Without People, the Vision Perishes: Why the Church of Scotland Needs to Change its Recruitment Policy

This week, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has been making headlines with to its decision to allow ministers to ‘opt-in’ to solemnise same-sex marriages. Away from the big headlines, however, have been a range of other, more low-key proposals concerning mission. 

Amongst these are:

  • A new multi-million pound fund to finance church plants and pioneer ministries
  • New education and training routes for members, elders and ministers
  • Changes to internal taxation (now known as ‘Giving to Grow’) to allow churches to hold onto more of their local funds to help develop resource churches and local mission

It remains to be seen how soon these changes will ‘go live’, but they are a step in the right direction after decades of complacency and denial. My denomination is, after all, the one which in the early 2010s that could still claim that Scotland was a Christian country, and it is good to see that the penny has finally dropped.

Much of the debate at this year’s Assembly concerns the structures by which the Church might streamline its decision-making, and devolve more power and finance to Presbyteries and local congregations. In addition, my colleague Doug Gay has recently written an essay that examines the funding mechanisms by which the Church of Scotland supports its congregations. What I want to do here, however, is raise a different, and for me more fundamental issue: people. I believe that the Church of Scotland lacks the personnel to launch the church plants and fresh expressions it needs to, and that no recruitment campaign – however well-devised or ‘flashy’ – will turn the tide, because the well is dry.


So why do I think this?  The first reason comes from personal experience. For three years, I was a Pioneer Minister in Edinburgh, and ran Edinburgh University Campus Ministry (EUCAM). We launched a number of initiatives – e.g. community meals, community gardening, mid-week worship, debates with Humanists – and had some successes. Yet my experience of recruiting team members was that there were not only very few young Church of Scotland people in Edinburgh who could be recruited, but few people of any age who desired to be part of a pioneering community. Most churchgoers had no interest, and struggled to see the need for new forms of Church. While I was grateful for a few good Church of Scotland people who got involved, in the end, I had to rely on substantial numbers of people from outwith the Church of Scotland to get my little community going. Other denominations not only had far more young people – rather important for a student-aged community! – but also more mature adults who wanted to help. They ‘got it’ in a way that most Church of Scotland folk did not.

Now you might think that I was just a very bad Pioneer, or that I was unlucky. Yet my primary trouble was not recruiting folk in general, but recruiting Church of Scotland folk. Moreover, this was Edinburgh, Scotland’s second-largest city, with – at that time – close to a hundred Church of Scotland congregations. There were church plants taking place all around our central-Edinburgh location, full of young adults eager to evangelise and share the good news, yet few if any were affiliated with the Church of Scotland. It wasn’t a Liam thing or a Scottish thing, it was a Church of Scotland thing.

Which brings me to the second reason why I do not believe a better recruitment campaign will work: it has been done before. The Tomorrow’s Calling campaign was an expensive and well-produced campaign that was well-promoted and supported by all sorts of prominent Church of Scotland folk. Special services were put on, roadshows held, and various other means to try and drum up vocations. Yet while it may have prompted some to discern whether they had a calling, it did not lead to an influx of greater numbers. If something as resource-intensive as this did not bear much fruit, there is no reason to think anything else will.

That is particularly the case when we turn to examine the personnel pool or ‘well’ that we are seeking to draw from. If we are to believe the latest figures produced for this year’s General Assembly, not much more than 60,000 people regularly attend Church of Scotland churches out of a general population of 5.5 million. To say this is bad for a national Church would be something of an understatement. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of this 60,000 will be older people, who after a lifetime of work do not always have the energy or desire to commit to the rigours of church-planting or fresh expressions of Church. 

This is not even just an age issue, however, but a cultural issue. In Mission in Contemporary Scotland, and in my article “The Scottish Ideal” (available here: https://ojs.st-andrews.ac.uk/index.php/TIS/article/view/1921) I examine the cultural and theological issues that led to the Church of Scotland infantilising members and elders in the desire to preserve a particular kind of clericalism. The Kirk has centuries of unhelpful baggage to cast away, and if initiatives such as Church Without Walls, our membership of Fresh Expressions UK, and other projects have not awakened this ‘sleeping giant’ then I am not sure what else will.

The Church of Scotland is failing to recruit missional leaders because it has an ever-decreasing pool from which to recruit, and without growth in overall attendance – something that is unlikely – it will not be able to staff the church plants and fresh expressions needed to reach the people of Scotland and reverse numerical decline.


What, then, is the Church of Scotland to do? It is a denomination – even now – with substantial funds and buildings, along with access to institutions and areas of public life that are sometimes closed to other denominations. Yet without the right people, these resources will increasingly go to waste.

I propose, therefore, that the Church of Scotland should throw open its doors to those from outwith the denomination, and seek to recruit leaders for church plants and pioneering projects from different churches.

