Rt. Rev. Peter Short had asked former moderators to choose 106 clergy and laity from all over Canada for the assembly late last year. Their task: to discern what ministry God requires of the United Church in its next generation. Without distraction.
Short did everything he could to make sure that those who gathered at Grace-St. Andrew's United in his hometown could really listen for God. They had no agenda, lest (in thoroughly human fashion) participants shape what they heard to fit it. There were no reporters, lest observers inhibit honest, attentive conversation. As Rev. Joe Gaspar of Hornepayne, Ont., explained later: "God's presence is experienced not so much in grand plans and visions, but in deep listening. Respectful listening. How we relate to each other really closes the door, or opens the door, to experiencing God in the midst of our community."
The result, as shown through interviews with some of the participants, was puzzlement, anxiety, inspiration, serious listening, frustration, hope, and transformation. One hundred and six different outcomes. Some valuable lessons about discernment.
Discernment requires courage.
Scorer -- who has years of experience running human relations sessions at the Naramata Centre in British Columbia -- points out that "[The moderator] was insistent that we would not presume an outcome. This is high-risk. It could just frustrate people." Indeed, Short himself felt the danger of creating a "self-resourcing assembly" on the first evening. "I announced a song, watching to see if anyone would come to the keyboard. This was our first test."
That test and others passed easily: "Soon keyboardists appeared, then guitar, drums, flute, singers, rain sticks. As the assembly progressed, leadership emerged not only for music but for worship and for group dialogue as well."
But at other times, frustration over the open agenda was obvious. Social activists who wanted justice issues dealt with at the assembly weren't able -- in the words of one participant -- to direct the process "out of the congregational space and into the larger world." (Not that these issues vanished; a powerful presentation by Rev. Anthony Bailey of Ottawa, for instance, continued to stir many long after the assembly was over.)
Although the group grew more at ease as days passed, it's clear that discernment requires an ability to sit with anxiety. A number of times, says Scorer, "people were tempted to find an easy answer. But we said `No, we have to hang in for the long haul'." It means "you gain immensely in community and relationship with God. There is nothing like the joy of getting through. And we did that."
Much depends on trust. "There was a way in which the whole thing hung on [the moderator's] shoulders," says Scorer, on his "presence, wit, trust, vision."
Discernment requires intuition and imagination.
The rewards of such risk-taking can be high. Rich stories arising from the respectful listening transported Rev. Heather Leffler of Clifford, Ont., into renewed vocational clarity. "As leaders in the church, we always want to be the sower. This time, Peter really invited us to be the seeds."
Metaphors like Leffler's are helpful when people are struggling to convey difficult concepts. One comment early in the assembly -- urging a plunge into whitewater and confusion, rather than portaging around the chaos (perhaps with newsprint, markers, and prioritizing) -- was much repeated. This is not the usual language of church meetings.
The assembly was an attempt to "get at the heart of where God is calling us today," adds Rev. Jim Ball of Georgetown, Ont., "and you can't get to it just through the head." The assembly tried "to sift out what the governing metaphor ought to be." That doesn't mean stashing our brains at the church door. This is "a reach for wholeness," says Ball, "not simply a reach for the heart. I don't see us jettisoning the need for logical acuity."
Discernment allows inspiration.
Former moderators, who had been quiet throughout the gathering, were pressed to speak on the last evening. "They had been willing to sit and engage in conversation" without telling people what to think, says Burlington, Ont., staff associate Bev Buckingham. "A whole different way of looking at things."
In fact, the eight moderators attending seemed to become a living symbol in themselves. While on the one hand, says Ball, each is "simply one of" the membership of the entire church, on the other hand "they are elders." For him, "really what is at the core" of the United Church "seemed embodied in this group of people."
Others agree. The moderators provided inspiration, says Scorer, the "most powerful elder presence I have seen other than in First Nations communities." It is an aspect of leadership that is sometimes missing: "We are waiting to be inspired, `in-spirited'," he says. "Not consulted to death."
Discernment involves contention.
"Whenever the moderator stood up, he became the steward of the process," says Rev. Russell Daye of Halifax. "At other times, we didn't always feel our way in."
By definition, letting go of the agenda means things won't be perfect. Distractions beckon. Despite, or perhaps because of the careful, attentive listening, other aspects of meaningful communication can be buried. Marion Best -- a skilled facilitator and former moderator herself -- wondered if "we lost some opportunities to have an encounter around difficult issues." Was it a moment of avoidance when people chose to cheer and applaud the former moderators into offering their wisdom -- a moment of self-distraction as sharp and unconscious as the one Scorer's group had noted earlier? Or a powerful need to learn from the elders? Or both? "To have conversations that matter," says Best, "we have to be vulnerable and able to challenge one another."
Discernment requires openness.
"This is leadership," says Gaspar, "helping the community listen, helping to spot where the Kingdom of God has come near and proclaim it. We have these preconceived notions that the voice of God comes out of the minister. But it might come out of a 10-year-old in Sunday school."
Discarding preconceived notions about who usually speaks meant that some people who don't often take the floor, did. At various times quiet people stepped forward or were nudged. Rev. Teresa Moysey of Winnipeg overheard one such person being told, "I'm longing to know what is going on your heart." He was soon skilfully leading her group -- proof, she says, that "it is only in the waiting, and being invited, that some wise folks might offer something."
According to Daye, that kind of nudging could have a strong effect on the church. "A number of people came to see themselves as leaders."
When it was over, those who had gathered in Arnprior headed home -- clustering in airports to begin to talk about what had happened, driving home with sermons taking shape. Looking back, Best notes, "very rich things surfaced." Like other moderators/elders, she was filled with hope by the leaders in front of them, "younger people who really are engaging and committed and competent and care deeply." They "made us all feel confident," says Very Rev. Bruce McLeod. "All these marvelous voices in ordered ministry and lay ministry -- actually, you couldn't tell who was who."
Some preached about it on Sunday, trying to convey the experience to others. "If we all go back to our communities and really live what happened at Arnprior," says Gaspar, "it could change the church."
Regina layperson Moses Kanhai says with enthusiasm that it was "a dreaming time," a "very unusual experience few of us would have had before." He says he "hadn't understood before" that he has "no less a role in ministry than the paid ministers." But now he is ready to begin. "There is so much to be done. I am not a preacher, but I would like to tell my congregation what I felt."
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