Archive for March, 2013

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2013 30 March

A Resurrection Story

Posted in Steinbach United

New post on Moderator Gary Paterson

Resurrection Story

by Gary Paterson

Like everyone, I have my blind spots and stereotypes—like, my assumption that small towns aren’t all that accepting of differences, and if, just for instance, you’re an LGBT person you should probably head for the big city as soon as you can. Well, let me tell you an Easter story that blows a hole in my stereotypes!

Up in northern Ontario—north as in you have to turn the map over to take a look at the other half of the province—way up there, was a young boy named Isaac. Except he didn’t feel like a boy. Rather, he felt like a girl who was stuck inside the wrong body. His family knew Isaac was different, and they visited doctors, psychologists, and a whole bunch of experts. Now here, I guess, is the first miracle: nobody told Isaac he was crazy. Instead, they agreed with him—he was a girl in a boy’s body. Which was going to make life very difficult, but it was his truth.

And here’s the second miracle: Isaac’s family said, with no reservations or conditions, “We love you!” And when Isaac slowly began to appear as Crystal, they said, “Welcome!”

Now, Crystal’s family are United Church folk—members and worshippers at a little church in a small town in the north. Not the larger, liberal, affirming congregation in town but the little church that some think of as more conservative. Holy Week was fast approaching, and everyone was excited about Easter Sunday worship. Only trouble was, when it came to church, it was always Isaac who had shown up. But this year was going to be different.

On Easter Sunday, as Crystal got ready for church, she put on fancy shoes, her hairband, and a beautiful dress. And off the family went. At Children’s Time, when all the kids came forward, Crystal was part of the crowd. Well, not actually a crowd—remember, this was a small church, where everybody pretty much knew everyone else. People were staring, whispering, and surreptitiously pointing at the little girl sitting on the steps at the front of the church. The minister took a good long look at this new person who had arrived for worship, and she said, “Well, hello. You must be Crystal. You’re very beautiful. I’m happy to meet you. Welcome to church!” And then she proceeded to tell the Easter story just like always.

And that was that. Except, of course, it wasn’t. It’s never that simple. There were phone calls—lots of them—and much upset in the congregation. So the minister called folk together and said, “We’re surprised; we don’t understand. Of course it feels strange. Isaac isn’t Isaac anymore but now is Crystal. But she’s a member of our church; this is where she belongs. She has trusted us enough to let us see who she really is. She needs us. This isn’t easy for her. We have to help her. We’re called to accept Crystal, to love her for the person she is, the person she is becoming, the person she was brave enough and trusting enough to share with us. We need to say, ‘Welcome to the church, Crystal.’”

And they did. I don’t know all the details, and I’m sure it wasn’t always easy. But I believe the church’s welcome will be one of the reasons Crystal will thrive in adolescence, unlike so many other young transgendered people who try to kill themselves. Crystal will have known a place of acceptance in her family and her church.

Which sounds to me like resurrection occurred that Easter in a little church in a small northern Ontario town, where followers of Jesus discovered and proclaimed that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” for “there is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male or female; for all of [us]…are one in Christ Jesus.”

And here’s how Easter keeps moving in our midst: Crystal’s family writes:

We are also willing to communicate with others, if…the Moderator pass[es] contact information to us, we would be willing to talk, share resources, and be supportive.

2013 24 March

Do You Take This Congregation to Be Your Wedded Partner?

Posted in Steinbach United


Do You Take This Congregation to Be Your Wedded Partner?

by Gary Paterson

I’ve been on the road for a while: up to Thunder Bay (Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario); over to Sault Ste. Marie, including Bruce Mines (London Conference); and then on to Chapleau, Timmins, and Matheson (Manitou Conference); back to Toronto for a day to do laundry and check in at the office; then off to Napanee, Kingston, Carleton Place, and Smiths Falls (Bay of Quinte Conference).

