Updated: May 20
This post takes up themes developed in my 2017 Chalmers Lectures and the St Andrew Press book Reforming The Kirk and also builds on the updated analysis offered in three blogposts which can be viewed on Trinity College Blog from the weeks prior to General Assembly 2021. For the most part I won’t revisit points made in those earlier reflections, although I think much of that material is still relevant. But I want to focus here on the particular challenges we are facing in this next 2022-2025 (2030) phase.
As before, in the lectures and book, I want to begin by stressing my own limitations of knowledge and awareness. I’ve been thinking recently about Mary Gauthier’s wistful and tender song “Mercy Now’ – in which she names in turn people and things she loves (church + country among them) who ‘could use a little mercy now’. The dilemmas facing the Kirk are serious, sobering and complex. I’ve said repeatedly in the past five years that there are no manuals for reforming presbyterian churches on this scale; there are no right answers and no easy solutions. What lies in front of us is a deeply demanding task calling for high levels of wisdom and sound judgment, as we try to discern what the Spirit is saying to our Church and our churches. So we too could use a little mercy now – and need to extend mercy to one another even as we discuss, debate and decide how to steer the ship into the gathering storm.
If what Gunther Bornkamm called ‘the little ship of the church’ is sailing into a storm, the wider horizons of our world in this decade are also wracked by storms. The long slow build and burn of the Climate Crisis, has been tragically augmented first by the COVID pandemic and now by the war in Ukraine as well as multiple wars and conflicts elsewhere. The General Assembly of the PCUSA in 2022 is meeting under the apt heading “Lament + Hope”. This is, I think, a significantly hard time to be a person of faith, struggling to trust in God’s sovereignty and providence. I am however struck by the thought that it may be an even harder time to be an atheistic or agnostic humanist. We are well past peak Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens and the self-confident scientistic anti-religious wave they were surfing has already crested and crashed. Theology in our universities and our public life, while it may not be much consulted or honoured, has recovered some of, perhaps even a good deal of, its intellectual self-confidence. Dover Beach (or Dunbar Beach if you want one closer to home) is storm tossed, but it is no longer in any simple way a place where the sea of faith is simply to be seen in melancholy retreat. We live, as Charles Taylor would put it, in times which are ‘cross-pressured’, in which both belief and unbelief are being sorely tested. If one result of that should be a simple and profound solidarity in the face of suffering, between folk of all faiths and none; another result may be that those of us who are Christians realise that neither atheism or agnosticism, nor any other ancient tradition or new constellation of beliefs, offer us an obviously superior boat with which to ride the storm. It may therefore be a hard time for faith, but not a bad time. A time when we cry ‘Lord, Have Mercy’ but also a time when we say, ‘Lord to whom shall we go, yours are the words of eternal life’.
If this is not a bad time for belief, or the gospel or for intellectual confidence in theology, these are bad times for the mainline/oldline churches in Scotland, which are overwhelmingly weak and in decline. (It’s also wise here to note that not all of the minority of growing churches are spiritually healthy.)
In this and subsequent posts, I will argue that despite having already enacted some significant and far-reaching reforms, we are now facing a very significant crisis in the life of the Kirk; one that requires us to rethink some fundamental features of the Scottish model of Presbyterianism as we practice it.
In Reforming The Kirk and in the 2021 blogs, I made the point that there is more than one way to be presbyterian; that we live in a world in which there are ‘presbyterianisms’ and that we should use that awareness to critically assess what kind of presbyterians we are and what kind God is calling us to be. (I was disappointed that point didn’t come through more clearly in the review of Presbyterian governance report of 2021). I believe that even more strongly in 2022 and I am convinced that we need a better understanding of how to adjust and reform our kind of Presbyterianism if it is to be a vehicle which helps us to fulfil our calling. We need to understand more clearly what kind of an organisation/organism/system we are in and how our decisions and actions are likely to impact it.
I’ve written before about how the legacy of the 1843 disruption and the 1929 reunion has evolved the Kirk into a high solidarity, financially centralised form of Presbyterianism. It is particularly important that we understand and reflect on this dimension of our identity at this time. Let me begin with a contrasting example:
In the PCUSA, money flows upwards from local congregations. Each local congregation is responsible for paying their own minister(s) – they negotiate a salary package with them which may or may not include a manse or housing allowance and which has to reach a national minimum standard in order for presbytery to sustain a call to the charge. The local congregation then pays their ministry staff directly. If they can’t afford a whole stipend, they are free to advertise a fractional post and see if anyone applies for it. They are also free to seek financial assistance and support from the denomination or from other grant making bodies to help them offer a fractional or a full time salary or salaries, whether a 0.5 post or additional staff members.
