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Wigan transformation fails to hit its targets

25 September 2023

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Wigan town centre, showing All Saints’

Wigan town centre, showing All Saints’

THE evaluation of a project to transform Wigan into a “missional powerhouse” — which entailed the grouping of 33 churches in a single benefice — has reported mixed success after seven years and the spending of £1.2 million.

The project has involved the creation of 29 new worshipping communities, but has not halted an overall decline in attendance. The churches’ financial deficit has increased eight-fold, and the present financial position is described as “critical”.

The independent evaluation of “Transforming Wigan” (TW) has been published as its diocese, Liverpool, embarks on yet more radical pastoral reorganisation, with every parish expected to vote whether to join other parishes in their deanery to form one large parish under the “Fit for Mission” initiative.

The results of the Wigan project — the first in the country to receive Strategic Development Funding (SDF) (News, 21 October 2016) — are also likely to be closely scrutinised by other dioceses embarking on plans to create what the Church Commissioners have described as “super parishes” (News, 2 July 2021).

A key lesson is that establishing new worshipping communities — a key objective of the national Vision and Strategy — is unlikely to turn around the Church’s financial woes, at least in the short term. The evaluation concludes that TW was “particularly effective at establishing missional and social-justice activities”, listing the creation of 29 new communities, with about 750 participants (rising to 63 if communities in schools are included).

But, in 2019, before the pandemic, giving was down 11.4 per cent on the 2014 figure. “Most money continues to come from established churches, with new worship communities contributing little to the parish share,” it observes.

The project was also unable to halt the decline in overall church attendance in the deanery. Average weekly attendance fell from 1718 in 2015 to 1567 in 2019, and 1150 last year. (There was a drop to 391 in 2020 during the Covid lockdown.)

The evaluation provides an insight into the challenge of executing structural and cultural change in the Church of England. One participant observed that it had been “done against a background of resistance”. It says that, seven years on, there is a feeling that: “Established churches have been neglected and traditional activities are less valued.”

In a press release attached to the report, the diocese acknowledged that one of the causes of the loss of regular income was that “some people disaffected by Transforming Wigan have either withheld their giving or transferred it elsewhere”. Some of the original objections to the scheme, articulated to the Church Commissioners, appear to be vindicated in the evaluations.

Among the outcomes of the project is that the diocese has reassured parishes that they will not be forced to join Fit for Mission.

The Wigan experience also raises questions about the consequences of changes designed to simplify governance. Reconfiguration meant that 29 parishes were reduced to seven, with the respective PCCs governing in partnership with a joint council. The Wigan Deanery Trust (WDT) was established and given charitable status to oversee “core services” including administration, finances, buildings management, communication, HR, safeguarding, and a Wigan-wide funeral service.

The evaluation concludes that the WDT enabled the deanery to “operate more efficiently and effectively”, including saving about £58,000 on building insurance. The new structure also made interactions with other agencies and the borough council easier. But a majority of feedback from both parishioners and clergy was that “the new structure added layers of bureaucracy and was more complicated” — something earlier objections foresaw.

They spoke of long PCC meetings, with “only the opportunity to consider administrative and financial issues, leaving no time to discuss vision and mission”. Individual churches had to wait for PCC approval to make decisions on purchases, while wardens and treasurers spoke of “the increased burdens of their roles and responsibilities now that they were representing more than one church”. There is now discussion about further reducing the number of parishes to two, or even one.

The Wigan experience also illustrates the difficulty of tackling one of the thorniest issues facing the Church: what to do about its buildings. Despite an initial aim being the closure of at least 20 per cent of the 33 in Wigan (“many in a substandard condition”), only two have been closed, and one repurposed. A buildings review began only this January.

Participants in the evaluation expressed concern that the issue had still not been addressed, “which will continue to cause anxiety amongst parishioners”.