Let me tell you, Ontario towns are well-churched! Frequently each city or sizable town has two big churches, almost cathedral size, often only a couple of blocks apart, reflecting pre-1925 times and our Methodist and Presbyterian history. Then there’s a scattering of smaller churches, spread out around town, built in the 50s and 60s, when we were dedicating buildings almost every week.

But now times have changed and we have too many church buildings—an overdone strength, where faithful people struggle to keep the roof repaired, the heat on, and the doors open with a warm welcome.

Don’t get me wrong—I love church buildings, filled with beauty, warm wood, classic stone, stained glass, and above all, memories, where prayers and worship, tears and laughter have created a holy space.

Nevertheless, in times like these, it makes sense to live into our name: the UNITED church. Surely this is the time to have conversations about co-operation with neighbouring congregations, combining our efforts, pooling resources, even talking about the “A” word—amalgamation—though I would prefer to talk about congregational romancing, leading to extended engagement, and then marriage, followed by a thoughtful discussion about whose house it makes more sense to move into, or whether it would be better to sell both houses and build a new one…together.

In my travels I have been raising questions about amalgamation. Oh my, such painful stories of long, fruitless conversations that too often end in acrimony; of journeys that almost lead two congregations to the altar, only to have a no-show partner on the wedding day.

When I was in Timmins I was asked what I would do if I were a bishop (remember, papal smoke was still wafting through the world of church). I replied, “Moderators have little power; as The Manual says, my task is ‘to quicken the heart of the church.’ But sometimes I fantasize….”

Cheryl-Ann Stadelbauer-Sampa, Executive Secretary of London Conference, told me about the response of the new Catholic bishop in London when his diocese was faced with the reality of too many parishes. He visited each congregation and asked four questions:

  • Do a sufficient number of people gather here for a joyous celebration of the mass each Sunday?
    (Worship is central to what it means to be a church. But there is no “right” number of people; it could be 10 or 100. What is important is the joy in coming together to worship God.)
  • What is the vision or mission of this parish?
    (Does it have a sense of purpose? What is central to the identity and activity of this congregation?)
  • How sound is the physical structure?
    (Is the roof about to cave in? How much money will be needed in the near future to maintain the building?)
  • Is this parish financially sustainable?

If the answer to any one of these questions was “No!” or “Don’t know!” then the congregation had some work to do and had further conversations with the bishop. Well, the end result was that about half the buildings were closed, sold, or torn down—and new congregations were created. I gather there was a lot of complaining, and the bishop is not popular, methinks. But there is no turning back—a little like having crossed the Red Sea and having to face the challenge of the wilderness. It remains to be seen how much new life springs forth.

I’m not a bishop—you’re probably relieved (I know I am!). I don’t believe that forced marriages are the best answer to the problems we face, but I do like the bishop’s questions, the emphasis on worship and mission, only then followed by practical questions about buildings and money. And I find myself wondering how United Church congregations would respond?

When I was visiting in Bay of Quinte Conference I was well shepherded by Conference Executive Secretary Bill Smith, and as we drove hither and yon, there was lots of time for good conversation. Bill did his doctoral work on—guess what?! congregational amalgamations—very helpful in times like these! Out of his research he identified a three-stage process that began with the premise that amalgamation is not a dirty word. It’s not about failure, but can be a creative and life-giving process of transformation.

The first step is for congregations to be clear about their mission. Only when that work has been done is it helpful to look for possible partners to join forces with. If two congregations are going to dance together, they need to be listening to the same music and agree on the basic steps. There needs to be a congruence of purpose, a sense that the Spirit is calling them into similar visions for ministry.

Then, when it looks like two congregations or more feel there is a possibility of a partnership based in mission, they need to work on building trust and community. This will take time: gatherings, circles, meetings, intentional conversations; mutual respect offered and received; honest discussion of fears, differences, and dreams. The process can take two years from beginning to end.