For the most part, their buildings are vested in the presbytery they are part of, although they are responsible for their upkeep and maintenance. Congregations expect to have to make capital appeals at least once in a generation and are bold and unabashed about this. If a congregation closes, their buildings revert to the presbytery and if the buildings are sold, the proceeds stay with the presbytery as assets to be used for ministry within the presbytery bounds.
Each congregation makes an annual return of its members and on the basis of this, they incur a Per Capita Levy – for one East Coast presbytery in 2022, this was as follows:
General Assembly $8.98
Synod of the North East $4.10
Making a total of $40 per member. (note the ethical issues this may present about gaming membership numbers)
Now this is still very clearly a presbyterian system. A call to a congregation must be sustained by Presbytery; the congregation and ministers exist under the tiered court discipline of presbytery, synod and general assembly; and the church buildings are vested in the presbytery. The GA, Synod and Presbytery collectively agree on a budget and set their per capita charge in the light of that. So in no sense does this resemble a typical ‘congregationalist’ polity. However, financially, it feels like a very different kind of Presbyterianism to our own; one in which financial power and initiative are more decentralised and the modes of solidarity are different (and perhaps weaker).
The PCUSA also operates a number of seminaries, which are accredited and subject to a degree of oversight from the denomination. However, these operate as independent charitable foundations and typically have long established financial endowments which support their work in addition to income from tuition fees. Seminaries spend a good deal of time and effort fundraising to support their work.
For now, I simply want to note that example and return to our own situation.
The Kirk, as I said, is a high solidarity, financially centralised institution, all of whose ministers are paid on a relatively narrowband payscale, meaning that most earn very similar salaries. Most ministers live in manses which are ultimately owned by the denomination and all salaries are paid centrally. Our system involves a high degree of pooling and sharing.
The decline in membership over the past 6/7 decades and the very rapid decline over the past 2/3 decades has been widespread, but has also been uneven. The centralised pooling and sharing system means that many congregations which were not financially sustainable at a local level, are subsidised by wealthier congregations. We have now reached a point where 69% of our c1000 congregations are dependent to various degrees on subsidy from the other 31%.
In one sense, this might seem like a straightforward demonstration of Christian virtue, living out as a denomination Pauline teaching about the stronger helping the weaker and ensuring that the priority for the poor we see in the ministry of Jesus is continued in the ministry of his body the church. That is indeed what underlies our theology of solidarity as a church, but working out the best way to implement and practice it, takes us into more complicated and confusing territory. To understand how a theology of solidarity relates to a theology of healthy institutions and healthy systems and also to a theology of mission, we need to ask further questions about congregational psychology and sociology which will take us further into the humanity of the church. While we are right to see the church as called to high ideals, we are wise to see the church as needing to take account of human limitations, preferences and even weaknesses.
At this point I want to introduce another well known contrast example, this time from the field of missiology. In the 19th century, mission strategists Henry Vann and Rufus Anderson rejected the dominant model of western missions, which had created colonial churches which were dependent on western missionary societies and denominations for financial support and subject to external control and direction. Vann and Anderson argued that truly indigenous churches should aim to be:
The reason for returning to their much discussed three-self example is that helpfully introduces some additional considerations alongside a simple high-solidarity model of stronger helping weaker.
We could also look elsewhere for examples, for example to community work and activism, ‘asset-based’ community development, community organising, the co-operative movement, social enterprises. There is a careful balance which needs to be struck between mechanisms for meaningful support and solidarity and patterns of organisation and co-operation which empower local groups and enable them to develop sustainable modes of existence, through which they can thrive and exercise full responsibility and control over their own life. A key aim is to maximise resilience of local groups and structures.
One final set of examples is also relevant here, those which come from movements within declining old line churches (Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian etc) to plant new worshipping communities, either from scratch or as initiatives to re-seed, restart or turnaround local churches which had become unsustainable or unviable.
I am appealing to these four sets of examples because I think they may help us in the Church of Scotland to move towards a better understanding of what has happened to us as a denomination, of how we have been responding to that and of what the consequences of that have been to date and will be in the future.