One commented: “It’s going to all start again. There’s going to be a lot of upset — a lot of animosity. You’re dealing with a fragile and hurt community. It [the buildings review] could have been done at the beginning. There’s been seven years of change and still not enough money or clergy.”

Among the many positives listed are a surge in lay leadership through a “permission-giving environment” that — alongside training — enabled people to set up activities and courses, and the expansion of social-justice activities in the area, partly through a strong relationship with the local council. And it says that decline cannot be attributed to TW: both attendance and giving were already in decline.

A promotional video for Transforming Wigan described it as being “all about others, not ourselves, service over selfishness, about seeing the Kingdom first”, and there is much evidence in the report that this vision is being realised.

The evaluation was conducted by Kate Hutton, of Intergras Consulting, and was completed in May. It entailed 20 interviews with key stakeholders and nine focus groups. It contains the caveat that there was “passive resistance from some churches, which do not want to engage and therefore do not provide attendance and financial data”.

Last Friday, the diocesan secretary, Mike Eastwood, said: “We always knew that the Transforming Wigan project would be a major challenge, even without the disruption of Covid. Being the first to embark on a missional journey such as this takes courage, and it has been a challenge for all involved, and we didn’t get everything right.

“We also knew that Transforming Wigan would produce a great amount of learning that we, and the national Church, could benefit from. We are determined to do that. However, we can increasingly see the missional energy and dedication to facing the challenges that lie ahead with increasing confidence and excitement.”

TRANSFORMING WIGAN was established in 2013. It sought to “turn around the mission and financial strength in the strategically most vulnerable part of the diocese of Liverpool, enabling it to become a missional powerhouse”.

Wigan is the largest deanery in the diocese of Liverpool. At the start of the TW project, there were 29 parishes, supported by 18 incumbents, one pioneer minister, four curates, one house-for-duty minister, five self-supporting ministers, 33 Readers, 15 retired clergy with permission to officiate, and two prison chaplains.

One of the catalysts for the project was a reduction in 2013 in the number of incumbents from 24 to 18, at which point clergy “identified the need for an outside assistance in managing change leadership”, the report says. The bid for SDF funding was the result. There was no Wigan-wide consultation with parishioners.

The deanery had 33 church buildings, many in a “substandard condition”, and average weekly giving was the lowest in the diocese: £5.40, compared with the diocesan average of £8.57. Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of parishioners were aged over 50, and the SDF bid document warned that, “in ten years’ time numbers and money will fall off a cliff.”

In 2014, the Church Commissioners awarded the seven-year project £900,000 towards meeting a total cost of £1.2 million. The goals were ambitious, including a five-fold increase in the number of young people involved in church (measured in average weekly attendance), a real-terms increase in annual giving by £500,000, and a vision to “engage 1-in-10 people on a discipleship journey with Jesus”. The deanery has a population of 180,000.


The re-organisation

A PROJECT director, the Revd Tim Montgomerie, then Bishop’s leadership and strategy adviser in the diocese of Carlisle, was appointed in 2015, and led a team to initiate the changes until 2020, when the benefice of Church Wigan (CW) was officially formed. The report notes that there was no formal project-management plan or budget at the start of the project. A project team and “guiding coalition” were established to manage the change. Neither contained any lay representation, and the report states that “the majority of members of the two groups shared a similar ecclesiology and desire to see change within the deanery”.

Reconfiguration was proposed, causing “considerable upset and dissatisfaction” among some members of congregations and clergy: some participants in the evaluation described the division of new parishes as “illogical”. Of the 203 responses to the consultation in 2019, 53 per cent objected to the changes (60 per cent of which were from three parishes). The Bishop of Warrington, the Rt Revd Beverley Mason, was appointed to oversee a reconciliation process to address concerns raised by parishioners, but this was delayed by the pandemic.

In 2020, the new structure was implemented: the 29 former parishes ceased to exist, and a new team benefice, Church Wigan, was established, with seven new parishes, thought to be the largest team benefice in the Church of England.


