Friday 16 March 2012

Effective Leadership - really?

Let's begin with some assumptions that I hope we can share:
#1 No system designed by human beings will work flawlessly and up to expectations;
#2 Connecting ministry personnel and congregations effectively for the work of ministry and mission is one of (if not the) most important tasks of the wider organization of a denomination;
#3 Almost everyone assumes that, when it comes to connecting personnel and congregations, the ecclesiastical grass is greener in someone else's denominational pasture.

These thoughts are prompted by the issuing of: "MEPS-01: EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP AND HEALTHY PASTORAL RELATIONSHIPS: A proposal for the initiation, support, accountability, and conclusion of paid accountable ministries in The United Church of Canada." This document is going to the upcoming meeting of the United Church's General Council Executive. I strongly urge every United Church reader of this blog to access the report, ponder it and share your thoughts with your conference representatives to GCE. Whether you agree with me or not, this needs your attention. ( pages 78-88)

I last wrote about this on February 17th in response to the draft document. Since then, staff from the General Council Offices have fanned out across the country and electronically, gathering input. As I indicated a month ago there is much to support in a revisioning of how we create effective pastoral relationships. It is crucial to the health of the church. A major problem with the proposed report is that, while various studies have looked at bits and pieces of the current pastoral relations process, I don't believe that a full and specific review has ever been conducted. Every change we make has both intended and unintended consequences. I have no sense that we're clear on those.

I really like the idea that every pastoral charge should have an up-to-date (and broadly accepted) mission plan (page 82). I hunch that doing something like that would be harder than the report assumes, but it is still tremendously worthwhile. If this is done, it will also shorten the current pastoral relations process, whether the entire new report is adopted or not. Given the way the development of these mission plans is described, however, I don't see a need for new regional ministers.

I also applaud the implementation and requiring of something like a Healthy Start program (page 82) In my work with theological students we spend time on planning those crucial entrances and exits, but it is not enough time and deserves to be reviewed every time there is a shift. Further, I support the concept of moving highly complex (and often legally sensitive) formal procedures to the conference and a more professional approach. Having chaired both 333 and 363 commissions in my time I never want to have that experience again!

There are several items which appear but, in the absence of any clarification, are more tantalizing than helpful. For example, on page 81 (item 10) we are told that "ethno- and linguistic-specific congregation agree that pastoral relations processes do not meet their needs." What on earth does that mean? I can think of a number of possible interpretations, none of them positive as they indicate an attempt to avoid shared employment or theological commitments. I really hope that I'm wrong, but it does seem worth pursuing how, in the existing policies and with the flexibility those permit to pastoral charges and presbyteries, any specialized needs cannot be fairly addressed?

On the same page (conclusion 12) we read: "
Needs assessment, search and selection processes take too long; many pastoral charges report spending a year or more without permanent ministry leadership;
". Again we have some major and unclarified assumptions.
* What is the "right length" for such a process, by which we could then conclude that the processes "take too long."? By way of comparison, do we know what other not-for-profit community organizations accept as "acceptable" when they are seeking to replace their senior employee?
* Where is the unacceptable length of time? There are two parts to the pastoral relations process. Part one is the needs assessment to the posting of a vacancy; part two is the search and selection process. If the delay is in the second part, no process will speed that up, short of compelling clergy to move. Once a vacancy is posted, it is then up to those who feel called to respond. A further question would be: are these unacceptably long wait times somehow weighted as to time of year? Due to ministry personnel movement patterns, a vacancy posted in September (for example) is almost certainly likely to go unfilled longer than one posted in February.
* Why is a year without "permanent ministry leadership" now and then, such a bad thing?

In the new process, as already noted, the concept of a constantly up-to-date mission profile and more effort/resources for healthy beginnings and endings are laudable and can be accomplished under the current structure. Similarly, if the processes are simplified and the profile is up to date forming the position description (as per the new suggestions) should not require paid professional assistance all the time. It's the easiest part of the current JNAC process anyway. Kicking the rest of the process "upstairs" to a conference committee gives no apparent benefit accept requiring the input of a larger and more geographically dispersed group.

