Niagara Falls, Ont.
Over 70 Anglican and Lutheran bishops, clergy and laity from across Canada on Wednesday began sharing stories of both success and failure concerning congregational health and renewal, at the National Consultation on Congregational Vitality being held at the Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre, May 14 to 16.
The consultation aims to facilitate the building of networks and friendships among those who are passionate about healthy and vital parishes so that resources can be shared nationwide, said the Rev. Dr. Eileen Scully, director of General Synod’s faith, worship and ministry (FWM) department.
It also aims to tap leadership for a virtual school with a web presence, which is being planned by General Synod. The new school would serve as a “hub for the sharing of resources” on congregational development, said Scully in an interview with the Anglican Journal.
“This is not just a feel-good event where people are going to learn things to take home and implement…We’re committed to help facilitate the building of networks,” including regional gatherings, she said. Twenty-four out of 30 Anglican dioceses are represented in the consultation. “Some dioceses were not able to come, but we will invite them as this thing grows,” she added. The Anglican Church of Canada’s full communion partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), sent eight participants from its Alberta and the Territories and the Manitoba and North West Ontario synods.
Scully acknowledged the fact that many parishes and dioceses are “really struggling” with declining numbers makes the consultation important. Shrinking numbers can induce panic and quick-fix solutions, said Scully, but it can force churches to “take a deeper look at, ‘Well, what is church, anyway? And, what does it mean to be a baptized Christian and to be gathered from our places of mission and sent out into God’s mission in the world?’ ”
The point then becomes, “We’re not worrying that we are struggling, but what can we learn from the good news?” she added. It’s a “gospel-centred approach” that can help “refocus us from thinking pathologically—thinking only illness—[to] instead think about the calling, and from that reality of struggle, focus on what God is calling us to be.”
Scully said the consultation is unique because it’s the first time that so many dioceses are represented. “It’s big that way and it’s big in that it’s a real mix of dioceses with staff and those who don’t even have diocesan staff. It’s a broader representation of people who have passion and expertise for congregational development,” she said.
It is also designed as a mutual learning event, she added. There are no special speakers talking at participants—rather, they are also considered experts. People share their own stories and find out how “our contextually-specific stories meet each other because we’re each wrapped up in God’s story.”
Ten years ago, about 50 participants gathered for a consultation on healthy parishes in Orillia, Ont., an event that featured special speakers and showcased new programs for congregational development.
The impetus for this year’s consultation came out of a “loose mandate” from the FWM committee in the last triennium to do something about congregational development, said Scully. “We really wrestled for a few years with, ‘what is that?’ In the 80s and 90s, it may be that we had staff [and] congregational development experts who would go into dioceses and parishes and teach them,” said Scully. “We’re in a new place now,” where the new model is about “extending and accompanying” so that everyone can participate in “the ministry of gathering and teaching,” she said.
A three-year grant of $150,000 from the national church’s Ministry Investment Fund (MIF) helped subsidize the consultation; money will also go toward launching the school, which also aims to connect with theological schools.
The MIF supports new programs and partnerships for the development of transformational leadership as part of General Synod’s “new orientation of connecting, extending, building capacity and accompanying ministries of parishes and dioceses,” Scully told participants at the opening session.