If the virtues of our high-solidarity model seem obvious at first sight, its downsides may be less obvious. While people sometimes warn us that ‘we can’t just be in the business of managing decline’, the reality of our situation within the Church of Scotland is that most of our churches are in decline and, for pastoral reasons, that decline does have to be managed. It has to be managed compassionately and it has to be managed fairly.
The institutional challenge becomes more complex, however, when alongside the imperative of managing decline, we introduce a new emphasis on seeking to renew and revitalise the mission of the Church. Just because I regularly hear these responses, let me emphasise that we do this not because of an obsession with ‘bums on seats’ or because of institutional hubris, but in obedience to Christ’s command and in dependence on the Holy Spirit. We want people to hear and respond to the gospel and to find they can move towards the fullness of life God intends for them, through participating in a loving and lively community of faith.
In Reforming The Kirk I pointed to five pastoral-missional tasks facing the Church of Scotland in the decade 2020-2030. We have to:
Close unsustainable churches
Care for (some) declining churches which will not grow again, as they decline
Help (some) declining churches to grow again
Help (the very few) growing churches to keep growing
Plant new churches, re-seed or re-start some closed churches
What makes this a complex and demanding programme for the church is that all five have to be done simultaneously. We need to manage and enable a process of simultaneous contraction + expansion, cutting + investing, pruning + planting. While this is daunting, we may take some encouragement from the fact that this kind of task is not completely outside of our experience: ALL gardeners, many business people and many organisational managers have direct experience of doing this!
We can identify some particular features of our decline as a church which this process has to respond to:
a shrinking and ageing membership
declining numbers of children and young people
pressure to maintain income levels (because financial solidarity depends on having resources to redistribute within the denomination)
a resource hungry estate of buildings, many listed, large and costly to repair, maintain and adapt
a critical and accelerating shortage of ministers of word and sacrament, both full time and OLM
very low numbers of new church plants, fresh expressions, restart/reseed initiatives
What we are doing about it
Taking stock in May 2022, in response to the Radical Action Plan, we have taken significant steps to reshape our institutional structures: merging 5 councils into two forums, reducing the staffing complement of the national church by around a third and re-organising 44 presbyteries into 10/11.
We have also transitioned from a ‘Presbytery Planning’ Process to what we are now calling a ‘Mission Planning’ Process. Assembly Trustees Report to GA 2021 said this:
The figure for all ministry posts in just under five years’ time (2025) to which we estimate we should work is in the region of 600 ministries in addition to no more than 60 vacant Charges. This paid-ministries figure presents a reduction of around 20% on the advisory figures which were produced by the Ministries Council in 2018. Whilst this is a significant reduction it takes account of the fact that it has been calculated that in 2020 40% of all current Full Time Ministers of Word and Sacrament were over the age of 60 with significant numbers, maybe as high as 60%, projected to retire over the next ten years. Any aspirations to increase the number of paid ministry posts is currently not feasible unless we see significant improvement in both the finances of the Church and in our ability to attract more applications to ministry.
Although I understand why we are pivoting towards talk of ‘mission planning’, it is also important to recognise honestly that what we are doing is deploying resources in the context of implementing ‘cuts’. One of my primary concerns is that I am not clear the whole church has been sufficiently engaged in and informed about the debate about the threshold/target numbers for ministries which have been set – although I recognise they have been approved by GA. I want to express this carefully. I think we accepted the 600 figure at a time when we were facing a broader day of reckoning. The outcome of the Special Commission/RAP process was a very clear message to the church that we had been avoiding uncomfortable truths for too long and this was the time to bite the bullet and face reality.
Faced with that realisation (which I endorse), our internal ‘solidarity’ covenant was already heavily shaped geographically by our reaffirmed commitment to the Third Article Declaratory and sociologically by the existing formula(s) for Priority Area weighting. Our processes for implementing that covenant were also shaped administratively (legislatively?) by an institutional concern to work with formulas which were robust enough to withstand challenges under various appeal processes.
To recap – we had to face the music, we had to cut and redeploy in a way which was fair to the whole country, especially the poorest and we had to do this using criteria which could not be easily accused of subjective bias or arbitrariness.
We also had two other pressing issues – ‘actuarial’ projections about retirement rates and vocational projections about recruitment rates.
