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Church to Reform Central Organisation

Monday May 20 2019

General Assembly Day Three:
- Cost of central organisation to be cut by up to 30%
- CrossReach thanks Church for 'widespread support'

The Church of Scotland is to embark on a radical reform of its central structures, reducing the size of the organisation and cutting costs by up to 30%.

As part of the reforms a new body of trustees will be set up shortly after this week’s General Assembly. The group of 12, which will replace the existing Council of Assembly, will be responsible for overseeing the work of the central charity and its finances, and ensuring the other parts of the organisation are working in accordance with the strategic priorities of the Church.

They will be tasked with delivering a reduction in the cost of the central organisation of about 20-30%, the merging of four Councils into two, and the transition of CrossReach (the Church’s Social Care operation) into a more arm’s-length, self-sustaining organisation.

The convener of the Special Commission proposing the reform, the Ref Professor David Fergusson, told the Assembly that the changes were necessary to create ‘organisation structures capable of responding with sufficient speed and flexibility to the enormous challenges we face’ – falling membership, a shortage of ministers, income which is expected to fall in coming years and an operating deficit of £4.5m this year.

Prof Fergusson said the target of 20-30% cost savings had been left deliberately imprecise as the details will be decided by the new Trustees, but that 10% would be insufficient to deal with the deficit. 40% would be unrealistic ‘and likely to damage the core business of the Church’. He emphasised that not all the savings would come from staff costs, but he did note that staffing levels have ‘risen steadily in recent years’, even while Church membership has fallen.

The reorganisation of the Councils will see the Ministries and Mission and Discipleship Councils combined into one ‘inward-facing’ body, while the World Mission and Church and Society Councils will merge into an ‘outward-facing’ group. This is expected to take effect on January 1 2020.

Other changes include the appointment of a Chief Officer to oversee staff and budgets as set by the trustee body; the Assembly Arrangements Committee to be replaced by a new Assembly Business Committee; the discharging of the Panel on Review and Reform; and the establishment of a new research facility to inform the development of policy across the Church.

Professor Fergusson also emphasised that the changes must be simultaneous with reforms at presbytery and parish level, as suggested in the Radical Action Plan to be discussed tomorrow. He said: “We have been struck by the need for simultaneous reform of the church at every level... The task is that of adjusting several components parts in order to get the whole machine working more smoothly.

“This will involve changes to the way we do business at the General Assembly, to the size of the central organisation, to a council and committee structure that is labour intensive and often inefficient, to the number and function of presbyteries, and also of the local congregation where we need to find ways of enabling kirk sessions to operate more efficiently and so to release the time and talents of our members for other work.”

While detailed discussion took place on the make-up and constitution of the new trustees body, and its relationship with existing structures, the reforms as a whole were overwhelmingly approved.

Former Moderator, the Very Rev Dr James Simpson, said it was “The kind of report I have waited for a very long time. If as a church we are going to cling to the old ways and keep resisting major change, I fear the church we love will continue to decay… I believe we need to build on the past but not live in the past.”

The Rev Sang Y Cha said: “We all feel the system is too big to change. But we are the system, and we need to change.”

An amendment to the deliverance added that the target for financial savings should be achieved within one to two years, if possible (which is in line with the Commission’s proposals). The Rev Kenneth Gray said: “Because we will be doing good work, the danger is the hard work of reducing the amount of money we spend could be put to one side... It’s important we have a target and a timeframe or there is a real risk we might not do it.”

Several Commissioners made a point of expressing support for the staff of the central organisation who could be affected by the forthcoming changes. The Rev Neil Glover, convener of the Ministries Council, said: “Our staff are fantastic, and hugely dedicated… This process will be challenging for them and they need the full support of the whole church.” He was also supported by the Rev Norman Smith, convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council.

The Moderator, the Rt Rev Colin Sinclair, told Professor Fergusson: “I think it will only be in the next few weeks that it will sink in how significant this work has been.” He passed on the Church’s gratitude to the whole Commission, which met for the first time seven months ago, for ‘this monumental act of service’.

The day concluded with the report of the Social Care Council, which this year is marking 150 years of Social Care in the Church of Scotland. Convener Bill Steele told the Assembly: “The world around us may have changed in the past 150 years, but there is no doubt that there remains an urgent need to address the social challenges most prevalent today. Some of these challenges are familiar - child poverty, addiction and disability. Some, however, are very much of our time including cyber bullying or the increasing numbers of people living with dementia. All require us to adapt our approach and build on the experience shared with us by those who use our services.

“Knowing we have widespread support from friends and colleagues in churches and communities around us helps us to remain steadfast in our mission to make a difference.”

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