Friday, 18 December 2015

Church: It's all about sound management skills!

Or is it?

There I was discussing a situation facing a group of churches with a colleague who told me of the different family members in their patch. Starting at the top (according to my companion's rating that is) we had:

+ The 'comfortable' church: one of those picturesque places with the lytchgate, the nicely kept graveyard and the financially comfortable members. Adored by the diocese as a 'good giver' and desired by the wedding couples as a suitable backdrop for their big day, this was the jewel in the crown that was the parish.

+ The 'Mother' church - representing Christian witness in the area since Christianity first hit our shores this was the church building from which all others in the area owed their existence. Wonderfully ancient building containing almost equally ancient members and an astounding inability to raise enough to pay their parish share and yet manage to pay it thanks to monies saved and invested 'back in the day' when it was standing room only!

+ The 'Zombie' church - as pretty as the comfortable church and almost as old as the 'Mother' this place boasted a congregation of six (if all them turned up at the same time and an inability to pay what was needed, for income inversely matched the average age of the congregation!

+ The 'Estate' church - boasting a stable attendance with a moderately young congregation and a much reduced ability to raise income. Not surprising when you consider the profile of the people coming in terms of income. Few had jobs and yet here growth and engagement was to be found.

+ The 'Mission' church - built to serve a community who had long since moved away, this once community church had become very much a gathered church and the numbers were small and decreasing.

+ The 'rural' church - picturesque and historic to the extent that it was a real treasure and something all in the community agreed valued and loved. Sadly though, this love affair had no influence on attendance or income and it was now open on a monthly basis to cater for the handful who faithfully came when the doors were unlocked and the bell rung!

Nothing remarkable thus far, I am sure that many reading this will recognise one or more of the churches described here. Many might have suspected, and some will understand, that some in the diocesan organisation were looking to get rid of some of the buildings to save the endless outlays on maintenance and upkeep. The demise of a time which saw 'a priest in every parish' meant that now, where there was once five clergy there were now but two and 'sound management principles' and good ecclesial practice indicated that the key was to develop a 'Minster' model whereby the 'mother' became the place everyone else retreated in to.

Sorry, did I say, "Retreat?" No what I meant (if there are any bishops reading this) was establish Church (meaning the universal collective of living stones) in the oldest building as a means of 'taking the parish forward' by reliving the past and removing some of the distractions and dissipation that was to be found across the parish. "This," a bishop's staff member told me, "Is the 'consolidation' that sound business practice demands when a weakening customer base and diminishing finances become an organisational reality."

I recall that the ILO 'Introduction to Work Study' there were two 'must remember' elements:

1.  Other that in the case of a 'sole trader, one-man' business the work of balancing the use 
     of one resource against another is the job of the manager.
     If the manager fails to do what is necessary, then the whole enterprise will fall.

2. Any organisation consists of four 'resources':
   i.   Land and buildings - Buildings portfolios, their maintenance and upkeep
   ii.  Material - in this context this is the means to make the desired product
   iii. People - to create, market and support the customer base (i.e. communicants and community
   iv.  Plant - in this case the organ, sound equipment, audio visual, heating. light, offices, etc.

Now what we are seeing here is nothing more than good business practice. Look at the five churches my colleague spoke of. If we were to regard them using the criteria of resource, customer base and balance sheets then it it obvious that the rural church needs to be closed as it is presents a low yield (in terms of 'customers' and income) and a high outlay (in terms of staffing and running costs).

The same is true in the Zombie church, another high outlay and low income and attendance entity that needs to be closed as soon as possible.

Of course, we wouldn't leave the people who went to those churches as orphans, because we are providing services for them in the Mother church so all they need to do is get themselves from where they live - and it might come as no surprise to hear that both these churches were in a rural setting which means that unless private transport is essential - and nothing will have changed. Church will continue with nary a blip!

One of the series of lectures on downsizing and contraction as means of organisational survival I had to attend during my management days talked of the fact that should a company remove itself from a community, the likelihood of return under the same branding was minimal. Not only that but, if the product was something valued, the closing of a branch was seen as an act against the people and the global product recognition and approval declined such that in other places customer base transferred to a competitor. But hey, we are Church and that means we are happy to see people leave us for another Christian denomination or grouping. We just want to see Church flourish and at the end of the day aren't bothered where people go as long as they go, right?