The outcome of these various concerns and calculations was that we got ourselves to 600, divided between presbyteries according to a formula seen as defensible.
This process has a lot in common with the parallel process around deployment in the United Reformed Church and some things in common with the situation of the Methodists and the Church of England. But I think the example of the URC may be the most useful to us.
While there were clearly important concerns about income and how many ministries the church could afford, prior to COVID my belief is that the principal driver for this process was the looming crisis in the numbers of ministers. Since COVID I would accept that financial concerns are catching up with this ‘minister supply’ question – but I still see the latter as the most important factor in getting us to 600.
So where am I going with all this? I think we need to reflect on how the kind of presbyterians we are is shaping the kind of planning we are doing.
My concern is that we have locked ourselves into a closed economy of scarcity, which is in danger of locking us into an accelerating pattern of institutional decline. In our honest and commendable attempt to face the music, we are now in danger of imposing on ourselves a cycle of cuts and restructuring which is too severe and too far-reaching and which will have irreversible consequences.
The current round of mission planning is being experienced by many local churches, members, elders and ministers as deeply shocking and disheartening. Having deferred this day of reckoning for too long, we are now aghast at its consequences and implications.
If I was to offer a ‘figurative’ reading of our current predicament in respect of Mission (Presbytery) Planning, I drawn towards three metaphors related to three very well-known Old Testament characters. My concern is that our current course of action represents a Samson strategy at local level, a Solomon strategy at presbytery level and a Gideon strategy at national level. While the actions of those individuals were a response to divine leading and a force for good at some key moments in the life of ancient Israel, I am not convinced that we yet have them aligned in the right way at the right time. To unpack the metaphors, we are faced with pressure to pull the roof down locally, to choose which congregations live or die regionally and to impose ever tighter limits on total numbers nationally. But is what we are requiring of ourselves, what God is requiring of us?
We did not get here because anyone was cruel, stupid, unfair, unfaithful or uncaring. We got here because people are trying to do the right thing for the patient, given the constraints we are working under. Those who say to us, ‘keep going, don’t look back now - you have to be brave enough to follow through’ may be right, or may be right if none of the rules can be changed.
Before we consider whether any of the rules can still be changed or adjusted, we need to do some scenario planning/thought experiments and some ethics. In what follows, I consider the ethical implications of two radically different scenarios and how they affect our internal covenant(s) of solidarity.
SCENARIO ONE – High Control, High Solidarity (Our Current Mission Planning Approach)
We impose a national limit of 600, distribute these between presbyteries according to a defensible metric and leave presbyteries to find ways share them between existing charges, subject to a Priority Area weighting which is applied to allocation of posts. There is a national carrot and stick. No plan: no permission to call, no funding of posts from the ministries fund. Plan accepted: posts unlocked, posts funded. It is coupled with a rigorous assessment of which buildings should be retained and which disposed of.
Rewards This approach is likely to offer the most equitable way of sharing pain and sharing resources. It broadly continues the previous Presbytery Planning model, so people are used to this form of rationing even if they don’t like it. It offers the best way of fulfilling our Third Article obligations to show geographical solidarity by allocating some level to ministry in every part of Scotland. It also offers a simple formula for expressing solidarity with our poorest congregations. While it uses a cruder equity metric to allocate posts between presbyteries, it allows presbyteries to exercise ‘missional judgment’ in allocating posts within their bounds. It operates on realistic assumptions about likely ministerial supply based on existing trends. It reduces the unsustainable burden of maintaining too many expensive and energy intensive buildings. Consolidated union charges begin life with significant capital dowries from the sale of surplus buildings which they can use to upgrade retained plant and many may also have higher income levels, so that under Give to Grow they can retain more money locally and fund additional local work/posts.
Risks. This approach has significant potential to dishearten the church, to deepen and accelerate its spiral of decline. The scale of the Gideon cuts means that people experience great pain and disappointment about the loss of ministry allocation to their congregation and the closure of cherished buildings. They feel betrayed and coerced by the Solomonic dilemmas imposed on them by the wider church – institutionally bullied and disempowered. The dowry element of unions pressures them towards Samson strategies of abandoning and selling key buildings without any strategic missional review of other possible uses, just so they can bring the sale proceeds into the new union. The historic sense of right to call is drastically modified as appointments are shared across multiple charges. The role of the minister shifts further from local congregational pastor to team leader, manager and cluster moderator/facilitator. This new role proves even less attractive for vocational and recruitment purposes and exacerbates the crisis in ministry supply as fewer folk feel called and drawn to it. Congregational numbers suffer as people don’t re-engage with the new local structures and congregational giving declines, particularly among the congregations which were cross-subsidising ministry elsewhere, with drastic knock-on consequences for financial solidarity. The struggle to stabilise new unions impacts negatively on capacity for local mission and evangelism. Local communities (despite their lack of previous support) feel angry with the Kirk for closing ‘their local church’.
