Pioneer training in Scotland: challenges and context | Sandy Forsyth [ANVIL vol 36 issue 2]

Sandy Forsyth

Scotland is post-industrial, post-Christendom, [1] in some senses postmodern, arguably post-democratic in the current UK context, and if you are a long-suffering supporter of the Scotland national football team like I am, often posted missing!

The Scottish people also have a reputation for being resistant to change and rooted in an inherent pessimism, which is sometimes claimed to be derived from the nation’s predominant Calvinist heritage, arising from the Reformation (or perhaps it lies in the heavy and persistent rainfall!). In turn, pessimism is said to stifle innovation and change. The comedian Frankie Boyle said, “Glasgow is a very negative place. If Kanye was born in Glasgow, he would have been called No You Cannae.”

Within Scotland, there are challenges of contextualisation and inculturation arising from marked differences in identity and culture across a small country, even within short geographical distances. In Kevin Bridges’ words, “Edinburgh and Glasgow, same country, two very different cities. When a gun goes off in Edinburgh, it’s one o’clock.”

Pessimism, social conservatism and internal cultural differences might partly explain the near absence of “fresh expressions of church” in Scotland, despite a strong history of missional innovation. A whistle-stop tour since the Second World War would catch glimpses of the dynamic resurgence of faith in the 1950s under a focus of the “apostolate of the laity” through major figures in the church such as George MacLeod of the Iona Community and the minister and evangelist Tom Allan; the fleeting momentum, now dissipated, that sought to regain a local, contextual focus for church and mission in the years following the “A Church without Walls” report to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland of 2001; partnerships since then at high levels of the churches with those in England in the “fresh expressions” movement; lone but gifted voices who have been striving over the past two decades in Scotland to promote “fresh expressions” and pioneering; those within the central administration of churches who have endeavoured to nudge it further in this direction against much resistance; some parish ministers and Presbyteries who are already innovating in this way; and “lay” voices who yearn for the outlet, training and support to enable pioneering. Despite all this, there is no discernible momentum, energy or results in the Church of Scotland or other mainstream denominations: the energy in Scotland is primarily to be found in the cities within independent, evangelical church-planting movements.

What has been the overriding factor of resistance in my own denomination, the Church of Scotland? In my view, it is to be found within a self-image that is welded into its constitution as a “national” church. The historical resonance in the institutional memory of this status, and the power and privilege of the Church within the warp and weft of the Scottish nation that came with it, has transferred to a “confessionalisation” of the parish system and a heavily overstructured form of Presbyterian governance. Both still seen as primordial markers of identity, proposals to form new and different forms of church are often met with incredulity and incomprehension, even though the inherited system is failing and near to collapse.

What Scotland desperately needs is pioneering as innovation. [2] In Stefan Paas’s words, “More than ever before we need incubators of creativity, sacrifice and inspiration at the organizational margins of ecclesiastical life.” [3] The hope would be that such “incubators of creativity” may renew, refresh and enliven the Christian churches in Scotland holistically and ecumenically – that is, for the benefit of the whole church, in old and new forms, under a mixed economy.

The basis of future training

The report to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland of 2019 by the present writer sought to “kickstart” the absent energy required to initiate a shift in mindset and culture within the denomination as to mission and ecclesiology. [4] The central assertion of the report was that “the building of momentum in the creation of new worshipping communities is the most pressing missional concern in the Church of Scotland of our witness to the Gospel in our time”. [5] The desire was to encourage a significant investment of human and financial resources in the enabling, resourcing and sustaining of pioneering. A goal of enabling 100 “new worshipping communities” over the next decade was set.

The report recommended practical pathways by which all Christians, lay or ordained, might be more fully enabled to express the gospel in their own contexts, beyond institutional structures. Having been passed by the General Assembly, the next challenge is of one of implementation, which has been slow. Implementation raises issues not only of structural realignment within the Church and the release of resources, but also the formation and delivery of avenues of training and support for pioneers as new initiatives, God willing, begin take shape.

