The Church of Scotland has appointed its first ever dedicated “farming minister” to help support people in the hard-pressed agricultural industry.
Rev Chris Blackshaw visits farms across Ayrshire to provide spiritual and family support, counselling and encourages people to buy local produce.
The 57-year-old also interacts with young farmer groups, National Farmers Union Scotland representatives, visits the weekly livestock mart and attends annual agriculture shows.
Mr Blackshaw, a farmer’s son, will also draw together groups of people linked to the industry like vets, government agencies, livestock mart staff, those servicing the farming industry and estate workers.
A retired police sergeant, he has experience enabling him to provide support to people dealing with a wide range of issues such as bereavement, addictions, illness, depression, stress, suicide and isolation.
The “innovative and creative” Pioneer Ministry post is an initial five-year appointment supported by the Church of Scotland’s Ministries Council and the Presbytery of Ayr.
The new role has been warmly welcomed by National Farmers Union Scotland and rural charity RSABI who say the perilous state of the ailing sector is taking a “serious” toll on the health and wellbeing of many people who too often “suffer in silence”.
Love of Christ
Mr Blackshaw, who was previously a minister to the agricultural community in Cumbria, said: “I absolutely love my new job and the feedback I have received since I started in September has been very positive.
“I was born and bred on a Derbyshire hill farm and have a good understanding of farming.
“There are not many jobs I couldn’t do on a farm so this is the ideal job for me – showing people the love of Christ by walking alongside them.”
Mr Blackshaw, who owns a smallholding in Cumbria and has seven English long horn cattle, said farming can be a very isolating profession.
“For some farmers there are not many people who they can turn to and have a confidential conversation with,” he explained.
“I have met vets who have told me that they often go back to farms, not to look at the animals but to make sure the farmers are okay.”
Mr Blackshaw, who lives near Maybole, says he is a “shoulder to lean upon in hard times”.
“I go to the local market and call at farms to let people know I am there to provide support and share in celebrations and happy times as well,” he added.
“My job is about letting people know there is someone there who cares and wants to help them, especially when they think there isn’t anyone and showing them that Church is very relevant in their day-to-day lives.
“It is about communicating with people in a language and context that they understand and feel comfortable in.
“I have been very pleasantly surprised by the faith that exists amongst the farming community.”
“Special acts of worship have taken place already with around 250 people attending carols in Ayr market”.
A bucket collection was held and raised £900 for Ayr Farm Support and RSABI.
Mr Blackshaw plans to hold further acts of worship, which will include a lambing thanksgiving service on a sheep farm, a farm walk BBQ and praise in the summer and a harvest thanksgiving.
Kirk elder, Isabell Montgomerie, a former Presbytery of Ayr moderator, described Mr Blackshaw as a “huge asset”.
“He brings warmth, care and compassion to the role,” she said.
“People are so impressed by how easy he is to talk to and happy to share their issues and problems with him.
“His background means farmers feel comfortable speaking to him because he understands them.
“The majority of farming people in Ayrshire are Christians and they care more, in a lot of cases, about their animals than themselves.
“It is great that Chris is able to really show that the Church cares about the farming community.”
Mrs Montgomerie, a farmer herself, said many people in the sector are too busy to attend church on Sundays.
“Chris is bringing out the faith in the people he visits and I hope it will encourage them to share their faith with others,” she added.
Rev Kenneth Elliott, clerk to the Presbytery of Ayr, said the Pioneer Ministry position was akin to a church with fields and no boundaries.
“We are aware that the farming community has been under a great deal of stress in recent times, highlighted by the poor harvest,” he added.
“Chris has come in at a good time.
“People have not just appreciated the fact that he is the Pioneer Minister for farming, but also the fact that the Church of Scotland has had the foresight to see there is a need for this type of ministry.
“I think that shows a very caring and broad minded Church that is willing to try new ideas.”
The five-year pilot post could be rolled out across other parts of rural Scotland in the future if it proves successful in reconnecting rural Ayrshire with Christianity.