Graham Smith has an unusual job.
He is approached by, very often, a handful of members and reluctantly told that they want to sell their church building as they can’t keep up the costs.
Graham is a partner at the commercial property surveyors Rapleys and specialises in selling and developing churches and not-for-profit buildings. He tries to keep church properties within the wider church family and often finds himself passing one on from a few faithful over 80s to an eager Pentecostal group in desperate need of a space to call their own.
“Sometimes these buildings are not the traditional, old Victorian buildings with a great, big, pointy spire on top - some of them are 60s, 70s or even 80s, fairly unspectacular brick-boxes that just have not stood the test of time and need to be either removed or improved.”
But as a Christian himself, Mr Smith isn’t the steely estate agent you might expect.
“I'm not coming in cold and treating it just as something else on the production line,” he said. “I do feel for the group being left behind - almost homeless as a church closes. Frequently, it's just a case of dwindling numbers. These are fairly often more rural locations, where the population has just gradually been increasing in age and its demographics and the church has reflected that, it has not had the new blood coming through of new families and youngsters and young people
“But I always try to make something of an effort: if I can, I sell the church onto another faith group, and particularly a Christian group if possible, because there is a shortage of buildings that have the planning permission for use as a church.”
With churches across the country closed for the majority of the year, many have struggled to get the same amount of income they previously received from cash donations and church building hires.
Smith told Premier that many of the churches he has sold in 2020 were already having problems and would have struggled regardless, but that Covid has sped up the process.
"Obviously, it has had an impact. It's been very unnerving at times. I've been going into buildings where there's been no nobody there for months and they do feel really cold and empty and missing the love that a regular congregation would have given a church.
"A lot of the churches were already failing, Covid has just really exacerbated their closure because typically, the demographics are not the type of people who are wedded to their computers and screens and so having church services on Zoom, or Google or YouTube or whatever, would not have suited them. So that's why they've probably closed and closed quicker than they might have done otherwise.”
He explained how Covid has changed how he does his job: “I've had to really curb how I do my sales techniques! I can't have great crowds joining in, which is sometimes quite ironic - a failing church and there I am selling it and I can have 50-60 people in it because it is so popular.”
About 50 per cent of the churches Smith sells are redeveloped for housing and the other 50 per cent normally stay as places of worship. When a church is sold into the hands of a redeveloper outside of the church, it’s not all depressing news for Christendom, Smith says, as he talks up the property and tries to get the best price for the church group selling it.
"That money will go back to whichever denomination it is and that money then gets ploughed back into mission and it's going to be used elsewhere where they're still active and most productive.”
Speaking about what 2021 will mean for hundreds of other similar small churches who are just clinging on this Christmas, Smith admitted it will probably be a difficult year.
"Unfortunately, I can only see what's been happening this year continuing and growing. Covid has not been kind to meeting in church and those groups that were small won't come back. We're all adjusting our lifestyles slightly differently, whether it's working at home or whether it's how we just go about living our daily lives and getting in and out shops and such like, and I can see church life suffering because communities won't be doing the midweek activities so much. It's all going to be a little bit more fragmented. Therefore, I see the purposes for church buildings dwindling, and therefore, inevitably, they will be closed - and I will have even more coming on the market to be disposed of.”