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Is there a case for Plan B? A Sympathetic Response

by Mark Johnston, Clerk to Trinity College, Glasgow


Doug presents some very compelling arguments for why we need to take stock of the mission planning model underway and helpfully offers a framing of alternative strategic possibilities. Could there be a Plan B?

I want to interact for a moment with his proposals and where I find myself reflecting on them (I am not a commissioner at this Assembly) I acknowledge I am more recent to the Kirk and less of an insider than Doug and many others. And others are arguing the pragmatic pros and cons to why Plan A might be the best we have. So, I have decided to analyse what seems to be the current strategy - Plan A – as grounds for considering the challenge Doug calls Plan B. I am utilising some frameworks we deploy in our current master’s course I co-teach here at Trinity and Glasgow University in Church Change[1]. I will leave aside Plan A with mitigations for the sake of clarity.
I believe any critical (transformational) church change strategy needs to address four core questions and join the dots between them[2]. This is part of a discernment process in which we believe God is not absent to our dilemmas and the struggles of church change and we are in a better position to discern what we need to do next when we learn to ask better questions.
1. Where are we now?
2. What is our context now?
3. Who are we now?

Which both informs and responds to
4. What is our purpose now? (what is God’s call/vocation for us now?)
The ‘now’ is a key qualifier to a good discernment question. “God is not where we imagine the local church to be; God is where and when the church actually is. If we are going to connect our spiritual journeys to the movement of God, we must be as true as we are able to where we really are”[3] That’s good incarnational theology too.
If I apply the above questions as a kind of interpretive lens to Plan A as Doug has coined it, then what do I end up with?
1. Where are we now?

A lot of Plan A is consumed with addressing this question. We have the stats and they do not look good. We need to find a way to rationalise and become a church that is realistic about the numbers. I have no issue with that. When conditions change as they have done we do need a plan to shrink and shrinking is really hard work. Priorities must be set and everything becomes more limited, more restricted.[4] Turning that into a plan for growth is even harder especially in liminal complex conditions where our linear strategies of change no longer work.

However an honest, where are we now?, also tells us is that the ‘business model’ of geographical parish – minister- national solidarity in one size fits all church franchise has well passed its use-by date. And I deliberately use ‘business model’ because that what it is when we are calculating with spread-sheets in a rationalisation process. Again, I don’t have a beef with the real world of numbers, budgets etc. However rationalising to simply improve the existing business model (by stretching geography to larger parishes, spreading ministers more thinly to service multiple sites and maintaining the high solidarity model ) seems to suggest we are not asking the right questions of our rationalisation process. I accept Doug’s point that we will be back here tinkering with this model in 5 years time. (or adopting Strategy B but 5 years too late with all the consequences we have created in the meantime) Strategy B retains continuities with the existing business model at the same as it allows for a greater diversity of experiments, risk-taking and self-determination which are the conditions needed for innovation and therefore deserves serious consideration. I suspect it could be a step too far for many with fears of congregationalism creep, however Doug advocates for guard rails at the same time as suggesting we need to entertain more radical options in the current crises.

2. What is our context now?

Our context now vis a vis Scotland, society etc is well rehearsed. However, Plan A’s choice of rationalising method and architecture shows little attention to the generational context that is currently largely out of reach for this church. If we want a younger church, then young people are not going to tolerate a high solidarity model that constitutes the strategies adopted in Plan A. That model is based on a well socialised heritage and church imagination tolerated by a church generation that is now over 60. Younger post-denominational generations are used to high levels of local agency and not interested in our current Presbyterian structures by which we practice our way of agency.

Plan B acknowledges our current expression of Presbyterianism asks too much and Plan A has just super-charged this. A highly centralised mathematical control model no longer speaks to context, at a time when suspicion of this sort of institutionalised behaviour is at an all-time high. Given the smaller and smaller numbers that are willing to sign up for this church we need to be asking what kind of Presbyterianism and church would better align with generational futures present in our context. Plan B while not a silver bullet by any means passes this sniff test for me.

3. Who are we now?

We are a church of presbyterians with a small p trying to hold onto being the Church of Scotland with a capital P. As Doug says – there are a plurality of presbyterianisms. We are just one of them now. If numbers or membership proportion of the nation used to be a way of asserting our first among presbyterian equals as the P, well that ship has sailed. Plan A is structured in part on trying to keep the capital P with the Church of Scotland ie a historic interpretation of the 3rd article declaratory – territorial reach in the parish structure being what part of what constitutes the capital P.

Others have called for the humility and freedom we are invited into by the Spirit by who we are ...now. We need to discover what it is to be the Church for Scotland and live more from the marginal place that we are in rather than striving anxiously to re-occupy the centre. We cannot go back to that place at the centre which the 3rd article symbolically and structurally upheld. This invites us to re-interpreting the 3rd article and loosening the geographical ‘presence’ argument of ministry without dissing the unique history and calling. Plan B could be used to re-invigorate such an agenda – as in the calling is to be a contextually appropriate mission witness to the Gospel for Scotland in the various kinds of localities, landscapes and peoples that constitute Scotland. As Doug has said elsewhere – there is no other Protestant denomination that is committed to the particularity of context in the way the Church of Scotland is.
The process of deploying population formulas per parish and allocating ordained ministry according to a centralised solidarity pool is a blunt tool in our current mission context and has tied us up in knots in this Plan A. I seem to recall that Church Without Walls spoke about the different contextual domains of Scotland; suburban, highland, Island, urban priority, city centre, rural etc in which gospel witness needed to be re-contextualised. The delivery mechanism for this needs to become a lot more nuanced than the business model and interpretation of the 3rd article we are pursuing in Plan A.

4. What is our calling now?

As suggested above – that might be further clarified if we attended to 1,2 and 3 in some joined up way. Furthermore, if Plan A has little of substance to illuminate this question for us then clinging to it in some sort of desperate state is possibly betraying the discernment needed at this juncture. People are rightly suspecting that Plan A no matter how well intentioned and discerned at the time is failing to address or connect us better to God’s calling to the church. Calling it ‘mission’ planning does nothing to improve on that. In fact it has had the opposite effect with people no longer convinced that mission is going to be served by this. In that regard Plan A has lost control of its own narrative which further undermines its ability to deliver what it has attempted. Strategy B is no more ‘spiritual’ but it might be a bit more honest and allow us to connect these questions in a strategy designed to address what God might want of us.
[1] https://www.trinitycollegeglasgow.co.uk/leading-in-church-change [2] A version of these questions is canvassed in Gil Rendle’s Quietly Courageous; Leading the Church in a Changing World. 2018. [3] Kiefert & Granberg-Michaelson How Change Comes to Your Church 2020, p100. [4] Gil Rendle. Be Strong and of Good Courage. TMF Monograph August 2016. p12.
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