Mission

TRANSFORMING WIGAN took place against a backdrop of steady decline in attendance in Liverpool: between 2014 and 2019, average weekly attendance among adults had dropped by 14.1 per cent. The evaluation records that, in Wigan, only one per cent of the population attended a Church of England service on a Sunday (another one per cent attended services in other denominations).

The evaluation is positive about the project’s impact on mission, concluding that: “TW has been most successful in getting people of all ages to explore faith, and has created the conditions to achieve the intended results of turning around the missional and financial strength of Church Wigan. Areas that are thriving are the new worship communities and social-justice activities, where parishioners have worked together beyond the confines of an individual, established church.”

It lists 29 “new communities”, with a total of about 750 participants, alongside 31 “inherited worship communities”. The original goal had been 200 worship communities with “more than 1500 new people engaged”.

In total, it says, 12,656 people have been “engaged in missional activities” (defined as “anything that engages non-Christians in a relationship with Christians who talk about Jesus”), with the training of “just under 200” lay leaders a key factor. It records that “new missional initiatives have brought in 1510 participants.”

The report highlights a tension, however: “For some people within the established churches, there is a sense that missional activities have been at the expense of their own communities. . . There was acknowledgement in parish FGDs [focus groups] that some people will not change. However, a strong feeling remained that older people and traditionalists had faithfully contributed over the years, through service and financial contributions, but had been neglected.”

Parishioners spoke of “loss of identity . . . and loss of traditions and theology, in particular, holy communion and music”.

Only one of the seven new parishes experienced any growth in attendance between 2015 and 2019, while others experienced steeper declines. Between 2015 and 2016, attendance in Chapelfields (Wigan East) — six parishes over a large area, overseen by one paid stipendiary priest — fell by almost 40 per cent.

“It is important to note here that there was a general downward trajectory for attendance and giving prior to the TW intervention,” the evaluation says. “The research is only able to establish that there has been a decline in attendance and giving, not if TW was directly responsible for this decline.”

One Focus Group participant commented: “Wigan would have declined, and TW may have hastened the decline in some churches in parts of Wigan, but it’s also fostered growth in unimagined parts of Wigan. . . Monetisation of that growth is a challenge compared to the regular bedrock of givers.”


Finances

FINANCIAL goals for TW were not met. The 2017 target was “a real-terms increase in annual giving by £500,000 underpinning further investment in mission and growth”.

The evaluation explains: “Whilst the outcome was achieved, it cannot be seen as a success as Church Wigan is in a precarious financial position. CW had a zero balance at its start-up, with no debt through contributions from old parish reserves and the diocese writing off the remainder of the debt. There was a budget to meet mission ministry costs in 2020-23. The unsettling nature of the new structure, combined with the devastating effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, meant that on average only 60 per cent of budgeted income was received in 2020-22. This remains critical in 2023.”

Overall giving was 88.6 per cent of the 2014 total in 2019, and, in 2020, only one parish paid its share in full. Between 2015 and 2019, there was a 3.26-per-cent decline in giving, and a sharp decline of 16.7 per cent at the start of/during the pandemic. The addition of the new missional communities did not lead to an increase in giving, and, between 2016 and 2021, the deficit between income and expenditure, as a percentage of annual income in the deanery, increased from 2.41 per cent in 2016 to 20.11 per cent in 2021: a factor of 8.3.

There is evidence that the decline in giving may be linked to the “considerable upset and dissatisfaction” caused by the reconfiguration: legacies promised before TW were withdrawn.

The report sets out the consequences of a failure to pay the parish share, including unfilled clergy vacancies. It says: “The diocese has been generous in providing financial support to CW, without which it would be in significant debt and stipendiary clergy would be down to only eight people.”

The evaluation also notes the impact of the pandemic, and observes that: “It is likely that the timescale of the TW project was not long enough to realise a net financial benefit from church-planting initiatives, possibly because it takes longer than the chosen project delivery period of seven years for new worship communities to become financially sustainable.”

