The following observations are based on retreats I have led for 900 ministry personnel over the course of two years, an exceptional opportunity to listen and learn from people who give leadership in our congregations and missions.
Our ministry leaders are deeply called, but they find themselves unhappy within church structures that are meant to equip and sustain them. Their Presbyteries haven't the capacity to deliver the encouragement, nurture, community and wise supervision that ministers need and long for. Because their expectations are high (thank God), disappointment among ministry leaders is deep when they feel the effects of the vast changes, diminishments and hurts that have swept through the church.
A generation ago, ministers served in a church that seemed to be going from strength to strength. Now they live with a chronic, low-grade sense of failure even though they know that they bring great gifts of skill, effort and faithfulness to the work. They are committed to community, but they feel isolated. They love the church, yet they most often interpret their ministry vocation as a personal, psychological experience with no particular rootedness in the history, purpose and mandate of The United Church of Canada. Open to diversity in ministry, members of each stream nonetheless resent the perceived advantages that other streams of ministry enjoy.
Ministry is deep in their hearts. They are surprised and delighted when someone representing the whole church comes to listen to them and to thank them for their labour and sacrifice in ministry. They long to bear good fruit, but not all of them have the gifts and skills for the particular role of congregational leadership in which they find themselves. They are good people, longing for the freedom to bring forth their best for a Gospel that has laid hold of their lives.
This experience has led me to two fundamental conclusions. One, all sorts of inequities, burdens and incapacities need to be fixed so that our ministry leaders can be equipped and sustained in their work. And two, we must expand their freedom to work together out of a deep and coherent purpose -- God's purpose.
The first conclusion acknowledges a cluster of problems that cause hurt in ministry and confirms for me the critical importance of current General Council work on fair compensation for all people in paid accountable ministry, on rethinking pastoral review policies, on isolation in ministry, on sabbatical leaves, ethics and standards of practice, and on ministry training and continuing education. All are on track to be presented to the upcoming General Council.
But it was the second conclusion that led me to ask the General Council Executive for permission to convene the Arnprior Assembly. Its intent was to call together leaders who would give themselves to genuine dialogue about the purposes of God for the ministry of this church in the next generation; to address a question that runs like an underground river beneath the problems that cause hurt in our ministry.
It is the question of meaning, purpose and hope in a time of relinquishment, disappointment and change. It is the question of spiritual vitality and clarity in a time of anxiety and dissonance. This deeper question of the spirit led me to write in a letter to participants, "You will not be asked to present your ideas about strategic planning. You will be asked to give an account of the hope that is within you. What we long to know is not our plan but God's will."
That's what the assembly was all about -- the ministry to which God is calling us in the third generation of The United Church of Canada.
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