I lift up mine eyes to the Mound

The previous post envisaged a future Kirk without paid, full-time ministers. Instead a restructured bureaucracy would oversee the nationwide delivery of ‘the ordinances of religion’ by local volunteers. This did not necessarily reflect my preferred future or hopes for the Kirk. It was an attempt to imagine where our present path may lead. I was encouraged by some of the discussion that arose, especially the alternative views.

Some anxiety about current plans may reflect an aversion to change. But there are legitimate concerns about our present direction. For example, hesitancy regarding the reduction of parish ministers and the geographical expansion of their remits does not necessarily reflect belief in a hierarchy or special religious caste. It simply highlights some important questions. Would the unpaid volunteers that replace parish ministers be willing to work the hours, juggle the roles and absorb the pressure and criticism that generally accompany the role. And if not, what changes are needed to the expectations of ‘ministry’?

A more optimistic response to such concerns might correctly point out that everything will turn out well in the end. God has plans for the future church in Scotland. We simply need to ride the wave of Holy Spirit shaped history and ‘all shall be well’. Yet at the same time, God’s plans seldom materialise without human agency. God creates out of nothing, but he instructs Adam to name the animals and work the land. God parts the sea but Moses has to exercise faith through his staff. Similarly, despite Jesus’ miraculous conception, Mary has to carry and deliver the child. Who will help birth a developing Scottish church for the future? Will the Kirk have any presence? And are our current plans reflective of cooperation with God’s planning, or is his voice drowned out by our cries for self-preservation?

What then should we being doing today to help prepare the Kirk for tomorrow? What attitudes and approaches to Christian life are likely to benefit future Scottish Christians? Are there core beliefs and practices that must be rediscovered like Josiah receiving the book of the law? And if the adage is true that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ should be focussing on the Kirk’s culture over administrative restructuring. Because currently we appear to assume that strategic restructuring will produce a beneficial and desirable culture..

This brings us to the question of leadership. We are a church of ‘clerics’, lawyers and trustees. Structural preservation and institutional conservatism form our DNA. Presbyterian governance may manage our structures well. But in our fixed Assembly line (excuse the pun) the output seems predetermined by inputs and established process. This is great if you need stability, predictability and minimal disruption. But will it produce useful change or innovation. Will it produce spiritual vitality, repentance or renewed faithfulness? And if we think not, from where will such leadership originate? From whence cometh our help?

Of course, our help comes from God, but isn’t the best agent of his change often the Spirit infused local church? It’s true that we need to rationalise, consolidate and close churches. But the necessary result must be healthy local churches, enabled by administrative structures, and provided the freedom and resources to innovate. Might the necessary paradigm shift emerge from such local contexts? And will our Presbytery plans result in local churches still with the energy, vision, confidence and leadership to fulfil this vocation?

Lastly, recognising that almost everyone involved in the Kirk is invested in her survival. What if she is beyond recovery? Do we posses the collective, unselfish faith required to make the necessary sacrificial decisions? And what kind of death would most likely lead to resurrection? Might the decaying corpse of the Kirk nourish Scotland’s earth for future Kingdom shoots? Will we leave a useful legacy for our spiritual children or will we blow their inheritance on our vain search for an elixir of life? What kind of last will and testament are we drafting?

A Church Without Walls or Parish Ministers

For as long as I remember, the Kirk has been dying. This was made clear early in my ministry training, when a more experienced minister said “our job is to build life boats.” In conversations with colleagues from across the church the same refrain arises, “the Kirk is dying.” Sometimes the sentiment is stronger; “perhaps the Kirk needs to die?”

Imagine for a moment that these predictions of death are accurate. What is the appropriate response? I think of Jesus’ parable of the manager facing the sack, who carefully prepared an exit strategy. Is that what we’re now doing? Is Presbytery planning preparation for an uncertain but vibrant future?

One response to the current state of the Kirk would have been to allow far greater local flexibility and autonomy. But that, higher risk approach, is not the route we have taken. Understandably, we have taken a more centrally managed approach, but with some of the strategic planning delegated to the local.

Yet, trusting that we are genuinely planning for a lively future. What might our current approach be leading towards?

With the ‘Third Article’ still in place, we remain committed to providing ministry to the whole of Scotland.

This will likely lead to:

  • A decreasing pool of ministers covering ever increasing geographical areas and taking on growing administrative and supervision duties.
  • A possible increase of ministry employees to replace the large group of ministers soon to retire. These employees would bring the benefit of being more easily moved and managed.
  • A need for significantly more unpaid volunteers, trained to lead and teach locally and to fulfil pastoral ministries. Some of these could be recently retired parish ministers.
  • A greater requirement for local volunteer leadership and congregations to manage and fulfil administrative and fiscal expectations.

None of the above is essentially bad. But we should consider the resulting changes.

As the geographical area covered by each minister grows, eventually the connection with any particular local church will diminish. Similarly, administrative and volunteer management skills may become more relevant than theological training or pastoral experience.

Therefore, eventually, regional managers may replace ministers in oversight roles. In turn presbyteries may also be replaced by regional administration teams, sitting under rebranded mega-presbytery clerks. Local volunteer representatives may also sit on such committees. While the current legal situation may prohibit the replacement of church courts, delegating responsibilities to executive committees should be simple. It seems that mega-presbyteries are already moving in this direction where committees may have to take frequent executive decisions.

