An Anecdotal View of the Parish System

The Kirk of Scotland practices the “Parish” model of ministry for this lovely county. While I’m sure I am over simplifying this complex system, I’ll take a stab at explaining what I have observed before offering my questions on how this concept may or may not work in my home context of East Lansing, MI, USA. 

 Scotland, the whole country, is divided into parishes, or regional/neighborhood parts, that are served by the whole Kirk.  Each person in Scotland belongs to a particular parish and is served by the minister assigned/called to parish. As a result, the whole country is part of the Kirk and the spiritual and chaplaincy needs are, ideally, met by the pastor in each parish.  

 So whether you ever attend worship or church activities, you are still considered a part of the local kirk and have a minister who is there to marry, bury, baptize, and support you and your loved ones. Yes, there are a few other denominations represented in each parish. And, of course, just because you are considered part of the parish does not mean you will ever call on our contact the kirk or minister. In fact, you may not only be a non-Christian, but you may be vehemently opposed to the church…yet you are still a part of the parish and are prayed for and served by the local minister.

I’ve asked this question of myself and fellow Peoples Church clergy without obvious answers – To whom are WE called to serve? 

 Case in point – When I go to Sparrow Hospital, am I there to visit our church members or all people? Is there a priority ranking between Peoples Church people and non-Peoples people?  Are we ministers to our community or the neighborhood/parish? Is our parish only those who self-identify as “members” of The Peoples Church?

I realize the parish model is not unique and has been practiced by a number of churches/denominations in the States and internationally. However, in my tiny Reformed/Presbyterian worldview, this is a relatively new concept. 

To use the shepherd image, I have been trained to watch over one particular flock to which I have been assigned. When I see one of “my” sheep in trouble, it is my call to step in and assist. I am not called to “all” sheep and would not be readily expected to help any and all sheep in whatever field that might be in need of a shepherding hand. 

 That is not the case here in the Church of Scotland.

I am AMAZED by the amount of weddings and funerals officiated by my Church of Scotland colleagues for what I observe as smaller congregations on Sunday morning. What I failed to recognize was the size of the whole parish. They are ministering to EVERYONE. In addition to their ecclesial responsibilities in the kirk, they are called to be chaplains in the community, teach religious education in the gov’t schools, and work with and through middle governing bodies as representatives of the church and state. In short, they are stretched awfully thin out here and I am truly impressed by their ability to help, serve, love, and support ALL their neighbors, not just those who attend the parish kirk on Sunday mornings.

Is this model better than the one we live within in the US? 

 I don’t have a clear answer to this one. I am quite attracted to the missional/evangelical notion that all people are a part of God’s family and are equally deserving and in need of pastoral care, regardless of whether or not they tithe, worship regularly, or participate in the active fellowship of a congregation.

But what does that say about the responsiblities of a pastor in a particular place and time, called to be the minister of a church/parish/congregation?

My call as the senior pastor at The Peoples Church is relatively clear cut. My job description includes preaching, head of staff responsibilties, and the administration of the sacraments. Of course, there is that wonderful line about “other duties” that would take a novel to fill with all of the “jobs” of a minister. Still, my call is very distinctly articulated in my job description as the senior minister of The Peoples Church, not East Lansing or the Lansing area.

This pulpit swap has left me a bit anxious about the following questions:

1.) Do I treat members of The Peoples Church differently from non-members? Should I?

2.) Does The Peoples Church exist for our community, the community outside our walls, and/or  God?

3.) To whom am I most accountable and why?

Only a couple more weeks overseas before returning home to address these questions within the faith community that I know and love. Until then, I hope to continue learning with and through the faithful people here in the West Angus Area Ministries of The Kirk of Scotland. It is such a privilege and joy to be here.

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