Planning for failure?

The introduction of ‘hub ministry’ to the language of the Church of Scotland was met with the expected range of responses. At one end of the spectrum, there was eye rolling and the rehearsal of the long list of restructuring proposals that have come and gone in the last 20 years (parish groupings anyone?). At the other end of the spectrum was enthusiastic early adoption by those striving to reverse the downward spiral of the CofS.

While initially it appeared that hubs were about cooperation, it became clear that they had an additional task; to make accompanying efficiencies and staff reductions.

Hubs were soon renamed clusters or networks, but the aims remained the same and this dual purpose means that they have an inherent contradiction which may challenge their effectiveness. In fact there are a number of issues with hubs which, if not inherent, relate to their current application.

Dual Purpose

To cooperate with a neighbouring church requires trust. Trust between Christian communities is, of course, desirable. But in a Presbyterian context, it is vital because cooperation is near impossible to enforce. In the Kirk, cooperation must be ‘encouraged’ because it cannot be ‘instructed’.

Real trust between churches can be rare. I enjoyed participating in one of the, apparently few, ‘Parish Groupings’ that worked. However, that success was based on serious intent, pre-existing shared core theology and vision and conducive personalities. Removing one of those characteristics would have seriously challenged effective cooperation.

The theological broadness in the Kirk can make building trust with neighbouring congregations a, possibly insurmountable, challenge. But even where churches have similar theology and vision, simple competitiveness, or complacency, can ruin trust.

And this is where the dual nature of hubs comes into play. Hubs require cooperation but by being agents of a ministerial cull they also build mistrust. How can we expect trust from people vying for the same post?

If we want effective, successful, hub ministries we need to remove from them the accompanying expectation to identify which partner congregation should lose its minister or MDS worker. It would be better for unity to have all members in a hub working together to challenge an externally proposed reduction in staff, rather than them fight against one another to save their minister.

Geographical Evenness

Another potential problem with hubs is found where they aim to reduce ministry staff in a particular geographical location without reference to what is happening elsewhere. For example, should we ask a cluster of healthy growing congregations to reduce their staffing levels in order to reallocate ministers or MDS workers to hubs where the churches are in long term decline? Or should that same healthy hub reduce staff when the required Presbytery reduction can already be found through forthcoming retirements across the Presbytery?

This form of planning may be grounded in the apparent geographical evenness required by the Third Article. But while the aim to bring the good news of Christ Jesus to every part of our nation is laudable, it should not be at the cost of wise planning. Surely it is better to invest where there is growth and prune where branches are dying? Should we leave parts of Scotland without a witness to Jesus? No! Growing congregations should be encouraged to plant where other ministries and congregations no longer exist. In fact such a missional culture is one indicator of a healthy church.

Theology & Geography

At the recent Theological Forum event to discuss the Westminster Confession of Faith, we were told that the Church of Scotland had no stated definition of ‘the substance of the faith’. And in practice it does appear that, apart from a few, often secondary issues, the Kirk is essentially a theological free for all. This may be too cynical but perhaps the CofS is now held together only by shared legal and fiscal systems, by charity law, safeguarding and GDPR policy.

It is possible that neighbouring congregations can cooperate in these more practical areas for example with a shared safeguarding officer or treasurer. But for real trust, effective mission and long-term shared worship a deeper basis of unity is necessary. It is institutionally naive, or evidence of a long term goal to impose theological beigeness, to assume that, in general, neighbouring churches can achieve more than shared administration.

It is very unlikely that the theological factionalism of the Kirk will disappear any time soon. Therefore if hubs are to work at a deeper level, they will have to move beyond the blunt imposition of cooperation between adjacent parishes.

A last thought

Having said all of this, hubs themselves will not save the Church of Scotland. At best they may allow more efficient management of our demise. Surely the Kirk will only be saved if she rediscovers her founding mission; to live for the salvation of Scotland’s people and the glory of Jesus Christ. Indeed only when this replaces her current mission of self-preservation will she be worth saving.

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