What a Journey it’s Been

Hard to believe that my three-year ministry as Moderator is coming to a close… although General Council still looms large in my thinking and in my dreams.

So, friends, this is my final posting, the last of over 165. What a journey it’s been.


I have particularly appreciated these final 40 days, this prayer pilgrimage to General Council 42, and the opportunity to engage in conversations that matter. Many thanks to those who have been part of the journey.

We’re not there yet… so let us continue to pray for the church, not only for the commissioners and “online participants” travelling to Corner Brook, but for all that will happen during the meeting of the Council, and for all that will need to be done after.

As of Monday, August 3, I will have arrived on the Rock, off to a small hotel some 40 kilometres north of Corner Brook, to spend time in silence and in prayer, preparing for General Council. I’ll be pondering the questions that we’ve been travelling with:

  • What’s faith got to do with it?
  • What’s a good church for?
  • What do we need to let go?
  • What is our core purpose… and our core values?
  • How are discipleship and evangelism expressed in the “new church.”
  • What kind of leaders do we need? And how best to recruit, educate and support them?
  • How best to live out Jesus’ command to love God and neighbour…
    …and the neighbourhood, all my relations, the earth?

And I will be praying for the wisdom and strength to be fully present in the gathering, worship,and work of General Council 42. I will be praying over the various proposals and business that we must discuss, debate, and decide upon, all within the spirit of discernment, seeking to be faithful to God’s call into the future.

I will be holding fast to the scripture passage that I preached on when I was installed as Moderator – Ephesians 3:14-21. Over these past three years it has provided a focus for my personal prayer, and my prayers for our church:

O Holy One… according to the riches of your glory
I pray that we may be strengthened in our inner being,
with power through your Spirit,
and that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith,
as we are being rooted and grounded in love.

I pray that we may have the power to comprehend,
with all the saints,
the breadth, and length, and height, and depth,
of the love of Christ….
although it surpasses knowledge,
so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to God,
Who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly
far more than all we can ask or imagine,
to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus,
to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

[Photo by Sang Trinh, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

Leadership in Our Time

My “water mug” – the one I will be bringing to the 42nd General Council – comes from last February’s Youth Forum and it declares, “God’s World Needs Young Leaders.” Recently, a friend pushed this further, and said that in this changing reality of church, we may not need buildings, but we sure are going to need good leaders, young and old! And she’s right… wherever I have been in my travels across the church, good leadership is always at the heart of renewal, experiment, and energy. Oh, good leadership isn’t enough to guarantee change – there are too many other dynamics and realities in play. But it is a necessary minimum. Sometimes I worry that United Church “culture” is almost suspicious of “strong leaders.” We worry about the shadow side (arrogance, ego-centric, not listening, etc.) and find it more difficult to celebrate the gifts of a “leader who leads.”


But it can be challenging to know what kind of leadership will be helpful. We are caught in an awkward time, between the “church that is” and the “church that is to be” – and the leadership needs are different. Our theological schools and educational centres are creatively struggling with this, seeking to fulfill our church’s commitment to an educated ministry, while, at the same time, preparing leaders for a new reality. There is a report (and a proposal) coming to General Council that focusses on this: “Faithful, Effective, and Learned Leaders for the Church We Are Becoming: A Competency–Based Approach to Ministerial Education” (see page 609 in the GC42 Workbook). I know that’s a mouthful, but I invite you to take a good look at this attempt to respond to the leadership challenges we are facing.

There was a study done in the Methodist Church (USA) which described three differing “ministry personalities” – those who could “run” a good church; those who were able to work with and revive struggling congregations; and those who were able to start something totally new – perhaps a church plant or some kind of entrepreneurial ministry, something completely different, and not necessarily connected with traditional congregational ministry. When the Methodists looked at themselves, they realized they had lots of folk in the first two categories, but almost none in the third, and therefore they needed to be more intentional and encouraging in their recruitment of new leaders… and maybe needed to change their church culture. I wonder if the United Church is in a similar situation? I have heard from some of our younger leaders that they are experiencing tension – expected to commit to the “old” forms of being and doing church, but chomping at the bit to engage and experiment with the new, and not feeling there is much support to do the latter.

However, some experiments in ministerial leadership are happening. New forms of circuit ministry are being explored, often with a team of ministers being responsible for several congregations. This means that lay ministry plays an expanding and vital role – which in turn means that we must continue to strengthen training and support for lay leadership within the church, including Lay Worship Leaders and Sacramental Elders, but other expressions of this as well.

Bi-vocational ministry is another possibility considered by some – back to Paul’s “tent-making” ministry, where ministry does not necessarily mean full-time employment. (although this can raise as many problems as it addresses; e.g., how to attract new young leaders with no guarantee of a job?

Entrepreneurial ministry emphasizes outside-the-box thinking, where financial support does not necessarily depend on “congregational givings,” but includes a “business plan” to address some of the financial challenges, and partnerships with those who, while not explicitly Christian or “churched”, are nevertheless, like us, invested in working for justice and change. Thus… street-front cafes; yoga chapel; micro-financing, and partnership with social enterprises.

