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Could there be a Plan B? – An Essay on Kirk Reform in 2023

Updated: May 20, 2023

by the Principal of Trinity College Glasgow, Doug Gay

I have a fair range of theological interests and concerns, but if you’d asked me 10 years ago if institutional reform was high among them, I would definitely have said no. No-one is more surprised than me that I have spent so much time on these questions, but if I reflect on why I have, I would say I have felt compelled and perhaps even called to turn aside to them from other things which I was more passionate about. I feel the force of Karl Barth’s comment that the job of theology is to critically accompany the church on its mission.

I’ve not always felt particularly well equipped for the task. I’m not a Church Law geek and often rely heavily on friends and colleagues who are. I’m also not a cradle Presbyterian, but perhaps my finding a home in the Kirk has given me a different kind of affection and appreciation for it as an institution. I feel that God has ‘burdened’ me with some concerns and driven me to express them. My understanding of how to reflect on these questions and my attempts to do so are limited and flawed and are only ever offered into the church’s processes of discernment, to be critiqued and improved or rejected outright.

Let’s start with the ‘I’ word. As opposed to some colleagues and friends, I don’t feel the
need or desire to distance myself from it. I grew up in an anti-institutional ‘movement’
based sect, albeit one which had already gone badly wrong. I have also witnessed erratic and aberrant behaviour over the decades, from both charismatic congregations and from alt. worship/emerging church groups. So this is a point on which my Political Theology and Ecclesiology interests converge: we need institutions! The institutional life of the Body of Christ is not accidental or incidental to its role in the Mission of God, it is essential and intrinsic to it. It is a core part of our calling, always with the help of the dynamic and creative Holy Spirit, to build good institutions and maintain them well. Leaving an institution to do something else as or with a congregation, will only ever involve you joining another institution or creating another institution, even if it is initially a small, flexible, fluid and mobile one. This side of the eschaton, there is no Spirit-filled church without an institutional body (and arguably perfected institutions may even have a place in the new creation?).

So for me the task is about reform of our institutions and, yes, about ‘always’ reforming them, because they always stand in need of reform. To reform them well, we need, as best we can, to understand them. That involves both understanding our institutional polity – in our case Presbyterianism – and having a dynamic, contextual theological understanding of that. To put that another simpler way, we have to be able to tell ourselves the story of who we are as a church. Clifford Geertz the anthropologist relates his definition of culture to “the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves”. If we tell lazy, poorly informed, ahistorical, partial or misleading stories, that will hinder our understanding of who we are and of how we need to reform ourselves. The first P word is Polity – our systems of governance and law-making – the second is Presbyterianism, which is the family line in which our polity stands. The third is Power. On the one hand Polities regulate and direct the exercise of institutional Power; seeking to minimise its abuse and to maximise its effectiveness. On the other, we need to be alert to the way Powers of different kinds can seek to capture, subvert or resist the institutional Polities within any branch of Presbyterianism.

The State Of Us
I have written a good bit already on these questions, both in my Chalmers Lectures,
developed and expanded into Reforming The Kirk and in this blog post from late Spring 2022 and I don’t want to repeat myself too much. So this is my take on what we have done so far, how well we have done it and what we have still to do. I will, without apology, repeat these 3 things:

1. There are no manuals for reforming Presbyterian churches. None of us knows the right way to do this. We are making it up as we go along, in dependence upon God.
2. Institutional reform is a complex, frustrating and difficult task which involves making adjustments to a dynamic system in real time. Some of these will have unforeseen or unintended consequences which will need to be mitigated, undone or redone.
3. What I write below is my best shot at saying something helpful at this point in time. Some of it is guesswork and gut instinct and some of it will be wrong.
If we accept these three premises, then we should hear through them the call to be both merciful and humble in the way we present, debate and discuss ideas for reform. That should free us to be thoughtful and present bold ideas when necessary, for consideration and decision by the wider church. But, we should avoid becoming personally over-invested in ‘our’ solutions and feeling betrayed if they are rejected or modified. Reform is a task for the whole church, to be undertaken prayerfully, using all of our God-given wits. It requires us to listen well to one another and empathise closely with one another.

Reforming a Federal System – Reflections on the Journey So Far
I argued in The Chalmers Lectures/RTK that reforming a federal system of governance like Presbyterianism, involved simultaneously adjusting and balancing central structures and regional/local structures and recalibrating the relationships between them.