SCENARIO TWO – Low Control, High Responsibility (Becoming the kind of presbyterians we aren’t)
Let’s call this the PCUSA scenario. We radically decentralise the right to call. Every existing charge is given a presumptive right to call, subject to Presbytery upholding the call to the individual concerned. We accept a radical free market for ministers and ministry staff. Congregations are able to hold on to existing buildings and plant for as long as they are able. Tenure is renewable subject to agreement between congregation and minister. Whether administered locally or via a national payroll system, all congregations which can afford a minister or fraction of a minister are able to advertise for that subject to payment of a further solidarity premium to the denomination.
Rewards This scenario does have some real advantages. It maximises local agency and has potential to incentivise local giving. It places a high value on sustainability. It does the most of any system to strengthen those who are already strong and has most potential to see stronger churches grow further and plant or replant new congregations – acting in effect as ‘Resource Churches’ for the denomination. It offers most potential for church growth, bringing with that opportunities to slow or reverse the decline in the overall membership of the denomination and the best chance of increasing the numbers of people with vocations to ministry. It preserves a stronger sense of right to call for local churches and a pattern of ministerial working which is more attractive to those considering a vocation. It minimises the disillusionment and resentment of local churches (and local communities), because it leaves their own survival largely in their own hands. It does insist on some level of solidarity and may even lead to new ground up, centre out forms of solidarity, but it reduces resentment at local congregations being ‘overtaxed’ by the denomination. Some congregations which stay open develop innovative and entrepreneurial strategies for missional use of manses and buildings, which offer routes to renewal of mission and ministry.
Risks Starting from where we are, as well as involving a radical reset of denominational structure and culture, this scenario comes with very significant risks and problems. It is likely to offer the weakest forms of geographical solidarity and, so long as ministry supply is severely constricted, could lead to whole sections of Scotland having few or even no ministers in place, even when congregations have the resources to pay for them (because there was no-one willing to apply for the charge). This would likely be most at the expense of rural and remote areas, which have historically had fewer applications and longer vacancies. Whole presbyteries could find themselves left with few ministers and the church could find itself unable to uphold the Third Article Declaratory. It also comes at significant risk to the two thirds of congregations who can’t afford to pay for ministry by themselves and makes the survival of many priority area congregations dependent on the adequacy of new and untried solidarity mechanisms. It also comes with risks to our buildings. Congregations might cling stubbornly for reasons of tradition and sentiment, to unsuitable and unsustainable buildings (some in poor and unsuitable locations) while failing to adapt, repair and maintain them effectively. Ministers could also feel they were ‘in hock’ to congregations and liable to not have appointments renewed if they exercise a challenging or prophetic ministry or alienate powerful (and wealthy) people within the congregation. Even if solidarity mechanisms were able to fully support the poorest/priority congregations, this approach might squeeze the middle of the church. The desperate struggle to raise enough money to keep the middle third of congregations going might exhaust them, turn them inwards and leave them with little appetite or capacity for mission.
DO WE HAVE ANY GOOD ALTERNATIVES?
I have only offered two high contrast scenarios above and they are offered as a kind of thought experiment to help us better understand the road we are embarked on and the roads not taken. I think this is a useful exercise for two reasons. First, it may help us to make peace with the option we are embracing, because we find ourselves unable in conscience to advocate for a radical alternative. It may also prepare us for some of the costs and consequences of the decisions we are taking. (The least likely scenario is that it might persuade us to fundamentally change course and change system.)
Secondly, however, it may make us pause for thought about the potential opportunities and costs of the two scenarios and see whether there are any realistic routes to reshape the life of the church which maximise the possibility of securing some of the reward scenarios and mitigating some of the potential risks.
Reflecting on the two scenarios above leads me to seven key conclusions:
Mission planning targets (although realistic) are too aggressive and disruptive.
