Sea Change in The United Church of Canada: Part One

The process that led to the review of my effectiveness

Over the next few days, I’m going to be posting material pertinent to the United Church disciplinary process that has come to light because of the current review of my effectiveness. That may be of little interest to some of you, especially if you’re not clergy in the UCC. That said, if you know anyone who is ministry personnel within the UCC or who knows of one, I ask that you share it.

There has been a lot of media attention drawn to the review of my effectiveness as a minister in the UCC who identifies as an atheist. But what has not been explored is the incredible change this process has wrought on the United Church disciplinary process. That’s the church that raised me, trained me, and to which I have given the best years of my life. That my ministry has worked such drastic changes upon it is disturbing to me.

The changes in the United Church disciplinary process that are a result of Toronto Conference’s concerns about my leadership need to be understood. Those who know and love the once progressive United Church need to know exactly what the challenges now are.

I’ll begin by sharing a bit about the process that led to the review and my concerns related to it. Those concerns start with the new Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships project. Within that project, presbyteries transferred the oversight of clergy to conferences, a very important part of the new United Church disciplinary process. The effects of that transfer are yet to be completely understood. One of the most challenging problems has come to light because of my review. I’m sharing that with you in this blog.

The Effective Leadership Project

In 2012, the General Council of the UCC voted in favour of introducing the Effective Leadership Project which had been developed over a number of years. It was aimed at streamlining pastoral relations processes in the church. Conferences were invited to participate in pilot projects that would help introduce the project and feel for any challenges it might introduce. Toronto Conference, the one in which West Hill, the community I serve, is situated, engaged the project in this pilot phase.

Transfer of oversight

The pilot project required the freedom to act outside of the standard methods of practice in order to test the new methods out. In May, 2013, the General Council Executive made that move.

Motion: Bev Kostichuk/Florence Sanna 2013-05-16-081
The General Secretary of the General Council proposes that:
1. The following Conferences be authorized to engage in a process for testing the principles
of the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships approved by the 41 st
General Council:

a. Maritime
b. Montreal and Ottawa
c. Bay of Quinte
d. Toronto
e. Hamilton
f. London
g. Manitou
h. Manitoba and North Western Ontario
i. Saskatchewan
j. British Columbia
k. All Native Circle

2. That the Conferences of Bay of Quinte, Toronto, Hamilton, London, Manitou, British Columbia be exempted from the polity and bylaws of the United Church Manual as detailed in the background section below for the duration of the testing period for the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships proposal approved by the 41st General Council;

3. That, upon request, the General Secretary be authorized to grant further exemptions from polity and by-laws related to Conference or Presbytery responsibilities for pastoral relationships, needs assessments, and the oversight and discipline of ministry personnel in order to enable testing of the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships proposal approved by the 41 st General Council.


Wait a minute! We can’t do that. Presbytery has to do it.

Included in the background document was a note that stated presbyteries were to ask their conference to take on the roles presbyteries normally held that were affected by the introduction of the pilot project. That the General Council Executive made the motion didn’t matter. The Basis of Union had granted the presbyteries powers that the General Council could not revoke. Therefore, the presbyteries needed to ask for the change. The oversight of Ministry Personnel was one of the areas transferred to the Conference.

Concerns regarding ministry personnel in the UCC

The section regarding the oversight of ministry personnel, formerly infamously known as “363”, was one of the sections covered in the backgrounder. Within the new section J9, The Manual is explicit about who can raise issues of concern regarding clergy. Presbyteries have to take concerns seriously. But those concerns can’t just come from anybody. The Manual provided for that and ensured that concerns could only come from someone who had first hand knowledge of the situation. If the presbytery was going to raise the concern itself, well, it had a direct relationship with every clergy person within it. All ministry personnel are members of presbytery and are supposed to be in regular attendance of its meetings.

In the United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel, the single common element shared by all parties that can raise a significant concern about a minister is that direct relationship had with the minister. The person(s) or court raising the concern know(s) the individual. In fact, they work with them either in the pastoral charge or in the presbytery of which the minister is a member.

9.2 Concerns about Ministry Personnel

The presbytery is responsible for the oversight of ministry personnel. It must take seriously any concerns that come to its attention about any ministry personnel. These concerns may be raised by

(a) the presbytery itself, including any member or committee of the presbytery;
(b) a ministry personnel settled in or appointed to the same pastoral charge;
(c) the pastoral charge supervisor;
(d) the governing body of the pastoral charge; or
(e) a proposal signed by 10 full members of the pastoral charge that the pastoral charge’s governing body has passed on to the presbytery.

