Blessed are the Alternatives?

Richard Tiplady

At a Cosen conference, years ago, Richard Tiplady suggested that the future of the Kirk depended on the message of artists and prophets rather than pugilistic theologians. Spirit filled creatives and visionary critics may be even more necessary today.

But by their very nature, the nebula of creatives may be hard to find. Inhabiting the fringes, spaced out (pun intended) and loosely connected to the establishment they may shun recruitment campaigns, preferring a ‘bat-sign’.

Yet, to inexcusably mix cultural references and mimic Yoda, find them we must! Because we’ve already tried administration. We’ve been perfecting it for decades! And when the latest re-structuring iterations appear; our new behemothic regional presbyteries, they may save money and perhaps time, but they will not breathe Jesus’ life into our ailing communities. Sadly, to some, presbytery planning and restructuring feel more like the Angel of Death than the life giving Spirit.

Administration is a spiritual gift, gratefully expressed in the Church. But it, alone, cannot make dry bones live. To stretch the metaphor, our new administrative structures may help us to efficiently gather and sort the Kirk’s decimated skeleton. But for new life, we need creative prophecy. We need to release the Word. But we spend more time planning for decline than preparing to preach!

The challenge for a denomination based on an infrastructure of courts and committees is not to associate their rearrangement with fundamental achievement. While pruning and restructuring are necessary, they are provisional. Our new structures may eventually provide a more suitable foundation for the work of the Kirk but they, themselves, are not the work. The work is introducing dry bones to the Word. The work is breathing life into spiritually hypoxic situations.

So where will we find the mangy, locust eating, truth speakers? How do we invite to the table, the paint smudged, callus-handed, wild-hearted, neurodivergent visionaries? Perhaps we don’t need to. Perhaps we just need to open wider the door because Scripture suggests that the Spirit of the Lord is already calling them to speak.

Happy Reformation Day

I was recently asked to return to thoughts shared at the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. I am far from an expert on the Reformation but I have tried to consider its considerable benefit to the church in Scotland. It seems apt to share this on Reformation day.

For example, one great benefit was the insistence of returning to the original texts of Scripture as the ultimate authority in Christian faith. Linked to this, secondly, was the emphasis on reading Scripture in our own language, with the associated requirement for literacy and education. A third benefit was the call to relate directly to God without relying on the mediation of the church or the clergy. Of course one might argue the extent to which these ideals were adhered to.

However in reflecting on the benefits of the Reformation, I also found myself reflecting on the areas of church life where, in the long term, it may have made smaller changes than are sometimes acknowledged.

Not for the first time, my mind returned to something Professor David Wright said, ‘the Reformation could have gone further with regard to Ecclesiology’. For example, it might be argued that in the apparent shift from sacramentalism to preaching the Word, we essentially made the latter a new sacrament. Any Christian can read the Bible, but the voice of God has remained mediated predominantly through the ordained, educated elite of pulpit and Academy (I’ve just read something very similar in Liam Jerrold Fraser’s Mission in Contemporary Scotland).

Similarly, despite Reforming the Mass, the Church of Scotland still seriously restricts who can conduct communion. In fact the role of Eucharistic Ministers in the Roman Catholic Church may indicate greater current flexibility than the Kirk.

And in combining Reformed ecclesiology with modern bureaucracy the Kirk could essentially be considered to have replaced Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals with a functional hierarchy of Clerks, Convenor and Senior Administrators. Still today ‘career progression’ for Kirk ministers is generally limited to promotion to an administrative role.

But what about areas where the Reformation may appear to have been rolled back?

I wouldn’t be the first to note that in some respects denomination is growing less significant. Today, strands of Roman Catholics and Presbyterians may, on some theological or moral issues, align more closely with each other rather than with their respective church.

It also amuses me that no self-respecting Kirk is today without a screen; projection rather than rood. The missing statues, Icons and images have now been replaced by youtube and for the classier churches, Vimeo! Across the nation we worship with text scrolling over mountain ranges, sunsets and migrating wildebeests.

I belong to part of the the Kirk where mentioning the lectionary may bring out hives. And I remain only a casual user. But today I am an avid fan of apps like Lectio 365, Prayermate and the Canadian version of Daily Prayer. It turns out that many of us need help with the habit of regular prayer and biblical meditation. And the rise amongst protestants of ‘Celtic’ and Ignatian approaches to prayer and reflection suggest that I am not alone in a renewed appreciation of liturgy.

