Five years ago at an Ebbsfleet Lay Congress the then Archdeacon Missioner of Coventry Diocese, Morris Rodham, introduced the Natural Church Development approach to growing healthy churches which has been a key part of his Diocese’s strategy for the last decade. Emerging from a worldwide academic study into the characteristics of churches, it has identified eight key areas, the Eight Essential Qualities, shared by all church communities and further identified the key characteristics of churches that experience growth. The basic principle is that healthy things grow and unhealthy things decline. This resonated with Lay Congress participants and Ebbsfleet Churches in Coventry Diocese have found this approach to be very stimulating and helpful for PCCs as they have developed their own vision for the future. In short is ensures congregations build on rock and not on sand. Thanks to central funding via the Strategic Development Fund this work is being rolled out across the Ebbsfleet Area by Fr Gary Ecclestone the Ebbsfleet Healthy Churches Mentor.

So what are the Eight Essential Qualities?

  1. Leadership that is Empowering: all leaders in the church intentionally seek to identify, train and empower other leaders, giving them responsibility for people and ministries, and rejoicing when they do better than they do! Empowering leaders explain, motivate and liberate through mentoring and on-the-job training.
  2. Ministry that is Gift Based: Every individual is unique and serving the Kingdom of God both within and outside the church is based on a person’s gifts and skill. Gift-based Ministry helps people identify their particular and unique God-given passions, gifts, skills and personality which enables them to serve in a way that changes the world for the better.
  3. Spirituality that is Passionate: The word ‘Passionate’ has its root in ‘suffering’ and self-sacrifice. So a Passionate Spirituality is prepared to suffer for the sake of others. It is a spirituality that is authentic and real, which hungers for God and has a vibrancy of faith. People have a strong relationship with Christ, nurtured through prayer, worship and spiritual disciplines including sacrificial giving.
  4. Structures that are Effective: The structures exist to enable the church to function effectively and for the 8 Essential Qualities to flourish. The ministries of the church have clear purposes and members understand the church’s mission. Effective Structures are flexible, able to adapt and change as necessary to facilitate further growth.
  5. Worship which is Inspiring: This is about quality rather than style. It will be a high point of the week, and is so inspiring people will want to bring along people who do not have a Christian faith to experience it. Visitors who come are able to enjoy the experience. Inspiring worship is transformative … people’s lives benefit from the experience!
  6. Small Groups which are Holistic: A Small Group is any church group which is small, defined by its size rather than its function. So it can include bible study groups but also groups like the PCC, the MU, the choir or altar servers team, in fact any group that is small! In Holistic Small Groups the 8 qualities are in evidence and members are enabled to use their gifts.
  7. Evangelism which is Need-Oriented: is seen in people and Christian communities, involved in meeting the real needs of the people of the parish, especially the poor and isolated. Church members are able to talk naturally about their faith, sharing it with others at the appropriate moment. And people have opportunities to explore the Christian faith.
  8. Relationships which are Loving are characterised by a fun, welcoming and forgiving atmosphere. Healthy churches were shown to have a lot of laughter in them. The church is welcoming, accessible and inclusive and reflects the wider community. Forgiveness is the starting point of Christian faith and is reflected in relationships that are loving, affirming and encouraging.

Fr Gary is available as an external advisor to talk to incumbents, churchwardens in vacancy and to PCCs and congregations in the Ebbsfleet Area about the Healthy Churches approach to church growth. The process includes a congregational questionnaire and Fr Gary is available to support PCCs as they analyse their survey data and look to develop strategies both to celebrate that which is discovered to be good and areas revealed as being in need of development. He can visit in person or attend meetings via Zoom.

Fr Giles Orton is vicar of St Anne’s, Derby which was the first parish to work with Fr Gary and he writes:

Our congregation were very happy to fill in the questionnaires and interested in the results. These offered no huge surprises, though I was pleasantly relieved that my sermons were reasonably appreciated!

We used the results as the basis for a further mission planning exercise in which a number of further volunteers were happy to join the PCC. The survey results were considered and accepted as a good reflection, making it much easier for us to prioritise our actions for the year ahead.

The NCD project has not offered immediate solutions to all our challenges. But it has been very helpful in involving all the congregation, showing that everyone’s views matter and in pulling us together to a common understanding of what we need to be doing – as well as affirming us in our understanding, and valuing, of what we are and what we are already doing well, and can therefore build upon.

Alison Cruickshank is Churchwarden at Good Shepherd, Chard in Somerset

We have just received the results of our survey. We feel reassured that, while there is room for improvement, we have much to celebrate. We are holding a ‘Healthy Churches Weekend’ in Advent, when the whole congregation will be involved in making plans to address our weaknesses and challenges, as well as celebrating what we have already achieved.

As a parish in vacancy, we feel that the Healthy Churches Initiative will help us determine our vision for the future. This, in turn, will guide us as we go through the process of appointing our next parish priest.