This month I had the privilege of speaking at a regional conference of the United Church of Canada. Set on the shores of the beautiful Port Eglin just outside of Toronto, over 500 church leaders, led by Rev. Cheryl-Ann Stadelbauer-Sampa, gathered to talk about the future of their denomination, region and churches. I speak at a lot of these kinds of events; it’s always a gift to talk to leaders about creative possibilities for their future. I must say about this group that they were SO MUCH FUN. They were kind and generous in their listening, gentle in their feedback and engaging in their questions. I haven’t enjoyed working with a group quite as much in a long time.
Part of what made it fun was the issues we engaged. As we faced questions about the survivability of the Church going forward, we made the following observations:
Our communities are fracturing. Neighbors do not know each other. Parents can’t connect with their kids. Schools, hospitals, civic organizations are struggling for funding. The relational fabric that holds us together in community is fraying. The work of the Church must be to reweave that relational fabric in our communities. We are among only a few who can.
The structures of many churches we lead today are designed for an era that no longer exists. Some will be able to adapt to this new world; most will not. That is ok. We can lose the buildings but still be the Church.
We need new liturgies, songs, language and theology to talk about our faith in the world today. We are more comfortable defining ourselves by who we are not than by who we are. That is a problem for effective communication.
Trust between and among us is essential for any change to be sustained. We will have to grant that trust to each other; we don’t have time to earn it. Trust becomes the gift we give one another for the sake of the mission. It’s an essential act of leadership in this age.
When we hit moments of anxiety, stress or turbulence, our instinct will be to cling tightly to what we can control. We should try the opposite. We should hold all of it loosely and become curious. This gives us the space to see what might break through.
Experimentation is essential. We are all now part of the Research and Development Department of the progressive faith movement. We need to test new ideas and report our findings. We might also call this discerning the movement of the Spirit.
God is with us in this. We are not alone. It’s as if God is saying to us, “We are going on a new journey, one faithful to the Way of Love. You are going to have to uproot yourselves and let go of much that has provided you shelter. But don’t be afraid; I will be with you every step of the way.”
Leadership today, especially in systems which are deconstructing (though we call it reconstructing), takes a particular kind of courage. It also demands a particular skill set, one that understands the soft skills of intuition and source-level insight. Much of what will be asked of us going forward will require newly cultivated instincts rather than trained methodologies. What becomes essential is a vision for the common good that rebalances our individualistic culture. This might become Christianity’s greatest gift to this historic moment – we get to remind people that we are better together.
As I closed my time in Canada, I named that we are presiding over the death of the denominational era. We will continue in our patterns of restructuring as we grow smaller and smaller. That is good and faithful work. While that is happening, we must ask the question, “What is next?” Faith is not dying; God is not abandoning us. But our structures are old technologies no longer effective in a new globalized, technology-driven age. We will be freeing significant assets in these next few years, assets that can be used to architect a future focused on the common good for all. The question is: What shall we invest in to ensure our best days are ahead?
My thanks to the wonderful leaders of the United Church of Canada for teaching me so much during our time together. I look forward to our paths crossing again.