The Presbytery has recognised the congregations in or area face potential challenges in the coming years as the number of ministers of Word and sacrament declines, largely due to retirement.
The Presbytery is responding in several ways to this and calls on all members of local congregations to pray, reflect and act.
Call to prayer
Prayer and worship are the life blood of all that we do. In all seasons we maintain a close relationship to God through prayer. At times of great decision we turn to seek God’s guidance, confident that those who ask will receive, those who seek will find, that those knock will have the door opened to them (Matt 7: 7-11).
So it is natural that as the Presbytery considers the challenges and opportunities that ministry retirements will bring to our congregations and future for ministry we call for the presbytery to pray, as individuals, as Kirk Sessions and in congregational worship.
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.
Psalm 127: 1
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.
Ephesians 6: 18a
We do not ask you to pray for a particular outcome, for in truth we do not yet know in which direction we are being led, rather we ask you to pray:
For a spirit of willingness and openness to experiment and change, accepting that God’s Holy Spirit is a free creative force, which unsettles as much as it comforts;
For discernment across the presbytery that we might discover where God is leading our congregations in ministry and mission;
For God’s guidance in all our deliberations – those of the Presbytery, Kirk Sessions, congregations and individual members;
That God would raise up and inspire faithful leaders to carry our congregations forward with courage and conviction, compassion and concern;
And finally we ask you to pray that when the time for deliberation is over, and the time for implementation and decision arrives, that God would inspire, equip and strengthen us all to action – for we are all called to be active participants, co-workers in seeing things done God’s way.
Theological Reflection on Vision
There is undoubtedly a place for remembering – both within our own private lives and within our community life as members of Christ’s church – that will nourish us and give us a perspective on who and where we are, a place for remembering that will enable us to develop and grow and move on spiritually.
But remembering has to be done properly – it has to be disciplined. Care must be taken to ensure that remembering is assiduous and careful rather than selective and distorted. Care must be taken that remembering does not become meandering reminiscence, care must be taken that it does not become selective remembering.
Remembering has to be disciplined and accurate. Because, whenever we cherry-pick, or embroider, or invent events from the past then reality gets replaced by an imagined past. Sentimentality replaces the truth and the past becomes either rosier or bloodier that it ever was.
When Moses stood at the doors of the Promised Land, he faced all the problems brought about by selective remembering, and passionate reminiscing. When the people that he had led out of Egypt and through the wilderness heard rumours that the land ahead of them was full of giants who would destroy them they began to reminisce and cherry-pick about the good old days, rather than remember. When they thought back to their time in Egypt they chose not to remember that they had seen their sons killed at birth. They chose not to remember that they had been exploited and enslaved. They chose not to remember their past, but to re-invent it. And so rather than thank God for their deliverance and trust Him to go with them into the future and into the promised land, they raise a cry of “Back to Egypt”. (Numbers 13:1-3, 25-33; 14:1-3)
Within each and every one of us as individuals, and within ‘us’ as the Church of Scotland, there is a “Back to Egypt” corner. Like the children of Israel, when we are faced with uncertainties or difficulties that lie ahead, we are inclined to retreat into the safety and comfort of selective remembering about the good old days – days which never really existed in the way that we choose to remember. We romanticise, and fantasise about the past. We want to go back to our own private Egypt.
Remembering the past – accurately – is a great source of strength. For one thing, it puts the present into perspective. And that can be the present situation of the Church, or the present situation of each of us as individuals.
Irvine and Kilmarnock Presbytery facing a ‘crisis or opportunity’ of retiring Ministries will to look to the future to figure out how it can best meet the needs of the parishes, with the resources we have. But chances are there will be folk who, instead of looking to the future, look instead to the past, the so called Good Old Days. There are folk who look at the state of the Church of Scotland, bemoaning the falling numbers in everything – from trainee ministers, to communicant members, to numbers in the Sunday School – and the call goes up, lets go back to the good old days, when churches were full, numbers were growing. But their memory is selective.
Part of the ‘good old days’ was the requirement to pay a pew rent and sit in the right seat – otherwise, you weren’t welcome; in the good old days there would have been no such thing as a fifteen minute sermon at least forty-five minutes (maybe, if you were lucky!); in the good old days the minister was the be all and end all, and there was no place for the laity; in the good old days children weren’t welcome because they made a noise.
Remembering the past accurately, puts the present into proper perspective and so we can see how far we have come. Falling numbers within the Church is not the only change that there has been in the last 30-40 years. There have been many positive changes – in attitudes to laity, to women, to children, to the social outcasts of our society. By accurately remembering all of the changes we can see how far we have journeyed as a church, and we can see that it is far from all doom and gloom. By accurate remembering we can restore our energy for the present and build up our strength for the journey ahead.
By remembering our own past accurately we can gain understanding for the present and strength for the future. That is a theme that is common in the book of psalms. There are countless psalms which tell of the psalmist sapped of energy, despondent and depressed about the present and unable to see beyond his immediate circumstances. And then he remembers – remembers the goodness of God in the past, the unfailing presence of God in the past. And in so remembering, the psalmist draws on an emotional and spiritual energy that enables him to counteract his pessimism about his situation, it provides him with energy and strength to cope with the present, it provides him with energy and strength and hope to go on into the future. (Psalm 77)
Psalm 77 was perhaps written during the exile in Babylon – when the psalmist would have felt that he had not only lost his home, his livelihood, and his place of worship, but that he had also lost his God. And the psalmist begins by placing the blame for the problems he is facing squarely in God’s lap. And he thinks back – to the good old days in Jerusalem. Has God, he wonders, forgotten all the promises he made to Moses of being with His people? Has God withdrawn his steadfast love that was supposed to last forever? Is God even there anymore?
