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Empower churches for growth

12 August 2022

Setting targets need not discourage, if it is done in the right way, argues Abi Hiscock


AS A Growth Enabler for the diocese of Rochester, I have spent time with parishes to help them to discern how they are called to minister and to plan for growth. It has not been easy. The pandemic slowed things down, but the pervading challenge was and remains the fear of failure.

I came to growth-enabling from Global Citizen. This is a global advocacy charity that encourages world leaders to make catalytic commitments to ending extreme poverty by 2030. Despite achieving significant wins, we rarely met our internal targets. There was always more that could have been won, and more that could be done to overcome the intersecting factors that lock lives into extreme poverty.

Yet, curiously, the “impact culture” drove its exponential success. Had we not dared to quantify what it would mean to end a systemic problem permanently, our efforts would have been lost: a drop in the ocean of the problems faced by more than 700 million people living in extreme poverty. Global Citizen’s impact inspires because we explained and celebrated how our efforts transformed lives — and every target failed spurred us on.

If church leaders feel forced to meet impossible targets, of course we risk “trampling on . . . [their] well-being and resilience” (Comment, 8 July). But this is to confuse church-growth strategies with capitalism. Targets are an indicator of distrust only if we work in a blame culture that drives impressions of a Church that wants sustainability for its own sake rather than to combat spiritual poverty in every community.


AS I understand it, while projects funded by the national church institutions (NCIs) approve and monitor success indicators, as set by the diocesan project teams themselves, the new Church of England strategy falls some way short of setting dioceses impact quotas (these are where corporate HQs apportion performance targets for subsidiaries to deliver). Nor have I heard any suggestion of publishing diocesan performance league tables in the same way as school performance tables.

To use such language would be scaremongering. In contrast, enabling growth and envisaging a clear path to achieving it, is Christlike, life-giving, and biblical: think of Christ the gardener and the Great Commission.

Without clear targets to aim at, church decline is perpetually left for each generation to blame on the previous one — and so we spiral further into inevitable decline. This should not be so hard to fix.

The kind of growth objectives that I envisaged as a Growth Enabler are enabling and empowering. They would build a culture in which the only failure is not to strive, as that would be a celebration of stagnation. This means that churches and church leaders need to be empowered to deliver the impact that only the Holy Spirit can grant. They also need the reassurance that, if this turns out not to be the will of God, they have permission to fail, learn, and try again.

The pandemic provided churches in the diocese of Rochester with space to break out, tentatively, from a static view of planning and move towards a far healthier culture of growth, through agile and iterative planning approaches.

Agile planning is a concept born in the software-development industry, which concentrates planning on the short term, radiating to the long term, and recognising that not all projects need the first process to be completed before the next begins. This allows targets to be adjusted up or down as they progress. Impact cycles are achieved through either product evolution or timely release of a new product, once the previous product is set for market saturation. This builds greater resilience and adaptability into the process from the outset, while allowing initiatives to start before all the relevant information is known.

In a church context, such an approach creates space for the Holy Spirit to be part of the process, as regular prayer can form part of routine information-gathering. My mantra remains “Plan as you can, not as you can’t.” Faced with unprecedented challenges and change, churches wanted to envisage a path to growth which broke the mould of how things had always been, but also wanted to be very realistic about available information and resources.


THE next step is to overcome the sad and persistent narrative that dioceses and the national church institutions (NICs) want statistics more than the nurture of parishes. Thus, the fear of being judged will be dispelled by a new, Spirit-filled celebration of successes on the path towards a growing Church of England. Being a diocesan or NCI employee does not mean working for a “ministry of church extinguishment” — whatever may be the structural shape of a future Church in which a mixed ecology becomes the norm.

Instead, churches need to experience the dopamine effect that derives from the lack of a fear of failing, combined with the systematic celebration of success. Concern for personal well-being is rightly a priority, and a positive culture such as this fosters the mental health of church leaders, because growth indicators are not for dioceses or NCIs — even if they provide useful insights — but for all whose lives are transformed by their personal relationship with God in Christ, sustained by the work of their church.


Abi Hiscock is a Diocesan Growth Enabler in the diocese of Rochester, and a licensed lay minister.

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