It is widely known amongst family, friends, and followers of the blog that my wife and I, and our two young children, relocated from Skye to Dunblane in July 2016 in order to undertake studies at Edinburgh Theological Seminary whilst supporting Dunblane Free Church – a church which had recently found itself unable to financially sustain a full-time ministry, and like a number of other small Free Church congregations is a church in need of revitalisation. It was anticipated that this arrangement would be in place for four years, by which time it was hoped that the church would be more viable and able to call a full-time pastor, and I’d have completed the training requirements set by the Board of Ministry.
In light of this, many have been surprised, shocked, and confused to learn that I am no longer in post in Dunblane Free Church, and that my wife and I, and our two children, are moving from Dunblane this month. Over the last four or five weeks, my wife and I have received many messages, texts, emails, phone-calls, and cards from concerned family-members, wider-free church family, friends from other denominations, non-Christian friends and family, and members from Dunblane Free Church – all looking for an explanation as to why I’m no longer in post.
Given the constant correspondence, and lack of clarity surrounding the reasons why we are no longer in post, I thought it important to write a plain statement to be published on my website. It is hoped that this statement will help explain the reason why I’m no longer in post at DFC.
Statement Regarding Dunblane Free Church
I resigned from my post at Dunblane Free Church on the 7th September 2017.
Without going into nitty-gritty detail, the reason for the resignation relates to core issues that were raised in the 2017 Board of Ministry’s General Assembly Report. The report stated:
Four of our candidates are serving in vacant Free Church congregations (Garry Brotherston in Bishopbriggs; Peter Turnbull in Burghead; John Caldwell in Dunblane; and Alick Stewart in Lennoxtown). Unfortunately, bi-vocational workers in a vacant charge can be expected to receive limited support and supervision for their pastoral work. The Board is aware of the challenges and tensions faced by candidates who must balance their call to be a student with their call to care for a local church…There is an obvious benefit to local churches who obtain regular ministry and pastoral care when they may not be able to support a full-time ministry. The challenge of this pathway is to identify the difficulties and to work with the candidate to provide meaningful support and oversight from Presbytery, the Mission Board who may have an interest in the congregation, the Board of Ministry and the teaching staff at ETS.
The key statement in that extract is: “Unfortunately, bi-vocational workers in a vacant charge can be expected to receive limited support and supervision for their pastoral work.”
This is ultimately the situation that I found myself in at Dunblane Free Church. And for my own personal well-being, I realised that I couldn’t remain in that situation any longer. So after being off-work for three months with work-related stress, I resigned on the 7th September.
There are mixed feelings within the denomination as to whether or not students should be given ministry responsibilities whilst studying. Some are in favour of bi-vocational ministry whilst studying, others are not. Personally, I think it is a good thing. I think you learn more whilst studying if you have an opportunity to see how the theory works in practice. There are things that you learn in a ministry context that no classroom will ever teach you.
However, the issue is surrounding structures. Presbyterianism tends to have pretty fixed and rigid ministry structures. These developing new ministry arrangements are new ground for the denomination, and a number of local churches. The new ministry arrangements are largely derived from needs – particularly shortage of resources. With a number of guys, like myself, coming in to the FC, with a degree of ministry experience – but no dog-collar – there is the desire for our gifts and experience to be utilised, but there is not necessarily the structures in place to facilitate this. In other words, functioning as a minister, without technically being an ordained minister creates a number of pitfalls and complications. In order for the pitfalls to be avoided, the structures need to be evaluated.
There is also the issue of revitalisation. Generally speaking, if a church is not financially viable and their numbers are decreasing, there are reasons for this. Students taking on a revitalisation charge are, in many ways, taking on the impossible. With the limited time, the lack of support structures, and the complex leadership structures – realistically, the ministry situation will struggle to be anything other than maintenance mode. This of course is problematic because revitalisation situations demand development, yet the ministry situation severely limits the capacity.
Back to Dunblane
The last year at Dunblane has been a blessed year and a difficult year. Difficult because in that year we suffered five bereavements. It was a year of weeping with those who weep. But it was also a year of rejoicing with those who rejoice as we developed relationships with newer and older members and adherents within the church. Some folks make the mistake of assuming that all that is involved in ministry is the up-front Sunday morning and mid-week meetings – the reality is, the relationships and ministry that takes place behind the scenes, in homes, over coffee, is the glue that binds the ministry and the people together. We will deeply miss the congregation at Dunblane. We made good friends there.
I appreciate that this post is probably too much detail for some, and not enough detail for others. However, as the Board of Ministry recognise, great care needs to be taken in student-ministry situations. Not every student is right for this kind of situation, but equally not every church is right for this kind of situation. Facilitating a student-ministry is demanding, and it could well be the case that revitalisation contexts are not the best place for “student-ministries”.
So what happens now?
I’m currently studying full-time at ETS, instead of part-time. I’m more or less in my final year. The Board of Ministry, the ETS Senate, and a number of senior ministers within the denomination have been a phenomenal support. I’m incredibly grateful to each of them. My wife and I are currently worshipping at Stirling Free Church. We are loving it there too. The place is bursting with vision and mission. I’m quite happy to be at the other side of the pulpit and we are grateful to Iain and Ann MacAskill for their love and support. And, in the midst of it all – we rejoice in the fact that God is sovereign – and all of this is part of his plan.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:23