A “PERFECT STORM” of declining church attendance, reduced giving, and stretched church leaders means that “we cannot, in good conscience, put our heads in the sand and hope that more of the same is the answer,” the director of parish transition and ministry development in the diocese of Leicester, said this week.
Canon Stuart Burns was speaking in response to questions about the formation of Minster Communities in the diocese, the first of which was launched at the end of last month (Comment,19 May).
The Launde Minster Community (MC), the first of three areas in a pilot of the scheme, was officially launched on 30 April at a service at St Peter’s, Tilton on the Hill, at which the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow, commissioned the Community’s Oversight Minister, Canon Jonathan Dowman. The Community brings together eight benefices comprising 24 parishes (35 churches) that have committed to collaborate in mission and to offer their resources.
Feedback from PCCs in the area has highlighted a tension between parishes’ desire for the answers to practical questions around provision of the eucharist and the allocation of stipendiary posts and the diocese’s position that MCs “aren’t chiefly about deployment” but “an issue of local discipleship, faith and vision”. In Launde, many decisions remain to be taken, including the deployment of ordained ministry, the identification of appointed ministers for each church, and how governance will work (the original diocesan framework envisaged a move to Joint Church Councils). PCCs have raised concerns about whether a proposed doubling of giving, necessary to fund four stipendiary posts, can be achieved, given small congregations.
Launde is the first of 20 to 25 MCs expected to be formed in the diocese by 2026, incorporating all 234 parishes (News, 8 October 2021). While each Minster Community will have an ordained Oversight Minister, the appointed minister for individual churches may be lay or ordained, stipendiary or non-stipendiary. The number of full-time stipendiary posts in the diocese is expected to fall by 20 per cent to 80 by 2026. The diocese has said that this will not involve redundancies but “reshaping posts through the established legal processes, working with parishes and their patrons, after clergy departures”. Not all of the 80 posts will be filled by clergy. The plan was voted through by the Diocesan Synod in October 2021, with 72 per cent in favour.
In his sermon at the launch service, Bishop Snow celebrated Launde as “pioneers”, and offered his “heartfelt thanks”. He said: “You have already had to let go of much that is dear.” Talking of the need to navigate a changed culture, with “no precise road map for the future”, he spoke of the importance of “letting go of our own culture, our own way of doing things” and the need to “look outwards”. Most of the diocese’s churches had no children who attended on a regular basis, he said.
Leicester faces financial challenges mirrored across the Church. In a film on the diocesan website, Bishop Snow reported a gap of “£1.5 million, maybe even £2 million” between parish-share contributions and the cost of parish ministry.
The benefices in the Launde Minster Community are already joined in the Launde deanery, which has two full-time stipendiary priests, in addition to an NSM who joined last year, and an allocation of some of the time of the Warden at Launde Abbey, as well as a team of lay leaders.
Canon Dowman joined the group last year as a joint Area Dean and Growing Faith Enabler. One of the stipendiary priests, the Revd Jayne Lewis, is currently the Priest-in-Charge of the Whatborough group of five churches, but also has duty of care for the Hallaton benefice, which also comprises five churches. In total, the 24 parishes serve an area with a total population of 7800, and 600 worshippers.
In feedback on a draft proposal for the MC, collected in February, PCCs observed that the deanery was “already working along these lines to a certain extent”, and that the proposal was “in main, reflective of the situation many of us in small, deeply rural communities are in”. There were hopes for “the ability to communicate with others for support, fellowship and resources” and “a more organised and sustainable approach to rural ministry”.
But concerns were also expressed, with finance and deployment of clergy a particular anxiety for churches that spoke of small congregations already giving and volunteering as much as they were able. Under the MC framework, parishes are expected to become self-sustaining: the number of stipendiary posts will be determined by the level of giving within the Community.
A document produced by a working group comprising clergy and laity in the deanery noted that the parish-share contributions amounted to approximately £110,000 a year, while the “desired target for supporting ministry in a Minster Community” is around £250,000 a year. It said that most of the parishes had a small membership and congregation, and that no parish or benefice was currently forecasting a contribution that fully covered the cost of one member of clergy.
But it suggested that, if the average amount donated by regular givers could be doubled to £10 per person per week and the amount was given in its entirety to parish contribution, the community could support four stipendiary posts.
“With the best will in the world we cannot see how the cost of three, let alone four, stipendiary posts can be raised,” one PCC wrote. “All the regular congregation are as generous as they are able to be.”
“Since the pandemic, we have one service every two months, instead of two a month; so our income from collections is reduced,” one wrote. Another wrote of services reducing from 26 to eight in the year: “We are very concerned that we will not be able to commit to the financial side of the Minster Community, and what will happen if we cannot.” There were questions about “how additional administrators / oversight / co-ordination will add cost effective benefit to the parish” with the observation that, “the need is for the availability of ordained ministers.”
“There is a sense from all communication received from the Diocese . . . that the PCC are being obstructive, unwilling and ungenerous in the money and time we give,” one wrote. “Our PCC works incredibly hard, juggling work and family life to attempt to keep our church as a living, vibrant part of our community. We estimate that the PCC gives about 20 hours per week across all members.”
PCCs wanted more certainty about their position and responsibilities in the new structure, as well as service patterns, and what financial contribution they would be expected to make. One quoted approvingly the observation made by the working group that, “Should the number of clergy be constrained due to lack of funds, then this will clearly impact the number of services and spiritual support. Parishioners will ask what the Parish Contribution is going towards when there is a low level of spiritual support provided. This may well create a ‘doom loop’ where giving further reduces and thus less funding further shrinks the number of clergy available.”
On Tuesday, a diocesan spokesperson said that MCs “aren’t chiefly about deployment. It is first and foremost an issue of local discipleship, faith and vision. . .
“It will be up to the local parishes and worshipping communities to work out together . . . the precise details of the best combination of the posts for their own Minster Community and to make appointments accordingly. Each individual current post holder will have the opportunity to be a part of these vocational conversations, to discern how their individual ministry can be shaped to best support and enable the Minster Community vision.” Across the Community, “vocational conversations” were underway.
“We absolutely understand people’s anxiety about not knowing the answers to the practical questions,” Canon Burns said on Tuesday. “But we also hear many other anxieties, particularly from those carrying church roles, about their ability to keep going as things are. There has been a perfect storm brewing for many years of declining church attendance, reduced giving, and stretched church leaders which means we cannot, in good conscience, put our heads in the sand and hope that more of the same is the answer. . .
“As churches engage in the facilitation process and realise Minster Communities are not ‘done to’ something, but something they work together to shape, then their anxieties significantly lessen.”
Asked about recruiting lay people into ministry roles in the new communities, Canon Burns said: “I don’t think recruitment is the right phrase. Our vocations work focusses upon releasing, equipping and nurturing. We have noticed how many people are put off formal vocations within the Church and who just do ‘good stuff’ — whether that’s working with children and young people, evangelistic outreach or pastoral care. Through the Shaped By God Together process, we aim to demystify the discernment and training process behind lay leadership but also simply encourage people where they are.”
Launde is one of three pilot areas for MCs, alongside North East Leicester, and Coalville and surrounding villages. While PCCs can choose not to join a MC, a diocesan FAQ notes that: “a refusal to participate will mean a reduced level of resource being available to the individual parish.”
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