In parallel with this shift at the regional level, local churches may become mainly the domain of unpaid volunteer preachers, teachers, leaders and pastoral workers. Although it’s possible that larger and wealthier churches may still afford ‘professional’ ministers. Where churches can afford locally employed ministers this would probably bring a significant culture change. In particular, ministers would be under the employment and managment of the local congregation or regional management team.

A model predominantly dependent on volunteers will enable far greater congregational involvement in ministry and leadership. But it will also require significant cultural changes. Because, the structure currently needed to ‘run’ a Church of Scotland requires lots of people with free time. And those people are in decreasing supply.

For example, presently, local kirks depend heavily on recently, and not so recently, retired volunteers. Without them, the demands of eldership, leadership and the delivery of pastoral care, children’s ministry, worship etc. put a heavy burden on those in employment or with young children.

In the next few decades, given the Kirk’s age profile, the supply of recently retired people will wane. Also retirees often provide care for other family members, so those remaining in the church will possibly have less free time.

Historically, parish ministers were set apart to have the time to oversee local churches. But with the future, skeletal, ministerial provision, such oversight will fall to non-stipendiary and volunteer staff.

In short, it is likely that over the next decades, even our current cost reducing plans will become unsustainable for lack of personnel. If the local church is to be run mainly by volunteers, it will need to utilise new models that time-poor volunteers can easily maintain.

In this model the role of 121 remains key. National policy would continue to be set at this level. A national committee comprising clerks, with national and regional administrators could replace the General Assembly. This change would be necessitated by the dearth of retired people and parish ministers available to attend.

Also, with time-poor volunteers, teaching and leading local churches, there would be a real demand for centrally produced materials. To fulfil this need, it may be necessary to re-expand 121. This might be an opportunity for former parish ministers to put their training to use, creating resources to be used by local volunteers.

If there’s any accuracy to these thoughts, our current path leads ultimately to a Kirk managed by professional administrators across national and regional offices, supporting unpaid, local volunteers.

There might be benefits to this model:

  • The exorbitant cost of parish ministers is removed.
  • Unless utilised by volunteers, manses could be vacated and sold.
  • The whole church community will have to be mobilised.
  • Some savings could be reinvested in a more targeted, flexible ministry workforce.
  • Future change may be easier due to the use of executive committees and tenureless volunteers/employees.
  • Professional staff may have a greater degree of control over local decisions, especially if administrative committees, at least functionally, replace Presbyteries.
  • This may also allow greater uniformity across churches with clearer central expectations and influence on local vision, direction and perhaps even a curriculum?

Having thought of the benefits, the question is, would anything be lost?

The search for relevance

Making the Gospel relevant is a favourite phrase in church circles. But perhaps it’s an unhelpful expression.

The Gospel is always relevant.

The Gospel is the truth that God wants us to know; it’s the real red pill, Truman’s epiphany, Millie kissing Guy. As God’s self-revelation, it’s impossible for the Gospel to be irrelevant.

But while we cannot make the Gospel more relevant, we can stop concealing or obscuring its relevance. Or put positively (thanks to the ever optimistic Grant Maclaughlan), we can strive to effectively reveal the Gospel’s relevance.

‘Making the Gospel relevant’ is therefore better reframed as a request for improved communication from the Church. It asks the Church to speak effectively within our context. The question is not the relevance of the Gospel but rather, how relevant is the church’s announcement of the Gospel?

One way to ensure the irrelevance of the church’s message is to miss out the Gospel altogether.

Sometimes the church focusses on practical responses to the symptoms of brokenness in the world world e.g. poverty, relational disintegration, violence and environmental degradation. But we can fail to remember the ultimate God given solution to these issues: the Gospel! Of course, the Gospel demands action. But action must be grounded in a reliance upon the self-giving of God, otherwise it’s simply an expression of ourself. And if the core message of the church becomes ‘us’ instead of ‘him’ then hope is lost and the church is irrelevant.

Another way that the church obscures the Gospel is in perceived hypocrisy. This is a constant threat for Christians, because we regularly fail to achieve the standards that we profess. And such failure can undermine our message. However, the Gospel is not about our present perfection, it’s about God’s presence, goodness and forgiveness for sinful people. The real hypocrisy is not found in our frequent failures but in our pretence of superiority or a lack of forgiveness towards others.

Humility is therefore a key characteristic for those who would announce the Gospel.

But humility can be confused with uncertainty. And uncertainty is not a virtue, it’s another path to irrelevance.

Probably every Christian doubts. But in recent years, it seems like doubt has come to be considered a sign of mature faith. I am grateful for Holy Spirit’s work in rounding the rough edges of immature belief and strident evangelism. I am grateful for the loving discipline of God which by the Scriptural scalpel has both wounded and healed. But my doubts are my own and they are neither virtuous or noble. Doubt is a fact of spiritual life, but it is not commended by Scripture. Instead we are encouraged to be ‘sure of what we hope for and certain of what we cannot see.’

The Gospel is not well served by our doubts and uncertainties but by our humble reliance on a God that is faithful and trustworthy even when our grasp of him is weak.

And finally, the church does not become more relevant by becoming indistinguishable from the surrounding culture. This is often stressed but it’s also difficult to untangle.

Because we are called to communicate well in our context. That means understanding and speaking the same language as our neighbours. And that requires a degree of assimilation and inculturation. But as we embody the speech and concepts of the world around us we risk becoming less distinct and less relevant. The challenge for the church is to live according to the values and expectations of God’s Kingdom but to share the Gospel in a way which is both challenging and accessible to our context.