Looking after your church during the cost of living crisis

Claire Strachan, Church Buildings Development and Project Officer, writes about the ways in which you can look after your church building and cut energy costs this winter.

At the forefront of everyone’s minds at the moment is the cost of living crisis, the impact of which is affecting us all not only economically but emotionally too. A long period of austerity, and political upheaval, followed by the financial and social legacy of the coronavirus pandemic, and the global impact of the Ukrainian war, has created a very real and tangible feeling of uncertainty and unease.

Economically, we’re seeing rises in energy costs, fuel prices, and inflation. Our weekly shops are increasing whilst our salaries (for those lucky enough to have them) remain the same.  As companies and organisations try to find cost saving measures, we are likely to see a rise in unemployment and a reduction in services.

Churches are not exempt from this, and our PCCs will be seeing rising prices in terms of energy, supplies, building materials and repair costs. This may also be accompanied by a drop in giving, as members of the church community increasingly feel the pinch.

However, there are things that PCCs can be doing to ensure that they are using their energy as efficiently as possible particularly over the short term in the coming months. Historic church buildings are notoriously difficult to heat, and for most churches it is virtually impossible to get a level of heat that is comparable to our domestic environment. However, there are things that we can be doing that will ensure our heating systems are working as efficiently as possible so that the heat they emit is as good as it can be. For example, simply by ensuring your radiators are bled, and your heat emitters are unobstructed, dust free and insulated appropriately you will maximise their heating potential.

There is a huge amount of information on Churchcare’s Practical suggestions to help parishes save energy and money. There are further tips and links on their Heating your church this winter web page, alongside practical suggestions and guidance to consider in the longer term particularly considering more energy efficient heating systems linked with the Church of England Environment Programme. It’s important to note that any way we can reduce our energy consumption and improve efficiency will also benefit our journey towards Net Zero carbon emissions, and there is plenty of advice on reducing your energy use on the Church of England Environment web page.

The more damp a church is, the colder it will feel, so ensuring your building is in good condition and well maintained will also help to tackle your energy consumption. Check that your rainwater goods are flowing freely, that surface water is draining properly, and that those slipped slates are refixed, that split lead is patched, and that debris and vegetation piling up against the church wall is removed. You can find lots of advice on church maintenance on our website.

It may be that you have a smaller space in your church building which is a suitable alternative location for worship, and can be separately heated. Relocating services to this space where possible and appropriate is also a valid option during particular cold spells. 

Of course, sometimes the old ways can be the most effective, and there are plenty of churches who are offering blankets, or hot water bottles to their parishioners, to alleviate the heating issues in the short term, over this winter period.

Where escalating costs and lack of heating make worshipping in the church particularly difficult, it may be possible to temporarily close the building over the winter in order to worship somewhere warmer. There may be legal, pastoral, missional and reputational consequences of this, so it is important to consult the Church of England advice on this.

Sadly, the cost of living crisis is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. It is therefore well worth PCCs thinking about longer term solutions to their energy consumption. A good few starting points would be:

  1. Have a long-term plan for your heating system – don’t wait for your heating system to fail before you start considering what to replace it with (and how to fund it). You can find lots of advice on the Church of England Environment web page or speak to the Church Buildings Team.
  2. Consider those longer-term building projects that will help to keep your church dry. Put together a timeframe and a fundraising plan for any major repair works that will help to alleviate damp.
  3. Keep a look out for better energy deals, and if they can come from renewable energy supplies even better! There are few around at the moment, but it’s important to remain aware. The Diocese of London has produced a lot of information on energy tariffs and bills.

All these things obviously require funding, and for some cases, in large amounts. The double whammy of increased costs, alongside a drop in giving, does the already existent competition in finding grants no favours at all. Where you have a large project ahead of you, please contact myself and Andy Duncan in the Church Buildings Team. These projects can take time, especially as funding becomes harder to get and costs of materials rise, so it’s critically important to plan ahead.

The financial pressure that PCCs are facing as a result of the energy crisis can put PCCs in a difficult conundrum between continuing to adequately fund and maintain their building, and the social role they can play in supporting their community as part of their Christian Mission. Stepping up in a crisis to support communities is something churches can do very well. We saw this during the Pandemic as churches supported their communities, or opened their doors as cool spaces during this summers’ heatwaves.

Many churches are signing up to be Warm Hubs, or are providing community larders. They are organising toy swaps (especially with Christmas coming), book swaps and craft sessions, to alleviate the costs of the coming months.

However, it is important to stress that this isn’t feasible for all churches, and PCCs should ensure that they don’t put undue pressure on themselves, if they don’t have the appropriate spaces or facilities to do so, or are struggling to meet their own bills. Simply by signposting the community to where they can find help and support in the local area, or by contributing volunteer time at other venues, and continuing to provide a safe space to pray, the church will be doing valuable work during this difficult time.

First published on: 24th November 2022
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