Emma Teale, University of Edinburgh

Pioneering the ‘New Normal’ Church in Scotland

Among many Protestant Christian churches in Scotland, the COVID19 lockdown intersected with an existing crisis of change management. Across several denominations, the continuing, drastic decline of the church is keenly felt. A dearth of ministers and dwindling congregations lead to multiple church closures and amalgamations. Urgent calls for systemic change have prompted policies, programs and movements offering various solutions which might rescue the church’s future. These solutions are often based on a critique of the “established” church which portrays it as fundamentally averse to change and holding firmly (perhaps, desperately) to the maintenance of traditions while becoming increasingly disconnected from surrounding non-Christian communities. Those calling for change emphasise the importance of adapting to a “post-Christendom” Scotland by taking a missional approach; redesigning church as more accessible and engaging for the “unchurched” majority. 

On the 17th March 2020, the Scottish Government advised closure of places of worship to combat the spread of COVID19. By the time the nation entered full lockdown, one week later, I saw several churches offering online Sunday services, virtual prayer sessions, and Zoom worship evenings. Also appearing on my Facebook feed was an advert for an online course which asked, How could pioneer ministry thinking help us to rethink church and mission in a post-covid ‘new normal’?” The training was offered by the Director of Mixed Mode Training at the Scottish Episcopal Institute – Richard Tiplady – and was met with a deluge of interest from ministers and lay leaders across Scotland.

Arranged as a grid of faces on my laptop screen, the ministers discussed how their respective churches have responded to the crisis with online alternatives. Whilst in some cases age and socioeconomic status were seen to pose obstacles to online engagement, several leaders lauded the benefits. They cited significantly increased “attendance” at virtual services among a significant cohort who had previously found Sunday worship inconvenient or who were less likely to make it to church on Sunday mornings due to disability. One minister from the western region of Argyll said, “COVID forced us to think more quickly than we’re used to – that’s a good thing! It doesn’t take years to come up with doing something different. If we want to, we can do it quickly.” For those who have long been advocating change in the church in Scotland – popularly characterised as slow-moving – the sudden uptake of virtual alternatives offered vindicating proof of the church’s ability (when pushed) to adapt and “innovate”.

The vast disruption of the pandemic forced many church leaders to re-evaluate the fundamental “where, when and what” of church. Richard emphasised that the structural effects of “COVID19 have brought these questions to the forefront which were already there for many”. His course proposed that the principles of “pioneer ministry” are instructive for such a time. These are ordinarily associated with the “planting” of new churches designed to engage non-Christian audiences. Pioneer ministry is framed as an essentially “entrepreneurial” approach motivated by the question, “What would we do if we were starting from scratch?”

The “Church in the New Normal” training drew on Richard’s PhD (Business Administration) research on “the development of entrepreneurial leadership in the church in Scotland”. In the last of three training sessions, he provided attendees with a handout summarising his findings structured according to Kurt Lewin’s “forcefield” analysis. Lewin’s analysis – popular in change management studies – models “enablers” versus “hindrances” to change. Through qualitative research, Richard had identified such forces at play in Scotland’s churches.  

Key among the hindrances are denominational structures, reported as being inherently resistant to change. The course participants nodded knowingly and rolled their eyes, while describing presbytery systems with long-winded bureaucratic processes, and ministerial training which aims to mould leaders who avoid risk and “play the game”. Additionally, identified as a “Scottish cultural” hindrance was “tall poppy syndrome”: “it is the tallest poppy in the field which is scythed down”. Richard spoke of a Scottish attitude – “the dark side of Scottish egalitarianism” – which is suspicious of individuals trying new things. Many of his research interviewees had experienced such “sheep bites” from peers, reminding them “not to get above their station” by pioneering new approaches to church ministry. Richard shared his own experience of breaking the mould, becoming a coach in his son’s football team on Sundays instead of attending church. Fellow clergy were so confused at his unorthodox choice that Richard was even accused of nearing a breakdown. The course participants’ variously pixelated expressions betrayed praise for Richard’s efforts to take Christian influence to a non-church context. Unanimously, they were disappointed but utterly unsurprised at the clergy’s conservative response.

To counter these hindrances and enable change in Scotland’s churches, Richard argues they must “cultivate an entrepreneurial culture”. “Pioneer ministry,” Richard taught, “is like the research and development arm of the church”. A “culture” which embraces innovation and the possibility of failure is vital for the church to reach new audiences. The course reading list included literature on entrepreneurship which instructed that, whilst “opportunities” cannot be manufactured, those seeking change should cultivate the conditions necessary for “increased likelihood of opportunities”. In a ministry context, Richard suggested, this might include going for coffee with lots of local people, “investing in social capital” and building one’s “network”. This would foster opportunities for new partnerships and ideas to emerge in the church. Developing skills in networking, entrepreneurship, and innovation – traits widely praised in Scotland’s professional sectors – was presented as crucial to future-proofing the church. (Notably, this appeal to the rhetoric of entrepreneurship and market logic is recurrent among Scotland’s various church reform efforts.)

Representing the views of many in Scotland’s Protestant church circles, Richard sees it as imperative that the church reimagines itself because “what we’re doing isn’t working”. However, the ministers on his virtual course find themselves in the tricky position of managing change which is anxiety provoking for their (typically, older) congregations, and controversial to their superiors in denominational leadership. All of which is steeped in a unique Scottish wariness. Richard summarised Lewin’s model with the image of a dam: to make change flow we need to amplify the enablers (add water) and/or diminish the hindrances (i.e. the dam). He and his trainees hope COVID19’s forceful upheaval has weakened the dam and that lockdown’s imposed modifications of church have wetted the doubters’ feet a little. They hope the church can heed the widespread calls for adaptability brought by the pandemic’s disruption and use it as impetus to become pioneers of a new normal.

EMMA photo_ Caption - Richard attends the ordination of one of his students from the Scottish Episcopal Institute, October 2020
Richard attends the ordination of one of his students from the Scottish Episcopal Institute, October 2020. Photo: Richard Tiplady