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Leader comment: Sits vac. — how to fill those empty churchwarden posts

15 March 2024

IT IS a little too soon before Easter to be concerned with eggs, unless you’re a supermarket, but they come to mind when considering the dearth of church volunteers. This week’s investigation by Madeleine Davies of the problem of filling the offices of churchwarden or treasurer confirms what many have suspected: that the difficulties in their own benefice extend across most of the dioceses of the Church of England — and, we have no doubt, the other Anglican Churches and denominations in these Isles. The reason for the egg analogy is that almost all the Church’s focus in the past decades has been on the clergy, in other words, the yolk — bright, rich, colourful — rather than the laity, the transparent part of the egg, which so easily runs away. Yet it is the white that contains the greatest amount of protein, and holds the Church together. To push the analogy further, egg white only becomes white when heat is applied, just as in many churches the value of congregation members is recognised only when they pick up the burdens of running a church. But, if too much heat is applied for too long, they can become dry and crispy.

Enough of analogies. One of the most telling statistics in the feature is that more than three-quarters of existing churchwardens polled in one diocese would happily pass the responsibility on to someone else — if there were someone else. There is a joy in serving a church in this way and seeing it well run, but this can be swamped by the weight of administration which now falls on lay office-holders. And we fear that the joy/burden ratio tends to worsen when churches are grouped together, as many dioceses now believe is necessary. The Church’s strategists really do have to think again, not least about their ambitious plans to plant churches that rely heavily on lay leadership.

As for remedies, it is clear that many different attempts are being made to tackle the problem. The ones most likely to succeed are those that have grown organically — the sharing of tasks, and the identification of corners that can be cut without too much harm. We recommend the appointment of deputy wardens: it might seem an additional demand on the small pool of volunteers, but the evidence suggests that more people would be willing to play a subsidiary part, it shares the work of the wardens, and it ensures that the knowledge gained by existing office-holders is passed on to others. What is needed from the central Church is greater simplification and clarity, sound training — and, of course, a determination to end the ridiculous length of clerical vacancies; for this is when the work of lay officers increases exponentially. Concerning the administrative burden, there is value in assessing what can be done at a benefice rather than a parish level, and in a deanery rather than a benefice. With a larger group, it might be possible to fund a paid administrator. For, if volunteers can no longer be found for essential tasks, the Church must think about shelling out for some help.

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