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Turning a crisis into an opportunity

The Church of Scotland has more than 220 vacancies for ministers.

That would constitute an alarming shortage at any time but the Kirk is rapidly approach a "ministerial cliff" as a result of the age profile of the 840 serving ministers in Scottish parishes.

Among the stark facts to be presented to the General Assembly later this month is one that more than one-third of current ministers will retire during the next decade.

This presents a huge problem. Only 20 trainee ministers were due to complete courses at the end of last year. While that was a significant jump from seven the year before, the new intake will still leave 200 congregations without a minister. Increasingly, those training for the ministry are older people moving into a second career. This does not increase the proportion of young ministers. Their average age is 46.

The report by the Kirk's ministries council calls for radical and deep-seated changes to attract young ministers. A group of ministers under the age of 45 has been charged with raising the profile of the ministry with younger people. Any new approach to recruitment can prevail against the forces of secularism must face a daunting challenge.

It is inevitable that as society becomes more secular, the number of young people choosing to become ministers of religion will decrease. Yet the numbers coming to ministry later in life suggest that slightly older people may be more fertile recruiting ground. There is concern that the age of most ministers makes it difficult for them to engage with younger people in "culturally relevant missions". There is truth in that but nothing is more relevant than the experience of life that comes with age.

In the 2001 Census, 27.5% of people in Scotland ticked the "no religion box". That reflects shrinking religious observance but it is notable that this was the highest proportion in the UK, providing the most reliable evidence of Scotland's sea-change from religious affiliation to secularism.

The results of the 2011 Census will presumably show an increase but just as significant will be those reporting a religious affiliation. In 2001, 42% said they were associated with the Church of Scotland. That remains a significant proportion but, with less than half the population saying they were affiliated to the Kirk, there is a question of whether it can still claim to be the national church.

It is clearly no longer possible to supply a minister in every parish. For many years, churches, particularly in rural areas, have become linked charges with one minister where there were once three. There is a limit to how far that solution can go but there is also a problem in leaving people without a minister or church within reasonable reach. The answer may be volunteers. There are now about 50 ordained but non-stipendiary ministers to support full-time parish ministers. If others are persuaded to join them, they may be able to turn an undoubted crisis into an opportunity.

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