A final example of a significant roll back of the Reformation is the contemporary monastic movement. Admittedly, this is often monasticism lite. But on being handed a copy of ‘Punk Monk’ I was introduced to a more integrated approach to Christian life. And in contemporary Scotland, theologically conservative protestants now appear less concerned about the a creeping social Gospel or the risk of falling into good works. In the Kirk it is generally recognised that orthodoxy extends beyond personal piety and world evangelisation, to include meeting the material, psychological and social needs on our doorsteps. And this is unashamedly seen as consistent and integrated with sharing the good news about Jesus.

I will not forget your word

For the last few Sunday evenings we’ve been studying the book of Judges. There have been many head-scratching moments as we’ve navigated questions concerning the historicity, morality and significance of the text. It has sent me back to the books. One helpful source has been John Goldingay’s Fuller Lectures on the Torah which, although not about Judges, handle some similar issues (it’s actually a podcast). While you may not completely agree with his perspective, one thing is clear, he really loves the Bible.

His enthusiasm is infectious. Combined with reading Pete Greig’s ‘How to Hear God’, it’s been a vital reminder of this most important vocation for pastor-teachers: we are here to teach the Bible. For me, this sometimes gets lost. Amongst the calls to mission, fresh expression, pastoral care, community development, and the impositions of presbytery planning, church management and financial reduction, the Bible is drowned out.

Don’t misunderstand me, I keep preaching and teaching. Church continues to be centred around sermons and studies. But my own delight in Scripture sometimes wanes. Perhaps the Bible feels feeble compared with the endless possibilities of ecclesial innovation or missional novelty. Perhaps it feels powerless in the light of church statistics and strategy.

And yet, without the Bible we have nothing but minimal, unreliable, shadows of ‘The Divine’. Without the Bible, we have no Gospel, no Christ Jesus and our churches are folksy gatherings for good advice and singalongs. Without the Bible there is no prophetic imagination, no purpose in evangelism, no foundation of pastoral hope. Mission becomes self promotion and discipleship an act of narcissism.

We do not worship God, Father, Son and Holy Bible. But without the Bible we cannot know Father, Son and Spirit. At New College, Professor David Wright said that while we shouldn’t idolise the Bible, we require a very high view of it. This was an important lesson when later classes dismembered the text, questioning its authenticity, provenance and occasion, yet seldom considered its ultimate source and meaning. But in the years since, more than any textual critical approach, ministry, itself, has often obscured the Bible. The Word has been overtaken by the pressures of charity management. Well-meaning, retired pastors may now interject a solution; don’t leave your study before lunchtime and then, only, to make multiple visits. This does not provide an achievable model for contemporary ministry, but the passion for the Bible is worth imitating.

All of this leads to the question, what if we have been excited about the Bible and have been preaching it faithfully for years with little response? There are many possible answers. Perhaps we should shake off the dust and move on? Perhaps we are planting in the wrong soil? Perhaps spiritual forces are hindering the message?

But one possible answer returns me to the starting point of this entire blog. The Bible, in the hands of the Spirit, is powerful, dynamic, mind-blowing and soul transforming. Are we obscuring it? Are we hiding it within the walls of the Kirk? Is our message connecting with those outside of the church? Is anyone else hearing the stories of the Bible? And are we enthusing and equipping the saints to handle God’s narrative gift to the World? Is it possible that our methods of sharing, teaching and proclaiming are generally ineffective or even counteractive?

And lastly, how can we as pastor-teachers re-awaken a delight in the Bible, both in ourselves and in others? How do we prioritise it and dwell in it? Some of the world’s most popular stories are derivatives of the Biblical narrative. How do we allow God’s story to form and reform our imagination so that our creative responses rival the latest streaming saga?

A little less Eeyore

Virgina Long – Unsplash

Today, while preparing to speak on Philippians, I realised that with all the angst about church decline and structural change, I have forgotten to rejoice in the Lord. In fact this blog has sometimes become a vortex of doom and despondency. So much that I’ve received both Facebook hugs and questions about my mental well-being (for the record, it’s not much worse than usual).

In reality, I’ve simply tried to voice what many people may be experiencing. But the line between attempted prophetic critique and simply moaning has perhaps been crossed. And so today, some rejoicing!

I rejoice that our Queen is now with her King. I’m grateful for Her Majesty’s faith and commitment to the Lord.

I rejoice in my family who have supported me consistently. I’m grateful for the hours of listening as I tried to body-swerve a call that I didn’t want to acknowledge. In particular, I rejoice in my wife and kids who put up with compassion fatigue, spoilt weekends and the general sense of failure that comes with church leadership.