There would be a need for certain recruitment criteria, of course. Candidates would have to believe the fundamentals of the faith (i.e. those presented in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds), be comfortable with infant baptism and female-led ministries, as well as some other items. In addition, if prospective leaders wish to celebrate the Sacraments, and are not already ordained, they would have to enter into something like a two or three year part-time training programme before ordination, yet could ‘get on with the job’ before that. These criteria would not be too difficult for many potential candidates to accept. In addition, however, the infrastructure needs to be got right. Rather than depending on in-house knowledge, the central Church needs to bring together the best church-planting leaders from across Britain to advise it of what to do. This means listening and learning from other denominations, and accepting what they say in humility. 

Without recruiting leaders from outwith the denomination, learning how other denominations train and deploy their missional leaders, and making its pioneer and church planting projects ecumenical, I do not see any other way that the Church of Scotland will have the personnel necessary. Some of the reasons for this vocations crisis are explored further in Mission in Contemporary Scotland, yet whatever the causes, the conclusion is clear: expand the recruitment pool, work ecumenically, or the denomination will die, not for want of cash but of people.

18 thoughts on “Without People, the Vision Perishes: Why the Church of Scotland Needs to Change its Recruitment Policy

  1. Hi, Liam. This article popped up,unexpectedly on my iPad tonight and we’ve both just read it. It’s excellent and Ian is so keen to share it with others that he would like to have a hard copy of it. He doesn’t”do” screens or indeed IT for that matter so Inusually print off for him things he wants. However the iPad isn’t able to link up with my printer, so am wondering if you could send the doc to us as an email? Thanks!


  2. It missed the boat in the late 1950s when it turned away from linking/joining with other Scottish denominations and ofcourse rejected the three fold ministry as “it knew best” as the only “national church”


    1. And they had another chance in the early 2000s with the SCIFU plans. It was interesting that the outgoing Principal Clerk George Whyte said in his speech that the Church needs to have humility and accept help from others.

      Incidentally, how are you and Irena doing?


  3. Hi Liam, a people focused solution based on the life of Christ who was indeed a people focused advocate who choose from a wide and diverse group of individuals. I pray with God’s help an opportunity for all of us to respond to the challenge and hopefully those in your own back yard will lead by example in action as opposed to words. God’s blessing John


    1. Here’s hoping, John! We’re very blessed at St Michael’s, and thankfully have a lot of excellent people we can call upon. The picture is not so good across the country, however


  4. Liam, there are so many things that ring true here. The current push for change in the kirk goes nowhere near far enough, it is hardly affecting the congregations not threatened with union/linkage/closure who are still faced with Presbyterian bureaucracy that shows little sign of abating. Although you make a radical proposal, which I like, you still reserve the sacrament for ordained people who have completed a course of study. That’s not the same as embracing leaders from other denominations or empowering the laity. Although your proposal is radical I understand that it can’t be radical enough or it will never gain traction.


    1. Hi Phil, many thanks for responding. I helped produce a report for the GA in 2019 on the subject of members and elders celebrating the sacraments. The issue has come up again, however, and so the CofS will be doing more work on it soon.

      Before I give a full response to your comment, I want to be clear that I was not speaking about RE-ordination or anything like that. I also don’t think there is a distinction between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’, and the article I reference in the blog post includes my own criticisms of the CofS sometimes infantilising its members due to a certain kind of clericalism.

      I think I may write a full blog post about the issue of ordination at some point, but the reasons why I don’t support members and elders doing everything that ministers/priests pastors do is because:

      a) I believe the New Testament teaches that those that teach and lead in the church should be ordained/’laid hands upon’, whatever you happen to call these individuals (New Testament uses presbyter/elder and bishop/overseer interchangeably)

      b) ‘Office’ or role in the New Testament Church is strongly linked to gifting (cf. 1 Cor 12), and Paul is very clear that people should do not do things unless they have a gift for it. If they do have a gifting they should be ordained (see point a. above) and their gifting directed towards the service of others

      c) Neither Calvin nor his successors believed that members and elders should teach and celebrate the sacraments, and Luther’s reputed ‘priesthood of all believers’ view is actually the opposite. It was BECAUSE we share in the priesthood of Christ for Luther that individuals have no right to use that priesthood without the consent of their peers (Wengert has a good book on what Luther though about priesthood). That consent is obtained through lawful calling and ordination.

      d) It would lead to further fragmentation and disunity in the Church, because if everyone can do all things necessary for a Church community there is less/no reason to work with others. Schism would multiply.

      e) It would harm our ecumenical partnerships with Anglicans and Roman Catholics if we allowed any baptised person to celebrate the Sacrament. This might not be important to some, but given that Mission in Contemporary Scotland identifies schism and disunity as key contributors to secularisation, any further degrading of our relationships would harm the ultimate cause of mission

      The final point would simply be that I don’t think a lack of sacramental ministries is the primary reason for the situation the CofS and the Scottish Church more generally finds itself in. As the book argues, it is largely down to social and economic factors outwith our control, and I do not believe allowing church members and elders to do everything ministers do would make much or any difference.

