Resourcing small and rural churches
Based on How Village Churches Thrive, an inspiring, practical guide from Bishop Robert Atwell and others, this programme of events offers small and rural churches guidance and support on the issues that matter most.
From the chance to contemplate with colleagues on leadership to exploring how we can flourish in rural roles and expanding on practical ideas posited in the handbook, there's something for everyone.
Free copies of How Village Churches Thrive are available to parishes attending the Rural CMD Day or the Rural Lecture, ahead of six read-along sessions. Read on to get your free copy...
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How Village Churches Thrive
A Diocese of Oxford rural read-along
From October 2022 to March 2023, we hosted monthly read-alongs to How Village Churches Thrive: A Practical Guide. Each session, we were joined by an expert in the field to give advice and support on the relevant chapter topic.
Extending a warm welcome, with Katie Tupling & Polly Falconer
Making the most of life events, with Mary Harwood
Being the heartbeat of the community, with Andrew Cowell
Using buildings creatively & Caring for God’s acre, with Sophie Hammond, Hannah Robertson & Alison Riggs
Pastoral care, with Gill Thompson
Welcoming more children, with Yvonne Morris
- Don't stop expecting people to be new - if you build it, they will come!
- Sometimes we say everyone's welcome, but our building says something different. Whether it's good access to the toilet, installing wheelchair ramps or much bigger work, Disability Advisor Katie Tupling can help.
- Different cultures feel welcomed differently - but everyone will value a proper introduction. Give newcomers your name and ask for theirs, before introducing them to someone on their pew.
- Consider the imagery around your church - can you make it more diverse? People will feel more comfortable if they see people like them up front, on the noticeboards, in artwork etc. The UKME Chapter are available as free guest preachers.
- Welcome starts outside the church - can you go out into your community and meet people there? Can you put out useful items for eg cyclists or walkers?
- Extend your welcome to children and families - can they run around and make noise? How would you deal with a member of the congregation upset by the noise? Don't make women breastfeed in the toilet - let them know where they're welcome.
- The work is never 'done'. Everybody is a welcomer, and it's an ongoing journey.
- Little things can have a big impact. Putting out a welcome sign and making sure opening hours are clearly signposted is a great starting point. An up-to-date noticeboard gives a good first impression.
Sophie Hammond from the DAC Church Buildings team discussed how we can make the most of our village church buildings. Download Sophie's slides.
“Clever planning can save both space and money.”
What can your church offer that no other building in the community can? What does your community need that isn’t currently being offered? Ask them!
Simple A-frame signs require no permission and can be regularly updated to show passersby that your church is active and welcoming.
Often there’s more than one way to do things. Start with ‘what is the least we can do?’ in terms of intervention to meet our needs and go from there.
Sophie shared two interesting case studies - St Michael & All Angels Aston Clinton's Repair Café project, and Baulking St Nicholas' updated toilet, kitchen and vestry facilities.
For more help, consider whether your project would be eligible for a Development Fund grant, and get in touch with your Parish Development Advisor.
For more information, see:
- Church building guidance on permissions;
- Statement of need guidance;
- More resources from the DAC Church Buildings team.
Hannah Robertson gave a brief history of churchyards. It was Pope Gregory the Great who first suggested churchyards become places of burial – with the thinking that passersby would stop and pray for the departed. Now they serve as a welcome area to your church - the first thing people see and interact with.
“Churchyards offer a spiritual place to connect with God without the pressures of entering the building.”
Alison Riggs shared some inspiring case studies and helpful links. Download the PowerPoint and a list of helpful links.
How can we find a balance between areas of our churchyard left to go wild and monument care? Is there a conflict?
Be careful which plants you let grow and where. For example, ivy can cause real damage. Create a churchyard management plan and find a suitable area for wilderness, then the rest of churchyard can be kept maintained – this is important for access too. Consider areas used for wedding photos, graves most often visited etc in your planning.
How do we let things go wild without looking bad or neglected?
Mowing around pavements and mowing paths through long grass to monuments or graves makes the wilded area look deliberate. It can also be best to initially tackle wild areas - for example removing brambles and weeds, and then wait and see what comes up in their space. This way you know you'll only grow native flowers that can thrive in your area.
It's important to not let things look neglected - above all, this is a place of worship, and people may get upset if a wilded area is distracting when they come to pay respects to a lost loved one. There's lots that you can do to benefit wildlife without disrupting ground level though – consider bird and bat boxes etc.
Should/could I get the community involved? How much time should I allow for community discussion?
People from outside the church can bring fresh insights. Get people in for an open day - who knows who you might meet! One church had an architect pop round who ended up being very helpful in their planning.
Community discussion can take a good few months. Everyone has other commitments so you need to give everyone sufficient time to engage, consider and respond. It's worth the time it takes - it can make a huge difference.
Their can be benefits to the church in lots of ways. For example, the church in Mursley got involved with their neighbourhood planning group and town council. They were then able to add questions into a local survey. This meant that the church could be seen within the village context, not just in isolation.
There may be other partner groups you could chat to – consider sports clubs, schools etc. And don't be afraid to approach local media for wider coverage.
