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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.