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ASSETS NOT BURDENS: Using church property to accelerate mission The Centre for Theology and Community (CTC)

March 27, 2017

anbTHE Church of England has 15,700 churches. It probably owns just as many church halls, and even more smaller meeting-rooms. In addition to vicarages, many parishes also own housing.

These buildings are often ex­pensive to run, and can be a source of anxiety. This report by the Church Buildings Review Group in 2015 estimated that £l in every £6 spent by parishes was capital expenditure on their buildings. Running costs, such as heating and insurance, have to be found on top of this.

Few clergy, however, would want to be without a permanent set of buildings. They are enormously use­ful in enabling a wide range of activities, whether Sunday services, Tuesdayevening PCC meetings, or Zumba in the church hall on Friday afternoons. Those churches that rent buildings (as many Pentecostal or independent churches do) nearly always want to settle in their own buildings.

Despite the importance, neces­sity, and expense of these buildings that churches own, they do not actually make much use of them.

The findings are stark. The CTC conducted an in-depth study of churches of all denomina­tions in the London borough of Is­lington, looking at how they used their buildings. The CTC ap­proached all of the borough’s 85 churches, and received responses from 44 (a response rate of 52 per cent). Of the borough’s 28 Anglican individual churches (not parishes), 21 responded to the survey (a re­sponse rate of 75 per cent). It is a large and illustrative case-study: the borough is home to 215,000 people, and contains extremes of wealth and poverty.

Of the 85 churches in Isling­ton, 62 own their own buildings.

Between them, they have 59 wor­ship spaces, 76 church halls, and 149 meeting-rooms — a signific­ant number.

Every church uses its buildings for Sunday services, and nearly

every church also uses its build­ings to serve the community in some way during the week.

The research, however, sug­gests that the overall utilisation of church spaces is low. On average, across the borough and across every denomination, church spaces lie empty and unused for most of the week. Among the churches sur­veyed, church halls were empty 57 per cent of the week; church wor­ship spaces were empty 69 per cent of the week; and church meeting-rooms were empty 75 per cent of the week.

The level of usage varies, but the overall picture is one of staggering waste. Church buildings are often described as “burdens”, but here are assets that sit idle for much of the week.

The estimated average gross in­come from church lettings in Isling­ton is currently £23,000 per church per year, it says. The total estimated weekly Sunday attendance of 16,900 is equivalent to eight per cent of the local population.

“For all the challenges of property values in London, there is an equal and opposite opportunity: land and buildings are historic assets offering huge potential for mission,” the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, writes in a fore­word to the report. “We need to shift our mindset from ‘liability’ to `asset’, and to embrace our buildings as gifts and not burdens.”

The report suggests that three-quarters of the churches in Islington are keen to increase community use of their buildings, for concerts, counselling, training, foodbanks, nurseries, and other purposes. It points to case studies of larger churches — such as St Paul’s, Old Ford, in Tower Hamlets — which, it says, are already “very good” at managing their buildings. “The solution lies in recognising their potential for mission — which leads to church growth. We need a change of mind-set.

“Rather than seeing ourselves as `owners’ it is often therefore more appropriate to think of ourselves as `stewards’ or ‘tenants’ who need to think carefully about what we .are handing on to others in the future.”

The report recommends a new “enterprise-based approach” to help churches “market and manage” their spaces, while generating an in­come.

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, the Lead Bishop for cath­edrals and church buildings, wel­comed the recommendations:  “Church buildings should never be silent mausoleums but always vib­rant centres of service at the heart of their local community.”

The Bishop of Islington, the Rt Revd Ric Thorpe, writes in an afterword: “Most churches don’t have building managers. They can­not afford them. That is why this report is not just helpful in high­lighting the huge opportunity for using buildings more effectively for mission, but also hopeful because it points towards a very practical solu­tion.”

