Social enterprise can have a positive and long-lasting impact on rural places of worship, according to pioneering research.

National charities Plunkett Foundation and Germinate: The Arthur Rank Centre have explored whether social enterprise can be an effective approach to assist rural places of worship to become more sustainable. According to the research report social enterprise can be effective is providing long term sustainability for many but not all places of worship. The two organisations are keen to identify ways of raising awareness of this model to help where social enterprise can play a part in safeguarding places of worship in the UK and breathing new life into rural communities.

The project was rooted in the concern that many places of worship in rural England are finding it hard to maintain buildings due to a lack of funding, small congregation numbers and high maintenance costs. At the same time, rural communities are continuing to lose vital services such as shops, cafes, schools, and healthcare facilities. All these buildings provide spaces for rural residents to meet. Community based social enterprise serves vital needs and can also generate new income streams to safeguard much valued places of Worship.

The findings are based on real experiences of social enterprises in rural places of worship and show that, to be successful, any social enterprise activity has to be rooted in identified needs of the community. Buckland Brewer in Devon, for example, whose only remaining shop closed, approached the Methodist Church with a proposal to site a porta cabin on the church land. Instead, the Church congregation suggested leasing and adapting the vestry on a permanent basis. Chair of the Buckland Brewer Community Shop Management Committed said: “Locating a shop in a church was a little bit of a surprise for me and certainly when I started out I didn’t think it was an option,” but it succeeded and continues to thrive.  

Similarly, in Fernham, Oxfordshire, two factors came together at the same time – with the loss of the village hall following a fire, and the small church congregation– led to a major re-ordering of the church and its conversion into the village hall. It now offers a comfortable, attractive, high quality space featuring a state-of-the-art audio-visual and sound experience. It opened in June 2010, and while still being used for church services, the building can be hired to host a range of activities and events. Chairman of Project Inspire said: “The impetus came from the recognition that refurbishing the church to provide a village space was going to solve two problems at once.”

The examples of social enterprise researched as part of this project all had a positive impact on the long-term sustainability of the place of worship. This was through increasing use, the generation of additional income and the involvement of a larger number of people. A farmer’s market project in Shipbourne, for example, generates an annual income of £7,000, of which a proportion goes towards church improvements. An additional £2,000 is raised from stalls run by the church and this goes straight towards church funds. All this was achievable from initial set up costs of just £500. 

The research suggests there are at least 15,000 rural places of Worship in England alone, yet very few, only 38, were identified as hosting or co-locating with social enterprises. Whilst the majority of examples (73%) were found in Church of England buildings, the research documented examples in other denominations including the Methodist Church, United Reformed Church and the Baptist Church. The examples of social enterprise were broad including shops, cafes, farmer’s markets, youth projects and even a cinema.

To find out more about the report download a copy here or visit the heritage lottery find website.

Note: The research was carried out in 2012, but despite the delay in publication the findings remain current and relevant to contemporary rural social enterprises and places of worship.