The palliative care of the Kirk

Unsplash – Marcelo Leal

A serious question for the Church of Scotland right now is whether recovery is possible? We are undertaking drastic and critical surgery, cutting away apparently dead flesh but will we breathe again unaided?

While chatting with a colleague this week, we were considering what Kirk ministers may now be called to. For some it may be to care for dying churches, providing them with comfort as they fade away. Some of us may already feel that we have been slowly administering the morphine for years. Perhaps Mission Plans have simply introduced blatant euthanasia to the process? And for those churches teetering between chronic and terminal illness, the prospect of death may certainly be more attractive than the expectation of fresh approaches to church and mission.

But what about new life? Is there a coordinated approach to identify those who will act as midwives for the Kingdom? Like many this year, I failed to engage significantly with the General Assembly. Perhaps I have missed something; was there more than new funding for mission?

Because, as others have identified, we have a people crisis. Where are the evangelists, missionaries and planters? We have categorically failed to develop these ministries and the frustrating thing is we knew it and looked the other way. This is not a crisis of recruitment. It’s a failure of vision. And throwing money at the problem will not necessarily conjour people to do the work.

We are putting great trust that non-stipendiary ministeries will appear with the right gifts and expertise. Where exactly are they coming from? As someone with a church predominantly comprising families with people between 30 and 50, it strikes me that most are extremely busy with kids and work. Does the Kirk have a ready steam of folks in their 20s?

So, that means we need to employ workers. Who is training them? Who is preparing them? Are any of the Kirk’s education partners able to develop skilled people at the volume required? Few of the church planting networks, of which I am aware, are working at that scale and most are unlikely to work with the CofS.

Here’s the question. If we are honest, have we already accepted that the Kirk is dead? Are we satisfied with a palliative ministry? Because if we are not satisfied, what are we going to do about new birth?

Currently our actions are illogical and confused. We have initiated drastic cuts which only make sense if we have something new in which to invest.

But if we don’t have something new, why are we engaging in the euthanasia of local churches? Why not let them die slowly until the money runs out? Otherwise, why are we trying to protect finances? Of what use is a big pot of reserves and empty buildings?

Do we truly believe that ‘God is not done with the Kirk’? Do we truly believe that the proposed cuts and rationalisation are required so that new ministries and churches can be birthed? If we do, what are we doing to prepare a new generation of trained and skilled practitioners ready do the work? Because the harvest is plentiful…

Blessed are the incompetent?

Competence is not something of which I’m often accused. So this entire blog might be interpreted as resentment.

But competence is a quality highly valued in the Kirk. Between us, we have thousands of years of ministry experience. Judging by the number of Rev Drs and the alphabet soup after many names, the Kirk is also rammed with PhDs and MThs. We have active training and CPD departments. Our ministers are university educated and I suspect professionals are over-represented amongst our elders. A range of Doctors of the Kirk have heavily influenced our decision making right up to the present day.

With such competence, how is it we are (almost) hopelessly lost?

In the last few weeks I’ve been listening to the Psalms and I’ve been struck by the repeated warning not to trust in our own power or abilities. When facing the enormity of our problems and the full weight of the majesty of God, the Kirk’s competence shrivels. But undeterred, we initiate programmes and commission reports. We table motions and repackage funds. We sneer if an uninitiate commissioner suggests stopping to pray, because prayer will interfere with the agenda. Could it be that our very competence hinders us?

And yet, we have little reason for self-confidence.

Our many years of experience and our hoard of certificates have not helped us to avoid the calamity that we face today. Not because experience or intellect are insignificant. But perhaps because great intelligence and impressive CVs are nothing without humility. Our once great missionary church now needs an influx of leaders from oversees to right the ship (but please not those escaping other dying denominations). Yet humility seems lacking in our response to the crisis. Recruitment, committees, commissions, research and training, even injecting money may not save the Kirk unless we excise the hubris.

The Lord owes us nothing for our years of service, for our witness or acquiescence to contemporary Scotland. Our history, although interesting, matters little compared to how we relate to King Jesus today. What would the glorious Lord say to the Kirk if we were the eighth church of Revelation? For a moment forget statistics and secularism, age pyramids and church-going trends, what does Scripture say to God’s people when they face exile and humiliation? Might that be where we should start?

Has something got to give?

I’m never sure whether to post about the present state of the Church of Scotland. My concern is that it sounds critical of other people, when in reality I am part of the problem. As Presbyters, we are the decision makers that create the circumstances we then lament. Similarly, I am one of the people engaged in applying the General Assembly’s ministry reductions and I trust that we’ve done the best job we could under the circumstances.

