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How Blackburn recruited and inspired vision champions

Blackburn diocese has its work cut out for next 10 years. Its Vision 2026: Healthy Churches Transforming Communities plan aims to turn around its long-term trend of gradually declining attendance. They have developed plans to meet ambitious goals such as two thirds of all parishes to have grown, to measure church health, and to establish 50 new or reinvigorated congregations.

Such a sweeping programme of change needs people who can communicate the vision with credibility. Already 80% of parishes have appointed voluntary vision champions, most of them lay leaders.

Dave Champness, Blackburn Diocese’s vision coordinator, talks about the steps taken to get such a high proportion of people to commit to the vision. He began work with the diocese at the beginning of 2016. “The idea for vision champions in each parish came about before I joined the diocesan team,” he says. “Seeing it was one of the things that encouraged me to apply for the role.”

Some keys to success:

  • We were clear about our motivations and expectations
  • We modelled what we wanted to achieve
  • The senior team championed, but did not lead
  • We built on an experience of success
  • We gave people a framework and freedom

We were clear about our motivations and expectations

Late in 2015 the leadership team created a role description for vision champions and sent a request out for parish nominations. There are many things that a vision champion could do, but the key priority is to keep Vision 2026 on the agenda of their PCC for the next three years. That’s an achievable goal for most people.

All but a handful of vision champions are not stipendiary ministers.

We made sure that incumbents were included in all our communication with vision champions so that they could be confident that this initiative is not about the diocese seeking an agent of change behind their backs.

Before Easter I wrote to all clergy who hadn’t recruited a vision champions in which. I made it clear that this would be the only time I would chase them for names – we want this to be seen and felt as an opportunity to take up rather than another task imposed top down from the diocese.

We decided not to give vision champions a badge or a certificate, as we wanted to encourage them to think of this not as an honorary role but as a task for a humble and committed group of people.

We modelled what we wanted to achieve

In Spring 2016 a small team visited open synod meetings in all 14 deaneries to talk about vision champions, as well as introducing the Crossroads Mission weekend. At these evenings, We made sure that we modelled a good welcome with a cafe-style room set and nice touches such as sweets on the table.

I am sending personalised Christmas cards to each of the vision champions for the same reason. We want to show them that they are individually valued and appreciated.

Earlier this year suffragan bishops invited the newly-recruited vision champions to one of six evening receptions in their homes. Around 18 people at a time were served with cheese and wine, given an opportunity to get to know each other, study the bible and pray together and to ask questions of myself and the bishop about their role.

Central to the success of the vision is the development of healthy, welcoming churches. Those receptions helped to establish some of the culture change that we want to see.

The senior team championed, but did not lead

Suffragan bishops received vision champions in their homes, but we made a decision not to hold receptions at the diocesan bishop’s palace as we wanted to deliberately make a statement that the Vision is not the Bishop’s vision, but a vision for us all.

We wanted the energy and movement for vision champions to come from the local rather than the leadership of the diocese. There is a risk that an initiative too closely associated with one person will never be owned by the whole group.

Nevertheless our bishops are consistent in their support. For example they make the effort to seek out vision champions when they visit parishes. A few words of encouragement makes a big difference.

We built on an experience of success

In September the Diocese of Blackburn ran a series of high profile and highly successful mission events – Crossroads – across Lancashire. Resources were mobilised centrally but most of planning was coordinated locally. Over 80% of parishes now have a recent positive experience that they can put on a good “do” in which someone can talk confidently about their faith, not just having a great social event.

As parishes have demonstrated that they can organise events, we are now suggesting that parishes follow the Mission Action Planning process to create/update a vision action plan, where parishes identify what they are going to do to make disciples, be witnesses, grow leaders and prioritise work with children, young people and schools.

We gave people a framework and freedom

The 235 parishes in Lancashire are a mix of rural, suburban and urban contexts (a third of parishes are in the bottom 20% for multiple indicators of deprivation). With the fundamentals in place we are giving local vision champions the freedom to take initiative in championing the vision in ways appropriate to their communities and parish leadership.

Some Champions said that they would like a means of keeping in touch with each other so we set up a closed facebook group for sharing ideas and for mutual support. It is very good to see that vision champions are taking ideas and inspiration from each other, operating across parish and deanery structures to work well in their own community.

Find out more about vision champions in Blackburn Diocese

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