Mega Presbyteries

The Church of Scotland is in the process of presbytery reform; restructuring and reducing the number of local Presbyteries from 43 down to 12. This is part of an important attempt to improve the governance of the Kirk and to devolve resources down from the Church central offices, affectionately knows as 121.

I have some reservations about the changes underway:

  1. Structure changes may not provide or be accompanied by the culture change required to make these reforms work. If we have not managed to run our smaller Presbyteries effectively, what apart from scale is changing in the mega Presbyteries. The success of restructuring will be dependent on a significant culture shift.
  2. While power may be devolved from the church offices in Edinburgh, the new structures may also constitute a centralising of power away from the local church. For example, my local Presbytery will now run from Stirling to Angus covering an area once hosting five presbyteries. Our aim is to improve upon the problems of too many Presbyteries and too much centralised power in Edinburgh. It would be tragic to reduce the number of Presbyteries but end up with the all the issues of 121 multiplied by 12.
  3. A further concern is the likelihood that within a few months the new mega Presbyteries will be broken into smaller more manageable administrative groups thus adding a new layer of bureaucracy to what we already have; reinventing Synods for those old enough to remember. However local social and support groups would be a good addition to avoid people being lost in enlarged administrative blocs.

Local Administrative and Professional Support

Having said all that, the new Presbyteries will allow for local employed professional staff to free ministers and elders to minister more and administer less. A Presbytery office with full-time staff dedicated to finance, facilities management, safeguarding, health and safety and data protection compliance, has the potential to liberate local congregations. 121 has traditionally housed HR, Legal and Communications specialists which has been an invaluable resource. Hopefully these functions will still be available whether via Presbytery or perhaps better remaining at 121.

The reforms have the potential to allow people to focus on activities for which they are trained and skilled. For example, the Kirk spends years training ministers to preach, teach and pastor. However, parish ministry entails an ever increasing element of administration, asset management, and compliance work. Adding insult to injury, the central office often employed people to create ministry resources, which parish ministers were capable of producing, while the admin burden increased which parish ministers were not well equipped to achieve. It would be real improvement if the new Presbytery structure could reverse this trend by employing the right support staff and leaving ministers to produce the Gospel content.

National Facilities Maintenance

While I’m dreaming, it would be great to have a national facilities management and maintenance contractor or at the least, preferred Presbytery contractors. This would free up hours of seeking out local contractors and requesting multiple site visits in order to secure the requisite number of quotes. Imagine the freedom of making one call and have your facilities repaired quickly.

Does this require amalgamation or simply cooperation?

Having said all this, I’m not sure that the amalgamation of smaller Presbyteries is actually required in order to have any of the above. To take my local mega Presbytery as an example. Do we really need to merge Stirling, Dunkeld, Perth, Dundee and Angus Presbyteries in order to create a local administrative office? Would it, instead, be possible to have the relevant staff and professionals in one office, serving the five areas instead of having one mega Presbytery with centralised decision making? Amalgamation might reduce duplication, for example having one business committee instead of five, but there are other ways to reduce unnecessary committee meetings.

Administration and Collegiality

The question of amalgamation is now moot; the General Assembly has decided. Our task is to make it happen. There are certainly potential benefits to sharing resources and reducing redundancy across larger areas of Scotland. But I hope the Presbytery reforms do not conflate greater administrative efficiency with a more productive ministry and mission culture.

One of the benefits of of the local Presbytery is not admin but relationships. The benefit of five business committees rather than one is the multiplied connections. Presbytery Committees can be great vehicles for collaboration and friendship. These relationships can offer support, trust, innovation and encouragement which is at least as important as administrative efficiency. I hope that the mega Presbyteries still find ways to encourage local relationships to flourish. I appreciate the ability to meet over video conference, in fact I prefer online session, Presbytery and committee meetings. But ‘Facetime’ cannot replace face time.

Similarly, it would be possible to reform Presbytery structures and then sit back, pleased with our achievements. But the administrative structure is there to serve mission and ministry. This relates to one of the historical problems of the entire Church of Scotland structure; the administrative ‘tail’ has wagged the local church ‘dog’. Presbytery reform is not the end it’s simply the start of laying a new foundation for sharing the Gospel with the people of Scotland.

Why is church so disappointing?