- I supported a leaner, more effective and efficient central structure and was in favour of consolidating the existing councils into a single ‘Mission Agency’ style unit, with internal administrative divisions for different work areas. I believed we needed to reduce staff numbers and significantly reduce the numbers of members/elders and ministers involved in councils and committees. This has largely happened and if the two forums are merged into one I would have no problem with that – it's about how they are run not how many of them there are. It has clearly been a tough and unsettling experience, with some loss of institutional memory and morale and some senior staff implementing robust approaches to corporate culture which have not all been well conceived. As a Christian Church, we need to keep a careful and critical eye on the spirituality of our management culture and rein in approaches which are overly assertive or controlling. We now need to make this new, leaner and cheaper structure work as well as possible.

- I advocated for Presbytery Reform, suggesting we needed fewer more powerful presbyteries to create sustainable and effective units which could regroup to become more effective in resourcing local ministry. I had around 12 in mind and have been a bit surprised we got down as low as 9/10 – but again that’s a pragmatic decision and if folk on the ground coalesced around that, it's now about how they are managed*. I feel there are a few areas of unfinished business here.

*Just as CrossReach needed to be treated as a special case in relation to reform of the other councils, so I believe the International Presbytery should be treated as a special case and given a distinctive settlement and I am not convinced this has yet been understood or achieved.

1. The first is leadership. I advocated in RTK for full time 5 year Presbytery Mods commissioned as Missional and Pastoral leaders (though subject to Presbytery control – commissioned to propose not dispose, to inspire and encourage, but not to direct) with non-ordained Clerks becoming Presbytery managers. This did not find favour, but I would still like to see at least a Pilot somewhere. (This approach would align us broadly with the URC model, although I think we should take a fresh look at the JD for the role and not simply copy the model they have used.)

2. This is also suggestive for the working of the Assembly Trustees. I favour giving a stronger de jure geographical character to our federalism. There are various ways to do this. I like the idea of half of the Assembly Trustees being Presbytery Moderators (or reps) but that would push the numbers up to 18 which is on the high side compared to the current 12. Having 6/9 as Trustees, who rotate off and on in sequence would be one way to solve this. Having Presbytery reps at the Trustee table could both enhance representation for presbyteries and enhance communication to presbyteries. It could enhance the sense of ownership of and connection to the AT’s across the whole church.

3. There are outstanding questions about finance. So far this seems to me to have been fudged or perhaps even bodged. There was no clear plan for how to finance the new presbyteries and this has hampered them from the start. We need a clear system and formula which does not leave the new presbyteries dependent on being funded from the centre.

4. There are also outstanding power and polity questions. I think we need much greater devolution of power over resources and finances and a more decentralised structure for the Kirk as a whole. So I think there is now a balancing move to be made which adjusts the powers of the Assembly Trustees/General Trustees/Faith Action Forum(s) in relation to those of the presbyteries. This will need careful articulation, but I think it is the direction in which the adjustment should be made. My sense is that to date, the Trustees have probably flexed their muscles a little too much, in the relative vacuum created by the time-lag in creating new presbyteries and I hope they will tuck in a bit and work to empower the Presbyteries as they bed in. Again, having direct Presbytery representation on the Trustees could help to prevent overreach as could a revised remit for the GTs.

5. My other polity proposal in RTK has been largely ignored, which was to look again at the status of the congregation and the congregational meeting within our polity and to strengthen it vis a vis the Kirk Session. I still think this has merit, but seem to be a lone voice on this. I will come back to this later in the discussion of rebuilding.

Mission Planning – How Plan ‘A’ Feels So Far
As the mighty Radiohead once said ‘You Do It To Yourself’ and that is worth thinking on as I come to the hardest and most controversial part of this paper. Our current angst, unrest, anger, confusion and distress as the Church of Scotland are directly related to something we are doing to ourselves. The late Professor John Baillie said in the 1940s about the influence of Karl Barth on theology that “the medicine was administered in merciless overdoses”. I have a few thoughts about that metaphor in relation to our Mission Planning process.

Many people will agree, I think, that we left key reforms and key initiatives too late, resulting in an overdose of catch-up reform, with a whiff of panic about it. The last five years would always have been a lot to cope with, but COVID was a body blow to Kirk as well as nation.
The salutary realisation that we needed to decisively address issues of institutional reform put us as a Church, and as a Church meeting in General Assembly, into a chastened mode in which we realised that there was also strong medicine to be taken in respect of ministry of word and sacrament (MWS), money and buildings. The dilemmas were around diagnosis and dosage and decision making.

