We need to ‘build together’ says next Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
Published on 26 October 2023
A minister who was discouraged from going to university and told that his Lanarkshire accent would hamper his life prospects has been announced as the next Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Rev Dr Shaw James Paterson will take up the role on Saturday 18 May 2024 and spend a year as the Kirk's ambassador.
Serving since 1991, as minister at Strathaven Trinity Parish Church in Lanarkshire, he was expected to become a bricklayer like other family members before him, but took a different path and he went on to complete four degrees at Glasgow University, including a doctorate.
The father of three, who is originally from Holytown, was told by teachers that there was no point continuing his studies, but was encouraged to do so at home.
"My father recognised something in me and I got in to study biology at Glasgow University," he explains.
"He pushed me in a gentle and encouraging way.
"That moment when they shout Moderator – it will be for my Dad."
During his time at Glasgow University, he supported himself by working various jobs, including as a tiler.
"I still do some tiling for folk and I'm hands on with property in my church," he says.
Straight after finishing his undergraduate degree, Dr Paterson married Christine at the University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel. She is now a senior member of the community nursing team.
Immediately thereafter he began a degree in divinity.
"They talk about a calling – it was this sense that God was chipping away and chipping away.
"I did not want to be a minister and I felt a bit like Jonah – I thought go away, I want to do my career in science.
"Eventually I had a torturous night and I thought of Isaiah 6: ‘whom shall I send…send me'.
"I basically woke up and said ‘OK God you win, send me I'll do it'.
"Having made the decision, I then knew it was the right one."
Dr Paterson's placement as a probationer was with Very Rev Dr Hugh Wyllie, who he says "showed me how to be a minister".
Reflecting on more than 30 years in a parish, including 10 years also working as a Presbytery Clerk, he says he "thrives" on pastoral work, albeit there have been some very tough moments.
"Undoubtedly the most challenging point of my ministry has been supporting people around child death," he says.
"How do you deal with it and stay above your own tears?"
The wish to support people as best he can eventually lead to his doctorate in practical theology, which looks at ministering to those who have experienced early miscarriage.
Dr Paterson believes listening to people is at the heart of supporting people who are going through a difficult time for any reason.
"It means you can try and begin to understand what people have got going on, and convey that their story is important."
He plans to spend next year "listening to as many people as possible".
"If you asked me for three words to describe what's important to me as a minister – and indeed as a Moderator – it would be people, people, people," he says.
"People in the pews, in the parish.
"People of all ages from pupils to pensioners and every stage in between.
"I love connecting with people, hearing their stories and reminding them that I care, the Church cares, God cares."
Acknowledging that "there is a lot of upset" currently across the Church of Scotland, particularly due to the planned closure of Kirk buildings in order to safeguard the future of the organisation, Dr Paterson says that "one of the themes I'd like to have for my year as Moderator is building together – it goes back to my roots".
"As a Church we have strong foundations and it might not be my building or your building that's kept, but our foundations are in Christ.
"We need to build together and we need to come together – we need to realise almost everyone is losing something.
"We have to try and get over any sense of animosity.
"We're a Church together and we need to go forward together to build on the foundations of all our forebears."
Other hopes that Dr Paterson has for his time representing the Church include highlighting the work of NHS staff, particularly due to family connections and his regular visits to hospitals.
He also looks forward to "hopefully bringing a bit of levity to proceedings", although he describes his style as traditional, as well as preaching in different parts of the country.
Over 30 years Dr Paterson's interests have included supporting Loaves and Fishes a charity in East Kilbride, which distributes food, toiletries and clothing to people in need locally.
Seventeen years ago he opened up the church halls to secondary school children at lunchtime two days each week providing a warm space, hot chocolate and toasties.
"It's not doing church – it's being church," Dr Paterson says.
He also set up Strathaven Memory Group for those with memory issues and their carers, is involved with youth musical theatre and is currently a lay advisor within the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons (Glasgow).
A tremendous privilege
Despite all of these achievements, most of all he says he has aimed to serve the church.
"I have served the wider Church through committees, convenerships, supervising the next generation for the ministries of the Church, and as co-moderator of a newly formed presbytery.
"I also have experience of union negotiations – successfully bringing together four Kirk Sessions and congregations, while sharing in the hurt of a lost building.
"I have sought to be a faithful and loyal parish minister, which has been a tremendous privilege and honour."