There are probably many reasons that we find church dissatisfying. Often the real-world experience fails to meet expectations. This may be due to a genuinely poor experience where the Christian community fails to meet the moral or ethical standards outlined in Scripture. But on other occasions it is possible we have set our expectations too high.

Some of us will have, once, been part of a particular Christian community which we really enjoyed. We then try to recreate that experience in the places to which we move. In the internet age, there is also more opportunity to compare and develop unrealistic expectations. We listen to incredibly talented speakers and musicians, seldom paralleled in our local experience.

The solution to these sources of disappointment is probably found in the maturing of our faith and perspective; learning to think realistically and focussing on what is important. We also need to learn that some experiences were meant to be simply for a season.

But there is another deeper disappointment which is probably more vital and more damaging.

From time to time, I meet Christians that struggle with church altogether. They have a deep seated disappointment with the whole activity. Their attendance at church services may be patchy and more committed members will often question their faith and commitment.

Again, there are many reason for this situation but there is one specific theological problem which I believe may play a factor in this disappointment; we have forgotten what church is.

Before church is an event or gathering, church is a category of existence.

To be part of the church is to be part of the body of Christ: the physical, Spirit filled, global community that embodies Jesus in the world. All joy, purpose, meaning and salvation flow from knowing the living source of the Church; God, Father, Son and Spirit.

Some of our disappointment comes from looking for satisfaction in the wrong place. We attend church services expecting to find our heart’s desire, but church services cannot provide it. Because services are simply an expression of satisfaction only found in God himself. Of course, the first time we met God may have been in a church service and, in that sense, church may have appeared as the source of life transforming power, but the real source was always God.

However this is not just a problem of personal expectations, it’s also a community problem. The Christian community often displays a hugely reductionist view of church; limited to a weekly event and the occasional coffee or house group. We fail to help people to see the the true, all encompassing, nature of church. This leaves us with a strange duality where we encourage too high a view of the weekly worship service and too low a view of the Christian community itself.

If we want to rediscover the power of the Christian community and the many blessings of participation, we all must stop expecting a few songs, prayers and a sermon to deliver. We need to redirect the focus of the community away from the Sunday service and to everyday lived in the presence of Jesus. Then we may find the cosmic, transcendent, Spirit empowered, hope-filled, world changing, resurrected delight of the new humanity in Christ!

Culture eats strategy…

I’ve heard the saying ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ repeatedly in church meetings (apparently it’s attributed to Peter Drucker). Ironically, these meetings are often strategy meetings, or meetings to develop a strategy for improving culture.

This evening I was part of a large meeting to discuss a strategy to rationalise and centralise resources in an effort to reshape ministry in central Scotland. Centralising decision making seems anachronistic in the age of devolution and Brexit, however the meeting was extremely positive and many great ideas were suggested.

But the success of these ideas will require a huge culture change in the Church of Scotland. For example, it will require the end of congregationalism and parochialism and probably also the eventual end of parishes. It will be a step towards the end of parish ministry too. It will require significant redistribution of wealth and resources at a time of increasing shortage.

And more importantly, it will require local congregations to acquiesce to the structural changes that mean they will share a paid leadership across large areas. Local voluntary leaders and non-stipendiary ministers will probably be vital not only to maintain some of the historic expectations of ministry but also to plant and grow new communities of disciples.

It is perhaps an exciting prospect. But, will structural changes bring about the necessary cultural change? Does structural change generally bring cultural change? I am genuinely unsure. I suppose a cataclysmic collapse of structures would lead to stark culture changes. But short of that, does carefully managed structural change lead to the change of heart required to birth something new in the church?

In my brief experience, most people that have done something significantly innovative in the Kirk have stepped outside of the normal structures and created cultures of their own which once successful the Kirk has embraced.

Hopefully, on this occasion, the Church of Scotland can encourage the internal cultural changes necessary to make the big structural changes happen both smoothly and quickly.

Should churches push to reopen?

According to the headlines, some churches in Scotland are deeply concerned that the Scottish Government has overreached by insisting that churches cannot currently gather for worship. Today there is a suggestion of legal action from the churches.

It would be naive to assume that decisions made during the Covid crisis could never have unintended repercussions in the future. It is also possible that laws made now to restrict public gathering could be used in a malicious way later. And it is entirely possible that, where laws exist to protect religious expression and gathering, there may be a legal clash with hastily introduced Covid laws. But does our current situation constitute the religious persecution or oppression that warrants civil disobedience or a legal backlash?

