Retirement of Canon Robin Paisley as Rector of St John’s, 30th June, 2016
To mark the retirement of Canon Paisley, Mike Tyas, Communications Assistant with St John’s, spoke with Robin and Helen as they reflected on their time here, and what the future holds . . .
What did you do before you came to Dumfries?
‘I have been in ministry for 25 years and immediately before coming to St John’s, I was Rector of St James, Bishopbriggs and also Bishop’s Adviser in Ministry — that’s someone who assists him with the process of discerning the vocation of people to ordination and lay ministry – and it was a call from the congregation here and the Bishop that brought me to Dumfries.’
What did you know of Dumfries before you came here?
‘We’d been through it on holiday!’
When you say it was a call by the congregation, just explain what that means?
‘A call is how I interpret appointments within church circles — it’s not like applying for a job; instead you’re trying to discern where God is calling you to be. One of the components of that discernment is the view of the congregation. Others are that the Bish7op and the cleric also have to
feel there is a sense of call to serve in that community. So, there had been a conversation between the representatives of this congregation and the Bishop and, as a result of that conversation, a call to explore the possibility of becoming the Rector of St John’s was mediated through the Bishop, so I came to meet with those representatives. Then there was a due process of discernment by them and by me/the Bishop. That then produced confirmation of the idea that it was the right thing to do — it was God’s plan. That was in late 2005.’
Did you have any specific aims and objectives when you came to St John’s – and 10 years on, have they been met?
‘The answer to that is closely related to the sense of call to serve as the Rector of the congregation. I didn’t have any aims and objectives of my own apart from the goal to help the congregation to discern what God’s call
to them would be for mission and ministry in this community, and to build on the sense of call they already had which was to be a local collaborative ministry congregation.
They had done a lot of work to study and debate what that meant. Basically it means that ministry is something which is carried out by a wide range of people and that all members of the congregation have a role to play. If I had an aim and objective it was to build on that and respect that. It is consistent with my general philosophy which is what we are trying to do to discern what God is calling us as individuals and a congregation to do.’
Over the ten years, how has that worked?
‘This has been the driving principle throughout the ten years. One of the things that was in place at my previous church was a process, which I brought here, that every year the Vestry goes away for a retreat weekend, and that’s to plan and discern what’s God’s call for the congregation is for the next year. We’ve done that every year since I’ve been here. We’ve had people advising us and being facilitators for us and they have helped us build on that conception that I talked about of the local collaborative ministry congregation and to develop it further. The facilitator for many of the weekends was the same person who was the companion to the congregation before I came and that was Anne Tomlinson. She was the Provincial Local Collaborative Ministry officer at the time. She had worked very closely with the congregation before I came and so I invited her to continue to work with them while I was here and that proved very fruitful. She has now moved on to a new role as the Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute which prepares those whom the Bishop sponsors as potential Clerics and Lay Readers. I would say that over those ten years, we have gradually discerned God’s will a little more clearly, tried to enact and respond to that and also sought to recognise what God’s providence was. A good example of that was the arrival of Steve Butler as Associate Minister five years ago – that was something that emerged after we realised in our discussions at the Cumbrae weekend that the shape of his ministry profile was
closely matched to what we were looking for in developing our plans for mission and ministry. We discerned that his emergence, at the same time as we were seeking, was a bit of God’s providence which built very well on what we had been doing. After a few years with us, Steve in turn was called to a new role but he had helped us very significantly in the transition.’
You used the word providence. Can you explain more about providence – that seems to play a big part in your life and your career? Is that fair to say?
‘In the mission philosophy that we discussed at the Vestry retreats one of the summary points would be: “Our job is to find out what God is doing and to join in” (rather than to think that we have the answers). It is something that God is already involved in. God provides if we pray, notice and listen.’
There will be many highlights you will take away from St John’s from the past ten years. Can you point to one or two that stand out?
‘There are a lot of things. If I had to pick on two: one would be something that happened relatively soon after I arrived which was when the Methodist and Scottish Episcopal partnership that is in place came to a very significant point with the signing of a Covenant. We did that in the context of a big sing of Charles Wesley hymns. We also linked it with the conclusion of a project which was to make our church more accessible – called Project Welcome. That’s when the automatic doors [in the entrance to the church] with the Methodist symbol and Episcopal symbol on them were installed. There was a very big service, the church was pretty full; people from the town, people from the Methodist Circuit in
Glasgow, the Bishop at the time — Idris Jones; the Chair of the Methodist Synod in Scotland — Lily Twist; the Circuit Superintendent Minister — Derek Bibb, the national Ecumenical Officers—Elspeth Davey and Bill Reid, were there. It was a big event. Andrew MacKenzie, who had been a major agent of the formation of the partnership since he joined St John’s as Associate Methodist Minister in 1997, put together the service and it was really a roof-lifting sort of service. The picture of two hands (Idris Jones and Lily Twist) signifying the covenant relationship with the two glass doors in the background is from that time. It was a very memorable occasion. It built on things that had started before I arrived and brought them to a significant stage. What I was doing was bringing to fruition things that already had been developed. I hadn’t come with a fixed agenda; I was noticing and wondering what was here and playing a part to develop it further. That partnership — which I think I have supported very strongly – was a good example of that and has continued and is a significant feature of the ethos of St John’s which is ecumenical, with the principle of maintaining unity with considerable diversity.