A catalyst for TW was the reduction in stipendiary clergy in the deanery, and the report also observes that, while this has reduced the overall cost of ministry, “it may also have had a negative impact on overall church attendance.”

A key element of TW was the establishment of “Core Services”, with the aim of centralising the management of administrative functions and reducing the burden on clergy and officers. A number of part-time positions were funded, including a finance officer, a property manager, and a funerals co-ordinator, costing about 13 per cent of the total CW income.

The evaluation concludes that this enabled CW to “operate more efficiently and effectively”, including saving about £58,000 on building insurance. But it cautions that there is “considerably more work to do than fits into the funded person hours, and Core Services is therefore reliant on the goodwill of staff and the trustees”.

The report observes: “Turning around the financial strength of the deanery was an ambitious aim, especially given the number of parishes across a large geographical area and the age demographic. There was also acknowledgement from key stakeholders that the £1.2 million project budget was small given the duration and size of the project. The average amount of Church Commissioners funding for a project of this size today would be around £4 million.”

Social action and lay leadership

THERE has been a surge in social action undertaken by churches in Wigan since the establishment of TW, and an increase in the number of lay leaders. The evaluation concludes that the project has “set a precedent for the diocese and beyond in working with external partners, particularly statutory partners, in delivering deanery-wide, coordinated social justice activities”.

Six food pantries led and run by volunteers have been established in Wigan, while a Christians Against Poverty debt centre has been funded through £58,000 in donations from parishioners. Also in place are bereavement-support groups, and the piloting of the Transforming Lives for Good early-intervention project, providing coaching for schoolchildren.

The report says that there is now “active engagement” with the local C of E secondary school, and the deanery funds a three-year counsellor post there. It concludes that the new structure has made it easier for the local council to engage and invest financially. During the pandemic, CW became the council’s main distributor of food to those in need.

TW created “a permission-giving environment through training and support of lay leaders, enabling and encouraging leaders to set up and lead various activities and courses”, it says. A total of 106 people have attended “Cultivate” lay-leader training, and about two-thirds have gone into ministry.

One stakeholder commented: “[Most of the] missional leaders and licensed lay leaders in the diocese are in Wigan. Most of the new worshipping communities are in Wigan. The social justice such as the pantries . . . we just outperform every other deanery. . . And that’s not because we’re brilliant, but it’s because we’ve done this and we’ve focused on moving out and we’re reaping the benefits now.”

The evaluation notes, however, concerns about the attention paid to established lay ministries, some Readers feeling “sidelined”. It also reports that it has been more difficult to recruit people as churchwarden and treasurer on the new PCCs, and that churchwardens and treasurers spoke of “the increased burdens of their roles and responsibilities now that they were representing more than one church”. Some commented that it felt like a full-time job.


Clergy

RECONFIGURATION under TW entailed each of the seven parishes’ serving as a “hub” led by two stipendiary clergy, overseeing lay and ordained leaders working in teams. The seven hub leaders (Team Vicars) would join with the Team Rector in a core leadership team.

The evaluation reports that there are currently 13 stipendiary clergy (two fewer than planned), and that, in practice, not all parishes have two stipendiary clergy; some are reliant on self-supporting or retired ministers.

Clergy were among those who opposed the reconfiguration, and the evaluation confirms that a number have left or retired. Some “actively refused to disseminate any information to their congregations” about the project.

Among those who left was the Revd Denise Hayes, who left her position as Vicar of St Francis of Assisi, Kitt Green, and Marsh Green, in 2019, after five years of serving in the area. She told Wigan Today: “The changes in Wigan are a different ministry, and I know I haven’t got the skills and gifts needed to be a hub leader. I’m handing over to somebody who does.”

