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Acting on faith

Like many other properties, churches must conform to commercial legislation. But the archaic, often run-down religious buildings lovingly looked after by volunteers pose a number of challenges. Anne Lennox Martin talks to the authors of a handbook that is helping the Church of Scotland to embrace FM principles

I had never thought about the differences between running religious buildings and those in other FM sectors. But while visiting Scotland on business last year, I came across a handbook entitled Letting it Happen — How to Make Your Church Buildings Work for You.

I met up with the authors, Pauline Cameron and Tim Edwards, to find out how the 77-page handbook for priority area parishes was being used by the Church of Scotland.

Anne Lennox Martin So how did this handbook come about?

Pauline Cameron It was commissioned by an organisation called Faith in Community Scotland. It’s a multi-faith group funded by a number of different agencies. I had done some work with them before on developing a strategy to deal with bereavement and loss and then facilitating groups to action it in their communities. They were pleased with the results and invited me to tender for the work. Tim and I were looking for a new project to work on together so we put together a proposal which was accepted.

ALM What knowledge and experience did you have that qualified you for the task?

Tim Edwards My background in consultancy has included inner city regeneration and funding for large-scale projects. I have an understanding of faith groups and my skills lie in research, gathering information and writing. I am also fortunate in having a good friend working as a senior FM and have learnt a lot from her over the years.

PC I, too, have experience in research and formulating policy and strategy within governmental and public sector areas. I had also facilitated the development of the Glasgow Healthy Working Lives strategy group, so I knew where to get information on this subject. Jim Tassell, a UK health and safety expert, was also a great reference point.

ALM Tell me about your client. Why did they see a need for such a handbook?

PC It is quite complicated to explain as a number of interested parties were involved. The main impetus was from the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland who are the legal owners of their buildings. They were faced with a number of challenges. Some of these affect lots of other sectors. For example, many of the buildings are no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century. Uniquely, as well as some of the buildings being listed, there is a spiritual element embedded within the local congregations; a cultural history and perspective and a community ownership which can go back generations. This means that emotions run high when the buildings are threatened or even criticised.

TE Unlike most other buildings the churches, halls, graveyards and so on, are run and managed completely by volunteers. The ministers have a responsibility within their role, but in practice responsibility lies with their local Congregational Board or Board of Management. These groups may have different constitutions but the members, typically up to 10 individuals, have to make collective decisions on buildings. If they are lucky they may be able to nominate one member as the property convener. More usually they have to work as a team, which makes getting things done very difficult.

PC The General Trustees break down into Presbyteries run by ministers and elders. At individual church level there are kirk sessions but these are principally for religious and community issues. As the buildings are all used by the community and are open to the public, they are covered by the same commercial legislation for standards and health and safety as standard office buildings. It is a lot to expect lay people to take on this level of responsibility with no training or experience. Some congregations are fortunate enough to have a member with some related work experience, but most churches in deprived areas have to rely on researching answers to what would be standard FM questions.

ALM So this handbook was needed to support the volunteers in looking after the maintenance, fabric and legal requirements of their buildings?

TE That’s right. The other main driver from the General Trustees was the need to educate the volunteers on the financial management requirements involved in running the buildings and keeping their portfolio solvent. As the church halls are frequently rented out to local community support groups for toddlers, pensioners and so on, the temptation is to allow them to use the space for as little payment as possible. Understanding that there is a cost in energy and maintenance which needs to be covered adequately can be an alien thought to those concerned with spiritual and community priorities. The practicalities fundamental to FM do not necessarily occur to the volunteers [even though] they make the same kinds of decisions on a regular basis.

PC So our main brief was to write a guidance handbook on church buildings which, in simple terms, would cover the practicalities, legalities and health and safety requirements; the ongoing management requirements; the sustainability issues. It would also ensure that churches could pay their way by balancing rental income against necessary expenditure.

ALM What research did you have to do and where did you get your information?

