Community use of churches and church halls
This page provides advice on how parishes can realise the potential for mission and income generation from their church buildings and halls
The following text distils a great deal of the information you need if you are really serious about developing your church buildings for wider community use. It will give you a good grounding in the opportunities and potential problems you will face. It bears close reading!
Church buildings and halls are often significantly under-utilised, despite being physically prominent in their locality. Even if you already organise or host activities during the week, there is likely to be huge further potential to benefit the local community, support church mission and, where necessary or appropriate, earn valuable income. These brief notes are designed to help stimulate ideas which PCCs can develop to suit their own unique church building and their own unique set of community groups, local issues and mission objectives.
A good deal more detail is available in the excellent Crossing the Threshold toolkit produced by the Diocese of Hereford. There is also a wealth of information available via the open and sustainable website on developing your church building and on potential funding providers.
A particular case study of developing a church building is available in the book “The Social Entrepreneur: Making Communities Work” by Andrew Mawson, readily available online from such outlets as www.amazon.co.uk. This book will have resonances for many parishes and deals with the practicalities of using church buildings to engage imaginatively and successfully with the local community.
Step 1: Identify community needs
First and foremost, you need to identify exactly what the real needs are in your community. The vicar and church members should already be aware of what’s happening, and what’s lacking, in their communities – but walking around the parish, keeping eyes open and really talking and listening to people will open up even more possibilities. What social or local community needs might be able to be satisfied through imaginative use of your church hall, church vestries, main church building, space in or under galleries, or even a new extension or a new building? Alongside this, you need to make sure, of course, that such developments don’t compromise the very special historic and spiritual space that is a feature of so many churches.
The government’s “Big Society” initiative means that there is currently a particular amount of potential for churches to open up their buildings for wider community use, and to attract funding for such uses. This could be good for church outreach and mission, and/or bring in a significant income stream. Such funds might be invested in your church facilities for mutual benefit: you provide the space, and you may also benefit from upgraded or new meeting spaces and facilities with external funding assistance.
You may need to think “out of the box” in terms of what church facilities could potentially provide. Even just a small step forward in the first place could open the door to longer-term opportunities for outreach and growth. You need to look at the genuine, specific needs relevant to your unique local community. Some ideas include:
- Café – a social focus for the local community
- Providing breakfasts for people with social needs
- Teaching cooking skills to young parents
- Well-being clinics / counselling
- Community co-operative
- IT training
- Public interface for Age Concern and other such charities
- Post office - detailed advice on Churchcare (detailed advice
- Community shop - detailed advice on Churchcare
- Youth activities
- Start your own choir, worship group or youth club
- Link with local festivals or events
- Link with special national events (e.g. hosting a lunch in honour of the Queen's jubilee on Sunday 3 June 2012)
- Make exhibition space available to promote sustainability and caring for creation - and become a "champion" of these issues yourself, advice available at Shrinking the footprint and Traditional buildings: adapting for a low-carbon future.
- Having the church open for prayer or as a quiet space - even just a regular hour a day (perhaps over lunchtimes if you have shops or businesses nearby) or Saturday mornings can be a tremendous form of outreach.
- Meeting space for special interest groups
- Make exhibition space for artists (and agree a suitable commission rate on sales!)
- Rehearsal space – choirs, bands, ensembles, rock groups, drama (one church in the north east even has circus acts rehearsing in its church building!)
- Performance space - all churches can host musical concerts but you might also have the sort of flexible space that would be suitable for dance, drama and other activities
- Start a concert series based around your church musicians and/or other local talent
- Heritage trail – most churches have special features of interest, and some have connections with notable cultural figures or historical people or events. Be aware of what makes your church special or instructive, write these up, put photographs and details on your website, participate in heritage events, and create links with special interest groups.
- Heritage centre - does your community need exhibition space? Stockport St Mary have hosted such a centre very successfully for some years, and are now significantly developing these facilities by attracting external financial support.
- Training facilities
- Meeting space
- Office space – e.g. housing associations, charities or other suitable organisations , other suitable organisations o or
- Commercial crè che facilities
- Businesses providing yoga, dance and other lifestyle classes.
Do look at the specific case studies which are available - you can also contact the DAC Office or your Archdeacon to find out where examples of similar projects to yours have been completed successfully in our own diocese. Some further helpful links are available in a publication from the Diocese of Coventry, The Gatekeeper.
Do take a suitably commercial approach if you need to improve church finances. Look to other local providers of space and carefully consider your relative Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats ("SWOT" analysis). Decide on realistic rates - don't feel that being a church means you have to be a soft touch!
