All over this church, congregations are considering their future, asking themselves what they should be doing with their aging buildings or how to attract young families or even where they can find money to keep a full-time minister. They know that times have changed and they have to change too. They don't all set out with a willing heart. Often we wait until we're desperate, after we've ignored the warning signs. Songwriter John Prine describes an accident caused "just from walking with his back turned to a train that was coming so slow."
Denominationally, church has had similar ambivalence about planning for its future. Over the last 12 years, members of successive General Council Executives have called in consultants, put up sheets of newsprint and tried to come up with church-wide priorities, usually when tight budgets demanded it.
Each new Executive has found it difficult to plan strategically in a group of 60 to 75 people. Much discussing but no strong plan.
At its April meeting, Executive was again asked the big planning question, which amounts to: What do we think God wants from The United Church of Canada today?
This time, it had the benefit of a "strategic framework" before it, hammered together by the senior staff. Based for the most part on recent General Council reports and decisions, the report included a realistic look at where we stand as a church (Church, page 15). As staff put it: "What has served us well until now will not continue to serve us well."
At the press table, the strategies sounded like a prescription for health: resources to help congregations sustain or transform themselves; support, training and recruitment of ministers; raising the profile of the church and its values through a media campaign; strengthening fund-raising, ensuring racial justice throughout the church.
The Executive was slower to applaud. Some members dragged their feet; anxious about the process going too fast, they wanted to route it through committees. Others appeared to long for more pre-plan discussion when all seems possible and no commitments have been made.
Thankfully, some Executive members were happy to see a plan, a framework that might lead to action sooner rather than later. They knew budget decisions this month would set directions, as money has a way of doing. And some named the best part of having a plan on the table -- it gives us hope.
The United Church of Canada is a brave, open and compassionate denomination. It has made some courageous decisions on social justice. It has been strong enough to apologize for sins in its history. It tries to include many different viewpoints, yet at the same time be open to discussing its deepest faith beliefs with all its people.
But nowadays we have a blurry public image; our own people don't always understand where we are heading. A comprehensive plan for the future would help us thrive in a new stage of our life.
We have the framework of a plan that could rebuild this church, we have the right leadership, we have a window in time when it could be done. But opportunities come and go and time is not frozen.
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