We are facing a vocations crisis - which calls for new, urgent, creative and flexible responses
Our solidarity mechanisms are too crude
We need to invest in church planting, restarts/reseeds, pioneering
We need to invest in Youth and Younger Adult Ministry
We will need to move towards tenure reform
Our financial systems will need further adjustment
1. Mission planning targets (although realistic) are too aggressive and disruptive.
I can hear the groans from some of my friends as I say this – vexed that having fought to get the church to finally be more realistic and live within its means, anyone should undermine that message. So let me say this is an unscientific judgment, a combination of an informed hunch and a troubled fear. (I’m not sure, though, that any other kind of judgment is really possible because of the nature of the case!) I won’t repeat what I’ve said above, but my concern is that we are going at this too violently and if we carry on at this level, we will be creating new problems for ourselves because of the damage which will be done. As someone with a dodgy knee – let me use an (imperfect) joint replacement analogy. The church, like Andy Murray but on both sides, needs two new hips. The question is whether to do the surgery in one go, or to do only one side, knowing the other will likely also need done soon, but allowing time for recovery, adjustment and assessment in between.
I won’t press that analogy too far, but it does, I think, highlight something of the dilemma. Basically, the question is whether we are trying to “get to 600” too quickly? I’m not sure that has been adequately debated within the Church and the difficulty is, that people were not ready to debate it until they had got deeper into this round of mission/presbytery planning and begun to fully appreciate the level of change and disruption which would be required.
The trouble is that any move to relax the scale of the cuts being implemented will also not be pain or problem free. If our current high solidarity rationing practices are a way of sharing the misery, then a likely consequence of any relaxation (say to 700) would be that over the next five years the misery will be less equally shared. But as said above, it might help to maintain overall income (and membership) levels and give some protection to stronger congregations to both adapt and to keep on funding our solidarity mechanisms. So it’s a difficult diagnostic, prognostic call for us to make.
It would also likely mean that we could increase frustration, as congregations which stayed as they are or in smaller unions or linkages, find they have been left with the right to call, but there is no-one for them to call! I would be tempted to take that risk: to be less brutal in removing posts and more tolerant of letting vacancies build up, because I think we can possibly still do something to address our vocations crisis. Which brings me to the next point:
 My instincts are that we should also have no restrictions on recruitment to the international presbytery and it should be excluded from the Mission Planning target – but the default for these charges is they must be self-sustaining unless they are designated as priority overseas mission posts. However, that one is complicated….
2. We are facing a vocations crisis - which calls for new, urgent, creative and flexible responses
I have some form on this one within the Kirk, first in proposing the underwhelming Decade For Ministry and then in the largely ignored suggestions on this in Reforming The Kirk. I want to double down on both of those things. This is one of the areas within the life of the Kirk in which we have suffered from poor leadership and decision making for the past two decades. The point of the Decade proposal, which included proposals, still not implemented, to train Pioneer Ministers – was that this would take ten years of determined work to begin to turn round. There were some promising initiatives but nothing like the energy or imagination required. Meanwhile the Church of England has made significant progress over the same decade in addressing its own vocations deficit!! The question now is whether Faith Nurture can do better than Ministries Council did. It needs to.
So, recognising this may be largely ignored again, I want to make a third attempt to suggest some radical courses of action to the Kirk in this area. We are now facing a vocations crisis – it is not just looming, we are already in the midst of it. So we will have to immediately move our systems into special measures. I am going to suggest a seven year initiative in which we implement emergency systems to address the crisis, while trying to then exit into a more stable long term approach by 2030.
