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Leader comment: Peer review: Lessons from the Wigan evaluation

29 September 2023

“PLEASE don’t kick us!” the Bishop of Warrington wrote on social media on Tuesday, after reactions began to be posted to the evaluation of a seven-year programme to make Wigan’s churches more viable and more effective, measured against a set of targets. Of course, the easiest way not to be kicked is not to set any targets at all. It is a little unfair to hear those who have argued against targets lambasting Wigan for failing to meet them, and, in our view, the diocese of Liverpool is to be commended for expressing its ambition in concrete terms, and for publishing an honest account of successes and failures. Thanks to the report, we can list lessons that ought to be learnt by dioceses contemplating similar actions.

Implement structural change only when you must. The Church Wigan website begins: “OUR VISION is to enable one-in-ten people in Wigan to be on a discipleship journey with Jesus.” It goes on to talk warmly of “encouraging people to join in and belong, to explore and experience, to encounter Jesus in a fresh and faithful way”. All good (unless you are one of the nine in ten, perhaps). But, if you combine that vision with the turmoil of pastoral reorganisation — bank accounts, charitable status, PCCs, management patterns, rebranding, and the like — guess where all your energy will be spent. And Wigan now has to choose between the drain of keeping all its churches open or the pain of closing one church in five.

Nobody wants to pick shell out of an omelette. Sometimes it is necessary to break up the old in order to bring in the new, but we question the adoption in Wigan of the Kotter change-management process. Kotter’s first step, “creating a sense urgency”, is close to the technique of a street hustler. Timely consultation and reasoned argument are more effective ways of securing support.

Watch your language. The evaluation report wisely refers to Wigan’s seven new parishes. The town’s church websites seem to prefer “hub”. It will be a long time before the unlovely “Hub Leader” is used by parishioners (hubbees?).

A sense of place should never be underestimated. The Wigan report hints strongly that people’s loyalty to their nearest church can be measured in giving and legacies.

Clergy like being in teams. The days of the solitary parson are over; but beware group-think — and remember Readers.

Children should be seen? There is no time to do more than note the change of tack which allowed Wigan to log a success by counting children in schools rather than have them come to church. Is this the policy now?

Events, dear boy, . . . There will not be another pandemic for a while, we trust, but these are chaotic times. The making of plans needs to take account of factors beyond human control (which include the Holy Spirit, of course), and thus their evaluation needs to be merciful as well as honest.

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