Living under Covid-19 restrictions is relatively miserable; although far better than dying from Coronavirus. We dearly miss our extended families, friends and community. We miss the wider Christian community gathering weekly for learning, communal worship and encouragement. 

And there are genuine concerns from a faith perspective about not being able to meet. The New Testament expects a physical gathering of Jesus’ followers and warns against individuals removing themselves from the group. From a more theological perspective, humans are both spirit and body; there is something significant about not being able to stand next to each other, hug, hi-five or shake hands. There is no doubt that the current restriction on gathering is not simply miserable but psychologically damaging.

So why put up with not being allowed to gather?

Here are a few thoughts.

  • Recognising that the Government are not singling out religious groups but asking a huge variety of people, businesses and organisations not to meet, we choose to obey the civil authority and give them the due respect
  • Regardless of the legal situation, we voluntarily sacrifice our desire to meet for the good of the wider community and to aid the national response to a deadly pandemic.
  • Noting that under the present lockdown, many of our fellow Christians would not be able to attend due to health, travel problems or general infirmity, we choose not to make church gathering a matter of division.
  • We consider our witness to the nation. At a time when everyone is struggling, if the church appears to be primarily concerned with its own benefit and situation, what does that say to the rest of society? It may say that we take our faith seriously, but I suspect it says more strongly that we are only concerned with ourselves.
  • With the technology at our fingers, we have an unprecedented opportunity to maintain activities online. Yes, often these are poorer or lesser than the experience of being physically together. But they are better than nothing. And let’s be very clear, we have not been banned from sharing the Gospel or meeting online. Although, to be fair, we are beholden to online platforms that can restrict freedom of religious expression.
  • For many churches technology allows a far wider reach than pre-covid days. Lots of churches have found that new people are engaging who didn’t previously attend physical gatherings. Arguably we have better missional opportunities than before.
  • Prayer and pastoral care can still happen even if it’s simply over the phone or during a daily walk. Again this is not ideal but it is no less powerful or effective. The Apostle Paul conducted teaching and pastoral care in writing as evidenced by his New Testament letters.
  • The Sunday gathering is an important part of the Christian life but it is far from the whole of Christian discipleship. The New Testament puts greater emphasis on the Christian community daily sharing the Gospel message and living out Kingdom ethics. Even in lockdown we can happily fulfil these central activities.

It is far from ideal to take the church entirely online instead of physically meeting together. But where we have the means to continue church life virtually is this not a worthy sacrifice to protect the vulnerable and bless wider society? A huge part of being a Christian is living in more than one realm of existence; we pray, we join with the heavenly host, through the Holy Spirit we link with Christians across the entire globe and beyond. Surely virtual gathering is not too much of a stretch?

Time will tell if there is a legal case against the lockdown of Churches. But if there is, what about those made redundant, theatres, cinemas, small business owners, pubs and self employed etc., should Christians focus on our right to gather or instead campaign for justice for the rest of society, some of whom cannot feed themselves?

For me, this is the crux of the matter. Who are we trying to benefit if we push the Government to reopen churches? Perhaps there are many different motivations, but to wider society, I fear it may appear a very self-centred approach. Should the Christian community not be willing to accept discomfort if that sacrifice commended Jesus and his followers in the midst of the pandemic? There are so many other things we could be doing, right now, to witness to his love and grace to a suffering world.

The Production of Worship

In recent years, events based mission has fallen out of fashion; relational mission is now en vogue. But events based worship is still generally preferred to a more relational approach. In most churches, the primary activity of the community is the delivery of a weekly event. The Sunday morning service is the main expression of the life of the community and where more services are provided, this is considered evidence of greater vibrancy. The result of the focus on the Sunday service, is that some people exhaust themselves in the preparation of teaching, music, children’s ministry and, in recent years, increasingly complex audio visual displays.

The rest of the congregation are generally passive recipients of the weekly event, unless of course they are encouraged to serve coffee, welcome people, or collect cash. Interestingly, those most active generally criticise the passive congregants as ‘consumers’ while ignoring the fact that the entire structure is shaped to make christian life a spectator sport for the majority.