I rejoice in the retired colleagues, some now in the Church Triumphant, that listened, encouraged and prayed. In particular, I’m grateful for their patience with a conflicted, ignorant, young candidate who believed he might just be God’s gift to the Kirk. That belief didn’t last long.

I rejoice in my probationary bishop and in the minister to whom I was an associate. I am grateful for their generous gift of time, prayer and trust. I am thankful for their lack of pulpit possessiveness and for their wealth of spirituality and wisdom.

I rejoice in my current and previous congregations who put up with me with grace and love. I am grateful for the many people that have opened up their lives and faith, who have prayed and shared with me. I am indebted to those who have listened to occasional meanderings and opacity and still said ‘nice sermon.’

I rejoice that I am surrounded by so many witnesses who continue to faithfully announce the good news of King Jesus with passion and hope. Much is made of the theological drift of the Kirk. But, almost every day, I interact with Kirk members and ministers that love Jesus, love God’s word and delight in the truth.

I rejoice that as a denomination we are still committed to the poor in Scotland. I’m glad that we continue to be mindful of the most marginalised. So many church plants focus on more glamorous city centres or wealthy, middle class suburbs but I’m happy to remain committed to the Gospel imperative to also remember urban estates and the rural periphery.

I rejoice in the benevolence I have experienced through friends, colleagues and parts of the central offices. From gifts and small grants to buy books to thousands of pounds towards buildings, I have been generously supported. That’s not to mention the resourcing of churches that couldn’t afford a minister and the hours of advice from central church professionals.

I rejoice in our current weakness. No doubt, there is a lot to critique in the Kirk. At gatherings, meetings and conferences many of us meet incredulity when we state our ecclesiastical provenance. And if not incredulity, it’s the pastoral head tilt of concern. And I understand why. But on these occasions, there is something to be said for the humility imposed upon my inner Pharisee. For when I am weak, he is strong.

I rejoice in the Lord. He will finish what he started, in this nation, in our denomination, in my life and yours.

It’s not going to be ok

I’ve heard suggestions that the Kirk will survive our current predicament because we’ve been through previous tough times.

It’s true that the Lord always remains faithful but all situations are not equal. In our current situation, suggesting that past success indicates a similarly positive outcome resembles encouraging someone in palliative care that they’ve always made it home from prior hospital visits.

The Church of King Jesus will never die. And faithful witnessing communities of Christians will always be present in Scotland. But that does not mean that the Kirk is going to survive the ecclesiastical Hunger Games that is presbytery planning (a colleague suggested the handful of CofS millennials may wish to think ‘Church Squid Games’).

Things are not going to be ok. They are going to continue being difficult and very uncomfortable. And again, we need to carefully consider the fallout and collateral damage.

In recent weeks a number of colleagues have demited, moved to pastoral work outside of the Kirk or have simply left. Some had years of ministry left before retirement. Others may simply have retired a little early or just wanted a change. But we should take heed, we are making a huge assumption that after Presbytery and Parish restructuring and after the forthcoming retirement exodus, there will be sufficient remaining ministers to serve our structures. And we should note that we are banking on unquestioning commitment from those who must be committed first to their King and his Kingdom over their denomination. Some may need to place family, sanity and calling before the latter.

There is much talk of non-stipendiary ministers and the empowering of the ‘laity’ but often denominations based on this model end up having to employ paid pastors. Similarly, asking for widespread ministry for free is unlikely to meet present ministry expectations or requirements. For example, how many special commissions and years of training will be required before bread and wine are more easily dispensed? Or perhaps a video epiclesis will be provided to each ‘lay’ led outpost?

To return to the point, of those current ministers that remain, how many will be in a position to cooperate? The problem of empowering Presbyteries to make the hard decisions locally, is that it may leave, widespread, damaged local relationships. Will anyone work happily with the colleagues that removed your ministry allocation or shut your beloved building.

There is no doubt that change is necessary in Kirk structures. But the impact of the specific change and its delivery in different parts of Scotland is going to be significant. And it’s likely to require either immense good will and commitment, or the imposition of further structural changes to achieve.

Similarly, we need to consider how well we are managing change. What are we putting in place to support churches and leaders in their proposed new responsibilities? Do we imagine that most will easily make the leap to overseeing multiple communities? And do we imagine that combining multiple declining congregations under over-stretched ministers and elders will conjure growth? Perhaps that will be covered when Hogwarts joins the list of training institutions! Liam J Fraser rightly recently highlighted the potential benefits of our present state of decline. But the benefits are not automatic; they will not be realised without intelligent planning and intentionality. Throw in the likely disarray of the coinciding formation of Mega-Presbyteries and it will certainly take the Lord’s voice to speak creative order into the impending chaos.