A. The key change I am proposing is that we implement at the earliest possible opportunity (and by September 2023) at the latest a new pathway into training for MWS which is called something like the Mentoring or Apprenticeship track. Basically, to create this track, we suspend our existing discernment and selection pathways and we pass the initiative to serving parish ministers. We identify and approve between 20 and 40 ministers, as soon as is possible, who will themselves take responsibility for finding an apprentice candidate to work with them in their parish. (I could draw up a list tomorrow of folk who would be excellent in this role). Their nomination is reviewed and confirmed (or rejected) by two other colleagues appointed at Presbytery level and if confirmed, the apprentice candidate begins work with them as soon as possible, alongside the mentor minister, on a centrally paid training salary of c£20K (other housing and equipment benefits may also be added to this). It is a requirement of their apprenticeship, that they take a series of online and in person courses (including some residential intensives) covering the basic areas of IME, via one of the Church Colleges or Academic Partners (and accredited as a new ordinary BD Min 2.0) and they are allocated 2 days of their week to this, alongside work in the parish. There will be an annual progress review, with any candidates not completing the required educational elements not being continued in the programme. What about the filters and selection criteria? We kick them down the line to the end of the second year. In order to exit the apprenticeship scheme, the candidates have to be recommended by their mentor and approved by a presbytery committee (a kind of trials for licence). They then enter a probation year, in a vacant parish but with an oversight minister (either the same one or a different one by agreement) and get a pay rise to c£25k for their probation year. Candidates who wish to do a third academic year can apply for this and if approved by the church will then do this full time at one of the universities, to receive a BD Honours or MDiv qualification. (Because we still need to nurture an academic stream of those who can go on to teach and research for the church in future.) I believe this could inject new energy and initiative into our vocations programme, by shifting the dynamics of the process and involving respected and experienced practitioners in actively recruiting apprentices at the local level. We adjust the risk profile by trusting the judgment of these practitioners in selecting someone they will have to mentor and train and we move the decisive filters from the beginning of the process to the middle and the end. Our academic providers/Church Colleges will have to scramble to get enough new courses in place in the right format – and will have to be funded to do that. But that is not impossible.
B. I also still think we should explore what I proposed in RTK as the “Give Us 5” scheme with the PCUSA (or any other sister denomination WITHOUT a shortage of ministers themselves). The Mod/Head of Faith Action and Principal Clerk should approach a cross party group of MPs and with their help, negotiate a special visa arrangement with the Home Office to create a 5 year work visa linked to acute shortage in the labour market up to a maximum of 50 over 7 years. We should then try to recruit an annual cohort of suitable PCUSA ministers to give us 5 in Scotland between now and2030. (I don’t think this was ever explored at senior level in Ministries Council, if it was, I was never informed.)
C. Commisioned Local Ministers
Another proposal from RTK which did not find favour was one of two major reforms to eldership. Both involved moving from the language of ordination to a new form of commissioning. In one, folk become elders for a limited 3 year term (to which they can be reappointed) in the other, which I am re-upping here, experienced elders transition to a locally recognised and appointed ministry of word and sacrament (full or part time, paid or unpaid). Given the crisis of vocations we are facing, we need to set aside our theological and ecumenical reservations about this not being our preferred pathway and at least trial it within a couple of willing presbyteries.
D. Pioneer Ministers
I will say more about this under 4 below, but I am deeply frustrated that we have not made more progress on this by now. It lacked support within the Ministries Council – mistakes were made and opportunities were lost. We need to remedy that now. Better late than never.
E. 2030 and Beyond
We reset the whole system to a new normal in 2030 having drawn an additional 300 people into ministry through various special measures in the seven year period 2023-2030.
3. Our solidarity mechanisms are too crude
We cannot be presbyterians if our ecclesiology does not include a strong covenant of solidarity, which has both geographical and sociological (anti-poverty) dimensions. However, in their current form these are inhibiting some of what we need to do to introduce appropriate reforms.
I have two thoughts about how we tackle this.
First, we relax the 600 post rationing target, accepting this may exacerbate geographical inequalities in the short term by retaining more posts than we can currently fill in some of our presbyteries. We mitigate this undesirable effect by taking urgent action under 2 above.
We create a new mechanism for channelling additional resources to Priority Areas which does not involve them being double weighted in a way which creates a zero sum competition for ministry posts in other areas within the 600 post total. This could be called the Kirk Urban Fund and involve a set aside of some of the £20M Growth Fund, with an ongoing plan to add to it through special appeals, levies and fund raising initiatives.
4. We need to invest in church planting, restarts/reseeds, pioneering
In the light of the recent proposal to reinstate the Growth Fund with c£20M from reserves, this is the easiest one to argue for. The issue is that we have lost time and ground in preparing for it, by not creating a Pioneer Training route. We need to work with FORGE and at least one of our Church Colleges (possibly also in a new partnership with CMS as one of their pioneer hubs) to urgently create such a route and we need to use some of the new fund to resource it properly.
The problem here is that we lack expertise and experience about HOW to spend resource for this purpose on this scale. So we need to work out how we learn to do this, so that we don’t squander this major investment through a lack of knowledge and awareness about how to deploy it.