But along came Covid.

During the Covid crisis, I have had a number of discussion with very committed people, normally at the centre of delivering the Sunday event, and they have loved the change. As one person put it, for the first time they have experienced Sabbath rest. Not only are Christians experiencing rest, but they are spending precious time with their families and children.

How are we going to return to what we used to call church?

I suspect some will race to return to ‘real’ church. I fear they will also want to make up for lost time, returning with urgency to ensure that normal services are resumed. But what about those who have tasted freedom and liked it? What if many, previously, at the centre of ‘worship’ production decide to rebel? Will they simply be dismissed as backsliders?

But is there a biblically consistent alternative; a future, where the Christian community drops the labour intensive production of communal worship. Is there a scripture honouring approach that would emphasise relationship over event in terms of Sunday gatherings? Participation in event based worship usually means ‘doing a reading’ or prayer. Is there a different approach that would encourage participation in terms of discipleship and deepening relationship over joining the Sunday production team? And has Covid lockdown revealed that we may have mis-stepped somewhere focussing the people of God on producing services instead of reproducing disciples and Kingdom growth?

Getting back to Church

Leadership in the Christian community is largely focussed on the provision and administration of the Sunday gathering. Church leaders lament that that members are ‘Sunday Christians’ and we regularly preach that they need to be followers of Jesus every day. And yet the entire Christian community and its leadership are centred on the Sunday service. Despite the New Testament emphasis that the people of God, themselves, are the new temple, we seem fixated on recreating Temple worship led by a priestly caste.

One of the impacts of Covid-19 on the church has been to threaten that entire structure. For centuries we’ve arranged ourselves around providing a weekly event but suddenly we couldn’t. I was at an online seminar recently and the speaker commented on the reaction of most churches to Covid. ‘While the world has been going through an existential crisis churches have been preoccupied with when we can get back to our Sunday services.’ But perhaps it’s not surprising that Christians perceived the loss of Sunday services as a greater existential threat than Covid-19? Because without Sunday worship what are we? And why are we?

I wonder if the protestations from churches that they should be allowed to maintain corporate worship during Covid-19 has less to do with the proclamation of the Good News or the Glory of God than to do with the loss of purpose and identity of Christians and their leaders. Because even with churches closed or restricted, the Kingdom of God has not stopped growing in 2020. In fact perhaps the Kingdom has benefited from followers of Jesus being forced to spend more time at home with their families and to take more interest in the wellbeing of neighbours rather than spending so much time in church meetings and preparing for Sundays?

Parish Minister or Parish Manager?

I recently flicked through the Church of Scotland’s in-house magazine ‘Life and Work.’ It was the September 2020 issue and as usual it asked a ‘Big Question’ of a group of parish ministers.

The specific question related to how the respondents had maintained spiritual health during lockdown. And although a breadth of theology was represented, interestingly, similar responses came from the participants.

Most mentioned being able to take more exercise which they combined with reflection or prayer. And most commented that they had been more contemplative some specifically relating this to engaging with Scripture.

I have found a similar result of the restrictions of Covid and it has challenged me about what exactly I was doing before.

I have a friend that moved on from parish ministry to a new form of Christian outreach. When I asked if he would return to the parish, he replied ‘why would I want to go back to managing a charity?’ Charity management is probably not what most people think ministers do. But it’s exactly what most ministers do. And in these days of pressure to improve the performance of our churches, it is to improved management that many ministers turn.

I’ve heard complaints from church workers that most ministers are not good managers. And in many cases that’s probably true. When I trained for ministry, management was barely touched on. If a minister is an experienced, competent, manager it is probably a happy accident due to a previous career.

However early in parish ministry it becomes apparent that a major part of your job will be the management of staff, facilities, resources, volunteers, and organisational structures. To some this may come as a relief from the more ethereal and unquantifiable role of preaching the Gospel. Others will find themselves overwhelmed by a role for which they are neither prepared or skilled. Of course, many churches have skilled participants to share this task. But, in the process of elders being redefined as ‘trustees’ the spiritual leadership of a church has been further, subtly, reshaped.

Yet amidst the Covid misery might we find a glimpse of hope? Parish ministers are re-discovering their core vocation to enjoy the presence of God, in person, in Scripture and in Creation?

