Where can you find 40 influential faith leaders in the same place, each one overseeing a Bible study on his or her area of specialty? That would
The social media group Rock the Bible started off at Carleton Memorial United in Ottawa last spring as an online Bible study for congregation members who couldn’t commit to another evening away from home. It quickly grew into a countrywide forum with over 1,750 members.
On each of the 30 days of June, a different writer (and sometimes a special guest) posted his or her thoughts on a biblical topic and led participants in a discussion. Part of the significance of Rock the Bible was how it connected participants from across the country with leading thinkers: church people in rural Manitoba could exchange ideas with former moderator Very Rev. Lois Wilson in Toronto; folks from Newfoundland could talk about faith and politics with Ottawa journalist and former MP Dennis Gruending, and so on.
Perhaps the impressive calibre and increasing reach of the church’s current leaders is the reason why the majority of survey respondents believe it’s important for future leaders to be highly skilled as preachers and worship leaders, as well as formally trained in the theology and practices of The United Church of Canada. However, when it comes to other aspects of congregational life, they think the minister should have some help. Pastoral care, outreach, faith formation and attracting new members are all seen as shared responsibilities by more than three-quarters of survey takers.
“Shared leadership is important, no matter what kind of an organization you are,” says Barb Taylor, a 67-year-old member of Trinity United in Elmira, Ont. “If the minister can’t delegate, he or she will end up burning out — I’ve seen it happen.”
If we need more hands to share the work of leading the church, where will we find them? It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of new seminary school graduates, not only in the United Church but also in other Canadian denominations. One alternative source is the laity: non-ordered leaders of various types and titles have
always been a part of United Church operations, and there’s no reason to think this will change going forward.
There’s also a small but steady trickle of worship leaders who were trained in other Christian traditions but who now affirm United Church theology and practice. Their origins are as diverse as Christianity itself: last year saw ministers admitted from the Baptist Convention, the Moravian Church, Presbyterianism, the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries and the Reformed Church in Southern Africa. The survey results suggest that they were welcome: 88 percent of respondents are at least somewhat comfortable with the idea of leaders coming in from another denomination, and over half say they’re “very comfortable.”
To reassure those with doubts, new United Church minister and former Catholic priest Rev. Jeff Doucette says, “There’s a lot of homework done on admission candidates. It’s not a question of being desperate and taking anyone at all.” Doucette was trained and evaluated by the United Church for two years before officially joining its ministry — although
his connection to his congregation was far more immediate. “It felt like home to me,” he says of his first time visiting Dunbarton-Fairport United in Pickering, Ont. “Those folks had me at hello.”
He didn’t feel welcome, by contrast, in Catholic churches after leaving the priesthood six years ago. Doucette’s departure wasn’t prompted by scandal, nor was he in a relationship when he applied for dispensation (although he was feeling profoundly lonely at the time, and is now happily married). Even so, “just going in to take a seat with the laity wasn’t easy,” he says, “because people would ask about my past and make all kinds of assumptions.”
Doucette thinks he’s a better United Church minister than he was a priest since he disagreed with Rome on such topics as LGBT rights and the ordination of women. “Hopefully, those of us who are joining the United Church really want to be here. I know I do.” All the more so, he says, because he finds it exciting to help lead the denomination during a time of challenge and change. “My personal struggles have shown me that only God knows what’s going to happen. Our role is to try our best, and hope.”
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