Some of the Growth Fund should be given to larger, stronger congregations to engage in HTB/Resource Church style restarts in their presbytery areas, which they mentor and support in the first 5-10 years until they can move back to full status.
Some of the Growth Fund should form part of the recalibrated Solidarity Mechanism for priority and remote rural areas.
Some of the Growth Fund should be targeted at Youth and Younger Adult initiatives, to which I now turn.
5. We need to invest in Youth and Younger Adult Ministry
I may be well behind the curve here as I am not well briefed on the progress of the Under 40s working group initiative. We have lost much needed training capacity here and we need to urgently reinstate this, in partnership with one of our Church Colleges, so that we have an adequately resourced route to training folks for Youth Ministry. We should consider a properly resourced YAV programme as an incubator space for ministries across the board, including youth ministries. We should consider supporting new pilot projects at congregations with student/campus ministries and designate some churches as Resource Churches for Youth Ministry. We need to rebuild options for youth and student networks, retreats and exchanges which are directly related to the Church of Scotland.
6. We need to implement tenure reform
A perennially painful topic, but I can see no route towards the flexibility we will need in this next era of ministry without a radical reimagining of tenure. The best time to do this is now, because we are an in an era of acute ministerial shortage, meaning that there are other jobs for people to apply for if their appointment was not renewed in an existing charge. (I recognise this can be very hard for family reasons.) If we stop offering unrestricted tenure for now, we could bring it back in future if we were in a different position as a national church. However, if we don’t act on this, I fear we are storing up trouble for ourselves. (I recognise many will disagree with this.)
7. Our financial systems will need further adjustment
Really? When we haven’t even implemented the new Giving to Grow system?
This is fraught with technical difficulties as well as the need for risk assessments etc. and I welcome the direction of travel at work in GTG. However, I am not sure it has yet gone far enough. In particular, the recalibration of solidarity mechanisms, the interface with the operation of the new Growth Fund and the urgent need to create a new dynamic towards local sustainability leaves me feeling that this path of reform is unfinished and will need to go on being adjusted over the next five years. I think we should explore some areas where endowment and/or hypothecation may be valuable (Ministerial Education; Kirk Urban Fund) to ensure flows of investment in the future and we should review which of these should be at Presbytery level as opposed to National level. I think it would be interesting in terms of empowering the new Presbyteries, to consider mechanisms for strengthening them financially in relation to the national church and resetting the power balances within our new federal shape. For example, the PCUSA model where the proceeds of property sales goes to the presbytery not to the national church is an interesting scenario to consider; although I am not sure the GTs will be fans of this? At present I am not sure that the statement “core funding for Presbyteries is being provided through the National Finances” GA 2022 reflects where we want to be in terms of the reset to our polity involved in creating the new larger presbyteries.
Basically, for reasons related to how people belong, give and serve within institutions locally, I think we should be moving towards a situation where every church which can pay for a minister locally is allowed to call one, subject to their making an additional solidarity based contribution relative to their income.
I think that if we can plan and manage a pathway of adjustment towards this kind of system, in the long run it will be more protective of local liberality and investment in mission and of the funds available to be used in solidarity with the wider denomination. Paradoxically (and in RTK I perhaps riskily referenced Luke 16) the more we adhere to a high solidarity, high control mechanism, the more we may suppress local liberality and end up weakening the strong without strengthening the weak.
My instincts are that we should try to introduce some greater distinctions between money supply and ministry supply and work on these separately. Our current round of Mission Planning has bound them together too tightly with unhelpful consequences.
Despite my willingness to propose radical solutions and perhaps annoy many people along the way, I want to ask for mercy from those who read this. I don’t mean don’t critique what I am suggesting. If the above is not helpful, ignore it. If it is at all helpful, refine and improve it. None of us knows how to do this.
This has taken a long time to write and reflects a lot of thought and concern over many years. None of us knows how to do what we are trying to do. We need each other and the guidance of the Spirit in taking this conversation forward.
My primary concern is that our current round of cuts and redeployment via mission planning may be too drastic a pruning and one which does not create or leave enough spaces and mechanisms for rebuilding and replanting. In particular, I worry that in it’s concerns with sharing pain equitably, it does not do enough to help create new ground up flows of money, people and ministry. Enough said. For Now.