If there is renewal for the church it will not come solely or even primarily through better, leaner and more efficient administration. It will surely come through a renewed passion and a rediscovery of the power and beauty of the Scriptures and their Lord.

What’s in a name?

In Scotland we have many different words for rain. They all refer to water falling from the sky but the different terms introduce nuances in the way and speed the water is falling.

Some translations of the New Testament use the word ‘preach’ where the original text recognises more nuance. For example where the NIV says preach the Synoptics often have a verb meaning announce or proclaim (eg. Matt 3.1). But sometimes the word denoted by preaching, in the original text, is the noun ‘Proclamation’ (eg. Matt 12.41). And in the book of Acts ‘preach’ in the English translation can refer to a verb in the original text which we might call ‘good newsing’ or ‘announcing good news’ and is the basis of the word ‘evangelism’ (eg. Acts 8.40). At least once in Acts the NIV says ‘preach fearlessly’ but the original text says ’boldly speak’ (Acts 9.27). And on another occasion in Acts the original language uses ‘spoke the word’ but the NIV says ‘had preached’ (Acts 14.25).

The New Testament also uses a separate word for ‘teach’ alongside preaching. For example in Matt 4.23 we read in the NIV that ‘Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom…’ How are we to understand this verse? Is the teaching separate from the preaching? In the original text there appears to be an extra ‘and’ which might separate the two activities. But the NIV appears to understand the content of the teaching to be the preaching of the Kingdom. Are teaching and preaching then synonymous?

Later in Acts we find the Apostle Paul arguing for Christ in local synagogues, on the Sabbath. For example in Acts 17, the NIV says that Paul ‘reasoned’ in the Thessalonian and Athenian synagogues. Here, the original text uses a word related to dialogue or discuss. How does Paul’s arguing relate to Jesus’ teaching/preaching in synagogues? Then further on in the chapter Paul is said to be ‘preaching’ and the original text uses another word for ‘declare’ or ‘announce’ which we’ve not yet come across.

I am not a serious Greek scholar, by any means. But I hope that this brief examination of some NT references to speaking, in relation to the Gospel, indicate that our quest to define what we mean by preaching is not entirely straightforward. By preaching, we tend to specifically mean a lecture style monologue. But where the NIV uses the word ‘preach’ or variants, the original text appears to indicate public speech to share the Good News. Additionally, sometimes the context for Gospel speech might suggest that teaching, preaching, discussing and arguing could be interchangeable or at least related activities.

We should, therefore, be careful of assuming or imposing back into the text our relatively uniform understanding of preaching.

Some Questions about Preaching

For more than a decade, I’ve been preaching almost every weekend. In preacher terms, that qualifies me as a relative noob. In that time a number of questions have stuck in my mind concerning what I’m doing when I attempt to preach. Here are a few.

  • When does speaking become preaching?
  • What is preaching trying to achieve?
  • Is the intent of speech what defines it as preaching?
  • Is the content of speech what makes it preaching?
  • Is a particular method or approach what defines preaching?
  • Are preaching and teaching synonymous?
  • Does preaching need to be public speech?
  • How large an audience is required to define speaking as preaching?
  • Does preaching need to be spoken words?
  • Is recorded speech preaching?
  • Is recorded speech preaching only if it was originally live, public, speech?
  • Is the role of a public herald the archetype for a preacher?
  • Is ‘street preaching’ the purest form of preaching?
  • Is teaching the Bible in the Christian community preaching?
  • Is teaching the Bible in small groups preaching?
  • Is preaching defined by the person who preaches?
  • Does ordination make the speaker a preacher?
  • Does specific training make the speaker a preacher?
  • Are sermons preaching?
  • Is every part of a sermon preaching?
  • Can written words be preaching?
  • Is the Bible preaching?

What is Preaching?

If you already know the answer to that question, then likely this blog will disappoint you. For the last 15 years I’ve been a Preacher in some capacity. But I’ve always had a nagging question; is this what preaching is meant to be?

I’ve been fortunate to learn from some great Preachers, each with their own style and approach but broadly doing the same thing: standing in a church building, usually on a Sunday morning, presenting a monologue on a Biblical text or Gospel message. Is that Preaching?

I believe in Jesus Christ, I know we need to share the Good News, but I’m not entirely sure we’ve got Preaching right. Join me as I wander in search of some possible answers.