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Living our call and vision asks us to resist fear and support change

Recently, the Business Planning Committee of the General Council Executive (GCE) made a decision to close meetings of the GCE to non-members, unless invited for a particular agenda item. This proved much more controversial than the committee considered it to be; for some, it seems to challenge the very conciliar nature of what it means to be The United Church of Canada. 

From my mind, and in my role as Moderator, I see several issues at play.

First, we have acknowledged that internal communication in the church continues to be a challenge; this decision seems counter-intuitive when faced with those challenges. 

Second, we are living through a time fraught with change management in the church, with challenges made worse by the onset of the pandemic. As a colleague recently put it: “The church restructured, and then the universe restructured.” Change management on paper is different from change management in practice—and we are seeing all the good and all the challenge that comes from that reality.

Lastly, I see a failure to assume positive intent—which is a natural human reaction to real or perceived threats; for many, threat overload across multiple dimensions in life is a reality.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians calls the church “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self” (Eph. 4: 23-24).

Let’s honour this little gem from the Epistles. Meditate on the fact that this practice of “putting on a new self” is not comfortable.

For a period of nearly a decade, while my kids were babies, I mostly stepped away from any work of the church at the national level. I was, however, a facilitator on the “Way Forward” committee at the last two General Councils, discerning how we as the church could “put on a new self.” Could live into a future that we can’t imagine, other than to acknowledge it needs to be radically different than the past.

What I have noticed, and this was my opinion before my election as Moderator, is that we are trying to turn the Titanic, and that results in what the Greeks called anaklesis—the need to lean on things. My mentor and coach, Julian Chapman, writes about this a lot and says we lean on two things: our beliefs and opinions, and our relationships with other humans. And because of that leaning, anaklesis can result in a strong resistance to change.

One of the concerns I’ve heard is that the move to exclude non-GCE members from GCE meetings (including Broadview) is that it threatens the democratic and representative nature of the church. In my view, a big change that may have been implied but not explicit was the changing nature of the “denominational council” and its Executive. We made a denominational decision—supported by remits and actions of two General Councils—to eliminate appointing representatives from the regions to the GCE, and instead to elect a GCE that is decidedly not representative of the regions of the church. Instead of a GCE that is comprised of 60 representatives and more than two dozen corresponding members, we are now 15 elected persons nominated by the General Council to do governance work between annual meetings of the General Council, plus the General Secretary, Moderator, and past Moderator.

Before the church restructured, although the General Council could always be recalled between in-person meetings, it was not common to do so. That practice is now standardized. The General Council itself is recalled every year for an AGM, in part to hold the GCE and GCO staff accountable for carrying on the work set out by the denomination. There are different accountabilities between the GCE and the annual meeting of the General Council than there were previously, which forces us to function like a policy governance board, regardless of whether it was communicated in quite that way to the wider church.

We have a real (not just imagined) resistance to change. For legal reasons, we needed to change our conciliar names to the Denominational Council and Denominational Council Executive. Even though it was legally required, this was not something we could agree to, and so our Record of Proceedings shows the compromise that we will legally show the Denominational Council and Executive in The Manual, but continue to call it General Council and GCE.

For the past two decades since I started my leadership journey in the church, I have seen the ongoing feedback loop: being unhappy with decisions at the national church level, disengaging from the work of the church, then feeling caught off-guard by new decisions, which leads to feeling caught off-guard even further, and then even more disgruntled.

The result is we are more and more cynical, suspicious of each other, and critical. We are becoming, at times, polarized from each other and less willing to engage with those of us who think differently. More importantly, we fail to assume the best about each other. Sometimes we assume the worst.

My assumption, and I could be wrong, is that the decision for us to limit access to GCE meetings reinforced a negative stereotype about the national church. “Oh, here they go again…trying to consolidate power” or whatever version of that narrative. When that becomes the approach to the issue, you’re going to have a harder time considering other perspectives.

Does the church have a communication problem? Sure. But I’m not sure the decision to close the GCE meetings exacerbates that. The reality is Broadview doesn’t actually attend all GCE meetings. They have only attended three out of 10 meetings in the past two years. For example, since the 44th General Council, Broadview has attended one GCE meeting. Out of that attendance, one story was released about our strategic plan and investing in 100 church plants. That story wouldn’t have been missed by waiting for the meeting summaries that are posted publicly immediately after our meetings end, or waiting for the full minutes to be released.

What is at issue for Broadview, and I can understand why, is that we have taken away their discretionary power of deciding if and when they would attend.

For a whole host of reasons, I think there is more to be gained by having closed GCE meetings. What the General Council Executive is working on is important and requires space and vulnerability and discernment, more generative conversations, and fewer traditional “proposals” of the church than in the past. We spend time talking about our equity aspirations, decolonizing our work, making sure we are anti-racist in our approaches to defining the work of the church and being the body that has accountability for ensuring those things happen at the General Council Office and with its staff. Most of the denomination-shaping work of the church remains with the General Council, instead of being solely delegated to the GCE as it was prior to restructure.

The biggest fear behind this disruption, and likely the most important, is around changing the conciliar nature of the church—but we already committed to that.

Perhaps the fear and concern expressed by some is understandable—but what if we could suspend that fear and concern for a moment? What if we allowed the grace for this new GCE to get its feet under itself, to start to tackle the implications of the really big change management processes underway? For example, governance. Restructuring. Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Ensuring the total compensation survey proposal from the last General Council is underway. And all the other statutory things, such as fulfilling our duty as the pension administrator.

We are also putting processes in place internally for how we coordinate media coverage, including through Broadview, which will actually allow us more accountability to the General Council and to the wider church.

Maybe what is needed is a little bit of space and grace to be renewed in the Spirit and to put on this new self we have constructed for ourselves.

The Right Rev. Dr. Carmen Lansdowne
Moderator and chair of the GCE