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.