Planning, disruption and hope in a pandemic year
“The best-laid schemes of Mice and Men go oft awry.”
—Robert Burns, “To a Mouse”
What do you do when you’re trying to come up with a plan, and a pandemic hits and stops everything in its tracks?
This is a question none of us probably asked ourselves before March 2020, and a question no one had in mind when the work that emerged from General Synod 2019 began to be tackled by the Council of General Synod (CoGS), supported by the Strategic Planning Working Group (SPWG).
It’s a question, however, that the SPWG had to ask itself this year. When we reflected on the new realities that COVID-19 was placing on our church and the anxiety, stress, lament and fear that we knew laity and clergy were feeling across the country, the group realized that even the term “strategic plan” seemed difficult to discuss. To continue our work the way we had envisioned seemed insensitive to the space that we found ourselves in. At the same time, we knew that profound creativity was at work and transformation was happening in parishes and communities across the country. We did not want to lose the opportunity to harvest the hope, excitement, and authentic realities that have the potential to sit at the foundation of our future plans and directions in the years ahead.
And so, we stopped what we were doing and decided to listen—to the lament and worry AND to the hope and faith. We recognized that we had entered a kind of “liminal space”: a space of in-between.
Last April, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, wrote, in a statement on the church’ strategic planning process:
No part of the church’s life and work could or should proceed according to “business as usual” – including our strategic planning process. I suggested, and the working group quickly agreed, that we would form a series of “listening groups” to listen actively and openly, attentively and carefully, appreciatively and respectfully, to what Canadian Anglicans are saying, thinking and feeling at this unique time about their church, at the local, diocesan and national levels.
One of the unique roles of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada is to act as a conduit of connection between Anglicans from across the country. Through it we are able to foster learning about what is happening in different dioceses and communities and to strengthen connections that can add capacity to the church as a whole. As the primate reminded us in her paper, “On Being Church,” “[The Anglican Communion is] an international family of juridically independent but recognizably connected churches, in which each part assists the other.” In a nutshell: we are in this together, and by connecting and listening to each other we may be able to glean more than we could apart.
Over the past seven months the SPWG, guided by the theme, “A Changing Church. A Searching World. A Faithful God,” has left the normal planning processes behind and instead invited small groups of laity and clergy from across the country to come together (over Zoom, of course!) to listen and learn. Groups have been led by teams consisting of members of CoGS and the SPWG, and have been organized according to particular areas of interest and responsibility. There are listening groups of bishops, synod staff, diocesan councils, financial officers, young clergy, Indigenous community leaders, Anglicans focused on social justice and community ministries, communications officers and congregational development leaders, and others. In all, more than 125 individuals have met—some of them up to three times—to share their experiences, to support each other, to build relationships and to foster hope for the future.
Using a gospel-based approach of group conversation and discernment, participants have reflected on the road that we are on (Luke 24.13- 21); the transformation the church is in the midst of (Ezra 3.8-13), and the unity of who we are as the Anglican Church of Canada at this time and into the future (1 Corinthians 12.12-27).
Through these conversations we have shared joy and laughter. We have honoured worries and fears. We have shared concerns about dwindling finances and the need for structural change. We have discussed mental health and systemic injustices. We have shared ideas and creative solutions. Told stories of hope and new life. Taught each other about what is going on in our neck of the woods. Found comfort in knowing that we are all together on a pandemic-fueled roller-coaster that has us feeling both hope and concern—sometimes at exactly the same time.
The strategic plan work of CoGS over the last seven months looks nothing like what was envisioned—yet the Spirit has been present in new and exciting ways. Canadian Anglicans have adapted and listened. Perspectives and insights that would never have been given the opportunity to emerge through traditional methods have flourished. And in the midst of a time in history that told us to stop what we are doing, we have listened to each other and strengthened relationships across the country and across our church. In this liminal moment that is both disruptive and profoundly Spirit-filled, space has been created that will undoubtedly inform who we are called to be in the future.
As dangerous as liminal seasons can be, they can also be transformative. A malleable situation invites experimentation and risk-taking. We are free to question tradition, which can make space for originality, generativity, and creativity. All truly great innovations are incubated in liminality. God’s greatest works occur in liminal space.
—Susan Beaumont, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going
The Rev. Monique Stone is rector of Julian of Norwich Anglican Church in Ottawa and a member of the national church’s Strategic Planning Working Group.