And then at verse 11, the psalmist begins to remember things more accurately. Rather than speculate on the existence of God, he remembers what God has done – and the whole tone of the psalm changes from despair to hope. The God who created order out of chaos, is the same God who redeemed him and led Moses to the land of milk and honey.
The psalmist draws strength from accurate remembering. In remembering the past, he puts his fragmented and dis-membered bits of the past back together again, reliving the experience, and then using that re-lived experience to learn, and grow, and move on. Through remembering the psalmist brings to mind the forgotten potentials of his past, on which he could still draw. Through remembering he discovers that his present dilemma is not disconnected from the past – because the God who upheld him and saw him through past difficulties and tragedies, will see him through his present trials. Through remembering, the psalmist took the jumbled jigsaw of his life, and made sense of the whole picture.
What is true for the psalmist is equally true for us. For all of us, there will be times when we are drained of energy, despondent about what is happening to us, or to the Church – fearful of the future. And we will want to cry out “back to Egypt!” – everything was so much better then – God was there then, but He’s not here now. That is the time when accurate and disciplined remembering can help us to recover a better perspective on our current situation – see who we are and who God is – see where we are and where God is – and then get a glimpse of where we are going, and the strength to go forward.
Accurate remembering of our own lives and of our Church history is an underrated and an underused discipline. Accurate remembering gives us a perspective on the present and provides strength for the future.
Lacking ownership or engagement
It is estimated that only about one-third of organisational change initiatives survive beyond initial implementation. The recent history of the Church of Scotland proposing changes to its organisational structure in the last 4 decades bears testimony to that. Many of the major initiatives presented since the 1970s were discussed, and then filed – they never even made it to an ‘initial implementation’.
“The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people” so runs the well known hymn by Richard K. Avery and Donald S. Marsh, 1972.
Any changes to the buildings, the steeples, the structures, the organisation of Irvine and Kilmarnock Presbytery, will be wrought by ‘the people’. When planning and implementing change, people are even more important than having the right idea. That care needs to be taken to ensure people take ownership of change, and engage in the process of change has long been recognised. Indeed Nehemiah’s model utilized nearly 2,500 years ago, is still appropriate.
Nehemiah was a high official to the king of Persia. Nearly a century had passed since the Jews had returned to the land of Judah. When Nehemiah’s brother came for a visit, Nehemiah asked his brother how things were going for the people and for Jerusalem. He reported that the wall of Jerusalem was broken down and the city was in shambles.
Here are brief summaries of the nine themes and an introduction to what the book of Nehemiah has to say about each one.
Nehemiah, chapter 1, portrays a man who weeps, mourns, fasts, prays, and repents for his people — a humble man. The rest of the book of Nehemiah gives a case study of a transformational leader who was personally involved in making his vision become reality.
After Nehemiah had gathered information from his brother (1:3), he prayerfully thought about it 1:4-11). God put a vision into his mind to rebuild the city of his fathers (2:5). He first shared his vision with the king (2:4-5). Once he arrived in Jerusalem he secretly surveyed the damage under cover of darkness (2:11-16). When he introduced his vision and plan, it captured the imaginations of the leaders in Jerusalem. They believed his plan would work! (2:17-18).
Nehemiah carefully assembled the resources he would need — written authorizations (2:7), timber for construction (2:8), capable people to do the work (3:1-32), and money (7:70-72). He created an organizational structure to assign the work (3:1-32).
Nehemiah formulated his strategy while still in Persia (1:8-11). He developed a comprehensive plan to rebuild the wall once he arrived in Jerusalem and analyzed the situation (2:11-16).
Nehemiah challenged his people with a compelling vision to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (2:17). He created an atmosphere for people to speak up (2:18). He recruited the leaders of the city to do the work (2:16).
Forty leaders and their crews work side-by-side and shoulder-to-shoulder to rebuild the wall (3:1-32). Some built large sections; others built next to where they lived. The each did according to their ability and resources. The wall was just the pilot project for Nehemiah’s plan to restore the nation (7:1-4). He had feedback mechanisms in place to get feedback about progress (4:6). Nehemiah also had a contingency plan (4:16-18).
Sanballat and Tobiah fiercely opposed Nehemiah and his plan, so they “prayer to our God, and posted a guard” (4:9). But that wasn’t all — there were other types of internal resistance. The workers got tired, the rubble made it difficult to work (4:10), and others ran out of money (5:1-6). He also had mechanisms to identify resistance (4:11-12). When they faced opposition, Nehemiah had worked out a communication plan to deal with resistance (4:19).
When Nehemiah was ready to go public with his ideas, he called the leaders together and extolled the virtues of his vision and plan (2:16-18). They celebrated the short term success of completing the wall with a great celebration (12:27-43).
Despite fierce resistance from within and without, Nehemiah and his team rebuilt the wall in 52 days. But the city was large, and the people were few (7:4). To sustain the vision and plans Nehemiah had started to implement, the city needed ongoing leadership. So Nehemiah appointed his brother to lead them (7:2). He appointed staff to maintain the city (7:3). And he repopulated Jerusalem with people (7:4-5). He repopulated the towns of Israel (7:73). He normalized Jerusalem and stabilized the land promised to his fathers.
It’s not enough to have a committed leader. It’s not enough to have a good plan. All nine themes make a difference. Likewise, the Church need leaders who can articulate a vision, gather resources, put together a plan, recruit the right people, execute the plan, overcome resistance, communicate what’s going on, and sustain the momentum.