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?