We voted in General Assembly to do three things to ourselves in respect of MWS, money and (though I would argue this mandate was not as clear) buildings, and to do them in a particular way. We are at an advanced stage of trying to implement those decisions, but the levels of disquiet and dissatisfaction about what we are doing to ourselves have grown to a point where they can no longer be ignored.

So to continue with the medical metaphor – I think we need a kind of urgent case review. We need to take stock of what we are doing to the body of the Kirk and how we think it is responding to treatment, what the prognosis is etc.

My choice of the John Baillie quote is an indicator of how I feel. The process is too severe, too coercive and too centralised. Perhaps the greatest danger resulting from this, is that we are losing the sense that we are doing it to ourselves – our ‘WE’ is fragmenting in the face of the treatment regime we collectively agreed to, with more and more of us now feeling that ‘THEY’ are doing this to us. Our institutional loyalty is being stretched to breaking point by a loss of confidence that what is happening is just, necessary, timely and proportionate. I am increasingly worried that some congregations are about to lose patience and walk away from us and increasingly unsure that I would blame them if they did.

BUT this is where things get hard and where we need to pray for fresh reserves of maturity and honesty, as well as vision and hope. Things get hard because the choice is not between the pain of the current process and a painless alternative.

If in our urgent case review, we look around for alternatives, I am going to suggest two which I can think of, neither of which would be pain free.

The first I will call: Plan A with significant mitigations and the second, more radical
approach I will call Plan B. I think it is important for our collective psychology to remind
ourselves of our own power as a church meeting in General Assembly. We can change course if we decide to and Assembly Trustees and Faith Nurture/Action will have to implement our revised decisions, as “they” (who are of course ‘us’) are currently implementing our existing ones. What we can’t afford to do is be immature and dishonest about the cost of our decision making; disavow our corporate agency as a Church; and blame a nameless inchoate THEY for doing this to us.

This urgent case review is being driven by grave concerns, but it is still keeping an open
mind. We may decide that neither of these options will be worth pursuing once we have ‘costed’ them, that there is no consensus to change course and that we have no option but to carry on with an unmitigated Plan A. Even if we decide that, I think it is wise to do the review, because the pain of implementing Plan A is so significant that we need to either abandon it or renew its mandate as still representing our best option under the circumstances.
If we did decide to embrace one of these alternatives (or some other alternative better
formulated than either of these) we can only do so with integrity, if we have counted the cost, listened to those who oppose them, weighed their objections and become convinced before God that we are being led by the Spirit to change course.

Plan A with significant mitigations
This is basically a decision to slow things down and reduce the dosage. We could do all or some of these.
1. Re MWS it involves relaxing the target we have set ourselves of getting to 600 – we could opt instead for 609, 681 or 708** – every presbytery gets more posts to work with in finalising its plan and can decide themselves when to de-cist them for application. It also allows time for the new Vocations initiative to make an impression and for other urgent steps towards increasing supply of MWS to be implemented.
2. Re Buildings it involves reining in the GT strategy, significantly reducing the pressure to close buildings and leaving more initiative with the local congregations as to how they want to approach which buildings they retain.
3. Re Money – it involves staying with the basic shape of Giving To Grow, but adjusting the formula to allow more money to be retained locally over a reduced ceiling and accepting a higher risk profile nationally.

This buys us time, reduces the sense of threat and compulsion and protects a number of posts and buildings which might be lost in haste. But it does this at a cost.

4. The final mitigation has to do with us protecting the Seeds for Growth funding and directing it single mindedly towards planting new congregations and restarting/resetting dying ones.

**eg every presbytery gets 1 more, or 9 more or 12 more posts to allocate – I would exempt the IP completely from the current limits as I think it makes no sense to apply them there – decisions about subsidy should be the regime which shapes IP.