Having got that out of the way, I want to reflect briefly on the state of ministry in the Kirk. Significant comment has been made regarding the potential impact of the depth of ministry cuts mandated by the General Assembly. This has been met by alternative suggestions for the Kirk to thrive accompanied by solutions to the recruitment crisis/looming retirement chasm.

Let me get to the headline: I have never spoken to so many colleagues seriously questioning their calling. Morale is low. Some ministers have already given notice. Many others are probably browsing employment pages online. Is this a hidden crisis yet to be recognised?

Being a parish ministers is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s varied, interesting, rewarding and above all fulfils a sense of God’s leading. But the demands are high and the toll on family life and personal wellbeing can be higher. More significantly, the expectations of the role are changing significantly.

Traditional parish ministry, the only ministry for which most of us were prepared, still features high on the agenda of local congregations. Older members, in particular, would still prefer routine visits from their own minister. However, the present direction of travel is toward a future where parish ministers are replaced by ecclesial regional managers tasked with oversight of multiple communities, while still fiercely guarding the ordinances of religion. Meanwhile those with a more missional perspective encourage church leaders to focus on planting new communities, outreach, discipleship and a shift away from maintenance mode. How are we to balance these varied expectations? Are we equipped for the necessary changes? Can we cope with an inevitable increase in the pressure we already face? Can we afford to keep all the plates spinning? What should we prioritise?

As has been pointed out elsewhere, in promoting current changes, euphemism is applied liberally. ‘Mission Plans’ could justly be called ‘personnel reduction programmes’. ‘Team ministries’ also encourage fewer people to do more, across greater distances. ‘The priesthood of all believers’ also means ‘ministry for free’. These might be genuinely positive developments were they not redeployed as agents of reduction. But everyone sees through the optimistic nomenclature. Are we ready to drop the language of growth and accept the stark reality that the Kirk is nearly the walking dead? And are we ready to admit the corollary, that we are asking churches and ministers to achieve the miraculous.

However, the above is nothing compared to the unspoken culture shift which will be needed to achieve our current goals. As was recently pointed out to me, our broad Kirk has been able to stick together, not by the strength of our belief in Presbyterianism, but because of underlying congregationalism. Neighbouring ministers and congregations have been able to continue along their own furrow, often largely ignoring each other. Perhaps they shared some resources or the odd service but they have been generally autonomous. But the new normal will require ministers to serve multiple churches with varied perspectives. Perhaps this is just urban areas catching up with what rural charges have experienced for many years? But can ministers and congregations survive this restructuring? Will congregations welcome the leadership and preaching of ministers with whom they have little in common? Will battles to appease diverse and theologically divergent congregations be the best use of diminishing time and energy? Will the compromises made for the sake of structural integration reverse church decline? And will churches be in better shape to reach out with the Good News of Jesus? In short, can the Kirk survive becoming more Presbyterian?

No doubt, there will be continued call to put unity above personal conviction, for the sake of the denomination. But that is a big ask and perhaps one with shaky theological foundations. The Kirk is so broad that little unifies us other than the administrative structures by which we are bound. Even if we are able to form a book of creeds to replace the Westminster Confession, will these be any more uniting and normative? And would we really want them to be? In this age of denominational mobility, are denominations really more than local churches in a resource sharing structure? And does church unity predominantly operate at a denominational level or is unity more concerned with local communities within the global Church? Through a variety of theological decisions, the Kirk has already broken unity with the vast majority of world Christians. Should the peace and unity of local churches now be sacrificed on the altar of denominational efficiency? Office holders have pledged allegiance to the structures of the church. But should that usurp the peace and health of the local churches? After all, which exists to serve the other?

I am concerned that our present direction assumes a characteristic ‘Church of Scotland’ style of local church served by cookie cutter ‘churchmen’ (and women). It assumes that ministers and congregations are essentially interchangeable. But that is not the local reality. We are a broad collection of churches, diverse and sometimes divided. Most of us love the Kirk. And we have benefitted from the support of a hard working administrative core. But is our love best expressed by spending her final decades trying to hold together, geographically distinct and often theologically opposed congregations? And should this love for the Kirk come at a cost to effective local mission? And is our primary call as church leaders to perpetuate the superstructure or engage in relational ministry? And if something must give; must fall to the ground to permit new life, what should it be?