Finally, the third step—which centres on practical matters like buildings and finances. Too often congregations are tempted to start with these issues, usually based on proximity, geography, size, prosperity, the departure of ministry staff, etc. But if the previous two steps haven’t been worked on, this is a recipe for disaster. That’s when break-ups occur, generating years of distrust and hard feelings. Or the marriage occurs, but there’s no excitement—money from the sale of buildings sits unused in a trust fund, and no new ministry emerges. It’s just the same old same old, and the real crisis has simply been delayed.

But, says Bill, it can work. He has seen it work. So…think about it. Maybe the future of your congregation might include finding a partner, where together you will dance with the Spirit, and the marriage will be a blessing for you, for the church, and for the world.

2013 4 March

A Gathering of Friends

Posted in Steinbach United

A Gathering of Friends

by Gary Paterson

Last week I was back in Vancouver, and I invited a group of friends to gather for a morning and “talk church.” Sure, we called it “work”—and it was, sort of—but it also felt like a party. Each person had several minutes to talk about what is happening in her or his particular ministry situation. What are the challenges, the excitement, the green shoots, the problems? What advice would they give the Comprehensive Review Task Group? We ranged in age from 37 to 65, a mixture of men and women; most were congregational ministers, from small and large congregations; a couple of people were connected to the Conference office or the Vancouver School of Theology.

We spent three hours in conversation while I took notes—18 pages of newsprint ended up on the wall (my writing is big and almost unreadable). The conversation was honest and included some painful moments. There was no sense of competition (my church is doing better than your church) but rather a real bond of collegiality. The discussion was sobering and hopeful, filled with much hard-earned, on-the-ground wisdom, and the energy that emerged was life-giving.

Here are some excerpts of what got said, reorganized into “themes”—but most of it is fairly close to direct quotation (although even I couldn’t always make sense of my newsprint notes :-)). I share this to spark your thinking rather than to suggest that this is in any way a “definitive word.”

I find myself wondering what it would be like if, all across the country, people did something similar? Why not host such a morning with ministry friends (of all sorts, lay and ordered) where the only agenda is to talk about what’s happening in church and what could happen? Not too much whinging (enough to get it off your chest), but then…lots of dreaming. Who knows what might emerge, what experiments might get launched—and hey, why not take notes and send them along to the Comprehensive Review Task Group?

So here’s some of what we talked about:

  • Church Buildings
    The previous generations overbuilt—we have too many church buildings, but now we feel we need to maintain them. How do we free ourselves from feeling there must be a church building in every town and suburb? How to help congregations let go of their buildings if need be, recognizing they are a by-product of or a tool for the ministry we are called to engage in? Can we let go of what we can no longer resource, like the building, like presbytery? What would it mean to say that Christ is the centre of what we are about, not the institution?
  • New Ministries
    We need to maximize support for experiments on the ground, locally. (This was perhaps the most constant theme.) Polity needs to be permission-giving, not limiting.We need to learn from the business world that 9 out of 10 experiments will probably fail. If we don’t have a good track record of failures, we aren’t doing our job. We need “safe fails” rather than “fail-safes.”On the other hand, how to ensure that new ministries are sustainable? Yes, we need to provide seed money, startup funds…but then what? How entrepreneurial should ministry be?

Different things will work in different parts of the country: urban/rural, traditional/experimental, big/small, mono/intercultural. And that may mean inequalities. Can we live with that?

We are called into mission. However, this is not a survival strategy for us but rather a response to God’s work in the community and the world. Where are we looking for the activity of God? Too often we look only inside the church; maybe we need to ask ourselves, “What does the future need to the UnitedChurch to be and do?”

