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When the hungry billows are curling

Pat Ashworth looks at five potential PCC crises, and how to manage them

CARTOON BY DAVE WALKER

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Credit: CARTOON BY DAVE WALKER

When you want to sell the family silver
HAVING to find £204,000 for urgent repairs over six years left St Peter’s, Draycott, a village church in Somerset, feeling what the PCC secretary, Dr Chris Green, describes as “thoroughly under threat.”

Out of the blue, the church was approached by Vivian Davies, a collector and enthusiast for the Victorian architect and designer William Burges. Mr Davies offered the church £100,000 for the font — an important piece within the Burges canon — plus £10,000 to have a replica made. “It seemed to us an answer to prayer,” Dr Green says.

When the Chancellor’s approval of selling the font was secured, however, the Victorian Society objected, and took the case to the Court of Arches. Now the PCC had to get a case together, with no money to pay a barrister. The Chancellor’s judgment was overturned in December 2008, in a case that divided church and local opinion and drew national interest.

So the PCC, in Dr Green’s words, regrouped. “We said right, OK, God doesn’t want us to have £100,000 dropped in our lap.” But the extensive process of putting the case had given the PCC the impetus to review all that it was doing, and to rediscover the church’s intrinsic place in the community.

“The profile had been raised, and lots of people knew our predicament and were sympathetic,” Dr Green says. “We fund-raised, we dug deep into our own pockets, we did a lot of the work ourselves, and found we could meet the bills. Things came together. We are now able to pay our parish share regularly in advance. We look at that font now rather fondly.”

 

  • Never underestimate the preparedness of people who are not directly connected with the church to lend a hand if the cause is good. (That’s how the PCC found a barrister to work work pro bono.)
  • Don’t think you just have your own resources to draw on. Sometimes your lack of funds and a need simply stated are an asset. A good cause recruits other people.
  • Have good publicity. The church website proved invaluable in putting the church’s case to a wider audience.

 

When you have a bad-news story
THE churchwardens of St Mary’s, Brent Eleigh, in Suffolk, had the shock of discovering on Maundy Thursday evening last year that a 13th-century wall-painting — a triptych depicting Christ, St John, and the Virgin Mary — had been vandalised by someone who had gouged off the plaster with a chisel.

The six members of the PCC agreed who would take responsibility for the different aspects of the matter, and what should be communicated to the press, and when — they did not want the story to break on Easter Day. They combined their skills and agreed on the message, the Revd Carol Mansell, who chairs the PCC, says. She felt it right that she should be the one to liaise with the press.

“We wanted to say that we were concerned for the individual, and were not making a judgement about whoever would do such a thing; that we wanted the church to remain open for the community; and that we had taken advice from the police about security.”

She also told the press that there would be a good-news story to tell in future months, which paid dividends. She pays the highest tribute to the PCC treasurer, Derek McBride, for managing the massive amount of paperwork and meetings involved in the arduous process of insurance, loss-adjusting, and seeking a conservator which followed.

 

  • Agree on the message to relay to the press — and use the opportunity for mentioning good news and building relationships.
  • Reach a consensus to enable swift action on priorities, and keep everyone, particularly the diocese, in the loop.
  • Combine the skills of the PCC, and allocate responsibilities accordingly.

 

When there is a serious pastoral breakdown
IT IS the thing that most PCCs dread: a parish at loggerheads with its vicar. They accuse him or her of bad behaviour; the vicar responds that it is just a handful of people, an “old guard” on the PCC who are hostile and cannot accept change. Accusations and counter-accusations fly.

One example in recent years involved a PCC that brought a case to an ecclesiastical tribunal under the Incumbents (Vacation of Benefices) Measure 1977 as amended in 1993 — something for which they needed a two-thirds majority. It found in the parish’s favour, recommending that the breakdown of relations could not be remedied by the vicar’s staying in post.

The findings in this case were useful to PCCs generally. Thorough minute-keeping showed that the PCC members whom the vicar had said were hostile had regularly proposed or supported motions supporting his plans, voted in favour of them, and acted upon the relevant resolutions.

The tribunal made clear that a PCC’s wish to question and investigate suggestions should not have been interpreted as undermining the vicar’s power or authority; nor should any church be run without reference to a PCC.

 

  • Keep accurate written records of meetings.
  • No PCC can go it alone in distressing circumstances: engage the diocese from the start.
  • Get early advice from communications officers on handling the press.

 

When there is a safeguarding situation
PCCs are expected to take any safeguarding allegation or concern with the utmost seriousness. It should be reported to the parish safeguarding officer, who, in liaison with the vicar, would immediately refer to social care and/or the police. A concern or allegation about a church officer should be referred immediately to the diocesan safeguarding adviser.

PCCs have a legal responsibility to fulfil their duty of care towards all those present during worship, in all church-sponsored activities and activities in church buildings. Therefore, they must work with the incumbent to ensure that there is a plan in place to raise awareness of, and promote training in, safeguarding matters. They must adopt an approved safeguarding policy that follows House of Bishops’ and diocesan guidelines, along with a parish policy on safer recruitment and DBS checks.

They should also appoint at least one appropriately experienced, designated parish safeguarding officer to work with the incumbent and PCC, and monitor the safeguarding work in the parish.

 

  • Report any allegation to the appropriate officer immediately.
  • Check that the appropriate policies, training plans, and officers are in place.
  • Ensure that details of all those with safeguarding responsibilities are displayed in all church premises, and known to all group leaders, including the person to whom concerns should be reported, and where to find support.

 

In case of an act of God
WHAT if you are faced with flood, fire, or theft? You can take precautions against arson or theft, but you cannot guarantee that it is never going to occur. So a good PCC will be proactive and vigilant, and put basic plans in place for minimum impact, Kevin Thomas, of the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, says. He has been dealing with churches face to face for more than 25 years, and never fails to be impressed by the commitment and passion of PCC members.

“Lay people are responsible for some very big stuff,” he observes. He had just come from a church that had suffered a metal theft in November, and had responded by having a roof alarm installed. “The guy told me, ‘I have to protect this church. It’s on my watch.’”

  • Keep an up-to-date list of contractors and contact details that can be telephoned quickly in an emergency, and create salvage cards, with a photo of artefacts and their location/weight.
  • For larger churches, invite the fire brigade for a familiarisation visit so they understand the layout of the building and how they might fight a fire there, should one occur.
  • Carry out regular checks. Keep on top of maintenance. Attend to a small task before it becomes a big one.

 

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When the hungry billows are curling

Pat Ashworth looks at five potential PCC crises, and how to manage them
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