And now we must think about the implications

When, in accordance with the direction of the General Council, presbyteries asked conferences to take over the presbyteries’ former oversight role, I wonder if they understood the implication of their request. I don’t think they had really thought through what it would mean for clergy when those raising concerns didn’t have to really know the individual. And I don’t think they really considered that they no longer had the right to raise concerns themselves.  Transferring those rights to conferences removed the requirement of direct relationship and made clergy far more vulnerable. The conference, which can now raise a concern with or without the input of anyone who knows the clergy person, may or may not itself have a relationship direct enough to be able to discuss concerns about a minister. Indeed, they might end up going on hearsay and hunches, prejudices and opinions. Indeed, that’s just what happened at Toronto Conference in 2015.

Concerns raised about my beliefs….

It might seem easy to argue that everyone knows what the issue related to my review is: I’m an atheist, for goodness’ sake! But the process for reviewing my theological beliefs didn’t even exist when concerns were raised at a meeting of the Toronto Conference Executive Committee in April, 2015. The United Church disciplinary process was in flux and Toronto Conference was affected by the movement. At that meeting, David Allen, the Executive Secretary,

reported on concerns that have been raised regarding Rev. Gretta Vosper describing herself as an atheist. A letter from Metropolitan United Church was referenced as one of the responses. The Executive Secretary outlined various options to be considered. The Executive discussed what action it wished to take on this matter.

The letter from Metropolitan United Church was from the Chair of the Official Board, Vera Taylor. But if you read it closely, you’ll note that it doesn’t actually name me. Rather, it erroneously refers to West Hill as an atheist church in a letter that seems to be seeking clarity about the theology of the church in general. In a letter to the General Secretary, Scan MUC Letter completeAllen notes that the letter from Metropolitan United raises concerns about West Hill United Church but he does not say anything about me. The oversight of congregations was not transferred to the Conference; it remained with presbytery. That being the case, and Allen’s original note to the General Secretary having acknowledged the letter was about West Hill, perhaps Toronto Conference should have forwarded the letter to Toronto Southeast Presbytery. That Allen raised it in a Conference Executive meeting and said that it was a response to my self-identification as an atheist, is confusing.

Who are these people?

I received copies of two other letters from conference shortly after the sub-Executive chose to initiate a review of my effectiveness based on the General Secretary’s subsequent ruling. (Look for Part Two, coming next). The conference hadn’t received either of them at the time of its April meeting. It took a year for me to receive them all. The emails and letters were sent to the General Council office or Toronto Conference following the publication of an article in the Toronto Star in March, 2016. That article was short, sassy, written by someone who knew little about religion and less about the United Church, and had at least one serious misquote in it. Which is inconsequential at this point. What matters is that I have no idea who any of these people are.

Whether you know the UCC or not, feel free to comment

IMG_20160831_0001 email removed

Some of the writers, like Colleen who sent her missive through the General Council’s online contact form, are definitely not even related to the United Church. Her opinions, such as her intimation that we should all be Creationists, make it clear that she is not familiar with the United Church at all and was using the Star article to express her derision toward a liberal, mainline denomination in general. I just happened to be the focal point for that derision.

Others, like retired clergy James McKnight, are considerate and respectful. He comes from the position of one who has worked within the United Church all his life. But I have never, to my knowledge, met him. Nor, to my knowledge, has he visited West Hill United.

JAmes McKnight

The handwritten letter from Elaine appears to be from someone who also knows the United Church.  She may be a member of the denomination. Again, I do not know if we have ever met or if she has any first hand knowledge of West Hill. Letter Elaine

IMG_20160831_0002 email removedThe emails from JoAnne and Ann seem to be from individuals who are not members of the United Church. Ann appears to be aware that Ken Gallinger chose to remain in the pulpit until retirement, disclosing his atheism when he no longer needed to lead services. She has no problem with his choice to do so. Again, I have no idea if I have ever met these women or if they have ever stepped foot in West Hill’s building or attended a service there.
The last email, from Neil, is also, from someone who does not know the United Church from the inside. And, once again, I don’t think we have ever met. His note does remind us, however, of the literal manner in which the beliefs shared on the UCC website are understood and that we really don’t know what anyone means when they use the word “god”.

IMG_20160831_0008 email address removed cropped

No more need for direct knowledge about a ministry personnel

So here’s the point of today’s post: Now that conferences have been given the right to raise concerns about ministry personnel, who is going to make sure that those concerns come from individuals who actually have direct experience of the clergy person in question?

