A shortfall in the coffers may mean the three churches in the Tingwall parish could struggle to survive beyond the next two years.
Falling congregations, a struggle to attract younger people and a shortfall in charitable funding are among the problems facing Tingwall, Scalloway and Weisdale kirks.
Around 25 people were given the stark warning at a public meeting in the Tingwall church on Tuesday night following growing concerns over repair and running costs.
Parish treasurer Ken Duerden outlined the scale of the problem facing the kirks, with an estimated repair bill of £131,400 for Tingwall and Weisdale alone.
The six-figure sum is only expected to grow once the estimates for Scalloway start coming in.
Mr Duerden said the parish had been unable to cover full running costs over the last few years. This year’s anticipated break-even was only down to a one-off payment and other unexpected boosts to the bank balance. Without those, he said, the parish would incur an £1,800 loss.
Only repairs which related to safety, or could be claimed on insurance, were being carried out.
“We do have some funds held centrally for us in Edinburgh, but these are not going to last for long if we have got to spend a six-figure sum on three buildings. Even if we can get grants it is unlikely that we can afford to keep the parish going for more than a couple of years.”
He warned average weekly attendances last year had dipped to levels which struggled to reach 20 people.
The Rev Debbie Dobby, who chaired the meeting, added: “That’s the situation. We are barely covering normal every day running costs, and facing massive repair bills.”
Neil Anderson, of Tingwall, said he was neither a member nor an attendee at the kirk. But he was “vehemently opposed” to closing the Tingwall church.
Tingwall, he said, was the “mother kirk” for all of Shetland. A kirk had been in the area since the 10th century and was first built as part of the early parliamentary set up in the valley.
“This kirk is the kirk for the whole of Shetland,” he said. “To close this kirk would be the equivalent of the closure of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.”
Tingwall elder Bryan Robertson warned there were often constraints with repairs on listed buildings, with contractors needing to comply with health and safety regulations and “red tape”.
Weisdale member Devina Morrison said part of the blame lay with Historic Scotland, which refused to allow her kirk the luxury of double glazing when the windows started streaming.
“It has to be what they want and what they say, and usually what they say is the most expensive option. The fact we weren’t allowed to put double glazing in the Weisdale church is ridiculous, because the windows still stream.”
John Jarmson said the problem was nothing new. He said more than £100,000 had been spent on the three buildings during the ‘80s and ’90s.
“It’s going to repeat itself,” he warned.
But others warned of more deep-rooted problems.
Arnold Duncan said Shetland churches had been “far too reliant” on funding provided by Shetland Charitable Trust, through the Shetland Churches Council Trust, which has had its funding dropped as part of the trust’s efforts to claw back spending.
“Such grants have to be shared by all the churches in Shetland. These grants have been curtailed recently and we can’t be assured of similar funds in years to come. The goose that laid the golden egg has dried up.”
He added most worshippers were senior citizens, with many current members unable to attend due to health problems or infirmity.
“It will not be this Kirk Session that will close any of these kirks. It will be the congregation, or the lack of a congregation, that will close them.”
Responding to one congregation member who wondered whether a new building might be built, he warned, “the nucleus” of new people was badly needed.
Brenda Scollay felt as though worshippers were “between a rock and a hard place”.
“None of us want to close any of our churches. We want to keep the witness in our communities, but we don’t have the option.”
But many were keen to find a solution. The idea of worshipping in a community hall was raised. Greater use of electronic technology – through a computer app – and social media was suggested, as well as possible ways of making the church available for different uses to the wider community for events, club meetings or even dances.
Marion Duerden stressed a church was not a building so much as the body of people who went there.
“We could still have meetings and get others involved without churches. We just need somewhere where we can congregate and praise God.”
Mr Robertson added: “Society is changing. That is part of what we’re struggling against. The church has to get out into the community. We spend our time chasing the material and the fabric of the building rather than God’s word.”
The meeting heard of a shortfall in children and young people coming to church. That was not helped by the demise of the Boys’ Brigade movement, and the growth of sporting and social events taking place on Sundays. But one voice said, in Scalloway at least, links between the church and school were strong.
Not helping the Kirk’s position is a nationwide shortage of ministers.
The congregation heard around 250 vacancies around Scotland had been left unfilled.
Some learned that the Church of Scotland actually funds a kirk in Jerusalem, which is run jointly by all the denominations.
“It would be interesting to ken how much is being sent overseas,” said Mr Anderson, although Mrs Dobby stressed Church of Scotland congregations worshipped all over the world.
She said the points raised would go to a Kirk Session meeting, which is due to take place tonight.
She stressed no decision over the future of the churches had been made yet.