Talking Ministry: Rev Alastair Duncan on making the transition to city centre worship
Published on 18 January 2023 5 minutes read
Each month, the Talking Ministry series will share a personal story from those serving in Christian ministry, as well as discernment resources filled with questions, prayers and reflections to help encourage your own reflection on how God might be calling you.
Moving from a largely rural parish to one in the heart of Scotland's largest city might seem daunting enough, but when it also involved rebuilding a church from scratch it becomes even more of a challenge.
Rev Alastair Duncan, minister of St George's Tron Church in Glasgow spoke about how he did just that for the Church of Scotland's monthly Talking Ministry feature.
Originally from the Balgreen area of Edinburgh, Mr Duncan became a Christian while still at school.
An experience while studying in Germany confirmed his commitment to his faith and by the time he graduated, he was a committed Christian thinking of how he could serve God, but not, he admits, as a minister of the Church of Scotland.
"Because I had a degree, people would ask if I had thought about the ministry, to which my answer was always an emphatic no," he said.
"I had no interest in that whatsoever and I didn't believe that was where my calling lay."
A powerful call
Even when he spent the summer assisting his future father-in-law, Rev Stewart Jeffrey, a Church of Scotland minister in Aberdeen, he had no intention of becoming a minister of Word and Sacrament.
That changed when he returned to Edinburgh and a fellow prayer group member told him that she had a strong sense that God wanted him to become a minister.
"When she said that, I had a very strong sense of joy and excitement, accompanied by a powerful sense that God was calling me," Mr Duncan said.
"I applied to Edinburgh University. I phoned on Monday and by Friday they had offered me a place."
Mr Duncan's first charge was at Garelochhead, where he and wife Ruth spent almost 24 happy years, so when he saw an advertisement for a transition minister for St George's Tron, in the heart of Glasgow's commercial centre, he did not immediately think it was for him, despite realising he had all the relevant experience the advertisement was looking for.
The congregation of St George's Tron, along with their minister, had opted to leave the Church of Scotland in a disagreement over the Church's policy on gay clergy, leaving one of its most prominent city kirks empty. Now it was looking for a transition minister to rebuild the church over the next three to five years.
Once again Mr Duncan began to feel he was receiving a call to serve.
The first sign was an email from a friend saying that he would ideal for the post. When he mentioned it to Ruth, she told him: "In my mind, we're already there."
Over the next 10 days, something happened every day that led him to believe he was being called to St George's Tron, so he made his application and in 2013 was appointed transition minister.
Rebuilding from scratch
However, he was in no doubt about the scale of the challenge.
"When I arrived St George's Tron was just a building. There was no congregation, so it was very much a case of planting a church in the city centre," he said.
His first step was to introduce an evening service, which allowed members of other city congregations to support the revived church.
That allowed Mr Duncan to recruit a leadership team, and was followed by a regular Sunday lunchtime Café Church to appeal to younger people and students and offer free food and fellowship.
This is now the church's main service and also paved the way for the creation of the Wild Olive Tree Café within the church.
The successful social enterprise, which also has the reputation of offering the best scones in Glasgow, has enabled the church to welcome people through its doors seven days a week and allowed it to develop as an important part of the city centre community.
"The Wild Olive Tree Café has been very much the hub of what we have done," Mr Duncan said.
"It has allowed us to welcome people without a church connection. The café is a social enterprise that enables us to give free food to those who can't afford to pay for it and provide employability and training opportunities to people who wouldn't get into work otherwise. We also give our profits away to Glasgow City Mission and Bethany Christian Trust.
"We have also developed creative partnerships with others ministering in the city centre such as Workplace Chaplaincy Scotland, Glasgow Street Pastors, Bethany Christian Trust and Glasgow City Mission. We are now at a place where we have opened doors to the various city centre communities, which was all part of the vision that I came with."
At the end of the transition period, Mr Duncan indicated that he would be happy to stay on as permanent minister if the congregation wanted him, so in April 2020 he was inducted as parish minister, although the Covid lockdown meant the induction had to be carried out online.
As he starts his tenth anniversary year at St George's Tron, Mr Duncan can reflect on the "rollercoaster" experience of the last decade, but also look forward at what is still to come.
He said: "I suppose the biggest high is the miracle of seeing a church emerge out of what was an utterly hopeless situation.
"I'm not suggesting we have arrived where we want to be, but just seeing what God has done to enable St George's Tron to be planted in 10 years has been a great encouragement."
You can read Rev Alastair Duncan's full interview and access the resources for January on our Talking Ministry page.