Of the Conference Executive members gathered that April day in 2015, to my knowledge not one had ever been at West Hill for a service under my leadership, or engaged either me or West Hill about our work. Not one had ever asked me for clarification about anything I have written or said in public of that has been written about me. Not one had asked me about the significant error in the Star article, an error that raised my own eyebrows. Still, egged on by an outrageous talk radio show hosted by a belligerent, evangelical Christian, and the presentation of a letter that didn’t even name me, they engaged in a conversation about my ministry in the UCC. It was such a powerful conversation that they were sufficiently moved by it to invite the creation of an entirely new process to deal with my beliefs. That process would, from its development onward, require an unprecedented theological orthodoxy of United Church clergy.

Personally, I think that action needed more consideration. I think it warranted a conversation with me. Not a review. A conversation. And they could have easily arranged for such a conversation.

It is important to note that none of this negates the possibility that others, with direct experience of my ministry might have brought forward legitimate concerns within the United Church disciplinary process that should have been heard. My point is that concerns about your ministry no longer need to come from anyone who knows anything about it.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is all about me: it isn’t

Given that none of the correspondents and no one around the table that day was at all knowledgeable about the ministry they were discussing in even a rudimentary way, it seems the conference’s oversight of clergy under the Effective Leadership Project has some serious flaws. When its sub-Executive met to invoke the new ruling regarding theological orthodoxy, there was still no one in attendance who knew any more about me than those who had asked for the process. The United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel has changed and not for the better.

As a result of the Effective Leadership transfer of oversight of ministry personnel to conference, clergy are now unprotected by The Manual‘s previous requirement of intimate knowledge of their work in order for a review to be launched. And while it might seem obvious to many that, as far as “the atheist minister” was concerned, “something needed to be done”, Toronto Conference’s implementation of its newfound privileges falls far short of the previous care put to the United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is about me. This is about process. And the process is now far from safe for clergy. If you are clergy in the UCC, you should be concerned. If anyone, anywhere, member of the United Church or not, manages to get the attention of a conference executive that doesn’t know you and the conversation around the table gets, let’s say, “titillating”, the people around that table will feel justified that they are doing the right thing by initiating a review of your ministry. Even if they know nothing about you. If that doesn’t alarm you, you probably still think this is all about me. And if you do, you’re very badly mistaken.

It was indeed a sad day when presbyteries transferred their right to raise concerns about the ministry personnel in their midst but I don’t think even they knew what it would mean. Whether Toronto Conference Executive’s actions were, at best, the result of misunderstanding the implications of its actions or, at worst, a cavalier misuse of the privilege transferred to it by its presbyteries, the result is the exposure of a deep flaw in the Effective Leadership Project. One can only hope that, once identified, the problem might be corrected rather than embraced. 






12 thoughts on “Sea Change in The United Church of Canada: Part One

  1. Robert Tulp

    Dear Gretta
    Thank you for sharing this information, which I read with interest.
    This power grab by those seeking to suppress your calling to ministry is unconscionable. The roots of the United Church in the Protestant Reformation involve a call to nonconformity, to liberty, and to the priesthood of all believers.
    Those complex hard won values are now in peril through an effort to enforce a hierarchical rigidity that conflicts with the Gospel values of truth and transformation. These core evangelical values of religious liberty and congregational participation are now being trashed by a narrow literal-minded elite who lack vision of the rich meaning of symbolism within religious faith.
    All power and success to your work to overcome the evils of false religion that are seeking to confine the awesome wonder of God within the confines of their limited beliefs. The world is in urgent need of dialogue about how divinity is manifest. Religion can include atheism as part of some people’s heart-felt story, as a way of jarring us out of complacency about the false claims of tradition. The atheist rational focus on evidence as a high value should be respected by the Christian churches as a legitimate perspective.
    With faith and hope and love
    Robert Tulip

  2. Dale Perkins

    In short, I see the entire exercise simply a convoluted way to install bishops in the UCC – a few Conference bureaucrats who have control over personnel. Ignore the ‘dance’ – just look at the bigger picture.

    1. Gretta Vosper Post author

      Sadly, I think that is what we are ending up with and I can certainly see why the process has to change. But I do not see that it has to change in a manner that puts the church’s most important resources, its clergy, at such risk. Thanks for your ongoing support, Dale!

