Presbytery Reform

As part of the Radical Action Plan accepted by the 2019 General Assembly, the Church agreed to a series of measures to reduce the number of presbyteries across the country, support local congregations in their ministry and mission and encourage new expressions of church.

The number of presbyteries in Scotland is to be reduced from 43 to about 12, and new networks, hubs and other new local church structures will be developed. The Church is also moving to dispose of land and buildings which no longer serve the mission of the church. This is in line with the 2019 General Trustees report, 'Well Equipped Spaces in the Right Places'.

The changes are part of a larger effort to reform church governance structures and devolve resources to presbyteries to support the local church in carrying out its mission.

They are set against the backdrop of financial pressures exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a reduction of £11.3 million in Ministry and Mission contributions and investment income in the 2021 budget.

Presbytery reform is part of the remit of the Assembly Trustees and is overseen by the Faith Nurture Forum, to which presbyteries submit their annual presbytery plans.

At its meeting in October 2020, the General Assembly agreed to move forward with presbytery planning. Measures agreed include:

  • Tasking the presbyteries with starting work to prepare the Church for reducing the number of charges, buildings and ministries across Scotland
  • Continuing the necessary work of presbytery planning and restructuring to make way for fresh expressions of church and the establishment of networks, hubs and multidisciplinary teams that can provide a vital presence both online and in communities
  • Supporting the first phase of the work being undertaken towards a Presbytery Planning Toolkit for land and buildings.

New Presbytery Structures

Presbytery reform is a major undertaking for the Church as it requires change on many levels – from congregations and kirk sessions through presbytery committees, and often involves people finding new ways to work closely together across large distances.

In its report to the 2019 General Assembly, the Council of Assembly noted that, at a time of declining numbers, the current presbytery system had become unsustainable. It required a great deal of time, energy and finance to maintain, and smaller presbyteries suffered from a restricted range of talent, skills and perspective and fewer opportunities to experiment.

Larger presbyteries could find they lacked a common sense of identity, struggled to coordinate resources to operate effectively and efficiently, and felt frustrated that decisions taken nationally could be more effectively agreed at a regional level.

In order to address these issues, the Council of Assembly recommended gradually reducing the number of presbyteries or creating groupings of presbyteries based on existing geographical or cultural connections. These larger bodies would:

  • Become the natural place to which resources, funding, and decision making are devolved
  • Be able to employ and deploy staff to meet regionally identified needs and opportunities
  • Retain and make better use of a higher proportion of the funds raised in the area for the mission of the local church
  • Be better able to support and encourage those who are in recognised ministries or are office-bearers, engendering resilience and the spirit to develop church life
  • Free up time and energy for local mission by reducing the administrative and legislative burden
  • Speak with a collective voice to other regional centres of influence in civic life
  • Have the capacity to take risks and learn from mistakes
  • Need less input from the national offices, allowing reduction in central spend and enabling increased devolution of funding and resources.

The Church is making good progress in creating its new structures: three new presbytery groupings have already been completed. On 1 June 2020, the Presbytery of Aberdeen and Shetland was created. Clyde Presbytery, formed from Dumbarton and Greenock & Paisley, held its Service of Union on 1 Steptember 2020. The Presbytery of Fife, uniting the presbyteries of Dunfermline, Kirkaldy and St Andrews, was formed on 1 January 2021.

Discussions are underway to form a new Presbytery of the North East of Scotland, which would include Aberdeen and Shetland, part of Moray, Kincardine and Deeside, Gordon, Buchan and Orkney.

Other new presbyteries will seek approval at the 2021 and 2022 General Assemblies. Work on proposals for new presbyteries includes:

  • The presbyteries of Caithness, Sutherland, Ross, Inverness, part of Moray, Abernethy, Lochaber, Lochcarron-Skye, Uist and Lewis have established a steering group to look at how a Presbytery of the Highlands and Western Isles might work
  • The presbyteries of Angus, Dundee, Perth, Dunkeld and Meigle, and Stirling are on track to bring proposals to the General Assembly in May 2021
  • Plans are underway to unite the presbyteries of Edinburgh and West Lothian and discussions continue around how this might relate to the presbyteries of Lothian, Duns, Melrose and Peebles, and Jedburgh
  • The Presbytery of Falkirk is looking both east and west as it seeks a good fit for congregations in the middle of the central belt
  • The presbyteries of Hamilton and Lanark are discussing the formation of a Presbytery of Lanarkshire which could be approved at the General Assembly this year
  • The presbyteries of Ardrossan, Irvine and Kilmarnock, Ayr, Wigtown and Stranraer, Annandale and Eskdale, and Dumfries and Kirkcudbright have also established a steering group to work out a new shape for Presbytery life in the south west
  • Reform discussions are continuing with the Presbytery of Argyll, which is considering becoming part of a larger grouping
  • In addition to presbyteries in Scotland, the Church has the Presbytery of England, the Presbytery of International Charges and the Presbytery of Jerusalem will also be invited to discuss what presbytery reform means for them.

