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.

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 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.