GA 2021 – Reforming The Kirk - BLOGPOST III: Auditing + Resetting – Learning from 2000-2020


‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’


In the first two posts I traced some big picture issues around the Kirk’s reform journey and considered some of the ethical issues at stake in how Presbyterians manage and respond to decline. I returned to the point I emphasised in RTK that there is not just one way to be ‘presbyterian’ and I thought about how more and less centralised versions of presbyterian polity might respond.


There are significant dilemmas facing the Kirk and we need to weigh the ethical implications of the approach we take as well as the likely risks and opportunities associated with it. I believe we needed to take radical action to reshape our structures, to reduce their costs and to enhance their effectiveness and efficiency. I believe we needed presbytery reform to rebalance our federal polity and to improve our missional focus and our capacities to resource and support local congregations.


We are, however, not just faced with awkward dilemmas; we are confronting acute challenges. As predicted for the past decade, numbers of MWS are now dropping to levels which will make our previous ways of running the church unsustainable in many places. The convenor of Faith Nurture Rev Rosie Frew told #GA2021 on 25.5.2021: 'We are draining the resources of the Church - people, morale and finance - just to keep this broken system going.'


In The Chalmers Lectures and RTK I said that as the Kirk in the 21st century we need to:


  1. Close unsustainable churches

  2. Care for (some) declining churches which will not grow again, as they decline

  3. Help (some) declining churches to grow again

  4. Help (the very few) growing churches to keep growing

  5. Plant new churches, re-seed or re-start closed or closing churches


I emphasised that this was a complex and demanding ask, because all five things have to be done simultaneously and that as a denomination we need to simultaneously contract + grow, cut + invest, prune + plant.


I don’t think we did enough to respond to these challenges in the period 2000-2020. We took some wrong turns, we lost ground and we lost time. If I was looking back and trying to audit some big calls that were and weren’t made in that period, these are some of the ones I would have questions about:


  • In relation to Pioneering/Fresh Expressions and Church Planting, while some champions of these in both M&D and MC ‘did valiantly’, they were never given the recognition, priority and resource they needed.

  • As vocations fell, we failed to move quickly enough towards a fully funded training/IME phase and we also failed, despite 3 or 4 attempts, to reform IME despite being advised that IME reform in other countries had helped to boost vocations for MWS. (I have now been involved in 4? separate Ministries Council consultations over this in the past 10 years).

  • A consequence of this was that we allowed capacity in key areas of formation to become dangerously thin or even to be eliminated across some of our training centres: e.g. homiletics, pastoral care, missiology, reformed worship, spirituality/spiritual practices, leadership and Christian education.

  • We introduced a broad grant regime in Go For It which did not do enough to enable the creation of new worshipping communities or church plants across our presbyteries.

  • We failed to support the creation of dedicated Pioneer training capacity within any of our 5 Church Colleges.

  • We failed to support the development of dedicated Youth Work/Youth Ministry training in any of our 5 Church Colleges (or elsewhere) despite claiming this was a strategic priority.

  • We failed to develop devotional apps for Daily Prayer aimed at all members – I had hoped we might seek permission to use the excellent PCUSA one and also build a less formal one, aimed more at young people.

  • We failed to throw our weight behind a discipleship course for local churches which we endorsed, resourced and promoted as a denomination - I had hoped we might seek permission to adapt the excellent Pilgrim Course developed by the Church of England.

  • We made a particular kind of strategic investment in Pioneer Ministry. I don’t want to sound critical here, because I hugely respect those in these posts and I think what they have done has been very valuable for the church. In this case it wasn’t that there was anything wrong with what they did, much of which has been wonderful; it was that because we funded them, we didn’t do other key things in relation to pioneering which I think were also needed.

  • An alternative way to spend £1M on pioneer ministry over 5 years, would have been to spend £250,000 on developing new pioneer training capacity linked to a pioneer pathway to ordination; £500,000 on two full time MWS pilots: a church plant and a turnaround or restart ministry and £250,000 on a mix of presbytery level training for congregations, and seed grants to pioneering groups led by non-ordained pioneers. (Basically, we should have listened more closely to the advice of Alan McWilliam at every stage.)

  • I wonder if there could have been much greater integration, communication and mutual learning between Fresh Expressions, Path For Renewal, Go For It, Chance To Thrive and the Pioneer programme? I wish there had been more effective and academically rigorous approaches to evaluating (and comparing) these, preferably using a single source and methodology. (Were our ‘silos’ showing here?)

