Every General Assembly I have attended has revealed a unique personality. Although complex to describe, it is much like a very interesting friend, with many nuances and subtleties. Each also has a dominant emotion. I am not sure if it becomes better known via the various issues or if it is simply developed and enhanced.
The 140th General Assembly appeared to have an increasing level of frustration as the days went on. I am not sure if it was from the failed vision statement recommendation or the amount of time spent on the biennial assembly debate. It was likely different for each commissioner, but somehow as the assembly was drawing to a close, there was a similar feeling that not much had changed and expectations were left unrealized.
It was very similar to the 138th assembly when Rev. Dr. Clyde Ervine rose to introduce, with the most eloquent of preambles, his additional motion; it asked that the assembly and the church’s agencies give priority to the renewal of congregations. This year, in a similar moment, as the Assembly Council’s report was coming to completion, Rev. Sean Howard rose to make an additional motion, asking “that we remember, reaffirm and carry forward” the 138th assembly’s statement and make congregations a priority for all the church’s agencies, national committees and staff. It was bold and clear and took Dr. Ervine’s motion to another level. However, it was more significant because it addressed the frustrations and disappointments of so many. It was passed almost unanimously. (See page 49 to read the motion.)
During the Life and Mission Agency’s report, the convener properly recited the many initiatives and opportunities it has created to assist congregations. You could sense the frustration from that quarter as well. The staff and the committee may well ask the question, “What else would you have us do?” It may be a good question but I would suggest it is not the most important question. Might I suggest that congregations be asked, “Why are you so frustrated?”
Remember that the assembly that passed the Howard motion was almost a completely different body of commissioners than the assembly that passed the one by Ervine. I would say that together, they represent a significant sample of our church across Canada. The church has spoken. What then will be the response of the agencies and committees of the church?
I would think it very human to respond with disappointment, if not anger, that the work and creativity invested to satisfy Ervine’s motion simply resulted in another directive motion. While understandable, it will at best accomplish nothing and at worst drive the church to greater frustration. How about a different approach?
I had the joy and privilege to minister, as the executive director of the Renewal Fellowship, in nine of our provinces over the past year. I got to share our ideas of renewal with congregations, sessions, presbyteries and even a synod. That is not my most important work. I have experienced, and have received enough positive feedback, to realize I do more good and encourage more readily when I am listening.
I believe that at the core, the frustrations we are experiencing stem from the fact that congregations and their ministers, in large numbers, do not believe anyone is listening. And because they do not feel heard, they believe that the agencies and committees of the church do not care enough about them to help them succeed. It will not be another resource, another workshop or another program that convinces them. It will be a radical reaching out to them with listening ears.
Can this be accomplished by a survey? Was this not the attempt of the Haynes visitations and report? (See the Record’s June 2013 issue.) How can this be done with the current limited staff and resources?
I don’t know. I do know that unless and until the folks on the front lines are convinced that they have been heard and that the response will accurately measure the needs and desires of congregations, we will continue to experience great frustration.
The motion of the highest court of our church sets out a priority, a palpable intentionality, a clear methodology and significant accountability. It is the will of the church. Let us work together to figure out how to do this together, with God’s help, as we all move forward together in our Kingdom work.
The Master said to love our God, to love our neighbour and to go and make disciples. The Master created his church as the vehicle of his healing and reconciliation to the world. Each congregation is a vital part of his mission. Ultimately it is the source of the human and financial resources that allow us, the church, to be Christ to our communities and the world.