‘The other highlight I would focus on is this year’s Easter Eve service; a further example of what has happened here at various stages through my time here. Twenty people were involved in a special and traditional Holy Saturday service where they reaffirm the commitment they made at their baptism, (or was made on their behalf, if they were baptised when they were infants). The services of our church allow people to do this at significant development stages of their faith. My experience is that faith is a journey which has the normal ups and downs. When you’re on an up and when you’re feeling God is particularly blessing you and you want to celebrate that with people; we do that in the community of faith at such a service. We stage services of worship of celebration as well as challenge. The fact that 20 people of all ages, from seven to 70, were involved was a wonderful highlight. Again it is an example of what I believe God is moving these people to do – and my role is perhaps to be the midwife in bringing that to birth. It’s a great privilege and a joy to behold.’
How has the church developed its role in the community during your time?
‘I think the church has developed what it already had in its mind in regard to its role in the community in that, in the interim, when there was no Rector before I came, they weren’t able to have the church open as much as they liked. They really wanted to be open as much as possible, as a service to the community, as a sanctuary and a place for people
to come to meet each other and to meet God. One of the things we have been able to develop in my time is a further enactment of that sort of commitment – the church had already wanted to do it – and now we have done it very well. The church is open, on average, ten hours a day every day of the year. Before then people were coming and manning the church at limited times during the day to help it open, but now we have it open very long hours and there’s usually something going on. It is a place of encounter with God and other people.
‘Also, we wanted to resource members of the congregation in being a contribution to building community in whatever opportunity they have — and there are specific things that St John’s has helped its members deal with, such as being significant contributors to the foundation of Christian Care for the Homeless, the Dumfries Food Bank, the FairTrade status of the town and the Region. All of these things are examples of the commitment of the church community to make a difference to the wider community which also includes international communities in the support we give to charitable projects in Colombia and Peru.’
You have been involved in a number of initiatives in Dumfries. What are those that you would like to be recalled?
‘I have been involved in a number of initiatives in the town; for instance the Youth Befriending project, the Mental Health Association, the translation of Dumfries Christian Council into Dumfries Christian Network but the two things to which I feel as if I’ve made a particular and personal contribution are, one related to my role as a part-time health care chaplain and another in regard to educational development. I’ve made a contribution towards the integration of spiritual care within the NHS and, latterly, in social care. Shortly after I arrived I was elected to a position to represent all faith communities in Dumfries and Galloway on the Council’s Education Committee, and there is a close link between that and the work in the NHS. It is about helping
people realise and understand how significant the spiritual dimension of life is to health and wholeness, both in terms of healthcare but also education. In the school system the health and wellbeing part of the curriculum is directly related to people’s spiritual health. My role and the role of my colleagues on the committee has been to promote that element of the curriculum. The theme of greater integration of spiritual care into the service delivery of both education and health care is something that I specifically feel pleased about.’
How has the experience of leading the congregation at St John’s changed you as a member of the clergy?
‘My experience in leading the congregation at St John’s has changed my role in the sense that the traditional model of ministry, which is embedded in many people’s conception, is largely built on the idea of small, rural or town communities where you would have a minister who is a significant person in that community, and the church community revolves around that role. But that only works when you have a relatively small community, so a small village would be like that. But these days there are not sufficient resources to have that number of clerics freed to spend their time to supporting a community in the way it was historically conceived to be. At St John’s we are a bit larger than the congregations that I’ve been involved in before so I had to change the way I operate. Instead of doing things myself, it was more about helping and encouraging other people to do things – and there’s still quite a lot of further development to be done on this.’
Is it going to be difficult to leave St John’s because of the many characters that you have met during your ministry here?