  • We should have invested much earlier in a stronger Research and Statistics capacity and understood how crucial Fiona Tweedie’s work was for the church’s self-understanding and strategic planning as well as for commissioning evaluations of other programmes.

  • We should have moved to reform our M&M system much earlier, recognising the ways in which it was both suppressing local liberality and restricting stronger congregations from investing more in local mission. Surprise that income levels were holding up so well, led to an ain’t broke(yet) so don’t fix it, highly risk averse and conservative approach which didn’t see how crucial reform in this area was to addressing other issues.

  • We should have had some bigger debates about the risks of responding to decline with a high control high solidarity model and whether we could imagine ourselves working or even experimenting with a different model of Presbyterianism than the one we have become used to. Debate and scholarship around this has generally been at a low ebb over past thirty years. We had stopped trying to properly understand our own polity and the journey it was on in a changing world.


These are hard things to think and write, but the gravity of where we are in 2021 means we have to try to draw some conclusions about how we can learn from the recent past. I never felt that I was the best person to write a book about the future of the Kirk, but one of the motivations was a frustration about how easy it had become to stay in the negative. We have too many critics and not enough creatives in the Kirk; too many cynics and not enough thinkers. A wise friend told me this was a good question to ask ‘high conflict individuals’ and I have found it so, but have also taken it to heart myself: ‘what do you want to happen?’. In that spirit, I want to return to some of the themes of RTK and to the task I set myself there of trying to be as positive as possible and to make as many concrete suggestions as possible. As I said then, this doesn’t mean that I assume these are the right answers; it does mean that I believe this is the best way to help move the conversation forward. My hope is that the conversation does move: that my suggestions are improved, supplemented and displaced by much better ones. When that happens, is when I feel most like a presbyterian, who is part of a functioning and functional presbyterian culture which is listening to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches and saying ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’. So here goes.


Pastor of Pastors + Missional Leaders Wanted (x9 or 10?)

I continue to believe that the new Presbyteries should have full time MWS Moderators, appointed for five year terms, which can be renewed once by agreement. We would ask them to exercise personal initiative while remaining subject to presbytery in the way all ministers are and charge them with being a pastor of pastors and a missional leader and animator within the Presbytery. The Clerk role should be performed by a non-ordained person.


Ministries of Word and Sacrament

It’s true that we are here again and I understand that overall decline tends to reduce supply, but it has been proportionately worse for us than other declining churches such as PCUSA and C of E who have healthier numbers of ordinands. So I want to stick with the idea that we need to try harder to increase numbers of those coming forward for full time MWS. (and before anyone suggests I am trying to prop up an outmoded model that needs to be transformed – I am all for transformation as well; I just take seriously the fact that as things stand even stabilising numbers around 600 will be very challenging without a serious effort).


f) My headline suggestion is a new, strong, clear statement about a revised streamlined basic MWS track of an ordinary BD Min done over 2 full time years, during which you are paid to train and you work at your training all year round. Something like this:


The Church of Scotland needs more people to serve as Ministers of Word + Sacrament. Could God be calling you to this demanding but rewarding work?

If you are accepted for training, you will be paid £20,000 a year while you train, full time, for TWO years, working with one of our academic partners and one of our presbyteries. (You’ll get 6 weeks of holiday per year).

After this, if you pass your final assessment (and unless the Church offers and you accept the chance to do a further year of advanced academic study or additional specialist training!) you will be given a 12 month placement in a local church or church grouping with a Ministry Mentor, on a salary set at 90% of the Ministry Stipend. You will be given a temporary licence to work as a minister and you will have to do a further 6 weeks of supervised theological reflection within the year. If your probation is upheld, you will then be able to apply for a ministry post anywhere in the Kirk.

