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Reforming The Kirk: How it started/How it’s going

The title reflects a recent meme popular in Autumn 2020 on Twitter, where folk posted pictures side by side, making (often very funny) points about themselves or someone else or a political or cultural project.

It came into my mind when I thought about writing this post, but I want to defend a more serious rationale for pausing to ask ‘how it’s going’. This applies to all kind of change or reform projects, but here I am applying it to the ongoing work of ‘Reforming The Kirk’ and my own sense of responsibility for staying in the conversation in the light of the Chalmers Lectures and my book of that name. The conversation is, of course, the only involvement I have had since I don’t serve on any councils or forums of the church and was not part of the Special Commission. I said in the Chalmers Lectures that my role as a theologian/academic was to try to think alongside the church, to ask questions and make suggestions. That role has its own informal power and I recognise that, but I also cling to the caveats I have always given about my own capacity to be mistaken or to misunderstand, so that while I have proposed certain things with the best intentions, it is the church as a whole/GA which disposed and decided.

My main point here is to stress that I think it is crucial to any reform or change project to have moments when we pause and ask how it’s going; when we narrate the journey of change ‘so far’. I am fond of Geertz’s definition of culture in terms of ‘stories we tell ourselves about ourselves’ and I believe this story-telling process is part of the work of reform. I would also add that this belongs to a positive vision of the role of metanoia within the life of the Kirk or any institution. A Christian mind, my student mentor Harry Smart used to tell me, is first and last a repentant mind. Both then and now, it was clear that this should not be seen as pathologically focused on failure or mistakes, but as a positive journey of learning, refinement, problem solving and growth which contributed to a continually renewed understanding of how we should act in the world around us. Metanoia for disciples of the God of Life is always a turning towards life.

How It Started

In the Chalmers Lectures, I attempted to stage a story-telling moment for the Kirk in which I suggested we were in need of four kinds of reform: i. spiritual renewal; ii. liturgical renewal; iii. missional refocusing; and iv. institutional reform. In the lectures, I focused on iii and iv, (although I subsequently addressed ii. at the invitation of the Church Service Society in 2019 at their AGM during the GA.)

A good deal has happened since then. The Special Commission and the Radical Action Plan produced detailed recommendations for reform, which were informed by internal audits and consultations which I had neither the access, capacity nor mandate to undertake when writing the book. That said, there was significant consensus around a reform programme shared between the case I made (which was heavily indebted to the work of others who had previously advocated reform) and the work of the Commission and the RAP.

In my story telling moment, I suggested that the Kirk of 2017 lacked missional focus, that its central structures were too cumbersome and expensive and that they operated in siloes which duplicated expense, personnel and council membership to an unhelpful extent. I argued that presbyteries were underperforming across the board – larger ones lacked clarity and resources while smaller ones were often unsustainable due to vacancy levels, scale and lack of resources. There were troubling levels of cynicism, irony and disdain for the work of presbyteries. I also suggested that the current financial mechanisms were not working well and that we needed to revisit them and make some painful choices about how to free up local liberality without losing sight of regional and national solidarity.

I emphasised what for me had been a key conclusion of the work which went into the lectures and book, which is that when attempting to reform a federal system such as Presbyterianism, the worst thing to do is to undertake serial reforms. Because the idea of a balance of powers is constitutive of the system, reform needs to be undertaken simultaneously, so that this balance can be adjusted in real time.

Having attempted a ‘story-telling’ moment, I made some proposals about what I thought would be necessary in terms of future institutional reforms. I argued for:

1. A stronger leaner centre – with a reduced budget and staff complement, operating from a new central base, whose architecture and accessibility was a metaphor for the renewal of the church’s life. I suggested that we merge 4 councils into 1 PCUSA style Mission Agency, with new internal specialisms; but that if that was a bridge too far, we began by merging Ministries and M & D.

2. Fewer, more powerful presbyteries, which took over some of the budget and staff allocation from central bodies and were reorganised in service of a renewed missional focus across Scotland (and furth for the non-Scottish presbyteries). I suggested that they should have a new mode of leadership, with salaried Mods appointed for 5 years and charged to provide missional leadership; working alongside non-ordained clerks who focused on governance, admin and management.

3. A continuing annual GA, at least while reforms settled down, which remained a crucial body for addressing unhelpful dynamics in either a strengthened centre (lest it became over mighty) or the strengthened regions (in case some lagged, competed or peeled away). Once things settled, we might look at moving to a biennial pattern, with some of what GA had previously done being taken over by Presbytery ‘assemblies’.

How It’s Going

Despite the Kirk’s reputation as an oil tanker, the progress of reform has been relatively fast in the past two years and the arrival of COVID19 in 2020 has tended to accelerate reforms more than delay them, as a combination of the whole church moving rapidly online and facing increased financial challenges.

We are on course for a reshaped Kirk, which has moved from 5 Councils + 44 presbyteries to 1 Council and 12 (ish) presbyteries. This is a massive change, which will take time to bed down and adjust. Change on this scale will have inevitably left some feeling unheard and disappointed or excluded.


The Assembly Trustees have set about their task with diligence and conviction and have embraced the vision of providing a more robust and strategic form of leadership, with enhanced financial governance, working with the new Chief Executive. Their role has been amplified in a year when the GA was reduced because of COVID.

The Councils have been reeling from a process which has changed 4 of them into 2 forums, (involving voluntary severance, reorganisation and remapping along the way) and this stage is still feeling interim and provisional, as the trustees propose a further consolidation of two into one. This has been highly disruptive of routines and work programmes and as always, the unsettlement will have led to good people leaving in frustration and disillusionment.

