The Reverend Dr Frances Henderson has joined Shetland Presbytery this month, marking what the kirk calls a “progressive new era for the isles”.
It was revealed on Monday that the Church of Scotland is to close two thirds of its buildings in Shetland on the backdrop of a shortage of ministers, reduced congregations and financial constraints.
Henderson, who was originally brought up on a hill farm just outside the village of Crawford in South Lanarkshire, said that her previous experience with church mergers would equip her for undertaking the task in Shetland.
She said: “Before I arrived [at Hoddom, Kirtle-Eaglesfield and Middlebie Parish Church], there had been a union and three church closures, so we worked hard to bring people together and create a new sense of identity and purpose.
“Shetland Presbytery is also going through a time of transition so this skill will prove incredibly beneficial to collaborating with congregations to meet the challenges of ministry and mission in the 21stcentury.
“Bringing together 13 parishes into one and setting up the structures that will make this work will be a challenge. There are also the geographical challenges, of covering such a large and scattered area, and uniting with a presbytery on the Scottish mainland.”
She also said the Shetland presbytery was “already full of gifted and faithful people who have themselves recognised the need for change, and are now working positively towards that”.
“By the end of my five years, I would hope to have everything in place so that the Church of Scotland in Shetland can move confidently into the future,” Henderson added.
She said that there will be fewer but larger congregations, “which I hope will free church members to focus on mission and ministry to the new Parish of Shetland”.
There will also be a new united kirk session, and an established team ministry of ministers and parish workers to meet the worship, missional, pastoral, and organisational needs of the parish. This has lead to the recent appointment of Ellen Weir as youth and children’s worker.
“By pooling our talents and spiritual gifts, it is my hope and prayer that together we can find a new energy and joy in our calling as God’s people in this place,” said Henderson.
Henderson was educated at the prestigious Oxford University before teaching English and drama at three secondary schools in England and Scotland.
Henderson added: “I loved teaching, and count that as my first call from God. Then came the call to ministry to add to that.
“I studied for my divinity degree at New College, Edinburgh, and my probation was in a rural charge of four linked parishes.
“But instead of going straight into the parish after my probation, I returned to university to do a PhD in theology.”
While studying for her PhD, she was ordained in 2006 as an associate minister at Loanhead Parish Church, where her main ministry work was with children.
After completing her PhD, she then spent time working as an associate minister or locum in various churches, including 14 months at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.
Two years spent as assistant principal and a lecturer in theology at New College followed, before Henderson accepted the call into parish ministry at Hoddom, Kirtle-Eaglesfield and Middlebie Parish Church in the presbytery of Annandale and Eskdale, where she has been in post until making the move to her new position in Shetland.
She is “no stranger to a life carved out in the countryside”, having been brought up on the family farm.
“There were five churches in the parish, and we used to have to chase the minister on a Sunday on a complicated rota system.”
Principal clerk of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Rev Dr George Whyte said: “I am delighted that Frances Henderson has been appointed to this post,.
“She brings to the task experience, intellect and energy at a time when the Church in Shetland is planning a new and exciting future.”
Henderson said her main motivator is her faith. “This is absolutely where God wants me to be and what God wants me to be doing.”
A keen knitter, she is also hoping to take on a ‘Fair Isle for Beginners’ class and maintains a love for walking, which is a “perfect match for a life on the isle”.
Partnerships and Development Secretary for the Church of Scotland Ministries Council Daran Golby said: “The appointment of Rev Dr Frances Henderson marks another positive step in the ongoing work on the isles and I look forward to working with her and the Shetland congregations as they grow and move into their new shape of ministry.
“Francesca has a wealth of ministerial experience and a personal passion for Shetland that I’m sure will undoubtedly support her as she starts this new journey.”