Counting the Cost of Mitigations
1. Re MWS The downside of this is that we will retain more posts but have no-one to fill them. We will have to tolerate more and longer vacancies, more unevenly spread.
2. Re Buildings it means that we will keep more buildings open for longer, delaying the potential savings in energy and maintenance and postponing the realisation of capital from disposal. We may have more and longer local disputes about which buildings to retain, use and invest in.
3. Re Money – there will be a higher risk of not raising enough money nationally to meet our commitments and having to draw down reserves more quickly and/or go bust.
4. Re Planting – Go For It and the previous “Pioneer” initiative failed to achieve most of their goals around Church Planting and our denominational culture has failed to prioritise this at every level for the past twenty years. So we have a lot to learn and a lot to prove.
Resetting the 600 figure upwards would mean posing a major challenge to ourselves to see the number of vocations increase significantly. It would mean immediately taking radical and decisive action to enable this. I will return to these below.

Plan B
Plan B involves a radical re-imagining of the basis of our own form of Presbyterianism. The first step is to accept that there are presbyterianisms plural – there are different ways to be Presbyterian, which do not represent a ‘congregationalist’ betrayal. Our present system reflects our post 1929 century of what I call ‘high solidarity, high control’ Presbyterianism. This is no longer fit for purpose. While our existing Plan A approach can drive through a certain kind of institutional compromise, it will do so at an unacceptable cost to the Kirk’s present operations and future prospects. On the worst case scenario there will be six devastating consequences:

1. It will do huge damage to the peace and unity of the church, the commitment of members and the goodwill of local communities.
2. It will weaken the strong without significantly strengthening the weak.
3. It will put unacceptable strain on MWS, changing and extending their roles to make them more stressful, less attractive and so further discouraging vocations.
4. It will reduce liberality as people loudly or quietly refuse to give more to have less.
5. It will accelerate reductions in membership as many angry and discouraged people refuse to rejoin or participate in (and give to) united charges.
6. The combined result of all of these is that we will be left with the worst scenario for recovery, renewal and rebuilding. It will lock us more tightly into a cycle of decline which means we will have to repeat the exercise within five to ten years. We will be planning for 400 charges by 2030.

The Kirk is a four-engine plane which is steadily losing altitude. Two of the engines have already gone and our existing plans will not fix the third which is already beginning to splutter and fail. Even if we take steps to lighten the load, all we will do is slightly slow the downward spiral.

No amount of pain or outrage over individual cases will prevail at General Assembly 2023 or in appeals to Presbyteries or GA 2024 unless there is an alternative plan on offer.

The only hope I can see of turning things around is for us to embrace a further radical reset of our existing form of Presbyterianism. We’ve slimmed down the centre, we have pruned the number of presbyteries (maybe overpruned…) the last area in which we can attempt to reset and regroup is the resourcing and empowering of local charges themselves.

The current round of cuts (which is to a very large extent what “Mission Planning” is) is
being undertaken on our existing “high solidarity, high control” model. In its favour it is seeking to allow us to be an Article 3 Church*** , with a reasonable national distribution of ministers, as fairly as possible. Its great weakness is that it seems to me to offer very little in terms of incentives and opportunities to reset, rebuild and grow.

We need to consider hitting the emergency brakes on Plan A and switching to a new plan, (Plan B!) which has a new approach to issues of Sustainability, Solidarity and Control. It needs to do three things: free up the strongest congregations, protect the poorest congregations and restructure the opportunities and costs for those in between. Overall, it needs to radically reset the relationship between local charges, presbytery and the national church in favour of empowering local congregations, while also making them more responsible for the shaping and resourcing of ministry in their own areas.

***I know many folk think this is a big part of the problem, but it can’t be changed quickly even if there was enough support.

Ten Pillars of Plan B (buckle up it will be a rough ride)

1. We completely remove the national ceiling on the number of charges and the national target for the reduction in buildings. All decisions about whether to seek to call a minister or close a building will be taken locally, at the level of each charge, in consultation with the Presbytery.

2. Every charge (or combination of linked charges) which can afford to pay a minister, a contribution to their presbytery and a contribution to the national church (I’ll call that “quota”) will have the right to call a minister. If a charge/combo can only afford to maintain a manse but can pay the presby 4 /national contributions, they will be allowed to call on a ‘house for duty’ basis. Charges will also be allowed to offer fractional calls of 25, 50 or 75% if they can meet those percentages of the quota + presby****/national contributions. The ceiling for mandatory solidarity contributions will be set at double the quota. This system is both simple and it represents the best way to incentivise sustainability, ensure solidarity and maximise local freedom. It imposes a ceiling on possible numbers from the bottom up, not the top down and ensures all ministry is paid for. It allows local charges to combine on their own initiative or to try to call alone on a house for duty or fractional basis.

