Nothing Is Impossible For God
Folk foolish enough to try to think and write about church reform face real dilemmas and challenges. In the past I have characterised these as docetic and pelagian temptations and reflected on how the struggle to steer between them involves our need to be humble, hopeful and creative. The first and continuing response of the church as it makes decisions about its life needs to be penitence and prayer; but it is possible to believe that and to understand that, as in every area of our lives, the Holy Spirit does not often dictate instructions about detailed questions of budgeting and governance. We are commissioned to take responsibility for overseeing the life of our churches.
There is a balance to be struck therefore, between ‘waiting on God’ and ‘going with God’. In RTK I said this:
Early in the book I noted theological reservations about ‘pelagian’ approaches to church growth, accepting they had some validity, but also suggesting they could be overstated. I Corinthians 3 is a key passage here, allowing us to talk in active terms about ministry as human work, while also emphasising what only God can do. Paul’s embrace of the master-builder/architect metaphor helps to support an active account of what some presbyteries call ‘mission strategy’, while remembering that, as the 1662 Anglican Book Of Common Prayer puts it ‘we do not presume’.
I also referred to:
the … ‘wisdom’ calls involved in the kybérnēsis or governance/administration of the church.
Although this is nothing new for the church, we still find it hard to live within this tension. But we have to try to do all we can, without presuming we can change things in our own strength. We are trying to join in with the mission of God, while God is still actively at work in mission to us. We are trying to work with God, praying and trusting that God is at work within us. We can’t take our hand off the tiller but we pray constantly that there is another hand nudging ours to keep us on course.
And we believe that nothing is impossible for God. So we never give up hope.
Managing Decline + Planning for Growth
People like to say we are not in the business of simply managing decline, although I always think that if there is decline, it has to be managed, so its better to accept that as part of our calling. To pick up where the last post left off, the most difficult challenge for the Kirk is working out how to balance managing decline with planning for growth.
This becomes particularly challenging when we are faced with rationing scarce resources of money and people. This is where we need to pray for particular wisdom. On the one hand, we rightly feel under an obligation to be ethical and fair in the way we allocate resources when making investments and in the way we withdraw them when making cuts. On the other hand, we also realise that the Kirk is not the same as the Co-Op, the Post Office or the National Health Service. So we can’t just devise the optimum scheme for fair distribution of resources.
One place to start might be with negative motivations. We need to make sure that we are not making decisions which are selfish, prejudiced or punitive. That is an important step but it still doesn’t take us very far.
We still need to do some of the ‘systems’ thinking I was trying to do at the end of the last post and see if we can work out what a wise set of judgments about opportunity and risk might look like. In particular, we can try to dig deeper into the contrast between a low control decentralised Presbyterianism and a high control centrally managed Presbyterianism.
Low Control – Low Rationing - Reduced Solidarity
If we left more funding and initiative with local churches, I think there are real opportunities which could come with this. We would pray for the Holy Spirit to guide and inspire an entrepreneurial, creative spirit which sprang from the ground up (like a fountain of living water? to use a Johannine metaphor) – the very few growing churches and the significant number of relatively strong churches could be set free to invest in local mission, to extend and grow staff teams in line with need and could be actively encouraged to become planting churches, which could help to re-seed or re-start struggling or dying congregations nearby, under their oversight and mentorship. Examples from elsewhere in the UK and internationally suggest that this can be an effective way of growing ‘from strength to strength’. We arguably need more churches in the Kirk to grow bigger and do the things that bigger churches can do. We desperately need more churches to develop effective forms of youth ministry which lead to young people coming to faith and joining the church. We need dynamic growing churches which incubate and develop vocations for MWS. In this scenario, growing churches will be able to maintain and potentially, in time, increase solidarity mechanisms for weaker parts of the church as well as providing essential resources for CrossReach and other ministries of care, justice and environmental protection.
The downside to this vision, which is exciting in many ways, is that in the short term it is likely to leave some churches feeling that there is not enough emphasis within the system on solidarity and subsidy. The size of the Solidarity Fund will be a huge issue and one which raises challenging questions for the ethics of the overall strategy. There is likely to be significant unevenness in patterns of growth and there could be a feeling that a Super League of rich and successful churches has been allowed to develop at the expense of poor, struggling and remote congregations. One possible advantage for struggling churches might be that even if times remain very lean for individual congregations, if the national church and presbytery take a hands off approach, some local churches may survive defiantly against all odds, where an interventionist presbytery plan would have closed and united them. However, given the extreme shortage of ministers which is looming, we could also see large growing churches with multiple MWS on staff, while small struggling churches even if they can afford a stipend, have no-one applying to be their minister because all of the supply has been taken up. We could see growing patches of Scotland with no effective Church of Scotland presence.
High Control – High Solidarity – High Rationing
The alternative to the scenario above, is pretty much the course we are now embarked on. It is deeply concerned with the institutional ethics of solidarity and in order to be just and loving to all parts of the church, it is exercising a high degree of control and engaging in significant amounts of rationing in order to ensure that so far as possible, all areas of Scotland have access to a minimum level of ministry, with priority and remote areas given a degree of added protection on the grounds of their added vulnerability. It is seeking to maintain the peace and unity of the church and to encourage us to bear one another’s burdens.
The danger with this approach is of it leading to an equality of misery and exercising a dampening and restraining effect across the church as a whole. It could end up weakening and inhibiting the strong, while only offering enhanced palliative care to the weak. The end result might be low levels of growth, low levels of church planting and pioneering, reduced numbers of vocations, lower overall numbers of young people in the church and lower overall income available to sustain wider ministries concerned with justice, peace and the integrity of creation. In this scenario, we could get to 2025 with few signs that we are on course to be able to sustain 600 MWS and with still reducing income – this then driving a further round of rationing and adjustment for 2025 to 2030 and entrenching a cycle of decline. This becomes the wrong kind of management of decline, in which our attempts at solidarity with one another paradoxically mean the whole institution gets weaker and smaller more rapidly, but with the pain more evenly spread. It could also offer an example of a kind of spiritual and denominational (even missional?) hubris, in which we believe we have the central planning and management tools and skills to direct what limited investment we can make on a top down basis; but are repeatedly disappointed by the failure of our selected plants to bear sufficient fruit.
The Spirit of Wisdom
While these are roughly sketched binaries, I don’t think they are outlandish or implausible and I think they help to clarify opportunities and risks for the church.
We can see some elements of the first scenario within the life of the PCUSA and of the Church of England. We can see elements of the second scenario within the life of the URC and of the Church of England.
I have said before and I repeat here, no-one knows what the right thing to do is and there is no one right course of action which has no downsides. I certainly don’t claim to have any special insight into the future and I feel very out of my depth, even this far into the water.
My best thought is that whichever of these ends up being closer to our main approach, we would be wise to work on strategies of mitigation in relation to the particular risks which we foresee and also to consider how far we could pursue a more differentiated approach, which allows us to try out different models in different places or presbyteries. This feels a bit like where the first post ended, but in the next one I will set out some concrete examples of what that mitigation and differentiation might look like.
Doug Gay 25.5.2021
Footnotes:  Denying humanity its proper place  Overstating what human beings can do in their own strength  1 Corinthians 12:28 The focal metaphor associated with the etymology here is of steering a ship.