia’, and the ‘forgetting’ of key papers, documents, reports and findings from even recent consultations. This doesn’t instil confidence in local government.

“There is massive overlap between council departments… they’re in competition!”

Councils commission or re-commission consultation, inadvertently duplicating work going on in another department down the corridor. On the ground this uncoordinated approach generates perceptions the local authority is unaware of work its doing. This generates a type of ‘institutional dementia’, where consultation findings are lost, ignored or impossible to retrieve.

“How will the consultation be independent and reflect the views of the public?”

Private contractor on behalf of H&F. This generates questions about a conflict of interest of those undertaking research, and the integrity of the consultation findings. “The council trust them to deliver a consultation that reflects the breadth of opinion – rather than highlight any agenda. It’s hard not to question the integrity here though.”

Over consulted and skeptical

Consultations here are typically perceived as thorough and well delivered. It is the follow on, the follow up and what happens to the findings once a consultation is completed that generates concern.

When work is duplicated, or findings completed and then forgotten – confidence in an excellent process turns to skepticism and cynicism – with competition, poor communication and absence of coordination between council departments, a churn of staff, and a lack of capacity or competency to coordinate all conspiring to create a sense that local authorities ‘forget’ the findings of consultations, or even that they ever conducted consultations, overwhelmed by symptoms associated with an ‘institutional dementia’.


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