On a recent trip to Wales, I visited a church with an attached café. It was heavily subsidised by grants, a situation that is simply not going to be possible in the coming years. Over the road was a curry house, the winner of the Cardiff “Best Indian Restaurant” award 2011. Did that restaurateur know anything about the culture of churches? Probably not, but did he know something about how to make a small food-based business work in the local area? Actually, yes, he did. However, the church people had no idea of his existence. He was outside the realm of their understanding even though he was a member of the local community, because they had not thought to cross the road to speak to him and learn from him. When this is done, I can say from experience that interesting things happen.
Where there are successful churches, I have seen a strong correlation between their actions and those of a well-run small business or enterprise. Fundamentally, the churches are organisations with accounts, property, services and employees on the scale of a medium to large corporation. They have a business model of sorts that is based around the attendance and donations of the congregation. However, since many of the churches’ traditional social services were appropriated by the formation of the welfare state, many, but certainly not all, have lost sight of the practicalities of daily life, and the amount of red tape they now have to dance around has created a risk-averse culture. Better to do nothing than to take the risk of doing something and getting it wrong.
Arguably, it is this lack of clear focus and positive activity by the churches, rather than just a straightforward rise in secular beliefs, that has led to a drop in congregation numbers, breaking their fragile model and leading to a spiral of decline. That this decline has not been more pronounced is due to the assets the churches have, the disposal of which has allowed them to continue as if their present structures and often relative inaction were justifiable. It is not. It is not sustainable and, more importantly, it is causing many churches to fail to fulfil the vast majority of their social potential.
Although mostly old and many in need of some attention, church buildings are actually assets, but because they are underused they often become liabilities, sapping the energy of the ministers and congregations who look after them. They need to be used more often and to become income generators. To achieve this requires some entrepreneurial ability. If that is not present in the immediate congregation, people need to look outside their usual comfort zone and build partnerships with sympathetic local small business people and entrepreneurs.
Throughout the denominations there are an ever increasing number of church buildings that a single minister is becoming responsible for, and instead of being the salt and the yeast in the community and addressing social issues, ministers find themselves engaging in an endless round of services and meetings about property. If the churches are to embrace some of the opportunities presenting themselves in the localism agenda and the enterprise culture within which we all now live, hard questions need to asked about closing some churches, at least temporarily, to allow ministers to get involved in the communities in which they are meant to be leaders and to focus on making the other churches in their care self-sustaining.
For churches to develop working and enterprising partnerships with their communities, it takes time and the ability to take the long-term view, but those are precisely the resource that the churches should be bringing to bear. I would suggest that this includes revisiting clergy recruitment and training to give people the tools to put their natural creativity into practice in an enterprise culture. Of course, one does not become a member of the cloth to open a haberdasher’s, but for the clergy to be ignorant of the very basics of business and enterprise today is irresponsible, if not inexcusable.
In spite of the churches’ committee-heavy structures and wide turning circles, there is time to rectify their problems; the situation is not irretrievable. It requires a shift in mindset that challenges a culture heavy with bureaucracy to become one that encourages entrepreneurs and celebrates ingenuity. There is a theological element that the churches are failing to grasp here. We believe that we are made in the image of God the creator and therefore we are creative beings. The fact is that business principles are those that work best at putting these ideas into practice, having been tried and tested by the competition of the marketplace. They are not “evil”, but are a set of tools that can be used for moral or, of course, immoral ends. I urge the churches to embrace this enterprising culture, to use their talents and join the next generation of young people as they become ever more entrepreneurial, while they still have the time.
This is an abridged and edited version of Lord Mawson’s speech to the House of Lords debate on 12th June to the motion moved by Lord Cormack: “That this House takes note of the importance of the English parish church.” The debate, including Lord Mawson’s speech in full, can be found here
Lord Mawson, OBE is an English social entrepreneur. He was brought up in Bradford and trained for Christian ministry at the Northern Baptist College in Manchester. He is best known for his work at the Bromley by Bow Centre in East London, which became the UK's first Healthy Living Centre. The Bromley by Bow Centre is a community organisation which encompasses an array of integrated social enterprises based around art, health, education and practical skills. In 1998, he co-founded the Community Action Network, a UK national charity, and remained its President until 2010. He was also a founder board member of Poplar HARCA. In 2006, he launched the Water City initiative for East London with Richard Rogers, aiming to revitalise the neglected waterways of East London, making use of their potential as transport links. He was introduced as a life peer on 30 April 2007. A number of his projects are pursued by his company Andrew Mawson Partnerships, which takes on regeneration work in London and throughout the country.