As for pioneer training, it would be disingenuous to suggest that Scotland is a tabula rasa. Not only does much continue to be learned from educators “down south” within CMS and elsewhere, but there are also strong foundations in the work of those who have already initiated and delivered pioneer training “from the margins” without institutional support or national coverage. This would include the work of John and Olive Drane, Doug Gay, Forge Scotland through Alan McWilliam, and the Cairn Network; prior courses in Mission Shaped Ministry and at the late Scottish School of Christian Mission; and present courses at some academic institutions, including the Scottish Episcopal Institute and New College, Edinburgh. That work needs to be celebrated and its vision and content incorporated into a broader platform with more widespread accessibility.

If pioneering is to penetrate the mainstream of the Church’s vision and action through a gathering momentum, how is pioneer training to be properly focused? What are its core purposes and goals? How can we “train” people for a lay or ordained ministry that is essentially practical, beyond the scope of traditional “courses”? How can we steel ourselves to set aside often cherished templates, both in training and missional practice, to embark together on a “journey without maps” in the movement of the Spirit?

When first wrestling with how to begin to conceive of the purpose and goals of pioneer training, I came across an article by Darrell Guder in 2009 entitled “Integrating Theological Formation for Apostolic Vocation”. Guder wrote:

It is apostolic vocation that defines Christian purpose. “You shall be my witnesses.” … The test of missional theological formation must necessarily be the faithfulness of the lay apostolate when the church is scattered in the world.

For such witnessing communities to be faithful to their vocation, they require missional formation… The challenge before the theologians and seminaries who serve the church by teaching and equipping their future servant leaders is to discover how such theological formation for apostolic vocation is to be done today… It can only happen as the servant scholars of the church recognize that their disciplines are not ends in themselves but instruments for formation, for equipping, for that transformation that happens by the renewing of the mind. [6]

This struck me to be at the heart of the task ahead: (1) that the purpose of “training” pioneers is formation to enable and enhance their (often pre-existing) “apostolic and missional vocation”, not as an end in itself to satisfy the requirements of the church; (2) the necessary integration of all training with praxis; and (3) the need to reconceive the traditional subjects (even missiology perhaps), in what is taught, how, where, by whom and to whom, in terms of the missional vocation of each person.

This would be a process of formation in missional theology and praxis, in the understanding that, in Guder’s words: “Missional theology seeks to think the faith in terms of its practice, and to practice the faith in terms of its meaning and purpose.”

How is such “formation” to come about? A central strand for theological education that is focused on the purpose and outcome of the flourishing of apostolic and missional vocation is “formation” through “transformative learning”.

A widespread empirical study among a broad reach of denominations in England by Eeva John et al. published in 2018 reported on “the health and sustainability of theological education for ministry”. [7] It concluded that “the idea that theological learning ought to be transformational lies at the heart of any notion of formation”. [8] Therefore, “at the heart of transformative practice in the church” is the development by its leaders of “theological imagination” that “integrates knowledge and skill, moral integrity and religious commitment in their roles, relationships and responsibilities” of ministry and mission. [9]

Assuming that assertion to be correct and desirable, that “transformative learning” might lead to the flowering of “theological imagination”, how might “transformative learning” be unpacked further? In a 2016 article entitled “Transformative Learning and Ministry Formation”, [10] Neville Emslie identifies four stages in “transformative learning” that are common among its main proponents: “a disruptive event” that challenges previously held views, critical reflection, and the development and later integration into practice of new perspectives. The intended end outcome is that transformative learning leads the person to “think like an adult”, as “central to the goal of adult education… is the process of helping learners become more aware of the context of their problematic understandings and beliefs, more critically reflective of their assumptions and those of others, more fully and freely engaged in discourse, and more effective in taking action on their reflective judgments”.

It is thus a departure from “competency grids” as the tests for ministry, but instead the transformative learning experience means that “formation is not a moulding process but is a theological conformation of the minister to the pattern of Christ and his ministry, a fundamentally creative and obedient process of obedience to Christ in humility and service”.