THE Church must adopt a new mind-set towards its buildings. If it can find a way of unlocking this potential, there will be significant missional and financial benefits. Opening up churches could mean having them open for people to light candles and pray. It could mean hiring out the hall for community activities. Or it could mean entering into longer-term partnerships with nurseries or schools.

The missional benefits are ob­vious: new visitors, new relation­ships, new conversations. The fin­ancial benefits are significant, too: even the CTC’s cautious estimates suggest that the churches in Isling­ton could increase their gross let­tings income by nearly £3 for every £l that they currently receive.

Such a move is pushing on an open door. In the CTC’s survey, 75 per cent of the churches said that they wanted to see their buildings used more by the community. It rather prompts the question: why do churches not make better use of their buildings already?

The research contains a key in­sight: small- to medium-sized churches simply lack the skills and the capacity to market and manage their buildings. Thus, simply exhorting churches to try harder, or rely on good practice may work for well-resourced churches, but is mostly doomed to failure. The missional and financial benefits of most church buildings will be unlocked only if churches increase their capacity to manage their spaces actively.

The CTC believes that this could be delivered by an enterprise-based approach — particularly in urban areas, but also in some rural areas. The report proposes a new pilot social enterprise, Church Space-Ltd,, in London, to serve churches that are doing just this.

A not-for-profit-enterprise would be able to market and let spaces on behalf of churches, sharing the new income with the church on a “no win, no fee” basis. This would pro­vide new income for the church, and also cover its own costs. Such an approach is ideal for churches that simply do not have their own capacity to do this. Discussions have begun with potential funders about getting Church Space Ltd off the ground.

THERE is also much that larger and better-resourced churches can do to share with other churches their good practice and capacity. Those large enough to employ their own property- or facilities-managers could support neighbouring parishes in a way that benefits all. There is good practice worth sharing, too, some of which the CTC report describes in its case studies.

What about the risks? Would this just turn churches into money­making enterprises? No: the prim­ary purpose of a church building is to facilitate the worship of God, and that would remain. Most parishes have enough spaces, such as halls and meeting-rooms, to use for community activities. Indeed, greater use of these spaces may lead to the offering of more prayer in the main church.

By making better use of its spaces, the Church will serve communities more faithfully, and accelerate mission and church growth. It will have turned its burdens into assets.

Interestingly, of all the denominations surveyed, the Orthodox declined to respond. Independent churches weren’t keen, either.


The total estimated weekly Sunday attendance of 16,900 is equivalent to 8% of the local population (although the total church-going population will be higher than this as some people attend one of the larger city-centre churches)

The largest denomination is the Roman Catholic church, followed by Pentecostals and then the Church of England, accounting for 85% of church attendance in the borough between them

Of the 85 churches, 62 (73%) own their own buildings with the rest renting – mainly Pentecostal and Independent churches

Of the churches in our survey which rent, every single one said that they would prefer to own their own premises.

Nearly every single church is using its buildings to benefit the community in some way –either by providing church-run activities or hosting other organisations. In our survey, 97% listed at least one, and usually more, activities happening on their premises in the last year.

The most common activities are those supporting community life – hosting charity committee meetings, letting out spaces for social events and hosting music concerts.

The next most common activities are those involving service provision to meet local needs and promote personal wellbeing – children’s nurseries, counselling, keep fit, etc.

Some churches also help to support people’s economic circumstances – debt advice, job clubs, etc.

For centuries in Britain, many church buildings were traditionally the hubs of their communities – hosting public meetings (the origins of local government), meetings of local guilds (business meetings) and even being used for threshing and storing grain at harvest time with local fairs and markets often held in churchyards. Even our great Anglican Cathedrals have a long tradition of community use – in medieval times, they would host Mystery Plays and even fairs. As we have seen in this report, most churches today do seek to use their buildings to serve their local community in some way. We know that this can be challenging. But to deliberately leave church buildings empty for most of the week is surely akin to the man who received money from his master and rather than invest it – chose to bury it in the garden (the Parable of the Talents – Matthew 25:14-30).

The report is online here

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