Perhaps I am excessively cautious, but these words at the beginning of the section on "search and selection" alarm me: "
A Search and Selection process is established by the Pastoral Charge, which proceeds with the support of the Regional Minister." Having dealt with a fair number of search committees over the years (including some with an intense desire to do "end runs") I have to wonder if the the effect of this to set up a situation where pastoral charges are free to do whatever seems best to them in terms of search and selection? It is very different than saying the Pastoral Charge will implement the search and selection processes as mandated by the United Church.

The problem with much of what is offered is that there is little which is not already being done by presbytery and the most difficult and time consuming parts of the current process are slated for change. Why not simply change them?

The Implications of the New Model (page 85) significantly understate the impact this change will have on the polity of the United Church.
We are not simply referring to a shifting of an area of work (albeit a large one). We are significantly changing the nature of governance in the United Church and stripping one of the courts of a primary reason for existence. According to Lorne Meade, the United Church is the one denomination in North America that he is aware of where there are four strong courts. He attributes that to the fact that each court of the UCCanada has significant roles and authorities. In every other setting, one of the four courts (the one without power) has become something like a vestigal limb. That’s what will happen here. What we have is the shift from a four to a three court model by another name. As is increasingly apparent at the General Council office level, power is shifted from volunteers (lay/clergy) to staff – Regional Minister and Executive Secretary. The Placement Committee will easily be reduced to a rubber stamp. When the authors of the report move to the new role for presbytery it seems they shift from research to blue sky dreaming. There is simply no evidence to suggest that Presbyteries will take up this new opportunity. There is ample opportunity for that now and few Presbyteries take it up. Why they would do it with the proposed change is not explored, simply asserted.

Finally, the section on Staff Resources leaves me with a couple of questions:

#1 Examples are given of other denominations with regional ministers etc. I am not clear from the report whether those individuals are solely related to personnel issues. My vaguely remembered experience with the Synod of New South Wales in the Uniting Church in Australia suggests that they have a far wider range of responsibilities. The question: is the comparison accurate?

#2 The payroll tax method of payment will meet with great resistance, especially when the benefits are so unclear

Increasingly in the United Church simplification of processes often seems to mean elimination of the role of volunteers. Also assumes an inflexibility which is not present in the processes although they may have been adopted by those implementing them. Further, a prevalent assumption, clearly evident in this paper is that, somehow, miraculously, these Regional Ministers (staff) are going to be free from the flaws, biases and other challenges manifested by volunteers (clergy/lay). One part of the United Church’s genius is the conviction that the Spirit resides also in a group as much as in an individual and that episcopal functions (which is what we’re talking about here) are best exercised by a body rather than an individual.

All of the above leads to another assumption:
#4 In the United Church we'd rather change our structures than deal with problem people.

Saturday 10 March 2012


Is your natural inclination to be a host or a guest? We sometimes move back and forth but in the end we live out of one of them (see the work of Max Beerbolm). Resolving that attitude question is crucial work for any congregation that wants to thrive and grow. I've never yet encountered a congregation where the sign outside said "No one Welcome!" But I've encountered only a few that really got hospitality right.

Part of the challenge is that church members often see themselves as guests. And if you are a guest you don't need to be hospitable to other guests. Congregations need to confront the deliberate, conscious and persistently renewed decision to live as hosts and not guests. We are, according to Paul, the "body of Christ." And Jesus, whose body we are, said that he came to serve not to be served. You could use the metaphor of host for his entire earthly ministry. He was a host, not a guest, welcoming others and seeing to their needs. If we, as congregations, believe that the church exists to meet our needs rather than seeing that we are the body of Christ serving the needs of others, then we probably should die.