The challenge is to resolve how the content, mode and delivery of teaching material can perform as instruments of transformation and equipping of the people of God, so as to bring about a deep and lasting impact in “theological imagination”. To do so they must engage character, world, context, experience, deep emotion and relationships – centred not only in ideas but in lives.

For pioneering, this focus might recognise the purpose in the formation and conformation of the pioneer to the pattern of Christ, in terms of the presence or potential of gifts of listening, team building and leading, discipleship and discipling, missional entrepreneurship, ability at conflict resolution, resilience, etc. – in other words the embellishment of the theological and creative mindset, practical skills and “personality traits” that might be appropriate for the challenges of pioneering, tailored as much as possible to the individual. [11]

Application to Scotland

The traditional programme for ministry training in Scotland has focused on a long and cherished history of high-level academic education, with a secondary “on the job” application of theology to practice. It is thus based primarily on development “cognitively”. New appreciations must emphasise the centrality too of impact “affectively” and “behaviourally”. In Banks’s words, “The one-way relationship between theory and practice, according to which the former precedes the latter, must give way to a more complex relationship between the two.” [12] Training must always be “on the way”, thus engaging dynamically with key notions such as “contextualisation”, cross-cultural translation and “indigenisation” of gospel and mission in its relationship with culture.

But how to achieve all of this locally and nationally, from a near standing start?

Following the practice of most denominations in the western world where pioneering and church planting has seen more significant engagement, it is assumed that in Mike Moynagh’s words, “lay and ordained pioneers of new communities will benefit from four types of support”: “an introductory course in the theology and practice of witnessing communities”; “being networked into learning communities” of their peers; “coaching or mentoring”, not so that such communities can be reproduced to a conformed model, but to set free their contextual uniqueness; and “connection to the wider church”, be it to a local parish, regional or national grouping. [13]

In that light, as first steps the 2019 report to the General Assembly recommended training and support with the following key components, beyond financial:

  • Training: Nature, Mode and Providers – appropriate training to be provided to all leaders of “Church of Scotland Pioneer Initiatives”, whether lay or ordained; and to all lay members, elders and ministers in the Church of Scotland, or from other denominations, who wish to explore the possibility of beginning an Initiative. Training provided on a regular basis informally and regionally, integrated with reflective practice and predominantly practitioner-led.
  • Training: Routes of Delivery – active partnerships of existing academic providers and Presbyteries for the provision of training for pioneering and church planting.
  • Training: Candidates for Ministries – all candidates for all ministries to have training in pioneer ministry and church planting, and in entrepreneurial leadership, both in academic and practical settings, through courses, conferences and training placements. The Church should prioritise the allocation of candidates in training for all ministries to undertake training placements with accredited supervisors with experience of pioneering, church planting or innovation.
  • Mentor and Networks – each Church of Scotland Pioneer Initiative to work with a suitable “mentor” and be brought into regional and national networks of other Initiatives. [14]

Glancing back a year later, I applaud my optimism! To achieve this, crossing the chasm of the significant conceptual shifts required in Scotland would daunt even Indiana Jones! Applying some auto-ethnography to illustrate that chasm, for the Church it is similar to the processes that I face in reconciling the following movements:

  • From the certitude in precedent, rationality and tradition of my past career in law, and the learned academic mindsets of my doctorate in theology, both still strongly visible in the practice of our churches, to a state of training and form of church with ingrained fluidity and contextual open-endedness;
  • The gap between those “lost in a crowd” in the stands of my beloved Aberdeen Football Club, as those in the Church often are, to the Celtic team uniting in a “huddle” on the pitch before the game;
  • The movement for the Church in missional terms that was seen in seismic shifts in music from the “trad jazz” beloved of my parents to the bebop of Charlie Parker or free-flowing improvisation of Ornette Coleman; or from the “prog era” of my older friends, with its celebration of virtuosity bordering on pomposity in early 1970s bands such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes, to the visceral bursts of energy in the mid to late 1970s of the early punk of the Sex Pistols and of my favourite band, The Clash. “Trad jazz” and “prog rock” are still very much on the playlist in worship, ecclesiology and mission in the Scottish churches.


