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Churchwardens: unsung heroes who need help, not carping

03 May 2019

Serving as a churchwarden can be a steep learning curve, says Matthew Clements


CHURCHWARDENS are the unsung heroes of the Church of England, and yet the office of churchwarden is often unenviable. Why does anyone volunteer to do such a vaguely specified job?

It can be the sensible and suitable people who refuse the nomination, because the scope is so poorly defined. Sadly, the willing volunteers may be the wrong people, who have no real idea of what is required.

After they are elected unopposed, one of two things can happen: either they are briefed by a predecessor, who had possibly done a poor job, and so continue in the same manner and achieve very little; or they discover, to their horror, that the work is more than they thought, fail to engage properly with it, and decline to stand for re-election. These outcomes happen repeatedly.

I believe that churchwardens can positively thrive with a little more understanding of the office. Finishing my second spell as churchwarden (11 years in total, in two busy churches in different dioceses), I started to write handover notes for my successor, which rapidly expanded and became a book (Books, 22 March).

My aim became the clarification of what churchwardens do, to help existing churchwardens to do it better, and to help potential churchwardens decide whether they could do it.


THE churchwarden’s primary duty, in my view, is to help the minister to exercise his or her ministry more effectively, by taking away as many as possible of the tasks that are not actually those of a parish priest. The priest should not be counting collections, or even be a signatory on the bank accounts. It is good that the priest stands at the door speaking to people as they leave, but someone else should already be willing to talk to those who wish it.

The churchwarden, not the incumbent, should read the meters, organise someone to clear the drains, and get the lightning conductor checked. Sometimes, the priest might resist this approach because he or she likes to be in control — but I don’t do the Vicar’s job; so why should he do mine?

To state that the office of churchwarden carries a huge range of responsibilities is not to say that he or she has to do everything personally. Rather, the churchwarden must make sure that everything is done by someone.

Many dioceses provide training for churchwardens, but it is a vast subject to try to cover in just one Saturday morning once a year. Such training will probably cover the basics such as quinquennial inspections, the dreaded faculties, routine maintenance, vacancies, and annual returns (statistics and finance).

Most of what churchwardens do, however, is less well-defined. Since no diocese has the staff available to provide an on-call helpdesk for hundreds of churchwardens, the learning experience can be difficult.

The training of priests is also often lacking in certain ways. They often have no idea of the proper way to chair a PCC meeting or the annual parochial church meeting (APCM), and, equally, they have no idea of the critical rules that pertain. The churchwarden should make good this deficit by being a reliable source of such information (he or she is quite likely to be called on to be PCC vice-chair, anyway). I learned to do this from a retired brigadier who knew all the legalities.


THE churchwarden has a duty to look after buildings. The overall aim should be to pass on to your successor a building that is in a better condition than the one you found it in. If the church is really old, it is probably dusty, damp, and cold. The worst of these is dampness, and this should always be addressed first.

AlamyT. S. Eliot, one of the most famous churchwardens of the 20th century

An architect once said to me: “Look after the water that falls on the roof and goes into the gutters, the hoppers and downpipes, then into the drains and away from the building; if you do that, you have done four-fifths of the job, and the church won’t fall down on your watch.”

Get these items fixed before you bother to sort out the heating. In particular, leaks should be fixed without delay as water ingress into old plaster will lead to a very expensive repair job, if left for weeks or months. I have several times been on a church roof (safely, with wide gutter and parapet) in the rain with a large umbrella in one hand and a long stick in the other, clearing a blocked downpipe.

You must find a good contractor for any work on the church building. If your building is made with lime (which most probably it will be, if it’s old), then only lime products should be used on it, not any form of cement or modern plaster (which may well be what your predecessors did, as most modern builders will say that it is OK).

There is just one place where I have found a good list of the things that a churchwarden should always have under control. This is the checklist for the Archdeacon’s (or Area Dean’s) annual inspection, which provides a set of routine tasks that are fundamental.

Some dioceses fail to do these inspections reliably (so may not even have a list), but, in my first spell as churchwarden, my former archdeacon (now a bishop) was scrupulous in doing every third year himself, the area deans doing the other two years.

If the churchwardens routinely do everything on the checklist, the inspection is simple and effortless. If your diocese or deanery does not do these inspections, then ask why.


UNDOUBTEDLY, a churchwarden needs help: probably every church in the country is heavily dependent on volunteers. You can appeal for volunteers without success, and then eventually you approach someone who is delighted to help (“I was waiting to be asked”).

Volunteers are vital for welcoming people into church. Whatever you call them — and welcoming is a task often allocated to the sidesmen and -women who are appointed at the annual meeting and sometimes by the PCC — that is what they must do. If yours hand out hymn books and notice sheets without a glimmer of recognition or welcome, then you must also find other people who will actively welcome visitors and newcomers.

I can never understand why we are often encouraged to witness at work and in our daily lives anywhere, but then the church neglects to welcome properly the people who voluntarily come through its doors on Sundays. These people should surely be our primary responsibility.

Sometimes, people forget that volunteers can change their mind and simply stop volunteering. They need to be looked after and appreciated; normally, just the knowledge that someone (like the churchwarden) knows what they are doing is appreciation enough. A little thanks occasionally does go a long way.


THERE are, without doubt, many frustrations for churchwardens, and many occasions when anger is the initial response. Most members of the congregation never understand the complexity of the task, since they see only the tip of the iceberg: the church services and the occasional meeting. One favourite is to ask “Why haven’t they done . . . ?” when they really mean “Why hasn’t the churchwarden done . . . ?” My response is usually to ask who is meant by “they”.

PCC members have the opportunity to see the overworked churchwarden in action at PCC meetings. Some members even appear to delight in arguing against a proposal from the churchwarden for no reason other than a desire to say something at least once in a meeting. Others take pleasure in reporting building defects or raising other issues that they have not bothered to mention to the churchwarden beforehand, failing to appreciate the criticism that they imply.


I LIKE to do things right, and I like to see them done correctly. If there is a home for something, it should be put back there, not left lying around. So, I am really annoyed by the people who put the wrong things in the wrong recycling bin, or don’t put the AV equipment away properly, or put on all the lights in church because they cannot be bothered to select just the set they need.

As Christians, we have a duty to care for the planet by recycling as much as we can, and by not wasting carbon-fuel electricity (quite apart from not wasting the church’s money). Our worship is meant to be orderly: shoddy worship is surely an affront to God. An untidy church or a muddy churchyard implies a similar lack of care, and is not likely to attract or hold newcomers.

I take great comfort from what is probably my favourite verse: “Let your light so shine before men [and women] that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5.16).

Everything that I have done as churchwarden was done simply because I know that I am already saved through grace, and I can do nothing to improve on that. I am not after the gratitude of men and women, because I know that God knows my heart and sees what I do, and that is enough for me.

Rotas, Rules and Rectors: How to thrive as a churchwarden by Matthew Clements is published by Troubador at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9).


Read more about T. S. Eliot, the churchwarden, here

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