What might it mean to let that idea challenge our attitudes? We are followers of the Servant and, therefore, called to be life's hosts. The trouble is, most of us live naturally as guests, thinking of our own needs first and, only on occasion, flipping into the host role. We do that, even when we imagine that we are incarnating Jesus and his spirit of servanthood.

Can you name the ways in which you live as host? One way of measuring that is to give and then not really feel that you have given. Think about it again: the host serves but does not really know that they have served. They have just done what comes naturally. We are raised and trained in our society to be guests, generally expecting others to serve us. If we are going to be hosts - in other words, incarnaters of the Servant, it will take intention and decision.

Thursday 8 March 2012


Since my friends in Halifax Presbytery did me the huge honour of nominating me tothe position of moderator of the United Church, lots of people have been asking me "why?" The questions come from a variety of sources and the content of that simple word varies, depending on whether the questioner is inside or outside the church, involved in the courts of the church or not. So why?

There is a certain element of gratitude in my answer "Yes" to the invitation to consider this call. The United Church has been my lifetime home and it has been very good to me. Like any living and vital relationship, this one has had moments of joy as well as tension. Certainly more of the former! This church has given me opportunities to grow and stretch my mind and spirit in ways I could never have anticipated. First and foremost I have worked alongside wonderful individuals in congregations. I really do believe that most United Church folk do love God, self and neighbour and are not content to settle for "two out of three ain't bad." Like any human institution we have our own share of "personalities" - some of whom can be quite destructive. If we have a besetting organizational "sin" it is our habitual Canadian niceness that does not call bullies on their behaviour. That leads to a deterioration of the entire body. However, I firmly believe that the bullies are in the minority and, often, when I have been the one to confront them, I have felt the support of the others in the community. But my experience of the church has been very positive.

The same is true of my working relationships with committees and task groups at every level. I can't imagine another opportunity that would allow me to sit around the table with some of the brightest minds wrestling on issues of authority and interpretation of scripture. Or allow me to be part of a group going to Brazil to learn about the reading of scripture by the most marginalized and how a Methodist University puts gospel and justice together in its requirements for every professional graduate. Or to be trusted to preside over the life of a presbytery (two different locations) or a conference as this group does its work and sorts out its priorities. Again, wonderful people and amazing opportunities.

So when the suggestion was made that I consider this call, gratitude and the opportunity to give back played a part in my response. I have to be frank: I don't feel a strong call to be moderator. I do feel a divine compulsion to offer myself to the church for consideration for the role. What's the difference? Well, I have known people who felt called to be moderator and were devastated when the General Council elected someone else. They felt betrayed by God and peers! I feel drawn to offer to the church the combination of gifts, skills, experience and vision that I carry. If the General Council sees those as being what our church needs at the moment, I am quite prepared to serve as moderator with every resource I can bring to bear. If the GC decides otherwise, I will be delighted to return to my interim ministry appointment where I feel we are doing important and life-giving work.

Why say yes? I believe passionately in the United Church. I believe in the vision that our founding mothers and fathers had of a uniquely Canadian Christian community, rooted in the historic, living and intellectually credible Christian tradition and, at the same time, responsive to the unique challenges of our particular context. I believe in the calling of the United Church to partner in building and sustaining a more just and peaceful society. Why now? I was nominated from the floor of General Council 40, with only a very few hours to consider the privilege presented to me. Clearly that was not the right time, but the invitation to consider this role has continued and, in terms of my personal, family and professional life, this is right time to respond to that call and offer myself to the General Council to discern together the future.

I offer to the Church a life time membership of engagement with our mission and ministry, our history and convictions as well as a keen commitment to the incredible strength of our denominational tradition and calling. I offer the experiences of many years of service in different roles at every level of our life together. As a leader in the courts of the church I have considerable experience in drawing together differing commitments and visions. I also bring insight into the rich resources and very real challenges that are part of our current context. I have experience in interfaith work and in working with non-faith groups on community projects. I am excited by the possibility of encouraging the church - locally, regionally and nationally - to grasp with hope the journey ahead of us. That's why I said "yes"

Thursday 1 March 2012

Nomination & Connection

Long ago when the United Church was but a new-born thing, the Conferences directly appointed all the members of national committees. General Council provided staff, but the Conferences named who sat around the table. If we move forward a few decades we find the General Council electing members of national committees from names sumitted by the Conferences. Slightly different selection process but similar results. Fast forward to the Division structure introduced in the 1960s and we often find a straight line of people from the national divisions, through the Conference, to the Presbyteries and often to congregations.