In all of this, it is vital that the spontaneity of pioneering is enabled and not “trained to death”. The low base in Scotland, and the experience of our neighbours and friends, means that some pitfalls may be avoided – it is one sense a creative luxury, but daunting in another, in the light of limited institutional support and mostly apathy or rejection. Key questions going forward, beyond the key element of implementation within institutional structures, may well include:

  • How do we gain momentum, and how is training the vanguard and enabler of that? Or does training simply reflect action and evolve as praxis gathers pace? Do we stop thinking and start doing, and then adapt?
  • How does training successfully integrate knowledge, skills and practical reality?
  • It is difficult to express the crossing of the chasm of understanding and ethos described above, towards a more entrepreneurial mindset, inductive learning, and peer-group understanding and formation of community, unless it is actually experienced in all forms of pioneer training. How can that movement be a lived reality? How can you structure without structure? And how do you “assess”?
  • What does need to be “taught”? As Guder proposes, how should traditional disciplines be adapted so as to integrate theological formation within missional and apostolic vocation (and not to cancel it out!)?
  • How do you pitch levels of training so that a spectrum of people from “lay, lay” to longstanding clergy might be engaged?
  • How can a national training “hub” be established for CPD of pioneers, and engagement of clergy in post, so that the integration is lifelong?
  • What is the extent of importance of mentors and networks – who and how, and to what end?

In seeking the swifter development of pioneering in Scotland, may we in that process move closer to living out in the Church the realisation of God’s will in the missio Dei. This Scotsman remains optimistic – from my seat at the bar, the glass still looks half full!

Sandy Forsyth is a practical theologian at New College, the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, and a minister in the Church of Scotland. The development of pioneering in the Scottish churches is at the forefront of his teaching and writing.

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[1] Some aspects of this article have appeared in another article published since my talk at the hui in July 2019 – “Developing Training for Pioneer Ministry in the Church of Scotland: Reflections on Grounding Pedagogy and Lessons in Practice from Abroad,” Theology in Scotland 26, no. 2 (2019), 7–27.
[2] See Anvil 34, no. 3, for a series of excellent articles on this topic.
[3] Stefan Paas, “Church Renewal by Church Planting,” Theology Today 68, no. 4 (2012): 467–77, 475.
[4] Sandy Forsyth, “Inspiring New Worshipping Communities: Pathways for Pioneer Ministry and Church Planting in the Church of Scotland,” in The Church of Scotland, General Assembly 2019: Reports, Decisions, Legislation & Minutes – RDLM 2019 (Edinburgh: The Church of Scotland Assembly Arrangements Committee, 2019): 11–53,
[5] Ibid., 13.
[6] Darrell Guder, “Missio Dei: Integrating Theological Formation for Apostolic Vocation,” Missiology: An International Review 37, no. 1 (January 2009): 72.
[7] Eeva John et al., “Life-changing learning for Christian discipleship and ministry: a practical exploration,” Practical Theology 11, no. 4 (August 2018): 300–14.
[8] Ibid., 301.
[9] Ibid., 302.
[10] Neville Emslie, “Transformative Learning and Ministry Formation,” Journal of Adult Theological Education 13, no. 1 (May 2016): 48–63.
[11] See for example, Annemarie Foppen et al., “Personality Traits of Church Planters in Europe,” Journal of Empirical Theology 30, no. 1 (June 2017): 25–40.
[12] Robert Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education: Exploring a Missional Alternative to Current Models (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 59.
[13] Michael Moynagh, Being Church, Doing Life: Creating Gospel Community Where Life Happens (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2014), 301–03.
[14] Forsyth, “Inspiring New Worshipping Communities”: 27–31.

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