There is a bright future for Jesus’ Church in Scotland. And that may include the Church of Scotland. But we must avoid institutional somnambulation and comforting platitudes. It’s not simply going to be ok. It’s going to be difficult and painful. And it’s going to require great grace, commitment, vision, kindness and mutual support.

Lift up your heads

These are difficult days in the Kirk. Morale is low, anxiety high. We face uncertainty, change, loss and decay. Rapid restructuring is leading to significant and painful consequences. And we are being asked to make horrible decisions sometimes affecting those we love and respect.

With this and other local concerns ringing in my ears, I travelled to Lendrick Muir to listen to Tommy MacNeil prophesy Gospel optimism. I nearly turned the car round more than once preferring to wallow in pessimism. But I’m glad I didn’t. Because to use Tommy’s favourite phrase – “God showed up”.

He was in the singing, which risked structural damage. He was in the teaching, where the Word and Spirit scalpel inflicted deep tissue damage. But today, what I needed most was God in the community of his people.

The combination of Covid, the conflict of change and the chaos of restructuring has turned our heads down and our thoughts inward. Have we ever been more isolated and demoralised? What a foothold for the Devil when we can no longer look each other in the eye for shame, stress and doubt.

Today, along with some other recent encounters, has reminded me to lift up my head. To look to Jesus in both Word and Spirit but also in the face of my ministry friends.

I’m not sure if the Kirk will survive this self-seeded storm. I don’t know if our efforts to hold back the dark tide of decay will succeed. But today, in my Horeb cave, I was reminded me that King Jesus remains faithful, powerful and he still has many thousand prophets to our nation.

Hand and Foot

Unsplash – Luis Quintero

“…because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body?

1 Corinthians 12

In a recent post I noted that the current General Assembly approach to strategic planning may have the unintended effect of seriously demoralising ministers.

Kenny Borthwick expressed it recently in a more visceral and insightful way, “I do feel though it is violent thuggery and assault with no missional rationale or vision and will only result in stress, distress and further disillusionment and decline

The GA approach is risky because we have gambled on sufficient ministers remaining after the ‘cull’ and the retirement chasm. For that gamble to pay off, enough incumbent ministers will have to stick around to operate in the new paradigm: a paradigm which anticipates that financial efficiencies will result in cultural transformation.

At least some of the current disillusionment may also have arisen because, in discussion of culture change, some of us have been guilty of undervaluing pastor-teachers. It’s true that previously we valued this ministry above all others. But little is gained, by making essentially the same mistake, by speaking of pioneering ministries as if they were the only required role.

The truth is we need all of the different ministries. Their relative importance may vary with context. But to each a different gift is given and neither can consider the other unnecessary.

We do need more pioneering people. And as a denomination we dropped the ball in relation to enabling and nurturing such roles. But a reduction of parish ministries will, in itself, have little or no impact on this. Because there is not yet a significant, coordinated move towards the formation of pioneers, missionaries, evangelists etc. In fact quite the opposite, the onus is now on individual presbyteries to form local pioneer roles while central funding reduces.

Similarly our usual training routes are not prepared or necessarily capable of forming pioneers, ordained or otherwise. In fact according to Liam Jerrold Fraser, as of 2019, we had no internal ‘lay’ training route.

But even if we did have hundreds of pioneering people. We would still need pastor teachers. Because each performs a different role in the growth and formation of God’s people. We should not take the pragmatism of church ‘mission’ planning as an indication of the theological reality. The Kirk’s financial needs do not equate to the needs of the Kingdom. The Kirk needs to reduce expenditure. The Kingdom needs more, not less, workers of every kind.

Perhaps it’s fair to say that the problem the Kirk faces is not primarily one of finance, recruitment, or churches in the wrong place but rather we have culture problem. And when it comes to changing church culture, pastor-teachers have an important role. They are embedded, and often respected, in Christian communities where pioneers rightly remain on the fringes.

The questions then remains, what cultural changes are required in the CofS. And my answer is, I’m not sure. But with regard to ministries I wonder if the following would help.