      However, increased LEADERSHIP and initiative of church miners and elders would, as I argue for in Chapter 8. That is a different thing from sacramental ministries, however.


      1. Liam
        I don’t disagree with any of your points. I think I would want to make the hurdles that need to be jumped over before administering the sacraments lower. A ‘minister’ as we presently know him/her is appropriately trained for an important role. A lay person who may have a gift of Christian leadership/ teaching can be ‘ordained’ or identified as the person for administering the sacrament or other roles without becoming a ‘minister’. Or pursuing a lengthy course that will ensure they can be ordained…oh, become a minister!
        My experience of several vacant charges is of interim moderators bending over backwards to keep to the rules while the elders can’t get on with leading the church and deploying the gifts of those they have identified within the congregation to use their gifting. It goes so far as to who can moderate a kirk session, elders can but are so circumscribed in doing so it is laughable. It is understandable how the bureaucracy would want to retain control by having an ordained minister, over whom they expect to have control and common understanding, to be ‘in charge’ of congregational affairs. I know lip service is paid to the session and or board but in reality power lies with the minister who may not be gifted in a number of areas.
        So I am right with you but basically I think the proposal can be developed much further.


  5. Hi Liam

    as always i commend your passion and enthusiasm but then you are a lot younger and less cynical than me!

    My first point would be how many young people actively involved in Christian work in other denominations which i presume would also include independent evangelical ones, would want to be involved with the Church of Scotland?
    My experience is that they tend to see the Kirk rightly or wrongly as being wayward in its theology and of course the vexed issue of same sex Ministers and unions has made things worse in that regard.

    The second point is the converse of that. How many people including clergy in the Kirk would be uneasy with what they might see as an infiltration of Biblical fundamentalism or right wing theological views into the church.

    You mention a need for the classic creeds of the church to be acknowledged and adhered to. Fine, I agree as you know. But it is issues like penal substitution, various forms of creationism, Biblical inerrancy, and an obsession with hell and judgement that would possibly make many of our members and clergy wary in this regard. Of course it depends what other churches and denominations you have in mind for sourcing these young workers?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Russel

      Sorry for not seeing this comment sooner. Turns out being a parish minister is quite time-consuming!

      These are all good questions. I have said a little more in a post I have just written on doctrine, but to answer your points a little:

      1. Yes, this is a genuine challenge. Although I think the issue is overblown and unfair, we now have a reputation for ‘progressive’ Christianity or outright heresy, which will send conservative young people running for the hills. Yet it is here that I would appeal to the increasing congregationalism of the Church of Scotland. One of the outcomes of ‘constrained difference’ is that, rightly or wrongly, congregations now have a lot more freedom over what they believe and do, especially in relation to sexuality. What that means is that there is now no way of knowing, just from the Church of Scotland label, what a particular CofS minister, elder, member or congregation believes. As such, there are MANY congregations within the Church of Scotland that would be perfectly hospitable and intuitive to conservative young folk. This won’t be important to more Reformed-minded Presbyterians, who take polity and church courts more seriously, but to baptists and other form of Congregationalists it is, I would argue, a relevant factor.

      2. Conversely, because we are dealing with a great deal of theological and practical pluralism within the CofS, there will be many church leaders and congregations that would welcome a more conservative person.

      1 and 2. Implicit behind both of your points is that there are massive extremes in the Scottish Church, and that some beliefs are simply incompatible with each other. I agree with this, but in my experience of hanging around with evangelicals and charismatics I am not sure that, day to day, the extremes are so stark as you suggest. For example, as long as people agree that Scripture is fully authoritative, and can’t be trumped by ‘lived experience’ or something similar, then it doesn’t really matter if they have slightly different views of why Scripture is authoritative, or how evolution relates to creation. The reason for that is that these things almost never come up in day to day life, and as long as you hold the fundamentals in common, you can weather quite a lot.


  6. Firstly, Liam, as ever, you are thoughtfully probing and passionately discerning in your excellent thoughts here. Secondly, my question is echoed above much more succinctly than I ever could by Mr. Moffatt. I look forward to upcoming dialogue!


  7. I love your title: “Without People, the Vision Perishes” – This is the problem with so many churches. We are running out of people and so even if we have a vision, there is still a real danger of it perishing. I guess there is a chicken and an egg situation, but maybe there is a number of people (or at least willing people) required to ensure a church is sustainable.


    1. Yes, you’re quite right that it’s a chicken and egg situation. You can have a vision but no people, and people but no vision! It’s why we need a lot more sharing amongst Christians so we can better achieve God’s mission to Scotland and the world.


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