Admittedly there were drawbacks to that arrangement. Because the same people served on multiple levels there could develop a hothouse atmosphere of church insiders listening and speaking only to one another. Another major drawback was multiple appointments, creating incredible time demands on people. As the United Church had fewer and fewer volunteers with those sorts of time gifts to give fewer and fewer people were willing to take these roles which might well see you on Presbytery, Conference and national bodies. Finally, it was tremendously expensive (both for the environment and the bank account) to be drawing significant numbers of people together from across the land. In the 1970s there may well have been thousands of volunteers (lay and ministry personnel) serving on a variety of national bodies.

However, the major benefit of that system was the degree of connection from one end of the church to the other. The United Church has a conciliar system of government - meaning that different councils or courts have both independent and overlapping areas of responsibility. For such a system to work effectively each council needs to be in communication with the others. That allows resources and insights to be more freely shared. It allows a particular court to give good leadership in its area of responsibility and advice and insight to other councils. It also prevents one council from unknowingly heading off in directions contrary to the best wisdom of its partner councils.

As I indicated, the old system was far from perfect. However, we now have a strange creation which very few in the wider church seem to understand. I include myself amongst the mystified. We have a national nominating committee that, regularly twice a year and sometimes in between, publicizes opportunities to serve on national bodies. Individuals are invited to discern the guidance of the Spirit in relation to their involvement. They can be nominated by others or self-nominated. The nominating committee then makes its selections.

The positive aspect of this process is that you don't have to be a "church-geek" to serve on a national board or committee. Hopefully every congregation makes members aware of these possibilities and, even if they don't, the information is readily and clearly available on the United Church web site. So, lots of opportunities exist for a wide variety of gifts and skills to be accessed for the good of the national church.

However, there are some problems. Chief amongst those is the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, the Nominating Committee has never published its criteria for selection. Let me be clear, I think nominating is one of the hardest tasks going. I'm probably the least conspiracy-minded person you will ever meet and I have huge esteem for the members of the nominating committee, but that closed system leads to some discomfort. People are thanked for their interest but not informed why they are not selected. This opacity is a challenge, especially when coupled with the second major problem: there seems to be no effort made to ensure that the individuals selected are members of any other court of the church. Presumably they are members of the United Church but that is often the extent of their connection.

That is problematic in at least two ways. It means that the official connection between the Conferences and the General Council is borne on the shoulders of the two individuals elected to serve on the General Council Executive. That is a huge burden in a conciliar system. Secondly, it means that those who are selected to serve on national bodies have no place else "to stand." They have no official place of accountability, no regular place to test out and get feedback on ideas and proposals. They may have no idea about past experiences in the areas under discussion. They are, by design, individuals. Which, by natural consequence, means that the General Council staff, hold an increased margin of power in the equation, simply from length of tenure and possession of knowledge. Again, you don't have to ascribe any malice or ill will to anyone to recognize that we have a very different arrangement than we had in 1925 and one that signficantly alters both the power differentials and the relationships between the courts of the church. To ask whether we are well served by such a system is not to question the capacity, commitment and good will of those involved. It is to ask, particularly in an context where ever-faster decision-making seems to be required in a smaller, leaner church, whether that is the best way forward. Or does it result in different courts - or national staff - creating programs and policies in greater isolation than is helpful to them or the wider church? We can't afford (in many ways) to return entirely to the former models. We can afford to consider - particularly with increasingly effective means of electronic communication - whether there are better - more open and participatory as well as connected - ways to conduct our life together.