And of course, that's a load of tosh for we care deeply about numbers in terms of money, attendance, market share and the like. I can prove this because when asked how our church was doing I replied that the people were growing, we were seeing vocations and things were generally very positive. "Oh that's great," said the bishop, "But I meant in terms of numbers!'  Says it all, doesn't it? And things will get no better as we find senior staff engaging in SWOT, costflow analysis. It will see us consider the use of 'sessional' clergy (and if a 0.3 post isn't that already, tell me what it is!) and the 'contracting out' of services in one direction and the increase of multiple beneficed entities (seen one this week for a ten church vacancy - which my lectures would have listed as little more than 'nominalism').

Here's a little homework for you and you church councils and congregations: Management theory and practice are great, but where is the Gospel in all this? Where will the 'can't pay - can't have' policy some diocesan staff bleat on about take us?)

The next to come under the hammer will probably be the mission church,after all the customer base has moved away and so better to start drawing up plans to bring them back in to the Minister now so that we can go forward from a position of strength. Now I don't know what those who run things read but as I understand it, once the troops have retreated into a central base, the nest thing is that they either fight to the death or are withdrawn by a friendly Chinook out of there.

The comfortable church remains comfortable and since the weddings and the well-off keep the money coming it the Archdeacon and the diocesan staff with all nod fondly towards them and thank God for their successes. Mind you, like many churches whose attendance is static and their parish share is paid, no one looks at the missional element regarding that place do they?

And of the Mother church, a place filled with the dwindling numbers (attendance and income) and increasing age of the congregation. Will we see them active and engaged? Will they be pleased at the increase caused by the closures elsewhere  - which to be brutally honest won't happen - of course they won't! I rarely see a welcome for the intruders from the other places, even when the fact that the daughters have returned is satisfying to them.

Those in the closed churches will merely fade into the distance that separates their communities from the town centre Minister - the final nail in the coffin of our rural communities will have been banged home and the opportunity for the Gospel will be effectively gone forever where the C of E is concerned.

But at least the management models will be sound, won't they?

How will they hear is there are none to tell them?

*International Labour Organisation - Introduction to Work Study, second edition 1969


dg said...

Sound, and prudent management....well you can do one of those, can't you!

Applying management thinking...
the purpose of the organisation is
1) worship
2) go,make,teach,baptise
3) as a focus for effective social action by the disciples (do as to the least....)

[(3) was an instruction to disciples, not a charge on the church.]

Vision is encapsulated in (2): "disciples of the nations" = everyone = NUMBERS

Fortunately the core "material" is peerless. (Angel Delight on the other hand has largely disappeared)

So far so good.

But if the product/material is peerless and the organisational purpose fairly precise AND the outcomes are poor (no numbers, not much effective teaching - mostly because nobody listening, few baptisms) then the obvious question relates to the way in which the organisation is working. The "go" has gone and the "making" stopped.

Unfortunately there is still just enough resource (especially from selling off the family silver) to sustain the leadership that is producing the poor results, and it continues to demonstrate just how good it is at maintaining that outcome. I don't think this is willful, but rather that there is no visible better way in view. The trip-hammers bang away in dusty gothic workshops even where there is nothing on the anvil. A reassuring noise, but it does annoy the neighbours at times.

Whatever has worked and given us today's structures is no longer working. We can't just convert the Saxon king and the nation follows. Nor can we build "church" into the Tudor "state" and claim the nation for the next 400 years. The last(?) "successful" growth effort adopted the popular elements of music hall (auditorium seating, theatre, energetic singing). Today popular culture rests on personal input linked to broadcast media and megastar events - ways of working that have bypassed church. Leaving congregations running a bit like detached morris dancing folk clubs - quaint but not relevant even if occasionally done well.

If we use the cafe/club/pub model as the modern "best option" for social gathering, we could readily adapt our buildings etc. What we lack is the Costa/Mecca/M&B support thinking and input. How do we encourage some FX working there?

A final query - is there actually ANY genuine middle management? Could it be that the structure is primarily a policing effort, capable only of rule-enforcement and sanctions?

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Me? I can do both but not ever going to be a position to deploy such skills (thankfully)


Sadly, those who will probably won't be able to deploy any either -!