PC First of all we divided up the workload between us. I concentrated on the softer issues around running and managing the buildings. This included budgeting and letting advice. I also took on the health and safety aspects with support from Jim Tassell who checked that I had my facts right and that I had answered the right questions.

TE I concentrated on the more technical side, looking at maintenance, project work and risk management. I was very lucky to have input from Sarah Fisher who heads up FM for Scottish Water.

PC We consulted with the user base. We were able to hold a workshop at the Church of Scotland Priority Areas annual conference, which covers the most deprived areas, where I explored what were their key concerns. We also sent out questionnaires at the conference, with a good response rate.

TE We checked out a large number of websites. As well as guidance on property from the Church of England and other religious bodies, we covered police, fire and local authority sites. There was some excellent information on running village halls in England for instance.

PC Then there were the larger sites on health and safety, environmental guidance and building regulations. There was a lot of surfing.

TE We took guidance documents, letting agreements, checklists and forms from different sources and re-wrote them for the specific need. Some we wrote ourselves from scratch and got them checked by our support experts.

ALM What did you identify as the biggest challenges from your research?

TE Undoubtedly the sheer size and design of the buildings. The height of church ceilings and towers means scaffolding costs have to be added plus the element of risk to the work increases. Then there is the issue of security. This is a really emotive subject for those involved. Congregations would often like to keep their buildings open at all times for private prayer and contemplation but vandalism and theft make this impractical. There is the fact that the architecture can put constraints on heating and ventilation and lighting installations, making them uncomfortable and unappealing to modern congregations.

Poor layouts and lack of insulation mean many of our church halls are not fit for purpose, with inadequate catering and toilet facilities. All of these aspects make the challenge of running costs difficult to reduce. Perhaps the most significant challenge was the very reason why we were commissioned to write the handbook in the first place. Namely, the lack of confidence felt by the volunteers in managing and running the buildings to modern standards and requirements.

ALM What does this challenge mean in reality for religious buildings?

TE In the past most religious buildings have been maintained ad hoc by local handymen. Their remit was to repair as cheaply as possible. This has led to unsightly botches; ongoing faults which never quite get fixed properly and odd fixtures and fittings which don’t match and quickly become obsolescent. Cleaning standards are inconsistent as it is all carried out by volunteers. How do you complain if an elderly lady has given up her own time for the last 30 years to undertake a labour of love? Design tends not to be considered when building changes are made. This can lead to a poor visual perception of the space which might put off potential lettings. Awareness can help with these areas.

PC The voluntary element of the FM function has meant that we have had to be very careful in the way we have written the guidance. We have not used the term ‘facilities management’ except in the introduction. Many of our audience are not familiar with the terminology and this could intimidate them. We adopted a ‘light touch’, the emphasis being on advice and where to find support. We have only touched on what are potentially sensitive subjects such as letting discrimination. Throughout we have tried to keep it simple and flagged up important issues.

ALM After nearly 30 years in FM, I have never come across a more useful tool for someone new to FM. What has been the reaction from your audience?

PC We held another workshop using the priorities from the first session to demonstrate how to use the handbook and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Comments since have included: “At last we have something to use!”; “All the information in one place — wow!” “This is such a good booklet I have given it to our village hall committee who are using it”, and “The section on setting different prices for lets by different types of users to make a budget is very useful”.

In fact, the booklet has been so well-received, that a reprint is underway to enable all Church of Scotland premises to benefit from it, not just churches in deprived communities.

ALM What aspects are you most proud of?

PC We have made it accessible. We haven’t compromised on describing good practice, but by using ‘Here to Help’ and ‘Red Alert’ icons throughout, we have broken up the information so that the message is clear and simple to read.

TE It is a high-quality product. We were able to achieve a really good deal on the graphic design and printing. This meant we could achieve value for money and our audience see it as enabling. It is not just another imposition on volunteers but a practical tool that speaks their language.

I hope other people new to FM will find it useful although it is obviously specific to religious buildings in Scotland.

This article first appeared in FM World magazine.

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