  • How do we imbue a wider concern for evangelism and disciple-making? Is reticence in these activities due to a lack of confidence in faith sharing or a lack of confidence in Christian faith? How do we equip, encourage and release the whole church in these activities?
  • Can we stop pitting different types of ministry against each other eg MDS vs parish minister, pioneer vs parish minister and especially ‘lay’ vs ‘professional’. God has called us to different ministries, all of which have their part to play.
  • Can we remove both hierarchical and anti-hierarchical attitudes. Despite our Presbyterianism there are judgements made about the value of different roles. Parish ministers can be given too much power. But at the same time there seems to be a growing inverse snobbery towards paid ministers and parish ministers.
  • How can we enable bi-vocational ministries? Can we release funding to allow more local churches to pay local members for ministry? What if we provided business loans for missionally minded local businesses to enable more ‘tent-making’?
  • Is it now time for a seminary or church college that sits alongside university education? Do we need a space where ministers can supplement university study? Do we also need somewhere that can provide training to those who will not become ‘professional’ ministers? This is not to preclude or replace study in university but it would allow us to target more specifically the real needs of practitioners. Of course this kind of establishment might not attract current academics but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Mission Coordinators and the failure of the local church.

Unsplash – @kaliedico

A number of Mega-Presbyteries plan to employee Mission-Coordinators. In fact some are already in post.

It is a significant task to encourage the development of effective mission and outreach across the new Presbyteries.

One advert for the role indicates that they seek,

“…an individual who is able to work with congregations to help them discover new ways of missional working, to equip them with the tools to serve God and our communities, and to model and encourage passion for God’s mission…”

This sounds good and I suspect the sentiment will be duplicated across many of the Mega-Presbyteries. But it leaves me with a question. What have we all being doing for the last 20 years?

Why are Presbyteries across Scotland convinced that their congregations generally need help to understand contemporary mission? How is it possible that after decades of awareness raising, still congregations may not understand mission in their own context?

And perhaps more worryingly Mega-Presbyteries clearly expect a significant number of congregations to continue to require such support after the current Mission planning process.

Is it an indictment upon the Kirk that we have failed to teach local congregations how to engage in mission? What have we been talking about? Or perhaps it’s not the content of our sermons so much as the ineffectiveness of our delivery methods? But somehow we have failed in this most basic area of discipleship such that regional coordinators are necessary to engender a passion for mission in local churches.

I don’t envy Mission Coordinators in their task, not least because some will likely end up bogged down in paper exercises and reporting. But perhaps we can help by ensuring that mission, and in particular local mission, is at the heart of our congregational preaching, teaching, learning and development.

New presbyteries and competence

Having suggested that competence is not the only quality that should be evident in the church. I want to think a little more about where competency might be prioritised.

In particular, what competencies might be required in the new mega Presbytery offices.

I’ve never understood why there has been so much duplication in our administrative structures. Namely, why were there attempts to concentrate ministry and mission expertise in 121 when that should be present already in the parishes? And the reciprocal, why do parish ministers end up as charity, buildings and finance managers when generally that expertise is concentrated elsewhere.

The church spends thousands of pounds training ministers through university provision, conferences and work placements. The aim is to provide well rounded, educated ministers, capable of delivering parish ministry but also of learning, researching and developing in post. Even if they feel ill equipped, church ministers are capable of learning about contemporary mission? And there are plenty of mission resources and para-church groups ready to support that learning.

However, historically, ministers and mission staff were also employed at 121 to advise and develop resources. Centralised mission development and resources are fine in themselves but don’t they negate the need for highly qualified local ministers? And, in all honesty, how many of us pour over CofS mission resources?

To return to the new Presbytery offices. I am concerned that we may repeat the format of the past by employing regional mission experts thus recreating duplication or we will simply give them questionable administrative roles eg overseeing local church review or mission plans. Because mission documents do not equate to action, just look at ‘Church without Walls’.

Regional Presbytery staff could be of great benefit. I’d like to see buildings officers that didn’t simply send out compliance questionnaires but arranged regional, approved contractor lists, managed projects and conducted standardised manse and buildings inspections. And, as raised recently at our Presbytery, rather than mission officers what about finance and fundraising officers? Funding is an energy source for local mission, what better way to free-up local practitioners and leaders than to increase their resources. Also, someone will have to find the running costs for the new presbytery’s when the central seed funding is withdrawn quickly?
And there are other areas of compliance that could usefully be dealt with at a regional level, such as safeguarding, health and safety and GDPR.

This is not to suggest that local churches always lack the people to do such work. Nor would I wish to reduce the relative autonomy of local churches. But at a time when we are going to be stretched and more thinly spread across larger areas, surely we need reduce duplication and allow office holders to focus on their strengths and core vocational activities?

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…