Rural Churches for Everyone Toolkit: Helping your church building become 'Open & Sustainable'
Welcome to the Rural Churches for Everyone (RCfE) Toolkit. This was devised and tested by the Rural Churches for Everyone project, a National Lottery Heritage Funded project working with 35 churches in four clusters, delivered between 2019 and 2023 by Newcastle Diocese and Yvonne Conchie, Rural Development Specialist www.conchie.co.Find out more about the project here. RCfE has now ended, but the Newcastle Diocese Rural Strategy Group is taking forward the learning from the project and supporting the rural diocese in using the resources created as part of RCfE. You can sign up to receive the newsletter here.
Watch this video to understand the impact of using the RCfE toolkit:
From the video, you can see the benefits of working through the whole process step by step and we encourage you to do this. It may take time, but the feedback received from RCfE churches shows it is a worthwhile exercise.
Getting grassroots voices heard at diocese and national level
The Church of England Church Buildings Council wants all retained church buildings to be both ‘Open’ and ‘Sustainable’ , and encourages each diocese to undertake a review of their church buildings every five years. This RCfE Church Buildings Toolkit gives PCCs and clergy - the people who know each church best - a strong and coherent voice in this process. It helps you generate the evidence needed to clearly ask for help to care for your valued buildings, demonstrating and growing the roles they play within your communities, and identifying ways in which mission and ministry might be collectively shaped to meet the needs of parishioners.
A simple process combining national requirements
This toolkit combines advice from the Church of England Environment Programme, the National Churches Trust, the Church Urban Fund, Historic England and others, into a simple, easy to use process. It asks church communities to assess how well their buildings currently meet the Open and Sustainable criteria and to consider what actions they would likely take within the next five years to improve their score. This will form the basis of an action plan.
A real-world assessment to get targeted help for PCCs
A note of caution: For this process to be most useful, PCC members should be absolutely honest about their parish and church’s current situation. During testing, some PCCs obscured their true situation, perhaps thinking ‘we have so much unrealised potential’ or ‘I don’t want to look like we’re failing’, but this understandable reluctance masks their true struggle, and risks reducing the help offered from the diocese or external funders.
Stronger together - working with your neighbouring churches
Whilst individual church buildings can certainly benefit from the checklist, it is intended to be used collaboratively for and by every church building in a group - e.g. in a benefice, under one Priest in Charge, or across a Deanery. The toolkit encourages PCCs to help each other create capacity, become more relevant to their parishioners’ needs, and share burdens such as high costs, low capacity, training requirements, and building maintenance. Working collaboratively in this way proved very beneficial to volunteers during the RCfE project. Sharing their experiences, discussing problems, and comparing solutions helped people to feel less burdened and isolated and more hopeful and supported.
There are four stages to the process, we encourage you to work through them in order.
1. Creating a Shared Understanding
Decide on a lead person for the process (e.g. clergy or lay chair), and have them read the ‘Advice for the lead person’ pdf document. Next, convene a meeting of the PCCs from the group of church buildings (eg benefice or deanery) to watch the video together and consider how each church relates to:
a) The characteristics of a flourishing church - as described in the Church Urban Fund/Theos report to the Archbishop of York’s GRA:CE project Growing Good. The characteristics of a flourishing church are identified as presence, perseverance, hospitality, adaptability, generosity, participation and invitation
b) Demographic information about their parishes and parishioners (for ease, the lead person may need to collate this prior to the meeting). The Coop Community Wellbeing Index supplies wellbeing data in nine categories at a postcode level which shows a national context as well as the inequalities within an area. NB Before you meet, the lead person should make sure that someone extracts the data for your parish/benefice/group from the website using the Wellbeing Index template spreadsheet, which you can download here.
c) The eight Open and Sustainable criteria published by the Church Buildings Council. Discuss how the criteria might translate to their parishes’ context.
d) Consider the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats for each church building individually, and the group as a whole.
2. Becoming more 'Open and Sustainable'
Download the Open & Sustainable 101 Checklist.
PCC members should then visit each other’s church buildings and do the following:
a) Listen to Churchwardens at each of the churches, giving an opportunity to talk openly about the issues and opportunities each place is experiencing. Whilst at each church, ask visiting members to help you complete the 101 Checklist parts A (Approach to your church), B (Inside the church) and C (Churchyard and land).
b) Hold a meeting (ensure you have internet access for this meeting) and discuss and complete the 101 Checklist parts D (Your church online) and E (Your PCC, Churchwardens, Clergy and volunteers). Review the feasibility of the aspirational actions identified across all sections of the checklist. This may reveal opportunities for collaboration and mutual support, sharing the burden and creating economies of scale.
c) The lead person should calculate the current and potential scores and traffic-light rankings from the O&S 101 Checklist for each criteria for all the church buildings involved. If working in a group, they should also calculate the averages for the group as a whole. See worked examples and instructions in the following documents.
3. Developing an Action Plan
Once all the scores have been collated:
a) Lead person to share scores and rankings with the PCC members prior to meeting, ensuring sufficient time is allowed for people to thoroughly read and understand the information.
b) Hold a meeting of members of the PCCs, volunteers and clergy to determine a five year programme of action. Ideally this meeting would involve a group of churches rather than each church meeting individually. This may inform your mission and ministry action planning, and should involve your Area Dean.
c) Agree a structure to make sure this work happens. During the RCfE project, some clusters chose to deliver their plans through their Deanery Development Groups, others preferred to create a benefice working group, inviting community stakeholders to become involved. Common working group themes were: buildings and maintenance, environmental impact, pastoral care and outreach, communications (especially online), and fundraising.
4. Resourcing Delivery
a) Page 9 of the 101 checklist is a summary of the scores for each church building. This should be taken to your next appropriate PCC meeting and debated for approval by them, before the approved version being taken to the Area Dean for discussion.
b) The Church Buildings Council recommends that each diocese reviews their buildings every five years, so the Area Dean should send the summary to the Archdeacon as evidence towards those churches’ five yearly review.
c) If your church has a red or black traffic light ranking, your Area Dean should consult with the Archdeacon to triage for support needed.
d) If your church has an amber rating, PCC members should work with the support of other churches in their group (benefice/deanery/etc), looking outward for ideas and support to achieve the outcomes in their action plan. Page 10 of the 101 Checklist has contacts for a range of supportive organisations, funders and toolkits, in addition to your DAC Secretary. You may wish to take a look at some of the online training offered as part of RCfE. The RCfE project demonstrated the importance of building partnerships with other agencies and organisations in making change; we strongly encourage you to look outwards and build relationships to achieve the goals in your action plan.
e) Lastly, make plans to periodically review your achievements and progress, not forgetting to look ahead to planning your next review in five years’ time.