This is not a cry for help. Or if it is a cry for help, it’s a collective rather than personal appeal.
Over a decade ago, I attended one of the Scottish Ministry Assemblies in Glasgow. It was the first time I’d heard Tim Keller speak and it was revolutionary. I’ve never forgotten, admittedly in theory rather than practice, his call for ministers to rest on the Gospel; on the finished work of Jesus Christ. He reminded us to preach the good news to ourselves not just to the congregation. A while later, Rob Bell (he who must not be named?) repeated this message in his own inimitable way, “are you smoking what you’re selling?”
This is a salient message for every pastor in every era. But in the Kirk today it seems especially relevant. Was there ever such a ‘performance driven’ church? We may not have started appraisals or the line-management of ministers: yet. But with constant reminders of the condition of the Church of Scotland and the vast expense of Ministers and MDS staff, the message is clear. “The Kirk is dying and it’s your fault!” And the solution? Work harder and we just might turn this tanker around. But let’s be honest, the ship is not simply off course, it’s sinking.
But while the ship is going doing, the Kirk is not simply playing on like the Titanic’s band. We are throwing on additional weight. Prove your worth! Form hubs! No form clusters! No form networks. Don’t form hubs, form groupings instead. Display the five marks of mission. Restructure your Presbyteries. Cut off the dying branches. Plant new churches. Innovate! No, interim moderate! Oh, and if you’ve got time would you consider serving a central or presbytery committee? Now stop everything, get rid of nearly 40% of staff and then do better with less!
I’m not pointing the finger at anyone. We’re Presbyterians, we voted for this!
Recently in our church we’ve been talking a lot about Mary and Martha. And it seems to me that Martha has taken over the Kirk. I don’t want to sound like a naive pietist, but what about the one thing that is truly needed. Are we sitting at the feet of Jesus? I know I’m not. Martha and I are moving furniture, making rotas, attending Presbytery meetings, trying to fix the church heating and planning the biggest Christmas Eve service yet. To be clear, these activities are not beneath me. But sometimes they’re not the most important thing.
And what’s my concern?
I have this sneaking suspicion that while we try to strategically restructure the church, we may be trying to force the wrong wine into the wrong skins. And when we do that, something’s going to crack or explode. What happens once we’ve culled 40% of ministries? If we don’t seriously alter our expectations, one result will be putting a whole lot of pressure on the remaining 60%. What if the current pressure leads them to think, “this isn’t what I signed up for?”
I also have this nagging question about the retirement cliff edge. I’m sure this has been said before, but if so many people are about to retire, why can’t we just let that happen and work with whoever is left? Because it’s possible that restructuring simply loads stress and uncertainty upon the Ministers and MDS that are not retiring soon. That could seriously backfire.
Some will answer that I’m being too ‘ministries’ centric and that the wider people of God can take on additional responsibility. But many congregations are already near capacity. And most able volunteers are over committed. But also, that’s a denial of the need for leadership and God’s call to individuals.
I honestly think that if there is a solution to the present crisis, it’s for those involved in ministries and church leadership to be able, without guilt, to carve out more time sitting at the feet of Jesus. The Kirk needs leaders with spiritual depth not better parish managers. We need ministers that are working from freedom, joy and forgiveness rather than guilt and fear. We need leaders that have returned to their first love rather than developed a more efficient strategy.
This is not a call for a new corporate training course. This is not a call to heap new tasks upon already burdened pastors. This is an aspirational statement, that I, that we might tend to our faith so that we can sleep even when the ship appears to be sinking. Because we know he commands the wind and waves.