The life expectancy of the Church of Scotland could be as little as 30 years, according to the architect of a ten-year rescue plan for the Kirk which may lead to job cuts.

The church’s decision-making body the General Assembly began a week-long conference yesterday and members will be asked tomorrow to approve a new strategy written by Rev Dr Martin Scott, who is effectively chief executive.

Scott has painted a stark picture of an organisation in dramatic decline and warned that a failure to endorse his plan could result in a fall in the number of people employed by the church.

The 458-year-old church has a staff of more than 3000, including 2000 who work for social care arm Crossreach.

However, membership of the church has fallen by almost 20 per cent in five years, from 413,000 in 2011 to 336,000 at the end of last year. That decline has a knock-on effect on church finances, with congregational donations down almost £2m in the same period.

Rev Dr Martin Scott, whose official title is Secretary to the Council of Assembly, said: “We can say if we continue at this rate we will not exist in 30 or 40 years, but that’s not the story of the church. We’ve had crisis in the past and it’s about how we turn this around.

“Maybe crisis is not the right word. It’s a time of challenge, but it’s also a time of opportunity. What we’re trying to do is see if there’s an opportunity for change. If we do nothing about it, it will become a crisis. That’s what we’re trying to avoid. We hope this strategic plan will give a sense of focus.”

Scott’s blunt prognosis for the church is laid bare in the ‘Strategic Plan 2018-2028’ which states: “There are missing generations in congregations. Not only do we have very few children compared to ten years ago, or similarly young people (under 25s), the number of folks in their 30s and 40s is also very small.

“Given that the majority of those attending Church are over 60, these missing generations pose a real challenge to the very existence of the Church. We cannot afford to ignore this and fail to produce a plan to address it.”

A large part of the plan to be presented to the General Assembly tomorrow is about the structure of the church. By 2021 a national “Workforce Plan” will have been drawn up and implemented “ensuring appropriate levels of staffing to meet the strategic priorities of the church,” the report states.

When asked whether this would lead to job losses, Scott said: “It’s difficult to imagine, with the numbers shrinking, that we will need the same number of staff in ten years’ time. But I don’t want to alarm people as no decisions have been made. We have to see what the response is to the plan then we’ll work out from there what the changes are.”

Christianity is in decline in Scotland, with only seven per cent of Scots attending church according to a 2017 survey. The Scottish Church Census found a record low of just 390,000 people now go to Sunday services, down from 854,000 in 1984, when records began.

Scott said that decline is evident in the Church of Scotland, which is currently Scotland’s largest church, with Catholicism in second place.

He said: “You might get the impression if you just look at the Church of Scotland that Christianity is a dying religion – far from it. Throughout the world Christianity is growing. In the past we have sent missionaries to other parts of the world. We need to learn from churches overseas now, where they are growing at quite a rate.”

He described some Church of Scotland services as “traditional” and “staid” and said it must broaden its appeal to bring in new members.

Scott said: “The main challenges we face are ageing congregations and fewer members. That’s reflected also in the number of people involved in, and training for, ministry. That’s a challenge in terms of meeting our role as a national church.

“What we’re clear about is we’re not in the business of managing decline – we must have a positive approach and make the changes we need to make. One of the things is developing ways in which we can bring parishes together into hubs where you maybe have one parish minister, but a number of other people involved in other types of ministry, for example readers who also take services.

“This strategic plan we’re bringing on Monday will cover a ten-year phase. We’ve set targets and if we achieve those we’ll certainly see the church as more of a growing organisation rather than one that’s shrinking.”


The Church of Scotland’s decision-making body the General Assembly meets this week to discuss and vote on the fundamental issues facing the organisation.

Founded in 1560, the church has been a mainstay of Scottish society for centuries but falling numbers and a downturn in revenue has cast doubt over its “very existence”, according to a report which will go before the 842 “commissioners” who attend.

As well as discussing the church’s decline, the General Assembly will also be asked to look at the church’s policy positions on major issues such as same sex marriage and climate change during the week-long conference which began yesterday.

It has the power to make laws and set the agenda for the coming months and years for the administrative councils, committees and departments of the organisation.

As the General Assembly gets underway, we look at the challenges facing the Church of Scotland’s decision makers.

Dwindling numbers

Falling numbers attending churches has put the Kirk at risk of terminal decline, according to a report which will go before the assembly.

The trajectory of figures is downwards “across the board” according to the report which starkly states: “We have falling numbers of ministers, elders, people in our congregations and finances.”

The report also notes that around 75 per cent of ministers are aged over 50. It is estimated by the church that the number of full-time paid ministers will fall to around 550 within six years, leaving a shortfall of around 300.

The Kirk said the current format of one minister to one parish is “no longer sustainable”.

Declining revenue

Congregational giving is down by £1.8 million in four years, to £46.8m, primarily as a result of declining numbers.

A chart of income shows reductions in congregational contributions, fees from social care work, donations, grants and legacies, as well as a decline in return from the church’s investments. This, despite an improvement in “trading activities”, amounts to a net drop in annual income of £6.3m since 2013.

A report to go before the assembly suggests the church could sell its administrative headquarters in George Street, Edinburgh. Unused buildings and land will also have to be sold.

The report states: “There are too many presbyteries, unevenly distributed with many already unsustainable.”

The report adds that by 2021 the national offices will be “either in a renovated George Street building or in alternative premises” and by 2023 all congregations will have completed a local church review process.

Same sex marriage

Last year’s assembly paved the way for same sex marriage ceremonies in churches after a historic debate. Yesterday the General Assembly voted 345 to 170 for bringing forward new legislation by 2020 which would allow ministers to conduct same sex marriages.

This year’s Assembly will also consider whether there should be opt outs for church officers opposed to equal marriage.

Church legal opinion backs church officers who refuse to participate in same sex marriage ceremonies.

A report which will go before the assembly states: “If a minister or deacon is authorised and the church is permitted to be used, but a prospective participant does not wish to be involved, there may have to be specific arrangements made for the couple to be assisted to find a substitute - if, for example, the organist does not wish to play at the ceremony - or for designated individuals to be willing to step in - if, say, the church officer does not wish to be involved.”

Climate change

The church could stop investing in oil and gas exploration in a bid to play its part in alleviating the effects of climate change.

The church has profited from fossil fuel holdings, but that arrangement has been under review for two years.

A report, which will be put to the General Assembly, states: “It is deeply uncomfortable for the church, as a caring organisation concerned about climate justice, to continue to invest in something which causes the very harm it seeks to alleviate.

“While we have profited from oil and gas exploration in the past, we now understand financing future exploration and production will take us away from fulfilling the Paris agreement and delay the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

The report pledges to monitor the progress of oil and gas companies towards becoming “low carbon businesses aligned with the Paris climate agreement”.

If there is “no reasonable chance of alignment” after two years, then the trustees of investments will be “urged to divest from oil and gas companies”.