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?

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