‘A significant thing I will miss is being part of a wonderful community. I think St John’s is very special: there is a great variety of people, and we do – and I hope I’ve made a contribution to creating this sort of ambience – live together harmoniously as a congregation, even though we are very different. Difference is respected and the individual characters, who are examples of those ranges of difference, are a real privilege to be among. Once I retire I will no longer be in that role of the co-ordinating,
facilitating figurehead. That I will miss greatly because
you can call on an enormous range of resources: you can be delighted by the range of talent and experience that there is in the congregation and the relationships you have are a real privilege. One of the things that I would like to think I have brought to the congregation is a . . . bad pun type of humour, really . . . and I think that has made a contribution to creating a community that is willing to live with difference in a constructive rather than a confrontational way. One of the roles I have performed is building teams that I know will work together and recognising the complementarity of people rather than putting people who are all the same together as that just leads to competition and conflict. That role has been a great privilege to hold but it is a very demanding one, so I’m at that point of transition where I recognise I have got to let go of that but I will miss it . . . I will miss the benefits being part of a great bunch of people – but it is time to retire because I don’t think I have the same energy I had when I came – and it is just the right time because there is a bit more of God’s providence to indicate there are resources in place that will mean my departure will not cause a crisis. We have had two very experienced Methodist ministers, a cleric and a local preacher, come into the congregation to retire and have got to know the congregation. Further, another younger couple have come from South India. These are all in addition to the wide range of retired clerics and the enormous range of lay ministers St John’s has, so it seems to me that there is an element of God’s providence in that and the church will be well served by these people in the interim. One of the giftings of Jim Booth, the Methodist who has been appointed Interim Priest Designate, is that he has managed many transitions of churches in his career as the Chair of a Methodist District – which is like being a Bishop in the SEC. God has been very kind in providing people who can contribute to the interim arrangements. These arrangements are quite important in our tradition – it is not like just appointing a head of a business; it’s got a familial context to it, a faith context to it and you need to create space for people to let go of the contributions I’ve been making and rejoice in the contributions that other people a making – and that’s a recognised transitional feature of church life. The last two changeovers of Rector
have both involved about a year between one Rector going and the new one coming and I think that’s about right. So to people who think we need someone quickly I would say that St John’s is blessed with an enormous range of ministry, the congregation won’t be bereft of ministry; the issue is that a transitional period which helps lead the church to the next phase of St John’s life is a very constructive thing. I believe God is creating the circumstances now so that it is the right time for me to retire. I would encourage the people involved with this transitional period with my view that God is being providential. Therefore they now have to play their part in noticing what God is calling this congregation to do in that transitional period. I wish them well and I will pray for them.’
Will you keep in touch with St John’s?
‘It is not appropriate for me to have any pastoral relationship with the people of St John’s once I’ve gone because there’s lots of evidence to indicate that it can make life difficult for those who follow. I’m sure I will hear about St John’s in church news generally and St John’s will continue in my prayers and be cherished in my memories.’
What does retirement hold – what are your plans?
Helen: ‘Initially we are going to go back to Glasgow – that’s the easiest thing. We don’t really know where we want to end up but that seemed to be the most straightforward. We have not any big plans; we’re so focused at the moment on what’s happening now. When we have time we’ll see what we want to do. I’ve got hobbies, like gardening, bird watching, art, running, creative activities – we’ll want to spend more time seeing family and friends.’
Robin: ‘We hope to have more time to spend with our family. The main thing that I think is important – and what I’m looking forward too – is to have more discretion over how we spend our time. At the moment, my commitments are to the church, the congregation, the calling I have, and that leads to it being quite difficult to always do things that you would choose to do, so I would choose to spend more time with people, particularly family, and I would choose to do things that energise rather than drain me but when you’re in charge of an enterprise
like St John’s you have to take the rough with the smooth. I don’t think I can continue at the pace I have been doing for many more years so that’s why I think it’s the time to go. Behind all that is a similar principle: that I will seek to do in retirement what God will call me to be, so I’m not going into retirement saying ‘oh yes, I have this, that and the other to do.’ I’m actually planning to do very little by way of prescribed things and just wait and see what emerges and notice and wonder what sort of circumstances are guiding the shape of life for the next number of years. I wouldn’t say I’m planning to do X,Y, Z, I’m planning to create space to do things that are spiritually nourishing and creating more time for relationships within the family and other good friends that we have in the Glasgow area, Scotland generally, Ireland, England. Australia, the USA, Germany and beyond.’
Helen: ‘I would like to add that we do want to make more time for physical exercise! We met walking and we wondered about walking one of the pilgrim ways. We want to get a better balance in life.’
Do you anticipate returning to a ministerial role at some point in your retirement?
‘The answer to that is an example of waiting to see what emerges. I’m not actively looking for that but if something emerges in a providential way which is resonant with my particular gifts then that would be a win-win situation. That is the case with many of the retired clergy with which St John’s is blessed. At the moment the only one I can see as a possibility, and it is likely to continue in a small way, is the work I’ve being doing for the NHS, because both Helen and I have the opportunity of doing a similar role to what Gordon Warwick has been doing in the NHS and, as he describes himself: ‘I’m a community asset, you know’, so in our retirement we’re hoping to be community assets too!’
Helen: ‘Through Robin’s ministry here – although I haven’t had a formal church role, to me it has felt very much a shared ministry. Most of the time I have been undertaking my own vocation as a specialist teacher. I’ve very much wanted to help Robin in the background — and sometimes not just in the background especially since I’ve retired myself — through these years. To me, I’ve felt extremely committed to this church – and I will miss it. I’ve felt very involved – I’ve got lots of close relationships with people and when we discerned about coming here in the first place, and over the timing of Robin’s retirement, to me all the time it’s been very much a joint thing.’
Robin: ‘I couldn’t do what I’ve done without Helen – we’re a double act.’
God bless Robin and Helen – and thank you