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Strategic Development Fund opens a route to faith, says study

10 March 2022

But the programme has also exposed questions of trust

Sir Robert Chote

Sir Robert Chote

STRATEGIC Development Funding (SDF) has enabled many people to be “brought to faith”, a new review of the programme concludes, despite the difficulty of measuring the creation of new disciples. The programme has also served as a “lightning rod” for a lack of trust within the Church of England, the authors say.

The Independent Review of Lowest Income Communities Funding and Strategic Development Funding, published on Thursday, looks back over the five years since two funding programmes were rolled out nationally, and it makes recommendations for improving them.

Commissioned by the Strategic Investment Board (SIB), a sub-committee of the Archbishops’ Council, it was conducted by Sir Robert Chote, an economist who chaired the Office for Budget Responsibility from 2010 to 2020; the Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Revd Sarah Clark; Stephen Smith, a former executive director of the National Audit Office; and Busola Sodeinde, a Church Commissioner, PCC member of Holy Trinity, Brompton, and chief executive of a digital publishing company.

The review engages with critiques of SDF, including a perceived bias towards the resource-church model and the Charismatic Evangelical tradition. It records that more than half (£91.3 million) of the total funding awarded has been allocated to resource churches. Among its recommendations is that the SIB should consider operating with “greater intentionality in ensuring that support is deployed across the full range of traditions and contexts”.

It also scrutinises reports on the number of “new disciples” created by SDF projects. Projects awarded funding between 2014 and 2021 were expected to create 89,375 disciples; to date, 12,705 have been “witnessed”. In the time period, dioceses have spent £74.5 million of the £176.7 million of SDF grants awarded by the SIB.

Among the recommendations is that more needs to be done to explain how the reported number is calculated. But it also cautions against “allocating funding mechanistically to the projects that seem to offer the higher numbers of disciples per pound”.

The review team found “limited evidence of systemic learning on what solutions work in what contexts”.

Lowest Income Communities Funding (LInC) is “sustaining ministry in many poor communities that would otherwise lose it”, the review concludes, while noting that just over half (56 per cent) of the money went to the 25 per cent poorest communities in 2020.

Shift in funding streams

It is now seven years since a task group led by the finance chair of the Archbishops’ Council, John Spence, published Resourcing the Future (News, 16 January 2015), a report that proposed a “fundamental shift” in the ways money from the Church Commissioners was distributed to dioceses, warning that those currently deployed had “only a superficial link to growth and have failed the poorest communities” and that “a large amount of money is subsidising decline.”

Under the existing approach at the time, most central funds had been provided under the Darlow formula, which calculated the needs of parishes on the basis of financial need and attendance. This was replaced with the two new funding streams (News, 21 October 2016). Half of the total (£24 million per year at the outset) would be earmarked for the dioceses with the greatest concentration of low-income communities through LInC. The other half, SDF, would be made available to dioceses through grants for which they would have to bid, demonstrating that their project would result in “a significant difference to their mission and financial health”.

The new approach was introduced in 2017, to run until 2026.

The Archbishops’ Council has been challenged to conduct and publish an independent review of SDF. While some dioceses have published evaluations of their projects, including Leicester (News, 3 October 2019) and Portsmouth, many others have not. Mr Spence, who also chairs the SIB, told General Synod in 2019 that by the following year there would be enough evidence for an “objective, thor­ough, and independent review” (Features, 15 November 2019).

The review published this week was tasked with exploring what the funding streams had achieved and how national funding could be best used in the future to enable dioceses to deliver growth in “numbers, depth and social transformation”.

The four authors had four months to complete the review in the autumn of 2021 and were instructed by the Terms of Reference set by the SIB to use only “existing material collected from projects or obtained through the group’s own work, rather tan commissioning additional new research or evaluation”. Most of the data draw on the work of the Strategic Development Unit (SDU), based at Church House, which supports the SIB in making funding decisions and monitors the performance of SDF projects once under way.

Last week, Sir Robert acknowledged that, besides the constraints of the pandemic, a limitation had been relying on data collected by the SDU: “In terms of some of the bigger ‘Well, what has the outcome or impact been?’, in an ideal world you would have done a much large exercise with more bottom-up evidence gathering . . . There is a strong case for doing something of that scale towards the ten-year mark.”

But, he added: “Even if you had been able to do that, there is a limit to how firm any conclusions on impact can be at this stage, because it’s only been running for effectively five years in the current form. Two of those have been very unusual years because of Covid.”

The panel was “balanced” between “outsiders” and those operating within the Church, he said. It had “dug around in the weeds and the numbers a fair bit, and hopefully dealt with that as independently and candidly as we can. . . We have done the best we can with the information that we have got, but it’s not all the answers by any means.”

