Assembly Trustees applaud "extraordinary" efforts to weather COVID-19 storm but warn of challenges ahead

Church congregations have been applauded for their "extraordinary" innovative and inspiring response to the COVID-19 pandemic ahead of the General Assembly, which is being held online later this month.

The Assembly Trustees said the last 12 months had presented "unprecedented challenges" but, from running foodbanks to providing bereavement support at a social distance, shopping for vulnerable neighbours and hosting vaccination centres, the Church has been at the heart of the community response to the crisis.

General Assembly
The General Assembly is the highest court of the Church of Scotland.

Very Rev Dr John Chalmers, convener of the Assembly Trustees, paid tribute to ministers and congregations "who from a standing start put church life online and sustained worship and fellowship as never before".

He also praised the work of CrossReach, "delivering elderly care services in the most challenging circumstances."

Dr Chalmers said: "Across the whole Church, it is extraordinary what people have done – showing versatility, adaptability, imagination and determination.

"They have proved that we can adapt and change."

Remarkable generosity

The General Assembly is being held online for the second time and opens on the 22 May with Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge and Earl of Strathearn, serving as the Lord High Commissioner, Her Majesty the Queen's representative.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness will become Moderator of the General Assembly, succeeding the Rt Rev Dr Martin Fair who has served the Church as Moderator for the last 12 months with great insight and compassion for all those operating under the most difficult of circumstances.

A detailed report from the Assembly Trustees will be presented on the first day of the General Assembly.

It acknowledges that congregations have been affected by the lockdown in different ways and those who rely on external income such as from hall lets and cafés have been "hit hard".

However, the Assembly Trustees described Congregations' generosity as "remarkable" and said they were "extremely grateful that 95% of Ministries and Mission Contributions, which amounted to £41.4 million, was paid in 2020.

"This, along with the mitigating actions taken by the national Church, has allowed the continuation of payment of all essential stipend, salary costs and other fixed costs during 2020," the report stated.

"The outcome for the whole Church could have been far more serious without these collective efforts which have involved sacrifice on the part of our members and supporters as well as our beneficiaries."

"But the underlying financial position is still worrying as local reserves are depleting and the Chief Officer and General Treasurer are directly aware of signs of financial distress across many congregations."

The Trustees report that:

  • A 30% reduction of £6.6 million in expenditure within the national offices was achieved ahead of time and met the targets laid down by the General Assembly in 2019.
  • To mitigate some of the financial stress experienced by congregations the Assembly Trustees have reduced the amount to be contributed by congregations by 18% overall in 2021.
  • As part of a COVID-19 recovery strategy they have budgeted to draw over £11 million from reserves in 2021.

Going forward, the report notes it is likely that the Church of Scotland will be organised around nine presbyteries.

Very Rev Dr John Chalmers
Very Rev Dr John Chalmers is the convener of the Assembly Trustees

Dr Chalmers said that these presbyteries have to be "properly resourced to become the agents who can redesign the Church for mission."

The Assembly Trustees said the Church, which still has over 310,000 members and enjoys the support of more than 47,000 young people under the age of 17, will not be returning to business as usual after the pandemic is over.

Income and expenditure

A programme of reforms, which began before the pandemic, is designed to create a sustainable structure that will support the Church in its mission—to inspire the people of Scotland and beyond with the Good News of Jesus Christ through enthusiastic worshipping, witnessing, nurturing and serving communities—for decades to come.

Dr Chalmers said at least £17 million of reserves will have been used before the end of 2022 to help in the recovery from the effect that the pandemic has had on the life of the Church.

"Our task is to ensure that the resources of the Church must follow the priorities that were first set out in the Radical Action Plan (2019) and are now incorporated in the Faith Action Plan," he added.

"But the report says that the Church has to begin its planning, ‘from a place where we are realistic about the current trends in our demographic and in likely income and expenditure'."

The report recognises the risk inherent in the fact that the number of retirals from ministry far outweighs the number of new candidates and while this trend in recruitment has to be turned around.

The Trustees propose that a realistic and affordable aim is for Presbyteries, by 2025, to plan the life of the local Church around 600 fulltime equivalent ministries and a target of no more than 60 further charges vacant at any one time.

This represents a reduction of around 200 posts but the Assembly Trustees said the reduction takes account of the fact that 40% of all current full-time ministers of Word and Sacrament are over the age of 60 with significant numbers, perhaps as high as 60%, projected to retire over the next 10 years.

Acute challenges

While this is not an easy message for the Church to hear, Dr Chalmers said: "We are placing a high value on a fresh approach to training a new generation of leaders - which is one of the ways in which the growth of new forms of Church can be established and sustained.

"We recognise that recruitment for ministry at all levels has fallen well short of our needs and we need to turn that around while making more use of the talent within our membership."

The Assembly Trustees highlighted that the challenges facing Social Care, as reported by the recent Independent Review, are "acute" and significant financial support continues to be provided to CrossReach the operating name of the Social Care Council.

"This is likely to continue for some years and may have further implications for the use of our reserves," said the report.

"We continue to work with the Social Care Council to try to find ways of operating which allow greater freedom of decision making for CrossReach whilst retaining an appropriate element of oversight of this major section of the Church's charitable work.

"We welcome their efforts to stem losses and note that a report outlining a way forward will come to General Assembly 2022".