PORTADOWN, Northern Ireland

The Rev. Stafford Carson, moderator designate for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, will assume leadership amidst difficult times.

Carson, minister of First Portadown Presbyterian Church in the north of Ireland, will assume leadership on June 1 during the opening session of the church’s General Assembly.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland serves both the North and the South, with a membership of about 300,000 in more than 560 congregations belonging to 21 presbyteries.

“The one major issue that is likely to dominate our General Assembly this year is that of the Presbyterian Mutual Society,” Carson said.

The Presbyterian Mutual Society was started many years ago as a fund that individuals and congregations could invest in and borrow from, similar to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program. 

Last autumn, when the global financial situation began to decline, a number of investors withdrew their money, leaving the fund under a huge financial pressure. Because it was not a bank, the funds were not guaranteed by the government in the same way that other savings have been guaranteed.

The current moderator, the Rev. Donald Patton, as well as other church leaders and local politicians, have been petitioning British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, chancellor of the Exchequer, to ask if they might intervene to guarantee the funds.

Most impacted are congregations and individuals with their savings invested who can’t get access to their money.

“My own congregation has money invested for a project to refurbish our buildings and we are not able to go ahead with that,” Carson said. “This is the big worrying issue, and it will continue to take my attention throughout my moderatorial year.”

“On the encouraging side, we are a small denomination, but we have just accepted 21 successful candidates to become students for ministry,” he said.

Based on the expected retirements that will be coming within the church in Ireland, a shortage of ministers is being predicted.

“We are very grateful and thankful, and are encouraged by the number of new candidates,” Carson said.

Still, as in many places, overall membership in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is declining.

“Just because you call yourself First Presbyterian Portadown, that is not necessarily the kind of thing people sign up for these days,” Carson said. 

The Board of Mission for the church, seeking to address this issue, has required each of the 21 presbyteries to come up with a “strategy for mission” for its area. The next stage of this program is for each individual congregation to provide a strategy for mission for its future.

“For people who recognize the need for change, this has been the permission that they have been looking for,” Carson said. “Rather than be in a maintenance mode, how do we reach out, to move forward and connect with our community and neighborhoods? It is getting people to think how do they do church in their own area?”

The Armagh Presbytery, of which Carson is a member, created clusters of congregations within the same area and brought their elders together to share about areas in which they were moving forward, as well as areas of concern.

“This was quite useful because the elders began thinking and asking what more they could do to bring a new vitality into their churches,” Carson said.

In preparation for his 12-month assignment as moderator, which will keep him away from his own congregation during most of that time, Carson has begun a blog.

“I’m going to be away from my own congregation for 12 months and I wanted a way to keep in touch with them,” he said. “I’m using the blog as a way to update them on where I’ll be and what I’m doing.”

“It’s not meant to be a real heavy or serious blog,” he said, adding that it will be interesting to see how the blog will play out once his moderatorial service begins.

“When I go to meetings, how will I blog about that?” he said.

There is a difference between communicating the results of a meeting via an official press release and posting about it in a more informal blog.

But this is not deterring Carson.

“A blog gives you a greater ability to communicate with a wider audience,” he said. “It also has personal benefits to help me think through and reflect on particular issues. It is a chance to get people thinking and to interact with people.”

But Carson is also wary of putting too much emphasis on electronically mediated social relationships.

“I think we can recognize the limitations of it, but that it’s also a medium we’ve got to use and think our way through,” he said.

“There was a story about Robert Schuller, answering critics who suggested that people would stay home and watch the ‘Hour of Power’ on TV instead of going to church,” Carson said. “Schuller’s response was, ‘Well, if people are getting more out of my TV program than they are from your church on the corner, I think there’s something wrong with your church!’”

Carson, in his upcoming role as moderator, is hoping to make sure that is not the case. 

“This year will be an important year as we help people to move forward,” he said.

Erin Dunigan is a free-lance writer and photographer in Newport Beach, CA.