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Sheryl Nadler

Interview with Mardi Tindal

Mardi Tindal, the 40th moderator of The United Church of Canada, discusses the state of the United Church today

By David Wilson

Q Your roots in the United Church run deep. Did you ever imagine you would someday be its elected leader?

A Six years ago, at the Wolfville General Council, I was a theme presenter. At that time a former moderator whispered “moderator” in my ear — literally. I said, “No, no, no — that’s unthinkable.” I kept saying that until others who had no relationship to that conversation started to raise the question as well.

Eventually I was ready to consider it. My courage had changed. My work with Parker Palmer and others at the Center for Courage and Renewal had taken me to places I hadn’t been before in terms of feeling more whole. I was in a better spot to hear the question and consider it more deeply.

Q You already have a public profile thanks to co-hosting the United Church’s television program, Spirit Connection, for nine years. How important is that for the moderator of The United Church of Canada?

A One of the great things about having a profile is a sense that I am not alone. Relationship building is very important. A lot of people feel they know me from seeing me in front of the camera.

I don’t shy away from any opportunity to represent the church to the wider culture. I enjoy that kind of relationship building, too. To whatever extent my experience in television can enable me to do that well on behalf of the United Church, I rejoice.

Q You’ve given a big part of your life to the United Church. Now it’s about to get bigger. What, in your view, does the United Church do well right now?

A Most people answer, “Potlucks!” (laughs). Actually, I think it is highly significant. Paul Hawken, in his book Blessed Unrest, talks about the confluence between those who are involved in social justice, those who are involved in indigenous peoples’ movements and those in the environmental movement. It’s a huge movement happening under the radar of the mainstream media.

Hawken also talks about the difference between finite games and infinite games. Finite games have fixed rules where there are winners and losers. Infinite games have infinitely flexible rules in order to keep everybody in the game, to keep the game going. He says infinite games include prayer, potlatch, family and treeplanting. I would include potluck suppers. I think all the things the United Church is involved in are about keeping the game going. That gives us enormous potential for community building and relationship building and healing.

Q Do you think the membership of the United Church understands the extent of the goodwill toward the church in the wider world?

A We’re not perfect. But I hear people say, “If I were involved in a church, it would be the United Church.” They say that because they trust us to be real, and because we’re engaging the concerns of the day. The fact that we have so many people in the census identifying with us is remarkable.

I spoke about abundance at General Council. I warned people not to hear me as Pollyanna. I’m realistic about limits and realities. But we are still, relatively speaking, trusted as a religious community in the wider world.

Q What can the United Church do better?

A We’re not a political party or a social justice organization. We’re a community of faith, and we simply cannot separate our worship from our work. I think we could do a better job of being aware — really aware — that work and worship go together, of helping one another explore that relationship more deeply.

The 40th General Council was pretty clear about confessing to brokenness in the church and facing the inevitability of change. Do you sense that the church as a whole is on the same page?

A It’s early days. It would be really presumptuous of me to say I know where the rest of the church is. But let me say this: I am constantly surprised when I go to a church somewhere and discover how much awareness there is of the position we’re in.

These coming three years are inevitably going to be three years of huge change. Either we will change and enjoy the abundant life that Jesus promised, or we will focus on scarcity and in some ways be diminished — fail to see the opportunity in change.

Q You frequently cite the paradox of abundance and scarcity. How should people in the pews understand this?

A First of all, they should know it is not an original idea. I’ve learned about this from Parker Palmer.

Scarcity is a reality. We are in those times as a church. In times of scarcity we tend to hoard, to create mistrust, to be jealous. Unless we consciously and faithfully trust that Jesus meant it when he said, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly,” and act as if we believe God has blessed us with all that we need, we are unlikely to open our hands and share. If we’re only acting on our own, we won’t experience that abundance. But we know it’s possible in community — that’s why we’re in the church.

Q The United Church faces a shortage of clergy that is reaching crisis proportions. How can the moderator provide leadership in confronting this?

A I can’t imagine the church without healthy, numerous clergy. So it’s troubling to me to look at the numbers. But what is equally troubling is to hear dispirited clergy talking about how hard it is to be a minister today. They’re asked to do so much more than what they were called to do. I pray that the way I lead will encourage clergy who are dispirited. I desperately want clergy to take heart.

We will also have to step up and consider new models of ministry. I think laypeople will be called upon more and more.

Q One of the big issues the 40th General Council didn’t really tackle is what to do with the United Church’s real estate in an era of declining membership and financial constraints. How can you provide leadership in this looming crisis?

A Unless we look at this in a bigger context, we get into conversations and arguments we really don’t want to be in as people of faith: whose building stays and whose building goes. It’s a great example of scarcity thinking. We have to say, “What do we have?” I’m interested in covenant making. The concept of covenant holds great possibilities. I believe God is calling the church to engage in a covenant for healing, to reconcile soul, community and creation.

Q What aspects of being moderator do you relish the most?

A Interaction. It energizes me. I’m an extrovert. For better or for worse, the church will be led by someone who likes to work it out, out loud.

Q What parts of the new job make you nervous?

A That I am only one human being, and I want very much to represent the complexity and diversity of The United Church of Canada.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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