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Leader comment: Might the SDF make a profit?

17 November 2023

THE Strategic Development Fund has been much criticised, but it is worth recalling why it was set up. The Church Commissioners, having had actuarial difficulties in the past, were carefully husbanding the Church of England’s investments for future generations. An argument was made, however, that the C of E would not survive far into the future if its chief source of income, parish giving, diminished as the number of givers fell. The Commis­sioners were persuaded, therefore, in effect to borrow from future generations to encourage this one by funding schemes most likely to provide numerical growth. The Chote review identified some of the problems in the first tranche of grant-giving, not least that the biggest grants went to the best bidders, not necessarily the best schemes. Nor was thought given to the effect on the parochial system of such an uneven distribu­tion. Subsequent funding has attempted to be more even-handed, though doubts remain.

The overall plan, none the less, was to make a profit (in church-speak: make “a significant difference” to dioceses’ “mission and financial health”). It is now possible to have a stab at whether this is working. It is necessary to assume that 26-27,000 new regulars attending SDF-funded projects, announced last week, is roughly correct. The total, however, includes children: 47 per cent of SDF funding was directed at projects to reach younger generations, and projects such as Wigan have included schoolchildren in their figures. But let us assume, for simplicity’s sake, 20,000 adults. So far, £116 million has been spent. Dividing that between 20,000 new worshippers works out at £5800 each, which needs to be recouped before the Church breaks even. The Synod heard in July that giving varied from diocese to diocese between £8 and £26 a week. SDF projects have warned that it takes a while to persuade new attenders to contribute significantly, and, if the new churches have embraced the old mission of preaching good news to the poor, there will be some who cannot pay anything at all. But non-payers are allowed for in the existing averages; so let us assume that the newcomers manage the average contribution, i.e. £17. Thus the payback time would be 341 weeks, or just over six-and-a-half years.

The assumptions and variables in this calculation make it almost meaningless, of course, but maybe not quite. Churchgoers, not excluding the clergy, like to emphasise the other-world­­liness of the Church’s mission. And, yes, growth should be measured in many more ways than numbers in pews or swipes of the credit-card-reading machine. But that is to pay too little attention to the concerns of countless PCC secretaries, diocesan secretaries, stew­ardship advisers, and, of course, the Church Commissioners’ staff. We say “countless”, but, of course, they are not: the responsibility for balancing the Church’s books rests on a relatively small number of hard-working people. who do such sums as these so that others are spared from doing them.

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