The church aims to have its new pattern of presbyteries in place from January 2023.

New ways of doing Church

The General Assembly of 2019 agreed to work towards the establishment of 100 new worshipping communities by the year 2030. These new ways of doing church, which include hub-style ministries and more digital programmes, will enable smaller communities to maintain a worshipping congregation without necessarily having to assume the financial burden of traditional church structures and administration. They also offer an opportunity to experiment and further engage young people. The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted the need and desire for more flexible structures.

At the General Assembly of 2020, the Faith Nurture Forum reported that hub-style ministries piloted in Argyll, West Angus, Dundee, Aberdeen South and Leith have already acted as a stimulus for change within the Church. These ministries have influenced wider discussions and decisions in presbytery planning and enabled communities to create solutions that work best for them.

The Forum proposed that the current project should end and a new project take its place, replacing the possibly confusing term ‘Hub’ with something more understandable, such as ‘New Models of Ministry for the Church.’

While exploring new ways of doing church, the Church is also taking stock of its land and buildings with a view to disposing of properties that no longer serve our mission.

Ministry

Accounting for 75% of national expenditure, the cost of ministry in 2021 is £40.6 million, an increase of almost £1 million on the previous year largely due to the recruitment of ministries development staff (MDS) posts.

The Assembly Trustees say that future presbytery plans, which currently suggest that the number of ministers and other roles in ministry could increase, must be affordable and sustainable and based on the reality of the Church’s financial situation.

In light of financial pressures, the operating model of the Church must be reviewed before bringing new target numbers for future ministry posts to the 2021 General Assembly.

They are considering putting a hold on recruitment of any further MDS staff beyond those agreed in December 2020 until commissioners approve the plan.

The Assembly Trustees acknowledge that many ministers who retire will not be replaced like for like due to a reduction in candidates. However, training will be reviewed to provide enhanced opportunities for ministry from a greater number of elders and worship leaders.

Case Studies

John Ferguson – Presbytery Clerk, Presbytery of Aberdeen and Shetland

How has it been for you forming the new presbytery during this difficult time?

It has been a challenge, but we have switched to online meetings remarkably smoothly. A small number who did not have access to Zoom used the phone-in facility. The most challenging was the Presbytery meeting to agree the Presbytery Plan, since all congregations were asked to send representatives and we had around 130 present, but it went well. We had already planned to use video conferencing to allow Shetland folk to attend meetings without always having to travel to Aberdeen.

What has the reaction been like locally to the decision to unite as one presbytery?

Overall positive, there is a general acceptance by everybody that we have to change and move forward.

What do you see as the positives from uniting the two presbyteries?

We have learned from each other and have appreciated the different gifts and talents that people have brought to the new Presbytery. We also have a greater understanding of the challenges posed in ministry in remote locations.

What have been the biggest challenges in uniting?

Trying not to allow a 'them and us' situation or to create the impression of a ‘take over’ by Aberdeen as the larger Presbytery. We are satisfied that this has not happened and we already feel that we are very much a united Presbytery.

What would you say to other presbyteries who are just beginning on their journey to unite?

Good relationship forming is vital from the start, being genuinely open to change and willing to work for the good of the Church with no personal agenda. Ensure that staff and members are kept fully informed of the whole process and be completely transparent. Having an awareness that both members and staff commit their lives to the work of the church and that upset could be simmering, allowing those with a complaint to feel listened to and offered the confidence that their complaint/worries will be handled with respect, looked in to and taken seriously. If there are to be future job losses for paid workers, ensure that they are offered support and options, though allow them to be fully aware from the start. Don’t start discussing structures and posts etc straight away – start by asking – what is a Presbytery for? What should the values of a new Presbytery be?

Alistair Shaw – Acting Clerk for Clyde Presbytery

How has it been for you forming the new presbytery during this difficult time?