For the clergy that remained, the evaluation concludes: “The team is working well; team members support one another, and there is a lot of respect amongst the team for the team rector. . . For those who want to work in a team benefice, Wigan is now seen by some clergy as an attractive place to work: four curates appointed in 2020 have applied for jobs in Wigan.”

It documents a “significant change in the way clergy work”: there has been greater collaboration since 2019, which aided the response to the pandemic. A team benefice was, it says “agile, quick to adapt and provide a range of support which other deaneries struggled to do”.

But clergy are “thinly spread”, it says, warning that “pressures on them will continue given the reduction in giving and potential loss of funding for existing clergy roles, and the challenge of leading new worship communities alongside established ones. There is obvious tension between addressing the needs of established churches and new worship communities, as well as tending to all those who live within the parish and do not attend church services.”

Nevertheless, “even with added pressures of reduced clergy numbers, clergy and curates want to remain within the deanery”.


Learning

THE evaluation has been published against the backdrop of a wider conversation about the ambitious targets set under the SDF programme and the difficulty of measuring mission. The Chote review (News, 10 May 2022) concluded that more needed to be done to explain how the reported number of “new disciples” was being calculated, and found that “numbers of reported new disciples do not always reflect the reality on the ground”. People’s journeys to faith could be “lengthy and complicated”.

An original target in Wigan was a 500-per-cent increase in the number of young people involved in church. This was initially to be measured in average weekly attendance (put at 449 for under-16s at the start of the project), and yet the measure was later dropped. The outcome is recorded as a success by the report, which states that 8635 young people (five- to 18-year-olds) are “engaged in a discipleship activity”.

The Wigan report also highlights the potential for mission plans such as reconfiguration to produce pain and division. Among the barriers to implementation listed are “poor communication”, “buy-in from parishes not being as extensive as initially perceived”, and “people not wanting to change”. It observes: “Key stakeholders, lay leaders and those closely involved with TW appeared to understand the vision; however, parishioners not directly involved did not — through a mixture of not wanting to engage, but also not understanding what was happening.”

Focus-group participants suggested that “Wiganers are very parochial”. One said that the project had been carried out “against a background of resistance”. But the evaluation was told that “the use of business language and terms such as GC was inappropriate for the community it was targeting”. Some felt “that their queries and concerns were not listened to or dealt with in an appropriate manner”.

It also highlights the “significant impact” of the pandemic, which hampered implementation, including the recruitment of staff, and, nationally, resulted in a steep decline in attendance and fall in giving.


The future

THE “Wigan experience” has already shaped Liverpool’s six-year (2022-28) Fit for Mission programme. Against a backdrop of decline (70 per cent of its churches have been in “sustained decline for some time”), all deaneries are to embark on a two-year “change process”, whereby all the parishes contained are invited to join together to form one larger parish.

The programme has been supported by the Church Commissioners through a new £7.5-million Strategic Transformation Fund grant that is paying for “additional staff resources to enable the step change to take place”.

One of the results of the Wigan evaluation is that parishes will not be compelled to join, although an FAQ warns that “where there are unviable buildings and/or unviable congregations and worshipping communities there can’t be any blank cheque that says they can be sustained for ever.”

Another result is that the reduction in parishes will be more drastic: namely, to a single one, with Wigan’s seven deemed to be “still far too complex to coordinate”.

Liverpool’s vision for extensive reconfiguration into larger units of mission, combined with oversight ministry — “Some congregations will see the same clergyperson very regularly, Sunday by Sunday, week by week; others will be largely lay led and the congregation will only see the priest infrequently” — is also under way across other dioceses (Features, 10 September 2021).

The stakes across the Church of England are are high. The Church Commissioners are set to make grants of £240 million to dioceses over the next three years (News, 28 March), and the national Church has a vision of creating 10,000 new worshipping communities by the end of the decade (News, 2 July 2021). It remains to be seen whether the lessons of the Wigan experience will be learnt.

Read more on this story in this week’s Leader comment

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