The review notes that the objectives for SDF set by the Archbishops’ Council “generally focus on process rather than outcomes”. Among its recommendations is that the Archbishops’ Council should “review interactions between the SIB and the SDU to satisfy themselves there is adequate mutual challenge and independence of view and reduce the perception of groupthink”.

Besides reviewing SDU documentation, the team consulted the national church institutions, dioceses, church networks, General Synod members, and churches and projects supported by the funding. They also visited Manchester and Exeter dioceses, held focus groups with diocesan secretaries and programme managers, and sent a survey to all dioceses through bishops and diocesan secretaries, securing 31 responses.

In their foreword, the team observes that: “As a response to the perceived failure of the Church to serve particular communities effectively, SDF projects are of their nature disruptive to the existing church ecology and thus elicit strong positive and negative reactions. We expected to hear these in our engagement with stakeholders but have still been struck by a broader lack of trust and unity of purpose for which these schemes seem to serve as a lightning rod.”

Lowest Income Communities Funding

LInC goes to 27 dioceses. While most dioceses distribute the funding to their poorest parishes by formula through the parish-share system, others treat it “more as part of general resources”, the review says.

It notes concern among some stakeholders that some dioceses “do not use LInC funding as intentionally as they could to support ministry in the poorest communities but rather use a significant proportion elsewhere”. This concern “may be valid in some instances”, the team concludes, “the evidence we have seen and heard suggests that LInC does deliver significant additionality in the sense that it supports a significant number of clergy posts in poorer parishes that would otherwise be lost.”

Dioceses reported that the money was supporting at least 1700 parishes, with each allocated, on average, £14,000 per parish supported (”roughtly equivalent to a quarter of the cost of a clergy post”).

The SIB stated in its latest annual report that, by the end of 2019, at least 40 per cent of hte funding was directed to the most deprived ten per cent of parishes. The independent review confirms that the amount allocated to the 25 per cent poorest communities has risen from £12.5 million in 2017 (35 per cent of the total) to £19.2 million in 2020 (56 per cent of the total).

Last week, Sir Robert said that the fact that the proportion was “moving in the right direction” was “probably more important than being terribly confident about the exact number”. Some dioceses were “using some of the money for central spending but it may be central spending that is very much of benefit to those poorer parishes.”

Among the review’s recommendations is that the SIB and SDU should “estimate and communicate more clearly the extent to which LInC funding is sustaining ministry in poorer communities, based on a consistent methodology for calculating clergy costs”.

The most frequent response from dioceses asked to rate the impact of the funding was “somewhat” rather than “highly” positive. None reported a “highly positive” impact on numerical growth in supported parishes.

The review contains a look at the impact of the shift from Darlow to LInC on diocesan funding. In 2020, Chelmsford confirmed that it would be cutting 60 stipendiary clergy posts over 18 months (News, 12 June 2020), citing the loss of £1 million in central funding among the causes. A study led by clergy in 2019 reported that the change in funding under Resourcing the Future had been “traumatic” for some dioceses, and that dioceses were not consulting low-income communities on their spending choices (News, 8 November 2019).

The review reports that Bristol and Worcester’s annual funding more than doubled between 2016 and 2022, while Chelmsford and St Edmundsbury & Ipswich’s fell more than 30 per cent. Transitional funding has been in place so that every diocese has received at least as much in total between 2017 and 2021 as they had been under Darlow. Nevertheless, four dioceses incurred a net reduction in funding.

Another critique acknowledged in the review is that dioceses with relatively high average incomes “may still have significant pockets of deprivation”. It concludes, nevertheless, that the benefits of addressing this “would likely be outweighed by the greater uncertainty, complexity and disruption that another change and the need for fresh transitional arrangements would cause”.

One “caveat” expressed by dioceses was that LInC “helped to sustain low as well as high quality ministry in poor parishes, given the difficulty of moving on or retraining relatively ineffective clergy”. Some dioceses, it emerges, have used SDF to “increase the effectiveness of mission in deprived areas through carefully considered clergy transitions, but awareness and use of this seems to be limited and there is a case for encouraging dioceses to use LInC funding more for this purpose.”

The review recommends that LInC should be “at least” maintained for the rest of the ten-year period.

Strategic Development Funding

SDF was being distributed before Resourcing the Future. Since 2014, SDF funding of £176.7 million has been awarded. Of this total, £74.5 million has already been spent in dioceses and a further £102.3 million is still to be drawn on in projects already under way or approved. The SIB expects to make a further £14.7 million available in 2022. The funding has been allocated to 84 projects in 39 dioceses.