Creating any new organisation involves challenges, particularly when the new arises out of a union of two existing ones. Doing this during the COVID-19 restrictions has been interesting: having the new technology is so useful, but there are times when face-to-face encounters would help to build new relationships more easily. However, things like restrictions on numbers at services and in face-to-face meetings have enabled us to experiment with new ways of doing things, unencumbered by ‘this is how we’ve aye done it’.

What has the reaction been like locally to the decision to unite as one presbytery?

For most church members the priority in recent months has been the re-opening their own church for worship, or finding something online that meets their worshipping needs, while reaching out to friends, neighbours and the wider community with friendship and support. In that situation, changes at Presbytery level are not so important for them. To a great extent, that is as it should be. The ethos of the New Presbyteries (and changes made to the Central Structures) is that the local congregation is the key part of the church, and regional and national structures are there to support it.

The wider community has probably not registered that a New Presbytery has come into existence. Again, it is probably more important that communities are aware of their local churches, or groups of churches working together, than ecclesiastical structures

However, the Greenock Telegraph did take note of the formation of the new Presbytery with an article about its first Moderator. Clyde Presbytery chose for this important role the Rev. Ian Johnson, who is minister of three congregations in Dumbarton – Riverside linked with St. Andrew’s linked with West Kirk. This was a good choice, not only because Ian is a talented person, well-organised and diplomatic, but also because he has a foot on either side of the river, as it were. Apart from being a minister now in Dumbarton, he was previously a minister in Greenock. He spent sixteen years across the river. He was called to Greenock Old West Kirk in 1997. It was later united with Ardgowan and Finnart St. Paul’s to become Greenock Lyle Kirk. This means that members of each of the former presbyteries can take ownership of Ian as one of their own.

What do you see as the positives from uniting the two presbyteries?

Just before Clyde Presbytery came into being, the two uniting Presbyteries affirmed the following expectation of the new Presbytery:

GA19 set out the goals of these new regional presbyteries. Clyde adopts these as integral to its life and work:

  • Able to make good decisions driven by a clear sense of purpose and calling
  • Engendering willing engagement by Presbyters who see in such participation a worthwhile and fulfilling task closely related to their vocation as minister, elder or deacon
  • Planning for growth
  • The natural place to which resources, funding, and decision-making are devolved
  • Able to employ and deploy staff to meet regionally identified needs and opportunities (e.g. around buildings, finance, church planting, partnership and mission)
  • Having the capacity to retain and make better use of a higher proportion of the funds raised in the area for the mission of the local church
  • Having the increased capacity to support and encourage those who are in recognised ministries or are office-bearers, engendering resilience and the spirit to develop church life
  • Freeing up time and energy for local mission including by reducing the administrative and legislative burden
  • Having increased capacity to speak with a collective voice to other regional centres of influence in civic life
  • Having the capacity to take risks and learn from mistakes
  • Needing less input from the national offices, allowing a reduction in central spend, enabling increased devolution of funding and resources.

That is what we hope the New Presbytery will deliver – but it will not happen overnight!

What have been the biggest challenges in uniting?

This is not simply a union of two Old Presbyteries to create a single Old Presbytery, but a union that will lead to a very different structure, with a different way of operating. That’s quite a lot of change.

Change is an inherent part of life, but we human beings can be very wary of it. It can be unsettling, we are losing the comfort of familiarity and experience, we don’t understand how things will be in the future, we don’t understand what our role will be in the future.

Although Dumbarton and Greenock & Paisley were both Old Presbyteries, because they  were made up of different groups of people and had different histories (going back several hundred years) their cultures and practices – though broadly similar – have slight nuances of difference. It is important to recognise the differences and then explore whether to accept one approach or the other, or create a new way of doing something.

Alongside this there is the challenge of creating a New Presbytery. There are no real models to follow, and the full powers are not yet devolved to them. There are challenges in trying to develop the vision for a) the fully-functional new body, and b) its transitional phase – and then trying to share that with the wider church community

What would you say to other presbyteries who are just beginning on their journey to unite?

Try to understand what you hope to obtain from the new structure.

Be open with colleagues on your vision, and take time to explore differences.

Remember that the aim of making changes is to give more support to the local church.

Be ready to work on differences on opinion, even if that means target dates slipping.

Work hard on communicating with Presbytery members and local churches on what it is you are doing, and why, and what the benefits for them will be.