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An aerial view of Corner Brook, N.L. Photo by Rob Schmidt/Flickr/Creative Commons

United Church at a crossroads

Some are calling the August meeting of the General Council one of the most critical since church union. At stake is how the denomination works — and possibly its future.

By Mike Milne

For the past decade, controversy over church policy and action on the Middle East have dominated meetings of The United Church of Canada’s General Council. This summer’s instalment, running from Aug. 8 to 15 in Corner Brook, N.L., will be different. It will focus mainly on how to reinvent a denomination facing a precarious future.

The 356 commissioners will consider and vote on a series of sweeping proposals that would significantly change how the 90-year-old denomination looks and operates. The package of proposals is the culmination of more than two years of work by the Comprehensive Review Task Group, created by the last General Council in 2012. The task group issued its final report, called United in God’s Work, this past spring.

Faced with overburdened volunteers, shrinking congregations and ballooning General Council budget deficits, the church has to change, says task group chair Rev. Cathy Hamilton. “There is no status quo. Either the church engages in how it wants to be, or the people who manage our finances will make those decisions.”

In the past, proposals to refashion the church were usually undertaken out of the spotlight and tested at meetings of the Executive of General Council before going to the full General Council meetings that are held every three years. But totally renovating a 90-year-old church organization is no small job, so the Comprehensive Review group took a different approach.

It started by consulting and researching congregations, then opened up discussions through Internet webinars and in church courts. Out of the process emerged a proposal for a three-court system of governance — communities of faith, regional councils and a denominational council — to replace the church’s current four-court system consisting of pastoral charges, Presbyteries, Conferences and the General Council. The key concept in the proposal is “communities of faith,” which include congregations and pastoral charges, as well as “any community of people based in Jesus Christ that gathers to explore faith, to worship, and to serve,” including outreach ministries, intentional communities, home churches or online gatherings.

Even after releasing its final report and detailed proposals, the task group encouraged pastoral charges, Presbyteries and Conferences to submit any proposals to change or improve on their work.

“This is not about a small group of people getting it right,” says Hamilton. “It is the whole church engaging in creating a structure and creating energy around being the church in the 21st century. So I’m really excited if there are lots of people who have good ideas. . . . As long as we can get to a conclusion at General Council.”

To help make that happen, a committee with members from each Conference will start meeting four days before the full General Council convenes. Its job is to sort through proposals and suggest paths to consensus.

“I have a sense that we will look back and say, ‘This is when there was a noticeable shift,’” says the United Church’s moderator, Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson. “I’m really hoping we will say, ‘We really do want smaller and more nimble structures; we want to ensure there is strong and adequate support for communities of faith.’ . . .
I think there is a potential to set the stage at this General Council.”

In moving to a three-court structure, the task group makes the following proposals:

•  Give more authority to communities of faith in “initiating and ending calls and appointments of ministers and buying and selling property.”

•  Create regional councils that “would provide advice, support,
and services to, covenant with, and connect communities of faith” and hold annual meetings with lay and ministry representatives from each community of faith.

•  Establish a much larger denominational council with representatives from each community of faith, that would hold meetings every three years, in person or via the Internet, and would decide on matters of “public witness, theology, and governance structure,” with a smaller executive taking care of business between meetings.

•  Encourage clusters and networks of people that would gather for
“collegiality, support, and learning.”

•  Establish a college of ministers to “accredit, oversee, and discipline ministers,” work now done by Presbyteries or Conferences, and possibly an association of ministers that would provide collegiality and support for clergy.

The task group also proposes sweeping changes to General Council financing, suggesting up to $13.8 million in cuts, by 2018, to the Council’s 2015 budget of $37.3 million. The reductions would translate into the loss of an estimated 59 of 252 General Council, Conference and Presbytery staff, as well as reduced grants to partners.

It proposes an assessment on congregations to pay for governance, support and administration now largely paid from the Mission & Service Fund.

The task group also recommends establishing a “faith renewal program” to fund new or transforming ministries, using a 10 percent share of M&S Fund givings. The group suggests keeping funding for Aboriginal ministries at current levels, eventually funding them through a set percentage of M&S givings.

There are some obvious potential stumbling blocks:

•  Struggling congregations could balk at having to come up with an estimated additional 25 percent of what they currently pay for Conference and Presbytery assessments.

•  Despite additional authority for congregations, the restructuring plan may be seen as focusing power at the denomination level.

•  At least three remits, or church-wide votes, would be needed to put the changes into effect.

Elimination of Presbyteries or Conferences, even if approved by the church, would require a parliamentary amendment to the federal United Church of Canada Act. So Nora Sanders, General Council’s general secretary, is recommending a fourth remit that would allow the church to move to governance under the Canada Not-for-profit Corporations Act, which would make it easier to change its structures and governance.

With a financial meltdown on the horizon, the number of significant decisions before Council seems daunting. The moderator acknowledges the urgency of the situation, emphasizing that work on reshaping the church has to start now.

“I am hoping we will emerge from the General Council not with a blueprint, but a game plan,” Paterson says. “We can’t punt it into the future anymore. We don’t have the money or the resources or the time for that.”

With so much on their plate, commissioners will likely relish diversions from the business agenda. Organizers promise plenty of local flavour, with cod and moose-meat dinners, and a half-day open for visits to local parks and churches, hiking, zip-lining and rafting.

Some members of Youth Forum are turning the trip to Corner Brook into a cross-country pilgrimage including stops at First Nations communities, United churches and church ministries. And some commissioners will stick around for an after-meeting bus tour of ministries and churches funded by the Mission & Service Fund, from Corner Brook to St. John’s. 

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