Having a good idea is just the start. Carrying it forward to success requires hard work, effective teamworking and commitment. This includes carrying out suitable consultation with interest groups, detailed finance and business planning, and effective marketing.
Step 2: Identify the potential of your buildings
You need to think carefully about how your buildings might be adapted, considering such issues as:
- Professional advice – if your development requires any building work inside the church, you should consult your Quinquennial Inspecting Architect – or another suitably experienced architect - at an early stage, so that you understand the specific issues
- Heritage – this is a particularly significant consideration for church buildings listed at Grade I and Grade II*, but applies to all churches whether listed or not. The grade listing need not in itself be an impediment – you need to think about what parts of your building are significant, and whether those would be irreversibly affected by any development proposals.
- Access – you would need to ensure that any facilities were fully accessible to wheelchair users (so, for example, first floor facilities would normally require lift access)
- Toilet, refreshment and parking facilities – are your present facilities sufficient for the additional usage?
- Local planning consent – any changes to the exterior of your building or the churchyard are likely to require local planning consent
- Consultation – you may need to consult with people living near the church if they might be affected. You will also need to consult the DAC, English Heritage and other heritage groups if your proposals will have an effect on the fabric of a listed building. Whether your church is listed or not, it’s best to consult the DAC informally at an early stage with outline details of your proposals. They will then be able to advise you appropriately, including how best to ensure a suitable balance of conservation and mission, and what further consultations you would need to take before developing your proposal further.
- Church activities – you clearly need to ensure that church activities are not compromised by new developments. For example, if you are using the main church building for community activities during the day, how will you be able to make sure the church remains available at short notice for funeral services?
- Heating, humidity and ventilation are hugely important issues for the structure and contents of your church building. If you are significantly changing the usage of the main church space, you need to take account of what effect that might have on existing delicate church fabric or furnishings (pipe organs are particularly sensitive). Damage can easily run into many thousands of pounds before you notice the long-term consequences of condensation on roof trusses or cracking leatherwork inside the pipe organ. However, with active management of heating, humidity and ventilation you can normally accommodate varied church usage with caring for sensitive items, but you do need to take suitable professional advice at the start of your development from your architect, organ tuner and any other relevant individual.
Step 3: Identify skills, resources and potential in your church community and further afield
Look around the people associated with your church community. The Sunday regulars will have a great deal of skills and experience in all sorts of fields (though you might not know it yet!) relevant to making use of your church buildings: e.g. marketing, communication, organisation, leadership, project management, graphic design, website design, painting and decorating. So will their families and friends, and people who attend on a less regular basis. Some people will have the time, commitment and potential to develop new skills, or just be around when needed to open up or keep an eye on things. If you still can’t find people with the skills you need, look to other churches in your deanery or beyond. You will have access to all the skills you need somewhere, if you look hard or far enough.
Step 4: Identify funding
Advice on funding is available from Churchcare, WREN and the DAC web page covering Funding and VAT. However, you may not need a big budget to start making significant progress - sometimes just small initial steps can help you gain community and financial momentum later on.
Do look closely at the wealth of information available via the above links. It’s highly likely that there is a potential match between genuine community need and the potential for your building. If you can develop your building to bridge that gap, it could bring huge benefits all round and open up new opportunities for mission, outreach and financial stability. There's every good reason to use and develop your buildings to make your church a spiritual, social, cultural and even commercial hub of your community.
Getting your project off on a sure footing - and staying on that sure footing - will save a lot of time, money and energy. The following pointers, although obvious, can get overlooked in the "white heat" of your project:
- Understand the needs of your local community: get out there and talk to people.
- Be willing to change as your needs change (e.g. in response to local developments, such as new housing).
- Have a strong management team (beating in mind that people outside the church community may be able to bring the skills your need for your project).
- Maintain good relationships with your "competitors" such as local organisations or nearby churches - work collaboratively.
- Make sure you have the full support of your vicar for engaging with the community - everyone has to pull strongly together.
- Maintain good, ongoing communication with both the church and the wider community - send out regular newsletters and updates.
- Allow for growth (e.g. build in plenty of storage for new users of the facilities).
- Be businesslike - have proper planning and review processes, and make sure you have a proper booking system for your new facilities.
- Look at the many potential sources of funding. There's a great deal of guidance available via the DAC web page on funding and VAT and its various links. Time spent researching these funding opportunities could be very useful to you.
- Consider setting up a Friends' Scheme for your church to raise its profile and involve the community (details available via the funding and VAT page).
- Have a strong leader or project champion.
- Don't expect the same core of ever-willing church people to run the new community facilities as well!
- Remember that ongoing success is hard work: creating the new facilities is just the start.
Remember the call to Love Your Neighbour: making these facilities available beyond the church community is a true response to that call.