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Wednesday February 8
Long-term vacancy. The words occur more often now than ever in the past. Declining numbers of ministry candidates graduating, increasing numbers retiring – we all know the problems.
Or do we?
Crimond linked with Lonmay Churches found themselves in that situation nearly 20 years ago.
Gordon Reid, Elder in Maud and Savoch Church and reader, Tim Barker, member and elder at Macduff Parish Church and Locum to both churches, take up the story.
“I undertook training as firstly, an Elder Moderator in 2010 and then as Elder Interim Moderator in 2013. In 2014 I was appointed by Buchan Presbytery to be Elder Interim Moderator to Crimond linked with Lonmay in February 2014,” says Gordon.
“When the charges first fell vacant, both churches had had ministers so it seemed it would simply be a matter of filling them.
“As the years went on though, gradually it began to occur to the churches that it might take longer than anticipated.
“The problem with a long-term vacancy is that when prospective ministers view the charge and see the length of time it’s been vacant, it is almost taken as read that there ‘must be a problem’ and they turn away.
“With this charge, nothing could actually be further from the truth. Both churches have brilliant, hard working office bearers. The fact they are still willing and working there after such a long time in vacancy testifies to that.
“Location appears to have a deciding influence. Anything outside the central belt appears to have a harder time finding a minister.
“With estimates of 600 ministers by 2021 to minister to all the churches in Scotland, it’s going to get harder and harder to call a minister to an individual charge.”
Tim Barke says: “When the churches first fell vacant, I thought we’d find a minister but there was uncertainty whether it would be a two-linked or three-linked charge. The time it took to resolve that to everyone’s agreement, meant that time had already elapsed since the vacancies occurred.
“A variety of Interim Moderators did their best but both churches began to feel a little neglected.
“The really positive thing though is the way that both parishes decided to get on with the work of the church.
“Lonmay encouraged their Boys’ Brigade and Sunday School. At Crimond, a weekly Cosy Corner was set up on a Tuesday and a ‘Soup and Sweet’ lunchtime meal was provided once a month.
“Both churches formed Action Plans which ensured new developments took place. Now there is a monthly assembly in two local primary schools, a Messy Church in both churches, a monthly Café Church starting in the New year, Family services and several groups formed for those who want to explore their faith further.
“We have contacted every minister in the Church of Scotland, as well as every new probationer. We advertise in Life and Work and we’ve even gone to Heart and Soul to recruit.
“Initially we felt very neglected and un-supported but, as time has gone on, with the appointment of a Locum, followed two years later by an Elder Interim Moderator, the churches feel that they can move forward with or without a Minister.
“Being without a minister has certainly meant that Elders and members take a more active part in the life of the church, and both churches are in contact with a much larger number of folk through their activities.”
I asked for any tips for other congregations who find themselves drifting into long-term vacancy.
Gordon says: “Be prepared to work hard and make the commitment.
“If a church is in a vacancy look for an Interim Moderator who has no other commitments. They will be able to devote the time needed to take the vacancy forward.
“If you are thinking or are asked to be an Interim Moderator be prepared to work extremely hard as those good folks deserve all of your time and efforts. I think that finally, a great deal of prayer for the Church of Scotland as a whole is required for people to answer the call to Ministry.”
The Rev Tony Thornthwaite is a minister who has taken on not one, but two long-term vacant charges in the past. He’s currently with Coldside Church in Dundee.
“In my experience, I have found congregations after a long vacancy enjoyable, welcoming, open to change and ready for team work.
“I would recommend such a charge to anyone, and to congregations to see even long term vacancy as an opportunity God is giving you. “
The Rev Neil Glover convenes the Church of Scotland’s Ministries Council.
“We know there is an increasing number of long term vacancies in the Church. Much of the response to this comes from Presbyteries and ministers who work as locums. Sometimes retired ministers are sustaining the life of the Church. Above all, we are seeing Church members responding to the challenge of not having a minister. Many are discovering new gifts in this way. We see so much energy and life in congregations working without a minister in place.
“We are attempting to respond in a number of ways.
“First of all we are trying to promote the possibility of people becoming Ministers.
“Secondly, we want to train more people for part-time ministries such as Ordained Local Ministry and Readership. However we realise that this training isn't for everyone and we are working with Mission and Discipleship to develop new forms of training, which will be accessible to more and more Church members.
“Finally, we are looking to develop the ideas for Hubs, introduced at last year's General Assembly. These are ways of structuring the Church that bring together full and part-time Ministers, as well as those called to other Ministries.
“These are significant challenges in the life of the Church, and we would love to hear any other ideas as to how we should respond to them.”
This is an abridged version of a feature that first appeared in the February Life and Work. Subscribe here.