UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Reflecting on the 40th General Council

Commissioners have confessed to the church’s brokenness and embraced the inevitability of real change

By David Wilson

The commissioner said he felt sheepish for even bringing it up. But he felt duty bound to draw the attention of his fellow General Council decision-makers to a problem in the proposal they were about to vote on: a comma was misplaced.

General Councils are a perplexing mix of big-picture thinking and obsession with detail. The 40th General Council in Kelowna, B.C., this past August was typical. Nearly 400 commissioners from every corner of the country considered tough, contentious issues such as a proposed boycott of cultural and academic ties with Israel. They also considered issues like “Adjourning and closing a meeting” and “Clarifying aspects of the grandfathering of Staff Associates.”

To no one’s surprise, the big issues generated the most thoughtful, passionate and faith-strengthening debate. The small stuff produced yawns and behind-the-scenes grumbling from commissioners who felt underutilized.

The business of General Council is largely shaped by proposals transmitted to it by other courts of the church. Often these involve minor changes to the Manual, the United Church’s book of rules and procedures. General Council has to deal with them because it is the only court authorized to do so.

Planners do their best to gather as many of these proposals as possible into a single item of business, but housekeeping still consumes a huge chunk of Council’s time. I estimate that about one-third of the 175 proposals before the 40th General Council fell into the category of minor tinkering.

There has to be a better way. General Councils are big, expensive gatherings that demand considerable sacrifices from the commissioners who attend them. More than half of the commissioners in Kelowna were laypeople, yet much of the housekeeping work they were asked to consider involved fine-tuning policies and procedures for ministers.

What if a specially appointed panel were to take care of housekeeping business before General Council even started? With housekeeping out of the way, commissioners might find they have more time and creative energy for dealing with major challenges.

I can already see the process police shaking their collective heads: a pre-Council housekeeping bee wouldn’t be allowed under the current rules. So maybe the rules should change.

From the opening gavel, commissioners in Kelowna signalled they were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. They were at their best when they were able to set aside the minutiae of church craft and focus on the big question of how God the Potter might be at work. By the end of a long week, the 40th General Council had confessed to the church’s brokenness and embraced the inevitability of real change. Now everyone is being asked to consider new ways of being the church. The General Council could set a good example by considering new ways of being itself — starting with the commas.

• From time to time, we offer advertisers an opportunity to communicate directly with readers through the mail. We manage these mailings ourselves, and you can rest assured we never reveal your name and address to another organization. But if you do not wish to receive mail from our advertisers, please write to Kirsten MacDonell, our circulation manager.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!


The author is baptized at Central United in Calgary. (Photo courtesy of Al Coe)

Why I got baptized in a United Church at the age of 42

by Jacqueline Mercer-Livesey

"I told myself that I didn’t need to go to church to believe in God. I found peace and the Holy Spirit in the things that surrounded me. But still, there was a nagging sense of something missing."

Promotional Image


Editor/Publisher of The Observer, Jocelyn Bell.

Observations: The rewards of letting go

by Jocelyn Bell

Editor Jocelyn Bell reflects on the upcoming changes for The United Church of Canada, the magazine and in her own life.

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Two nurses tackle Vancouver's opioid crisis

Richard Moore is a resident of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. In this poignant interview, he explains the important work of nurses Evanna Brennan and Susan Giles.

Promotional Image


June 2018

The moment the Pope asked me to pray for him

by Miriam Spies

A United Church minister on the impact of a simple gesture from a powerful man.


July 2018

Best self-care tips for caregivers

by Kate Spencer

Counsellors, teachers and ministers share what it looks like for them.


July 2018

Meet your 2018 moderator nominees

by Mike Milne

Later this month, General Council commissioners will choose the United Church’s next moderator. As of press time, 10 leadership hopefuls had been announced. We asked each of them to sum up their pitch in a tweet.


July 2018

A fond farewell to presbyteries

by Steven Chambers

They will likely be eliminated this year as the United Church restructures. Steven Chambers celebrates the end of an era.


July 2018

Instead of retirement, these two nurses are battling Vancouver's opioid crisis

by Roberta Staley

At age 71 and 65 respectively, Evanna Brennan and Susan Giles embrace their unconventional work in the Downtown Eastside.


June 2018

I hate you, Canada, for teaching people to treat me like this under your name

by Zach Running Coyote

A Cree actor says he blames our country for the racist comments recently directed at him in a McDonald's restaurant.

Promotional Image