This new BD could be offered by any of the current academic partners, but I continue to believe what I wrote in RTK, that 5 is too many; leaving student cohorts too small for effective local formation in some places and thinning staff capacity in crucial areas of the formation curriculum. The huge increase in online learning may offer some new options here, but I think 5 colleges for current numbers is absurd, despite the centuries of heritage at stake. I also think that we need a denomination wide drive to build up a new permanent IME endowment to support future provision, both at a chosen institution(s) and online. To build capacity within the training staff will require additional church investment – secular universities are not by themselves going to commit to providing capacity in these areas for tiny numbers of students.


g) My next suggestion repeats a proposal I made in RTK which I don’t think was ever seriously explored. We formally approach both the PCUSA and the Home Office [skills shortage in UK] for permission to establish a scheme through which up to 10 PCUSA ordinands (who I believe outnumber the vacancies there?) per year can come and work for up to 7 years in Scotland. We set up a scheme to offer induction and mentoring support for those who come. [I am potentially open to folk coming from any church, not just PCUSA – my only caveat would be that if we were actively seeking people to come, it would have to be from a sister church which was not itself short of ministers and would not be weakened by having folk they have trained come and serve with us. So it would have to have their official approval] If PCUSA is moving into shortage, then we can discount this.


h) We establish a Pioneer Track to ordination for MWS on similar lines to the C of E i.e. there is a double selection process for both standard and pioneer MWS. Those accepted are offered a distinct training pathway which shapes them for pioneer ministry.


i) Returning to another unloved proposal from RTK, I continue to believe that we need to create a new form of Recognised Ministry called Commissioned Local Ministry in which ordained or commissioned elders (see below) can be trained to share in ministry of word and sacrament and given local authorisation for periods of three years at a time, under the oversight of an ordained MWS. I believe we need to overcome our theological inhibitions about this. We should at least try a pilot phase and evaluate it. This would be a non-stipendiary ministry and a variant of OLM, but OLM is not delivering what we need as things stand.



Pioneering + Innovative Ministries

Point 3 above calls for an ordination track linked to a pioneer ‘gateway’. I believe it has potential to increase the overall numbers of candidates for MWS and to demonstrate our seriousness about facing the future in new ways.

These next points address the urgent task of getting people ‘into the field’ in creative ways, when we are unable to resource traditional forms of deployment. You will see that I view Manses as potentially offering a rich resource here and would therefore be cautious about flogging them all off, just as I am cautious about a rush to close down local churches without offering reset or fresh start options. So as we begin to hit the bulge of retirements we think about some creative options:


a. Field Experiment I – You make tents and we’ll give you a house

Anglicans call this ‘House For Duty’. Here I link it to a tentmaking model in which an OLM or CLM earns a salary from other employment and acts as a pastor or pioneer part time.

b. Field Experiment II – You mentor a CLM and we’ll give you a house

This is a option aimed at retired or retiring MWS or MWS who are undertaking PhD study in Scotland. They get a house in exchange for mentoring and supporting a CLM in a local church (where CLM is staying on in their own house).


c. Field Experiment III – A grant, a group and a guide With apologies to Glasgow’s Oran Mhor (a play, a pie and a pint) this seeks to seed a plant or a restart by offering a core group a grant (e.g. £10 K a year) and some mentoring support. I think Alan McWilliam sees this as a valuable option to have and it could be compared to large number of non-ordained Fresh Expressions being developed in some dioceses of the C of E.

d. Field Experiment IV – A grant, a manse, a group and a guide As above, but the group are given a manse as a base to use as they see fit: either have meetings in, to accommodate a team (c.f. Eden project) or in line with a above.

e. Field Experiment V – A grant, a manse, a group + a minister As above, but this would be a fully funded post for a Pioneer MWS doing a church plant or restart.

f. Field Experiment VI – Presbytery Partners in Pioneering and Planting

This is more speculative but it is inspired by looking around the UK and the world at organisations, sometimes mission agencies (CMS, Church Army etc. YMCA) who have in old fashioned language been ‘patrons’ – I would switch that to Mission Partners or Sponsors. This would recognise that church plants can have more than one ‘ethos’. So we ask a number of agencies to work with/accompany/sponsor/adopt a church plant in one of our presbyteries, which reflects their own ethos, provided they are willing to support its development within the Kirk as a presbyterian/C of S congregation and work broadly in relation to the 5 Marks. Off the top of my head here is a list to spark debate (I haven’t consulted any of these groups…):

i. The Iona Community

ii. Cairn

iii. The Guild

iv. Church Colleges

v. CrossReach (the New Zealand equivalent in PCANZ is doing something like this)

vi. HeartEdge

vii. Rutherford Centre for Reformed Theology

viii. CMS (for an ecumenical plant with SEC)

ix. Eco-Congregation Scotland

x. YMCA (yes they do plant churches in some parts of the world)