3. The priority weighting system will be abolished and replaced by two new solidarity mechanisms:
a. 100 designated Priority Charges (mix of urban and rural) will be topped up to quota, with their priority status reviewed every five years and will have the right to a single funded post on this basis.
b. A new Solidarity Fund will be opened alongside the Seeds for Growth fund, which will hold an allocation from reserves, mandatory and voluntary solidarity contributions from congregations and will also actively fundraise from high net worth donors within and beyond Scotland. The aim will be to move this to £50 million within twenty years, while redistributing £4-5M a year.
c. Priority charges and those unable to meet full quota will be able to apply to the Solidarity fund to augment their funded ministry allocations. (It would be possible to designate a portion of the fund for congregations in PAs.)

4. Unlimited tenure will be abolished for all new inductions (those on unlimited tenure could be invited to transfer to reviewable as an act of solidarity!) and at each induction, presbytery would grant a period of tenure of 5 to 10 years (renewable on review) to each charge or group of charges which meets quota.

5. Seeds for Growth will operate alongside and in addition to this system, with decisions taken either at national or presbytery level. All charges in all areas will be eligible to apply for SFG grants.

While there would in theory be no upper limit to the number of posts funded under the system above, the immediate and urgent problem facing the church will be the acute and worsening shortage of MWS, Deacons, OLMs. The whole church will need to shift towards an unprecedented focus on increasing vocations (to diverse ministries) as one of its strategic priorities. While some estimates put the total eligible pool of members at no more than 10,000 – if we could recruit 90 in the next three years, that would only be 1% of that pool. 300 in ten years would be only 3%. Key elements of resourcing reforms would include:

6. A new Apprenticeship Route in which MWS candidates would be paid to work while studying part time and would, as the norm, be deployed in vacant charges which could meet quota, under the supervision of their Minister Trainer. Ministers or Deacons approved as trainers could recruit their own apprentices subject to approval by their presbytery and the national church and there could also be regional and national recruitment direct to the scheme. This would include those candidating as Pioneer Apprentices. By training ‘in charge’ the cost of this would be funded with the lower training stipend linked to a reduction in quota.

7. A reboot of the OLM programme, with possible development of a Commissioned Local Ministry programme, where experienced and trusted elders can be authorised for up to three years to celebrate the sacraments under the oversight of a MWS.

8. Reform of IME within the academic providers, exploring rationalisation alongside new consortium possibilities drawing on new flexible online routes, with investment to align this with the needs of the apprenticeship route.

9. Recruiting, by denominational agreement, from other churches who have a surplus of candidates – both the Church of England (subject to SEC concurrence/St Columba agreement etc) and the PCUSA (subject to dialogue with government over Skilled Worker Visa eligibility – designating C of S ministry as a Shortage Occupation).

10. Investment in training options for Youth Ministers, Family workers, Church Musicians etc.

Are you serious? After all those hours in Mission Planning meetings??? All that cisting?
Believe me, I appreciate the pain and outrage this will cause for people who just want the whole process to be over already yesterday. It may be that there is no appetite for anything other than Plan A, in which case looking at an alternative might help us to make our peace with it. However, my reason for posting this is that I think the Kirk is facing an unprecedented crisis and I am concerned that Plan A will not adequately help us to find a way through or achieve the kind of deep reset which is needed.

What Plan B aims to do is to return a large measure of power and initiative to local congregations, along with an added weight of responsibility and some simple, powerful
incentives. Without a major commitment to resourcing + IME/TFM reforms, which result in an increase in the supply of stipendiary and non-stipendiary candidates for ministries, the Sustainability/Solidarity reforms will exacerbate geographical inequalities in the distribution of ministry. That is a significant risk. On the other hand, Plan A could also exacerbate problems by the alienating and dampening effect it has on the whole church.

The promise of Plan B is that could offer a way to live within our means, to be the size we can afford to be, but one which opens a new horizon of promise and hope for the future and incentivises people to give more locally and to seek more candidates for ministry.

Finally, is this a fatally flawed clerical/minister centred ‘priestly’ way of conceiving of the
future of mission and ministry. That is very far from my desire or intention. If we could make Plan B work, I think it might offer a minimal institutional scaffolding for a broader transition to a mission shaped church which looks to the ministry of all believers. It would aim to promote not undermine that.

Thanks for reading this far if you did.

Doug Gay
Trinity College
May 2023.
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