There is also a continuing recognition that ministers need support. Mentoring and coaching have proven to be very helpful. Gatherings of paid accountable ministers, without lay people, are also necessary (educational, retreats, shop-talk coffee gatherings). Ongoing “cohorts,” conversational, learning groups connected through web technology, are gaining traction. Possibly an association of some kind might be helpful. Perhaps the church needs to be intentional about offering United Church options and events for ministers’ continuing education.

I yearn for Pentecostal energy that is not wrapped up in so-called “Pentecostal theology.” I hunger for leaders who are empowered by the Spirit, who are inspired, who catch glimpses of new possibilities, who are able to take risks (and are willing to learn from failures), who are committed to being in the world, sharing good news in action, in the work of peace and justice, and who are able to offer a gospel word when asked, when it’s needed. I know this is a dream shared across the church; and I know it is already happening. I just want more!

Photo: Sergey Yeliseev, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The Call to Justice – Part 2: The How

So perhaps you have a sense of why you and the church need to be involved in the work of justice, not as an optional part of the gospel, but as an integral expression of it. But then comes the question of how such a commitment gets expressed.

Within the United Church there has been a recognition that different parts of the church are equipped to engage in different expressions of the work of justice. Congregations respond to the neighbourhood, their immediate and local context, with a hands-on approach. Sometimes that’s expressed through charity – feeding the hungry, for instance, with food banks, or meals; or “Out of the Cold” programs; at other times, it’s more in the realm of social service, a hand-up rather than just a hand-out, helping people make real changes.


The newly emerging “missional church” talks about “moving into the neighbourhood,” paying attention to the hurts and injustices, the needs and the hopes of people in the immediate community where the church finds itself – and then discerning where God is asking the church to respond; discovering, in fact, that God is already at work in the community. What might we learn from this approach?

Systemic or national and global issues are more often dealt with by Conferences or General Council, when structural change and social transformation are needed, and when extensive research and analysis are required. When our church organization functions at its best, the work done by Conference and General Council loops back into congregational life, with learning opportunities, programs, and suggestions for action. Right relations with Aboriginal peoples is one example; Israel and Palestine, another.

However, this system is experiencing difficulties.

First, the United Church is no longer a major player in the larger public and political scene, our voice no longer listened to, as it was in former times. Yes, we do have some moral influence, but real power… not so much. So, for instance, is the Moderator talking “for” the church or “to” the church when he/she makes pronouncements? And who, really, is listening – the public? business? government? Or church members only?

Secondly, with the decline in resources, financial, staff, and volunteers, at the Conference and General Council levels, the United Church has a greatly reduced capacity to engage in the work of justice. We can no longer pretend that we can respond to every issue. We can’t do everything… so how do we determine our priorities? Where do we believe that God is calling us to act?

We have responded to this challenge by working ecumenically – KAIROS comes to mind – but still, shrinking resources and government attitudes are limiting the work. We have also developed partnerships with non-church groups, non-profits, and social enterprises, for example, who may not share our faith perspective, but who do hold common convictions about justice and change. In these relationships we need to keep asking what is the unique gift and energy that the church can offer to this work – an inclusive community? Spirituality? Third space? Energy and conviction that it is not just about us?

Various justice activists have been exploring the power of networks, where people across the country who share a particular passion are linked together, with social media providing useful tools to do just that. There is a challenge in deciding to what extent such networks are part of the national church structure, and therefore speak on behalf of the church; and to what extent they are an independent voice, though church-rooted, and thus can act more critically and prophetically. And, connected to this, is the question of how much financial and staff support the national church (or more local bodies) might offer to maintain such networks.

Thirdly, there has been a tendency to “professionalize” some of our outreach ministry, especially in its global dimensions. In part, this is necessary and inevitable – we need trained and experienced resource persons to build connections and partnerships. On the other hand, a number of people at the congregational level want to be more “hands-on”, to have more direct involvement in the work of justice, not just contribute financially. So yes, they want to support  Mission & Service, but also, have opportunities to make links and connections, to be “doing” some of the work as well.

Various congregations are doing just that – building ever deepening relationships with specific United Church partners, exchanging letters, visits, providing financial support for particular projects, being physically present as accompaniers, or as fellow workers. Others have developed their own connections, participating in awareness-raising trips, or through other organizations like Habitat for Humanity. How might we ensure that every congregation has a meaningful and engaged involvement with our national and global mission?

A quick glance at the proposals that are coming to General Council reveals our church’s ongoing commitment to the work of justice:

  • Reconciliation and Right Relations, with specific references to an Inquiry regarding missing and murdered Aboriginal women (4)
  • Israel and Palestine (13)
  • LGBTQ apology (1)
  • A more representative Parliament (1)
  • Peace, nuclear weapons, and the arms trade (5)
  • Child well-being (poverty) (1)
  • Treatment of prisoners (1)
  • Eco-justice and climate change (13)
  • Mining justice in the developing world (5)

These proposals are calling for particular actions and long-term commitments. So… what is the work that we are called to focus on? How do we choose our priorities? How do we act effectively, and truly make a difference? How do we ensure that congregational members are engaged in this work? Please hold GC42 and the commissioners in your prayers, as they discern both the why and the how of social justice.

Art by Corey L, Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, Mississauga, ON.