Among other things, there is a humility about this. An openness to fresh thinking from outside our own structures. A desire to learn and work with others. A willingness to be a diverse church and perhaps surprise one another.


j) New Ecumenical Mission Parishes

It’s an older idea which has baggage and has not always been very fruitful, but sometimes it is worth revisiting things like this. In particular, I think there might be scope to work with the URC, Methodists or SEC on something. This might be helped by support from a group named in f above?


k) Online Mission ‘Parishes’ (at either Presbytery or national level)

I’m not an expert on this, but I think post pandemic there may be a lot of new ideas around for how to do this. It could be particularly helpful for ‘communities in common’ of various kinds who may be under-represented in many churches and who might find an online community their best first step towards being part of a church community. This could include folk who are facing particular kinds of physical or mental health challenge…or who have been through certain kinds of trauma… but others will have better ideas than I on this. We certainly have new capacities and understanding of what we could offer online.

Non-Ordained Leadership and Ministries

I am fighting a lonely battle to resist the use of the term ‘lay’ within the Kirk. This is a crucial area and one in which, despite some really good initiatives over the years, we still haven’t developed provision of the scale and quality needed.


l) I am making another pitch for Commissioned Elders/Leaders alongside Ordained Elders (see RTK for details) with local congregations and individuals left to discern which is their pathway into leadership. CE’s would serve for 1-3 year terms. We need this flexibility and this is an irenic proposal which allows a gradual and parallel flow of change.


m) One of my key hopes for the new Presbyteries is that they drastically improve their Training and Education offer to their congregations. We need a new curriculum of courses – single session, day long, weekend long, 10 evenings, 3 day intensives etc. most not for credit but some for academic credit; which articulate with recognised ministries and could build towards the qualifications needed for those even while someone was still discerning a call. Our Church Colleges can play a significant role here, as can CAIRN, Invest, Alpha Scotland, Place for Hope, Eco-Congregations, Iona…


n) Again, colleagues have recommended the CPAS Growing Leaders Course https://www.cpas.org.uk/browse-everything/growing-leaders-course-download and perhaps we could work with CPAS to develop a version contextualised for Scotland and Presbyterianism? My doctoral student David Clarkson and my friend Gordon Palmer have good insights in these areas.


o) Alongside this, we should support and encourage retreats, spiritual accompaniment and direction, and work to revive and refresh the spiritual lives of individuals.


p) We need a new era of strategic investment in Youth Work and Youth Ministry. We now have no active programmes of faith based training left for Youth Workers in Scotland. We haven’t invested in building or maintaining capacity here as the Kirk despite alleging this to be a key priority for our future. We need to step up and quickly. Its possible that there could be ways to think about this in relation to a renewal and development of Diaconal Ministry but only if that didn’t delay and smother its development by confusing the issue. Another area in which I am no expert, but I know how important it is and we need to listen to those working in this area and support them.



Resetting the Church for Mission

That’s a lot of ideas, some better, more practical and more developed than others – but having been recently compared by Rev Nimmo to Taggart in my miserabilism [there’s been a blogpost from Trinity/Doug!!] I offer them as an attempt to respond with hope and to call for innovation and experimentation, working to overcome limitations in money and personnel.


To return to my previous thoughts about high control, high solidarity approaches – the danger with these is that they are better at managing decline than enabling growth and adaptation.


I think that we are unlikely to see the whole Kirk move suddenly towards a low control, decentralised approach to the crisis facing us, to our ‘broken system’, but if I am right about that I think we need to mitigate the risks which come with a high control/centralised rationing approach and create more differentiated spaces in which we can experiment and innovate. (Our recent Argyll Hub experiment may offer a model here).


One more radical option would be to allow one of the new Presbyteries to work not with a number of allocated posts but with a cash allocation which they could divide as they see fit and also allow them, or another presbytery, to introduce the G2G revised financial formula early…


We need to make some decisive moves which help to shift us towards a culture of enabling, a culture of innovation and adaptation in which we see flows of change happening from the bottom up. I am wary about our ability to ‘manage growth’ but we can try to create conditions in which the Spirit can inspire innovation, giving permission, resource, accompaniment and support to communities who embrace innovation, within a framework of presbyterian accountability.


Doug Gay 26.5.2021


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