The SIB has reported “multiple examples of parishes revitalised”, new worshipping communities created, the support of 530 additional ordained and lay posts, plus 170 interns and apprentices and 240 “additional support roles to enhance diocesan capacity”.

The review team notes that it has been “hugely impressed by the projects we have been fortunate to visit”. It records that 74 million has been committed to deprived areas, and that funding per capita has been higher on average in the north and Midlands than the south, reflecting “the concentration of larger SDF projects in relatively deprived urban areas”. Spending per capita was £4.90 in the north-east and £2.20 in London.

Among the metrics reported by the SIB is the number of new disciples created by the SDF programme. Its 2020 annual report stated: “Based on current data from dioceses it is estimated that around 11,500 new disciples have been witnessed so far through the projects supported by SDF . . .

“It is anticipated that the total number of new disciples that will be created through all the projects supported to date will be around 69,000 and the projects will also engage with an additional 55,000 people who will potentially become new disciples.”

Many successful SDF bids included targets to increase the number of new disciples in the diocese by at least 1000 people. Birmingham’s “Growing Younger” programme was expected to produce at least 1000 new disciples by 2019 while Carlisle’s “God for all” project was to lead to 1500 new churchgoers. Guildford expected its “New opportunities” programme to produce up to 2000 new church members after five years while one of the most ambitious goals was set by Southwell & Nottingham which aspired to welcome 7000 new disciples by 2023 through “Wider, younger, deeper”.

The SDU reports that projects awarded funding between 2014 and 2021 were expected to create 89,375 disciples; to date, 12,705 have been “witnessed”. Of the 61 projects started since 2017, just five are responsible for 53 per cent of the reported 6300 new disciples.

SDU staff told the review that they “did not regard the estimates of new disciples witnessed and expected for individual projects as a robust basis to compare their actual and expected performance”. The review also notes that the definition of new disciples “varies considerably between projects and the numbers of reported new disciples do not always reflect the reality on the ground.” A variety of different measures of numerical growth have been adopted.

Both the number of new disciples and “fresh social action” are “very hard to measure accurately and consistently”, the review says; “people’s journeys to faith can be lengthy and complicated.” The methodology used by the SIB “could be improved”. Despite these caveats, the review asserts that “many people have been brought to faith by these projects through a variety of different pathways”.

There remained a strong case for targets and measurement, Sir Robert suggested last week; the SDF programme entailed “a lot of money”, and it was important that the Church be “accountable and intentional in the way that that is used”. But he cautioned: “You don’t want a cookie-cutter approach that says that all good schemes must look like this and deliver on this relatively limited number of criteria.”

One of the challenges of transparency around outcomes was the impact on those leading projects, he agreed. When it came to giving people permission to try and fail, “It’s all very well to say that in the abstract. If you are the person who is leading the project or bringing people together, it’s a world of difference to say ‘Well, actually that was a nice idea and it failed,’ beyond that appearing as a statistic in a chart or a table; so that has to be dealt with sensitively.

Resource churches

The review notes perceived biases in the distribution of SDF. The most frequent criticisms were: “a bias towards the now tried-and-tested ‘resource church’ model; a bias towards the Charismatic Evangelical tradition; a bias towards projects that end up serving predominantly white, middle-class worshippers; a perceived refusal to consider even potentially strong projects in rural areas”.

In total, resource churches account for around two-fifths of SDF projects. More than half (£91.3 million) of the total awarded has been allocated to new resource churches or to developing existing churches into resource churches, with a further £11.6 million allocated to church-plants.

The SDU’s own analysis of resource churches suggests median attendance of 400 after three years; median additional giving of £200,000 by year three; a majority of those attending under 30 (versus a majority in the wider Church of under 55); on average four people per resource church in discussions about ordination at the time of the survey; and planting on average twice every three years. It also suggests that the average church-plant covers its costs by the end of year three.

The review records that resource churches in Derby, Portsmouth, and Crawley “have all resulted in aggregate diocesan attendances and giving growing after years of decline”.

An evaluation of Portsmouth’s five-year pioneer project, including a resource church, published by the Church Army Research Unit last year, produced a more nuanced picture. Attendance at the resource church had grown from 150 to 500, but 70 per cent of those attending were already churchgoers before arriving, and congregational giving did “not come near to covering the full running costs”. The report concluded that city-centre resource churches “may, like many other churches, continue to be financially dependent on the wider Church”.

The independent review also considers concerns about “transfer growth”, citing a study by the SDU that looked at the closest 100,000 people to four “relatively mature” SDF resource projects. It found that in the three of the four cases, “attendance at the neighbouring churches had continued on the same path as before the resource church was planted. In one case the local decline was greater but within the bounds of what other urban areas had seen. The growth in the resource church exceeded any ongoing decline in other parishes.”