  • The Thrift Shop
    In the sixties congregational givings accounted for 95 percent of the budget; now, only 70 percent or less. All congregations need “extra” income from rentals, investment income, or outside businesses, like a thrift shop (or maybe even a restaurant).On the other hand, said one person of her congregation, “There’s a church waiting inside that thrift shop. Three to four hundred people visit the thrift shop every week. They stay for coffee and conversation. We are training folk in the congregation to be good listeners, and to learn more about being in relationship with people living with mental illness. We are practising a powerful ministry of pastoral care. In fact, some of the ‘volunteers’ are sensing a call into ministry. We need to go where the energy is, where mission arises from real passion and not from policy.”
  • The Vision
    We are no longer mainstream in this changed culture. So what is our new purpose and vision? And where is our passion, our fervour? Could it be that we are hungry for a deepened relationship with God—to talk about this, to discover the practices that will enliven our faith? Maybe our call is to keep the Christian story alive in these changing times. Maybe we need to learn from the monastic movement, which created and nurtured communities of faith in a tumultuous time—the minister as abbott/abbess.People are attracted by and to the story. We need to discover how to help new members become disciples of Jesus. What does it actually mean to become a Christian? Sometimes it feels as if we have outsourced our baptismal vows and have asked “professionals” to be the primary ministers.We need to be challenged—failure is not necessarily faithfulness! When was the last adult baptism in your congregation?

Lots here to think about: sparks, ideas, kvetches, and dreams. So what about having a similar conversation with a group of church friends? Let me know what happens.

2013 2 March

Sticks & Stones….

Posted in Steinbach United

Sticks and Stones by Gary Paterson

So, today is Anti-Bullying Day! Did you know that the first national Bullying Prevention Week was conceived in Canada, in 2000, by Canadian educator and anti-bullying activist Bill Belsey? (It just seems so appropriate that little ol’ Canada would be among the first to raise the anti-bullying flag!) And you probably remember how, back in the fall of 2007, a young grade 9 kid from Nova Scotia turned up on the first day of high school wearing a pink shirt and was bullied without mercy. Two grade 12 students, David Shepherd and Travis Price, decided to do something about it, and went out and bought 50 pink shirts to distribute to people at school the next day. Meanwhile, they e-mailed all of their friends and said, “Wear pink tomorrow!” The result—the school was filled with an overwhelming sea of pink, and the bullies disappeared into silence. And today it’s the sixth annual Pink Shirt Day across the nation!

I remember my mother trying to convince me that “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Not true; never was—just made it harder to admit how much it really did hurt. I still remember Terry with a port wine stain on his face, and Randy with the cleft palate, and Drew, the overweight boy in grade 9, and how they were bullied, and what I didn’t do. That’s when I discovered that it takes a bully, a victim, and silent bystanders for evil to succeed. But I was scared, worried that I might be the next victim. Because I carried my own painful memories of being bullied; probably lots of us do.

And on this day, I remember Amanda Todd, the grade 10 girl from Port Coquitlam (BC) who killed herself last October because she just couldn’t take anymore bullying, especially cyberbullying. Size, colour, disability, accent, orientation, ethnicity, religion, weight, stuttering—we humans are endlessly creative and vicious when it comes to bullying one another.

It happens in churches too. Remember that resolution about gossip that got passed at our last General Council with some laughter, but deep down with painful acknowledgement? How to ensure that church is a safe place where all of us know and believe that we are children of God and treat one another that way—a new creation in Christ, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free? Each and every one of us beautiful and beloved! I was talking to a minister friend who shared that he would rather spend time with a kind atheist than a mean Christian. Ouch!

Maybe you might want to stretch this day out to include the weekend. Maybe this Sunday you might wear a lot of pink—even though it’s Lent. And if people ask you why, maybe start a conversation about bullying, or gossip, and the clever subtle ways we have of putting people down. And then ask, “I wonder if that ever happens here at church?”

There’s a great poem by Shane Koyczan online (scroll down his homepage for the words and for the video he made to go with it; the video is also on YouTube). You might remember him as the slam poet who blew us all away at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympics with “We Are More.” He’s a BC guy (makes me partial)—someone who makes poetry come alive and exciting, which is some feat after too many high school English classes taught people to hate poetry. But his poem, “To This Day”—you’ll love it! And you’ll understand bullying in a whole new way.