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Estates ministry could use a gift or two

07 June 2024

Consider what help churches on housing estates need, says Sophie Cowan

Sophie Cowan

Members the congregation of St Mary’s, Stoke, Ipswich, at their recent away day at St Mary’s, Wittnesham, lent for the occasion

Members the congregation of St Mary’s, Stoke, Ipswich, at their recent away day at St Mary’s, Wittnesham, lent for the occasion

GIFTS are not an uncontentious thing. The worst gift that I ever received was underwear from my mother-in-law. I am not against the idea entirely, though it was not the most enjoyable present to open in front of my husband’s family on Christmas morning.

What is worse than the gift of underwear from your mother-in-law? I would say, receiving no gift at all — which is the situation for many churches in areas where there is severe financial hardship. Often, these are churches based on estates.

Sophie CowanChildren from St Mary’s, Stoke

You might say, “All ministry is tough ministry,” and I would have to agree: the spiritual battle is real. When you are battling on all fronts, however, and the pressure of poor finances rises like a Goliath who knows you’ve not got a stone to throw, we in estate churches find ourselves asking: where does our help come from? And we pray for the Lord to send the gift of support from our sisters and brothers in Christ.

You may wonder: what is an estate church? And why should we be sending them gifts? You may have thought about blessing your local estate church with a gift of some kind, but are not sure where to start.

The National Estates Church Network (NECN) has been working tirelessly to ensure that churches in areas that are economically deprived are better known, loved, and prayed for (and, therefore, not marginalised) by the broader Church. Thanks to its work, many Christians are aware of the faithful ministry that takes place in the context of social-housing estates: areas of housing which are provided by the local authority and originally intended to be secure, decent, and affordable.

It is worth knowing that the provision of council estates has been quietly eroded since 2011 by a shift of focus from social housing (historically 50 per cent of the market rate) to so-called “affordable” housing (up to 80 per cent of the market rate). Shelter, the housing charity, explains that “This is the reason there are 1.3 million households on social housing wait-lists. It’s the reason homelessness is at a record high in England right now, with over 145,000 children in temporary accommodation.”


MY LIFE started on estates, and that is where I have lived, worked, and served for most of my life — stepping out of my comfort zone for ordination training and curacy. As I followed the call, I found that I could not shift the weighty sense that estates were where I must minister. On estates up and down the country, I meet “my people”: working-class people, people surviving on benefits, and people suffering the impact of what can be described only as economic oppression.

In England, life expectancy for men living in the most deprived areas is 74.1 years; in comparison, those living in the least deprived areas live 9.4 years longer, reaching 83.5 years of age. In Britain, life expectancy and healthy life expectancy range drastically between 7.7 years’ difference and up to 25.1 years’ difference, depending on your postcode.

For my family, life expectancy is more like 20 years less than the national average of more than 81 years, and the years leading up to the old age of 60-plus often involve hard graft, low pay, and limited prospects. When clergy and laity embark on vocations that are set in the context of estate ministry, we generally do so knowing that huge financial challenges await us, and that limited basic resources in our parishes and benefices as a whole mean that we will struggle to see justice for those most in need.

The second question is easier: why get the wrapping paper out? The simple answer is because our sisters and brothers need support — and the good news is that there are innumerable ways to offer it. Here are ten ideas to get started, particularly if you’re blessed with buildings and resources.


The church away day

The church I serve in had never had a church away day until we were given the space of a rural church in our deanery. We spent the day casting our vision, while enjoying the setting and admiring the well-maintained building and all the facilities. You might think that this could cause a bit of jealousy, but, actually, the response of members of our congregation was joy and gratitude. There were comments about how good it was to have uninterrupted focus on our future, and, as good as the building was, it didn’t “feel like our home church”; so we were all excited to get back and get on with the mission and ministry that God has called us to in our context.


Host a course

. . . without trying to take over someone else’s ministry. . . I am convinced that neither life nor death, nor well-resourced churches, nor impossibly good staff teams, nor perfectly heated buildings will be able to separate us from the love of those we gather with in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord. That’s not quite the verse, though I expect you may get my point. If you want to offer a gift of hosting, be a “humble host”, whether for an Alpha course, Christianity Explored, or the soon-to-be-launched Finding Your Way course. No one will gratefully accept your potentially stealing away the people that they have been raising up in the faith.


Pray specifically

When I am asked how people can pray for our ministry on the estates in our parish, it is a precious gift to know that others are supporting us powerfully in prayer. It is not a small gesture at all (in case you were worried it might seem like the “£5 or less” gift on the Boots website). Ask the incumbent or PCC what would make the biggest difference to the ministry of their church — and pray specifically and regularly in support of their vision.


Share examples of successful grant applications

Applying for grants is time-consuming and admin-heavy. It becomes a dreaded, though unavoidable, task for many estate churches. Why not ask whether your local estate church would like an example of a successful submission? Or, better yet, ask if it would be helpful to start an application for them, and offer to meet with them to complete it.


Share your administrator

Could you spare a day a week of your administrator’s time to support your local estate church in whichever way they need most? It might be that they just need someone to look after car-parking permits so that they can raise funds through assets that they already have, or for someone to respond to hall-hire requests. Perhaps you might also have a church member who could volunteer to take this on.


Pay a bit of their parish share

This old chestnut is golden. And, if you offer and they say “No, thanks,” please give me a call, and we will be happy to help support your kind-hearted gesture!


Take the minister out for lunch

And just listen. Don’t give ideas unless they are asked for. Don’t assume that you have the answers to their struggles. Just give them your time, and let them have the gift of being heard.


Send in a cleaning team

There is a time to be born, and a time to die, and for much of the part in between, there is a time to clean. Every church building needs a clean-up on occasion. Perhaps you could get a spring-clean team together, and offer to come and get the church building glistening with no hassle and just a key needed. And no before/after pictures, please.


Support their website

Do you know someone who would make a commitment to meeting a designated person from the church, maybe once a month, to get the relevant info and update the website and/or “A church near you” page? Estate churches are often doing wonderful work, although other priorities can mean that we are not always able to let it be known to the world in quite the way we might like.


Recognise their gifts

Invite estate-church leaders to preach — and not just on estate-ministry stuff. Ask how they might be willing to support what you are doing, and value them for the God-cherished people they are, and what they have to offer the wider Church.


And a couple of “Don’ts” to consider: don’t attach strings to your gift — the “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” approach is not quite the wish-list item you might think it is — and don’t assume that a gift will always be wanted. It may be that your nearest estate church does not need or want a gift — all is well, praise God. Don’t forget to build relationships with those who are leading estate churches; the gift of friendship is, and always has been, invaluable.

Whether you have an estate church on your doorstep, or have to look a little further into the deanery or diocese, I hope you might think about what you could offer. Perhaps an entirely new idea has been sparked — be bold, and go where the Spirit leads.

Last, I think it is sound advice to say: Don’t give the gift of underwear — or, worse, the gift of nothing at all.


The Revd Sophie Cowan is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary’s, Stoke, in Ipswich, and is writing about estate ministry for a Ph.D.

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