The review also cites the “Who’s there” research published by the Church Army (commissioned by the SDU), which suggests that 59 per cent of disciples in Fresh Expressions of Church are from existing churches (not necessarily the Church of England).

Resourcing the Future offered the reassurance that, “the focus on evaluation will mean that the Church can have confidence that its mutually shared resources are being stewarded effectively”. But the independent review records “limited evidence of systemic learning on what solutions work in what contexts”.

Last week, Sir Robert said that there had been “more from the SDU and others’ work on the resource-church model than on anything else, which is appropriate given that’s where the largest single chunk of the money had gone”. One of the challenges for other projects was that they were fewer, making it difficult to reach “a firm conclusion about what works and doesn’t work. . . But the more that can be done to learn and to apply those lessons, the more can be done to exchange experience, the better.”

When it came to measuring transfer growth, a challenge was “spreading the analytical net wide enough to get a robust answer” — beyond the closest C of E churches to those of other denominations, for example. But this was “a big exercise worth doing”.

Tradition bias

The team concedes that a lack of data about projects and church traditions means that “suspicions of funding bias are hard either to prove or to rebut definitively.” It acknowledges that resource-church and church-plant projects “tend to be associated with evangelical traditions”. In total, 14 per cent of funding has gone to projects exclusively made up of plants from the Church Revitalisation Trust (CRT) network linked to Holy Trinity, Brompton, and a further 29 per cent has gone to projects where CRT churches are present among those of other networks and traditions.

The review observes: “Given the professionalism, shared services support and track record of that stable, it is hardly surprising they are often the first port of call for a diocese seeking numerical growth relatively quickly. One key success factor has been CRT’s ability to leverage lessons to both develop and replicate its model.”

While advising against quotas or targets for funding by tradition, it recommends that the SIB should “balance its responsiveness to diocesan requests in support of their strategies with a greater intentionality in ensuring that support is deployed across the full range of traditions and contexts and across diocesan borders so as to appeal to a broad spread of individuals in communities and increase diversity of worshippers”.

Other recommendations are that the SIB should “consider addressing social class more explicitly as a criterion as well as working to ensure that these groups are better represented among project leaders” and that UKME/GMH communities should be “better reflected in the allocation of funds in future and also in the make-up of those setting the strategy for and implementing the SDF programme”.

The review finds that there is currently no monitoring of the diversity of the leadership of SDF-funded churches, “but we have heard anecdotally that they tend to be more white, young, male and middle class on average than the communities they serve and more male than current cohorts of ordinands entering ministry.” It is important where possible, it says, “for leaders to represent the communities they serve to inspire individuals to follow in their footsteps”.

When it comes to rural areas, it observes that “there appears to be an increasingly urgent need to road-test potential future models for the unresolved missional challenge of sustainable rural ministry — not just for its own sake but to allow resources to be redirected to other areas.”


Other findings

The review concludes that the SDF programme has “improved strategic and project management capability to effect missional change in dioceses”. But some dioceses reported that “the financial burden of co-funding large or multiple SDF projects had created or exacerbated financial pressures, requiring cuts to other areas of activity.”

There also remained a “widespread belief” in dioceses that the time horizon over which projects were expected to be self-financing (five years) was too short. The review observes that “the current speed at which new disciples come to the church . . . confirms that many projects will struggle to achieve financial sustainability in five years.”

When it comes to leadership, the team write: “We have been hugely impressed by the courage, resilience and creativity of project leaders we have met who have been central to the success of the projects they are spearheading. But in some cases, projects have failed largely because of leadership problems.”

The review concludes that both LInC and SDF are operating against a backdrop of seven decades of numerical decline — a trend set to continue. “On no realistic estimate of impact-per-pound-spent can these streams be expected to reverse this decline on their own.”

A key recommendation of the review is that the objectives and evaluation criteria of the two schemes need to be aligned to Vision and Strategy, to address a “lack of trust and unity of purpose”. SDF should be used to “scale up promising ideas in both size and across locations, to help roll out relatively proven missional concepts and to develop and adapt them for new contexts”.

But it also cautions against “allocating funding mechanistically to the projects that seem to offer the higher numbers of disciples per pound. After all, the objective of SDF is to target contexts that the Church has traditionally found missionally challenging and not necessarily the lowest hanging fruit.”

The team concludes that, “by intentionally doing something different the SDF provides the opportunity of growth, ensuring that decline need not be inevitable.”

Read the review here

Leader comment: Jury still out on SDF strategy

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