What I have noticed and heard about how these central reforms have been going, have been waves of particular anxiety and concern about whether “Church & Society” questions and concerns for justice, peace and ecology are being sidelined or deprioritised in these processes. This is also being associated in some cases with concerns about whether the Assembly Trustees and the Chief Exec are already seeming “too powerful”. In my view, this is being exacerbated by the lack of a normal GA, which could flex its own muscles and remind the new centre of its lines of accountability. I expect some such flexing will take place in future. An array of new larger presbyteries will also act as a counterweight. There is perhaps a greater need for those at the centre to work on communicating and explaining their priorities more effectively. In my judgment – and I have argued this since the Chalmers Lectures – the Five Marks of Mission offer a powerful, clear and unitive focus which can reassure different constituencies within the church that their priorities are recognised, while also challenging them about their own view of holistic mission. It is particularly important if we move from two forums to one agency that there is a clearly signalled message that this will not involve any dilution of commitments to Marks 4 and 5. The recent invitation from Priority Areas to the head of the PCUSA’s Presbyterian Mission Agency may offer a point of reassurance here?


Progress on Presbytery Reform is reported very differently depending on who you talk to and which part of the country you go to. The process has been depicted as bottom up, organic, enabled by the matchmaking/dating services of the Principal Clerk and this account is reinforced by the absence of any central blueprint being published. New entities and identities are emerging gingerly as a result of broadly irenic and enthusiastic co-operation – Clyde, Fife etc. while others appear more contested and uncertain: e.g. options for the Highlands and Islands.

My concern here would be whether there has been a clear enough ‘offer’ or vision set out which represents the positive gains to be had through uniting and consolidating resource. We need a stronger dose of aspiration and information about the ways in which the new larger presbyteries will be able to better support and resource local congregations. We also need an early articulation of how local clusters can work to offset the inevitable feeling that presbytery is now ‘further away’. This means clarifying what will be done in presbytery and what will be encouraged locally – recognising how the explosion of online options will reshape this. Two risks/dangers here are the unfinished work of remapping a distribution of power and resource between central bodies and presbyteries and the potential for the painful and taxing process of ‘presbytery planning’ to blight the new structures from the beginning.

My take on presbytery reforms is that we need to expand and deepen the conversation about what the reforms are for and how we can both develop and deliver on the ‘offer’ to local congregations. I don’t think we have done enough ‘scaffolding’ or visualising of the new system to allow people to become more enthusiastic about it. For example, we need early in the process to offer people a new pattern of meetings, which might look like:

2 x geographical Presbytery Assemblies – physical gathering – whole Saturday or Fri/Sat gathering with food and social in the evening; and 1 x online virtual Presbytery Assembly = 3 per year (could be 2 x online and 1 in person). Locally, congregations meet 2-4 times a year (as they decide) in clusters (which can be zoomed into) to share food, worship, training and action agendas (not admin and governance stuff which is done either in the big 4 or by the Presbytery Exec). We need better ‘explainers’ – short videos and pdf leaflets setting out what life in a new presbytery will look like and feel like. The prospect of both new formats incorporating food, might seem trivial but turn out to be transformative.

The GA

The GA has in 2020 been a shadow of itself, although the sudden enforced switch to online working may contain some hidden blessings once it can be unpacked and integrated into a new modus operandi, which may well be a more ‘mixed’ mode. It’s a difficult beast to reform and it needs to retain its big stick powers to put a foot down, throw out a strategic plan or sack members of a trustee body. It will be interesting to see how larger presbytery assemblies affect the ecology in which the GA sits and what challenges or tasks are remitted to it by them. Loads to do here and more ideas needed?

What’s Still To Do?

Some final thoughts on what is still to do.

1. Remits and Relationships – the new connecting sinews between GA, ATs, Central Bodies and New Presbyteries still need further definition, both in theory and in practice. This will take time to calibrate and in an ideal world, all parties would understand and even welcome that there will be a process of negotiation and dialogue as we work out modes of subsidiarity and new balances of agency and responsibility.

2. A New Financial Settlement – so far there are signs that we have more ‘grip’ on central finances and budgets, alongwith a desire to invest in mission. We still don’t have a new financial system or settlement or even a mature debate about options for one. The suspension of the Growth Fund was understandable, but a new prospectus will need to be shown here asp.

3. Eldership – I still see the need to augment lifelong ordained eldership with short term commissioned eldership. This does not yet seem to have much support across the Kirk but I view it as a key strategic reform.

4. Commissioned Local Ministers – likewise, a broadening of authorisation for sacramental ministry seems both desirable and inevitable to me, but resistance to this is strong in some quarters, albeit the resisters have few alternative solutions to the looming shortage of ordained folk.

5. Education for Ministry – the IME review process has been derailed again – there is an urgent need to attend to this, but also too many signs of a lack of understanding of the complexity of the route to reforming it.

6. Member Training – we need a major new wave of investment in training for members and elders. This is still underdeveloped and under resourced.

7. Church Planting – we are at least two decades behind the Church of England on church planting and fresh expressions. This needs new leadership and dedicated resource both centrally and in the new presbyteries. We also need new Pioneer tracks for ordained and non-ordained.

8. Focus on Children and Young People – this remains a key priority and we lack courses and resources to train and prepare folk for youth work and youth ministry.


This is, of course, a personal view (it’s not the Trinity College view). It’s my sense of ‘how it’s going’. I have taken time to write it in the hope that it can contribute to a better conversation about the future life and work of the Kirk. It is immediately in need of supplement and correction from others and I look forward to the dialogue.

Doug Gay, 25 Nov 2020.

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