How can I use my churchyard to welcome people into the church?
In Mapledurham, the churchyard is visited a lot by families who don't regularly attend the church. They popped a sign on all their churchyard gates inviting everyone to a 'remembering your loved one' service - a gentle way of letting people know they are welcome inside too.
Bishop Gavin on a recent pilgrim path near Charlbury noticed one church had a dog bowl with a tap, and another had a large water drum in church porch for walkers. These little signs show your church is alive and cares about its visitors.
Threaded through the book is something that rural communities don’t seem to believe at the moment: “growth is possible.”
Yvonne shared recent research on church growth from the Church of England which delves into how and why growth is possible.
Focusing on welcome and hospitality cultivates growth – as evidenced in the Diocese of Guildford.
“Relationship is the number one thing that makes the difference – but we all know that that’s messy and time consuming and doesn’t always get us anywhere.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all response, but, as Yvonne says, “You are experts in your own community.” For example, café church may work in one context but not another, some churches have great success with Messy Church where others don’t. If you can only do one thing, and do it really well, what is that one thing in your context?
Leadership matters, but it’s not just the clergyperson. Your whole leadership team set the culture. The recruitment of a strong team, whether paid or voluntary, is key for sustainability and success. Research tells us it doesn’t have to be an employed person – a team of passionate volunteers can be just as effective.
The whole church has a part to play too – everybody has a role in welcoming and praying, and some will of course then take it further.
It’s important to focus on families, says research from Sarah Holmes at Liverpool Hope University, not just children. Very often we forget about the parents, who can leave feeling judged or even excluded. For example, families that arrive late can feel like everyone’s frowning at them, especially in a small rural congregation. Congratulating families on getting everyone out the door can make a difference!
Growth won’t happen by accident, so how can you intentionally go about doing that?
What are the good resources for children’s ministry? Any resource is only as good as how you inhabit it. Whatever resource you use, inhabit it well to get across what you want it to get across – and keep it simple.
What are the connections that you already have with children, young people and families? Think laterally – it’s not just about Sunday mornings, are there schools or sports groups, do you bump into them in town? We have some well resourced ways of connecting with schools, perhaps through Space Makers.
Who might we partner with? Lots of organisations need volunteers, so can we as a church resource the work of other organisations instead of keeping within our church walls?
How can we make our all-together worship the best it can be?
Some members reported that there is an expectation in their local contexts that growth will happen, and that that is as much on the shoulders of laity as the clergy. One person suggested having an interest meeting to test the waters of who is interested as a starting point.
Charles Chadwick, Parish Development Advisor, shared how it can be helpful to consider the seasons and spend time thinking what ‘season’ we are in as a church, and accepting that – it’s not a bad thing to be in winter, but how can we be preparing for spring? Charles also shared that he is available for discussion on rooting ourselves in the Christian tradition and how that looks in our context.
Do we follow up enough on baptisms? For example, could we offer a social bringing each year’s cohorts together again? Whatever we assume about the reasons families come for baptism, they still came and that’s brilliant! Another suggestion was a card on the first anniversary, or inviting the families along to prepare and to follow up together so they build their own community. Give postcards or flyers inviting families to the ‘next thing’, whatever that is, at their baptism and remember relationship is key. It takes at least six personal invitations to get someone to come to a social in a church building! We can push more than we think we can.
Church schools aren’t always an open door – but it is worth putting the time into rebuilding relationships before launching in with invitations. Cake always goes down well!
Utilise nature – churchyard nature trails, for example, are a low pressure way to get children into church activities. Eco Church also has some suggestions as you work through their framework, and can help keep you focused. Children are often eco warriors!
More about the book
How Village Churches Thrive
A hugely collaborative effort, How Village Churches Thrive draws on a wealth of expert information to present practical inspiration for all who work and worship in village churches. Packed with real-life examples, the handbook addresses ten core themes at the heart of church life.
Download a taster. Canon Dr John Rees, the former registrar for the Diocese of Oxford, shares his thoughts on the book.
Other events in the series
Leadership in Rural Multi-Parish Benefices
Rural CMD Day
The Revds Margot Hodson and Talisker Macleod explored how leadership can be exercised in rural context in a Continuing Ministerial Development day centred on rural church issues - a great opportunity for all clergy, particularly curates, along with local lay support, ministering in rural contexts.
Flourishing mission & ministry in today’s rural context
A rural lecture
The Rt Revd Dagmar Winter, Bishop of Huntingdon and national Lead Bishop for Rural Affairs, considered how we can flourish in mission and ministry in our rural contexts today.
Introduced by the Rt Revd Gavin Collins, this inaugural lecture included an open time for questions.
Wellbeing in rural communities
The pandemic has highlighted the number of people who feel isolated. The cost-of-living crisis is not only affecting people financially but also creating anxiety. This session looked at ways of engaging with wellbeing in rural communities, with an opportunity to reflect with colleagues on how the issues raised affect your context.
Download the presentation | Watch the video conversations
The Rural Forums are a regular event - details of the next forum will be on the rural church webpage shortly.