January 2023: Planting seeds in the city
Each month, the Church of Scotland's ‘Talking Ministry' series will share a personal story from those serving in Christian ministry in the widest sense, including those who have responded to the call to one of our four recognised ministries: Full-time Ministry of Word and Sacrament, Ordained Local Ministry (OLM), the Diaconate and Readership.
Alongside these personal stories, there will also be monthly discernment resources filled with questions, prayers and reflections to help encourage your own reflection on how God might be calling you at this time.
My Ministry: Rev Alastair Duncan, Minister of St George's Tron, Glasgow
When did you start to consider yourself a Christian?
I became a Christian through Scripture Union at school in Edinburgh. It was a very sincere commitment.
I went to university and put my faith and relationship with God on the backburner, but in my final year I went abroad to study and I had an encounter that was the beginning of a journey back. By the time I graduated, I was a committed Christian again.
What was your path to ministry?
I took a gap year after university just to see what God would show me. People asked if I had thought about the ministry. I had no interest in that whatsoever, so I would politely say 'no thank you' and that I didn't believe that was where my calling lay.
But then a number of things happened around the same time. Ruth, who is now my wife, was someone I knew in church. Her father, Rev Stewart Jeffrey, was running a holiday club at his church in Aberdeen and was looking for volunteers, so I went to help and stayed with the family. While I was there, Stewart told me that Christ's College in Aberdeen was holding an event for people interested in the ministry. I went along just to be polite and came away with a bunch of application forms I had no intention of filling out.
After I got back to Edinburgh, I went to a prayer meeting. One woman there, who was usually very upbeat, was quite downcast. Someone asked what was wrong and she said: 'I feel really burdened because I have this feeling that God wants Alastair for the Church of Scotland ministry.'
When she said that, I had a very strong sense of joy and excitement, accompanied by a deep and powerful sense that God was calling me. I already had the forms, so I applied to Edinburgh University. I phoned on Monday and by Friday they had offered me a place.
I did my probation at The Old Kirk in West Pilton. I followed that by working alongside my father-in-law in St George's Tillydrone in Aberdeen for one year, then was called to Garelochhead where I stayed for just under 24 years.
Why did you decide to take on the role of transition minister at St George's Tron?
The previous congregation had left the Church of Scotland and the transition minister post was created to rebuild a congregation. A transition minister will be in post for three to five years, typically, in a situation that has experienced some significant change and, more significantly, needs to undergo significant change.
I read the job description just to see what they were looking for. I realised I had experience of all the things they were looking for, but I had no interest in going there.
Then, a friend emailed me the next day saying he thought I would be perfect for the job. I talked about it with Ruth, and she surprised me by saying: "Well, in my head, we are already there!" Over the next 10 days, something happened every day to confirm to me that God was calling me, so I put in an application.
When I arrived in 2013, St George's Tron was just a building. There was no congregation, so it was very much a case of planting a church in the city centre.
How do you build up a church from scratch?
By faith. We started by just having an evening service in the knowledge that lots of churches don't have evening services and that the people who were going to support it had their own church to go to in the morning.
By the end of year there were a dozen people who emphatically said that God was calling them to be part of the church, so I asked them all to form a leadership team with me.
In January 2014 we started a Café Church service because we felt that a traditional 11am service might not be what was needed. Being in the city centre, we thought we had a better chance of attracting students and young people, so we held it later so they didn't have to get up too early and laid on a simple buffet lunch each week to give us a chance to gather together and get to know each other. That took off and is now our main service.
We opened the Wild Olive Tree Café in 2015 and were able to use money from two legacies to employ a facilities and development manager to help set the café up. That enabled us to have the church open seven days a week and has been very much at the heart of re-connecting the church with the city centre. It has allowed us to welcome people without a church connection and the café has proved to be very popular. It is a social enterprise that enables us to give free food to those who can't afford to pay for it, to provide employability and training opportunities to people who wouldn't get into work otherwise, and to give our profits away to Glasgow City Mission and Bethany Christian Trust.
We have also developed creative partnerships with others ministering in the city centre, such as Workplace Chaplaincy Scotland, Glasgow Street Pastors, Bethany Trust and Glasgow City Mission among others. We are now at a place where we have opened doors to the various city centre communities, which was all part of the vision that I came with.
The transition ministry was extended from 5 years to 7 and at the end of 7 years, the congregation was allowed to call a permanent minister. I indicated that if they wanted me, I would be willing to stay on, so one week after lockdown, I was inducted as parish minister via Zoom.
What are the advantages and challenges of a city centre church?
The ‘ups' are that there is endless potential for engagement. The church is in a prime site and everyone wants to use it, so it is a great opportunity to engage with people because hundreds of people come into the church each week.
The downside is that, being city centre, there is a lot of movement and people don't necessarily stay long term. They might come for 3 to 5 years, do their degree, and move on. But one of the lovely things about having a younger church is that I could count on one hand the number of funerals I've conducted in the last 10 years, but I would need more than two hands to count the number of weddings. There's been a very healthy dynamic of people meeting and getting married, and now babies are starting to come along so we are now having to think about crèche and then Sunday school.
What have been the highlights of your ministry?
I suppose the biggest of the highs is just the miracle of seeing a growing church emerge out of what was an utterly hopeless situation and seeing what God has done. Along the way, people have appeared with just the gifts that were needed to enable us to develop contemporary, relevant worship.
I'm certainly not suggesting we have ‘arrived', or are where we want to be yet, but just seeing what God has done to enable St George's Tron to be planted in 10 years has been a great encouragement.
What advice would you give to a new minister?
Only do it if you are called, but if God is calling you, there is nothing better you could do. If He calls you, then He will enable you and you will see amazing things happen.
And don't assume that you know what your ministry is going to be like, because you might start out thinking you are going to work in a city centre ministry and then find yourself in the islands, or vice versa or somewhere in between. Just be open to the call.
January discernment resources
Who am I?
When we think of our Christian faith, it defines in many ways how we understand ourselves in relation to God. It also underpins how we understand ourselves in relation to others and the world around us. Knowing that we are loved and held by God offers us an identity that is bound up in something much greater than the unique life we live.
To understand that we not only belong to God, but are part of the wider Christian family is a powerful thing. How do we understand our place, our part, our call to serve in the living of our lives?
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him — though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being'.
We are all called by God to something…in all our seeking and searching, God is calling each of us to discover who we most fully are in this relationship. God is not far from us, and has revealed in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit this real and refreshing presence that shapes our days and our destination.
This call is always a journey, and movement is at the heart of any journey. Where we are today in our relationship with God may be quite different than in the past, and perhaps God is leading us on to something new. Our identity is God is being continually reshaped as we open ourselves to what God is doing and saying now.
O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Beginning from here, how do I think of myself in relation to God?
Is this relationship one of movement or does it feel static?
What could I do to deepen and develop my faith?
What are the patterns that have shaped my faith journey?
Who are the people that accompany me on the way?
Is God saying something new to me today?
God of each and every moment, I thank you that you have given me a home in you. You hear me and hold me, and offer a life of fullness. Help me to know your call and assurance in my life, and to keep exploring with you where that journey may lead. Amen
"Now, with God's help, I shall become myself."
If you would like to consider how God might be calling you to serve at this time, you may want to discuss further with your minister or be in touch with your Presbytery to explore local opportunities.
If you are interested in exploring a call to the recognised ministries of the Church, you can find more information on our vocations page and can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a Discernment Conversation with one of the Recruitment Team.