Kirk faces crisis, as report warns empty pulpits

Recruitment of ministers is at its lowest point in a generation. Picture: Neil Hanna
Recruitment of ministers is at its lowest point in a generation. Picture: Neil Hanna
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THE CHURCH of Scotland is facing a serious recruitment crisis with numbers entering the ministry at their “lowest point in a generation”, a report has found.

The Ministries Council report, due to go before the Kirk’s General Assembly next month, warns that unless there is “a substantial increase in vocations by the start of the next decade”, it will face a shortfall of up to 376 ministers.

It also raises the question of how long the Kirk can maintain its role as Scotland’s national church in the face of continued decline.

“The society that gave the Church a special position at its centre is fast disappearing,” the report states. “The result has been, for many ministers, a loss of clarity about their role and even their identity.

“To this has been added the impact of recent Presbytery Planning. With fewer parish ministers, many feel stretched to the limit. Throughout this year the Ministries Council has been informing Presbyteries that, far from improving, the picture is going to become worse.”

Yesterday the committee said the report “does not make for easy reading”. The report says a radical new approach would be needed in recruitment and local organisation “if the Church of Scotland is to be able to fulfil its role as a national Church”.

Current presbytery plans require 860 ministers and 140 Ministries Development Staff (MDS) by the time they are implemented in 2025. However as of December 2013, the Kirk has just 825 ministers and 82 MDS.

The committee said that to offset retirals, 40 new ministers would need to be recruited each year, but the average number of students accepted for ministry training is 13, with last year’s 11 vocations being the second lowest in the history of the council.

The report concludes that if this pattern was to continue, come 2025 there would be a shortfall of 376 ministers, and even is it was to increase to an average of 20, there would still be an undershoot of 140.

The age profile of ministers also concerns the council, with 80 per cent over 50 and only two under the age of 30,

“The council states that “all the indications point for change – and significant change” if the Kirk is to fulfil its pledge of having a minister in every parish.

The report advocates a greater degree of team ministry, with parish ministers taking a more evident leadership role in relation to teams comprising of those in other ministries – including full-time, part-time, ordained and not ordained. It said that the traditional “one parish, one building, one minister” model “may become the exception”.

However, one senior Kirk source said that while the traditional university route into the ministry had not been perfect, in terms of the quality of ministers it produced, it was far superior to the approach currently advocated by the Kirk. He felt that the Church should look to the theological college systems adopted by the likes of the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church (US), which he said “are far better, and often attract better candidates”.

“I think the Church just does not look encouraging for many talented younger people today. I’d be inclined to concentrate ministerial formation in one place, Edinburgh, to create some sort of critical mass and sense of community. If this costs money, so be it.”

But Rev Neil Dougall, convener of the Ministries Council, said the Kirk had a strategy to bring more young people into the ministry – including identifying candidates at a grass-roots level, offering financial support during training and shaping the role of minister to fit the lifestyles of younger people – rather than relying on candidates come to it by their own volition.