By Mike Merritt

A POPULAR church minister has lost his job after apparently failing to grow his flock enough to make it pay its way.

Free Church of Scotland minister Reverend Eric Paterson, 57, was responsible for both the Golspie and Brora church congregations in Sutherland.

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He has been a minister in the area for 26 years, the past three years part-time under an Alternative Ministry Arrangement.

But the decision to not renew the arrangement, making him redundant, has angered community members.

More than 440 people have signed an online petition that registers protesters’ “disappointment” at the decision not to renew the alternative ministry arrangement, which was financed by the Golspie congregation and supplemented by the Brora flock.

“The community of Golspie and neighbouring villages wish to express their support to Rev Paterson,” it says.

“We would like to see Rev Paterson remain as minister and pastor.”

Supporters said the father-of-three, a former policeman, was a “valued member of the community”.

Ian Sutherland, of Golspie, added: “I’m not religious, but Eric is a truly good man who is a pastor in every sense of the word.”

But Free Church spokesman Reverend David Robertson said the petitions would make no difference to the decision.

The former Free Church Moderator also stressed that Mr Paterson had not been “sacked” but in effect been made redundant. The areas needed a full-time minister to grow, he said.

“Even if 10 per cent [of those who signed the petitions] attended [the churches] we would not be in this situation,” said Mr Robertson.

“We cannot subsidise congregations that are declining and help them to their graves.”

Mr Robertson said the church in Golspie “is certainly unable to sustain a full-time minister,” with average attendances of between 20 and 30, mainly elderly, people.

Brora is a growing church – “but from a small base” – with attendances of 40 to 50.

“We are not giving up on Golspie and we hope for better days for the congregation,” said Mr Robertson.

“Eric was under a three-year arrangement known as alternative ministry arrangement. This was a generous supporting of the local congregation by the wider Free Church. There was a development plan but very little development so the arrangement will not be renewed.

“The arrangement was for Eric to be a part-time minister. The Free Church does not think that is a suitable arrangement and would want full-time ministers in both Golspie and Brora.

“The Free Church in Brora is a different story. After a difficult period, it is growing and developing and there are many signs of life.

“It needs to get its own minister and get on with the work there and not be subsidising a part-time ministry in Golspie.”

Mr Paterson said: “I want to express heartfelt thanks to the people of Golspie and all who supported the petition.”