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‘Fruitfulness’ strategy to engage young people in Durham diocese awarded £8m

15 March 2024

Diocese of Durham

A new church plant in Durham diocese, Magdalene Community Church, based at Chopwell, near Gateshead, is led by the Revd Rachael Phillips. It has no permanent building

A new church plant in Durham diocese, Magdalene Community Church, based at Chopwell, near Gateshead, is led by the Revd Rachael Phillips. It has no pe...

THE diocese of Durham has been awarded £8 million by the Strategic Mission and Ministry Investment (SMMI) Board for plans that include an ambition to “double the number of young people engaged in weekly discipleship over the next three years”.

SMMI is a new funding stream through which funding is allocated to dioceses (News, 18 March 2023). It replaces Strategic Development Funding, Strategic Capacity Funding, and Strategic Transformation Funding. It includes a £340-million Diocesan Investment Programme for the current triennium (2023-25), for which dioceses can bid “to advance their plans for . . . local parishes and communities”. Bids must be in line with the priorities of this overarching strategy for the 2020s.

A press release issued by the diocese of Durham this week said that the £8 million had been secured to support its “Called to Fruitfulness” strategy. It would fund a number of initiatives, including planting at least 20 new worshipping communities, revitalising the mission of up to nine parishes (including a specific programme at Sunderland Minster), and developing youth and children’s “mission hubs” — churches engaging at least 25 young people in weekly, active discipleship — in up to 20 locations. One aim is to double the number of young people “in active weekly discipleship”.

There will also be support for parishes to further links with schools, through “missional chaplaincy” and other means, and for “developing new leadership pathways to equip and release hundreds of new lay leaders”, with a focus on “raising up and supporting new youth and children’s leaders”.

In 2021, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, noted the closure of churches in his diocese and warned that, “realistically, the situation is grave. Unless we see new growth over the next ten years, there will be many more closures.” One third of the parishes are in the ten per cent most deprived communities nationally.

Between 2014 and 2019, adult attendance fell by 18.9 per cent (compared with 11.7 per cent nationally), while child attendance declined by 29.6 per cent (compared with 16.7 per cent) to 1900. A study of one deanery at the start of 2020 forecast that, by the end of the 2020s, only three of the current 12 churches would have “viable congregations”. Around the diocese, a decline of one third in Sunday attendance by 2029 was projected.

In 2021, a five-year strategy — “Renewing Pilgrimage” — was launched. The following year, a ten-year “Called to Fruitfulness” programme was adopted by the diocesan synod, with a view to securing SMMI funding. A key strand is church-planting: the diocese seeks to plant 100 congregations by 2029 — a contribution to the national goal of 10,000 (News, 2 July 2021).

It has set targets including 450 lay and ordained leaders “equipped and supported between 2016 and 2029”, and for new congregations to grow to an average size of 50, “with the majority being previously unchurched, younger and more diverse”.

The diocese also hopes to establish church-based missional chaplaincy teams in every college of further education.

The diocese secured more than £11 million of SDF between 2016 and 2022, including £3.9 million to invest in five churches in the centres of Bishop Auckland, Durham City, Gateshead, Stockton Central, and Washington, in 2019 (News, 23 January 2019); and £4.2 million, in 2020, towards the creation of 14 “Communities of Hope” (News, 8 July 2020). Led by local lay people, these include Hope4All, in Sunderland, a project run by St Thomas’s, on the Pennywell estate, where attendance had dwindled to 12. Now, it runs a community shop and café.

Last year, the diocese was awarded £2.6 million from the Diocesan Investment Programme to fund the appointment of missional chaplains in further-education colleges, and enable “parish regeneration” through three interim change-ministers. The latter posts, funded for at least seven years, are being advertised (with a stipend of £42,394). Experienced parish priests are sought to “work as agents of change in parishes, equipping and enabling PCCs and congregations to deal with barriers to growth and change”.

In 2014, the diocese of Chelmsford was awarded an £850,000 SDF grant to achieve a “turn-around” in parishes that were struggling financially, through the appointment of interim min­isters “with a proven track record in turning around parishes” (Features, 15 November 2019). An evaluation reported that “in many cases the pattern of decline was not reversed in the lifetime of these short appointments, but that did not mean that positive progress had not been made.”

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