  3. Bill Peterson

    As an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ (USA) I share your concerns. I have led many Clergy Fitness Reviews at the Association (more local) level. We have strictly required complaints to be from direct contacts only, and the complainant had to identify themselves (in confidence if necessary) to the Review Team. We also strictly followed the process in out Manual on Ministry, with no interjections of personal opinion or third-party input. Our meetings with clergy have been conversational and limited to the matter at hand. Clergy could bring a partner to the conversations.
    Recently, there have been moves to transfer Fitness Reviews to a Fitness Review Team at the Conference level, opening our clergy up to the same vulnerabilities that you describe. To my knowledge, neither I nor any of the team from our Association have been invited onto the conference team.
    This is the sign of a highly anxious system protecting itself by shooting itself in the foot.
    Thank you for your courage. not only in expressing your spirituality, but in addressing the systemic issues.
    Rev. Bill Peterson, UCC

    1. Gretta Vosper Post author

      Thank you, Bill. Your experience underscores the importance of those direct relationships. That people who called to rant about the United Church on the radio show of a bombastic, fundamentalist host were identified in the initial conversation with me about the process as people who were asking questions is deeply troubling. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. TC Smythe

    As a member of a secular congregation in Texas, I read this information through a different lens than what you may have intended. In doing so, I could not help but flip the coin and ask, “What about my own secular leadership? Are they required to prove or define the basis of their beliefs or non-belief in order to provide good and effective leadership?” That answer would be a solid “no”. The only requirement we make upon our clergy (for lack of a better term) is that they uphold the stated values and mission of our organization, which relies primarily on the principles of kindness and reason. Like UCC, we provide a home to those who ‘lean a bit left’ compared to the other communities around us.

    In an attempt to look at this through a ‘UCC lens’, its own website refers to the nature of the Bible: “We often refer to a passage as “the Word of God.” By this we mean the writer was inspired by God.” But the site fails to define what God is or how one would know if their understanding was accurate or even remotely similar to anyone else’s. In the absence of a clear definition, God remains a subjective concept. The website goes on to say, ” … Yet we also know the various books that make up the Bible are the stories of two ancient communities trying to be faithful to God under difficult circumstances-ancient Israel and the early Christian movement-and some of what was experienced and written then doesn’t fit with today’s world.”

    Indeed, it does not, which is why my community is growing exponentially, and at the expense of traditional churches in our area. I would caution the UCC that if they want to remain viable in the modern world, they could take a page from Ms. Vosper’s playbook, get off her back, and let her continue reaching out to her otherwise satisfied flock (some of whom who are on the bubble about staying with UCC at all). My extended family lives in the Saskatchewan Conference and they are fed up with being spoken to from on high about what they believe by mere mortals.

    TC Smythe

    1. Gretta Vosper Post author

      Thank you, TC, for noting the challenges inherent in the partial explanations one finds on the UCC website. I fear that our liberal penchant for “reclaiming” the language of traditional Christianity for more “evolved” understandings has caught us up in a net. That language still belongs to the conservatives among us who are being given tools to press their perspective into practice with more prevalence.

  5. Pingback: Sea Change in the United Church: Part Two - Gretta Vosper

  6. Fran Ota

    Thanks for this analysis, Gretta. It’s frightening indeed. I keep trying to push critics to go to West Hill, learn for themselves, talk to you with an open mind. Doesn’t seem to be happening. Perhaps they also don’t realize the reverse is true. If I am unhappy with any of my more conservative colleagues, I can now raise questions about the effectiveness of their ministry under the new rubric. And then there is the frightening piece, for me, that although this is to be ‘Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships’ , the Conference (and the national office) are prepared to step across, or perhaps, step ON, even……healthy pastoral relationships in order to get the clergy in question. I had not realized that the initial letter from Met addressed West Hill, and that somehow it became only you, and West Hill was cut out of the process.

  7. Jacqueline Lyn

    It is a sad day when the UCC has to resort to lies, half truths, smoke & mirrors…and for what? Because the conservatives are scared…why don’t they stop…stop and listen…listen to hear…sit in discomfort, shake hands with the discomfort and allow it to stay…that would be an act of courage!

  8. Jamie Laidlaw

    I don’t feel like getting worked up about this because there is nothing to winning for either party. When all the ashes are cold, we will be left with deeper rifts and less credibility.

    This is the type of dispute that would keep me out of any church but I do not visit churches to dispute. I visit to meet interesting people and Greta is certainly one of those.

    See you this Sunday.


  9. Shelagh Parsons

    I am sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk last fall Gretta when I was in Toronto. I hear your cry and have been I believe close to some of the feelings you now have. It is difficult when those you trust seem to be siding up to shaft you without listening or understanding from where you are coming from or want to try. I don’t mean West Hill as I know they are supportive. I mean the wider church. It is worse when outside forces begin to bring about fundamentalist and may I say anti-modernist agenda to our un-tied or loosely tied church and rick havoc which includes media.
    The United Church of Canada of which I am a minister (retired) is crumbling and in chaos. The glue of trust has worn out and the ‘Unity with Diversity’ the theme of 1925 service of uniting has died. Further to this, to listen and I mean listen deeply has apparently got up and left. I am deeply saddened by this mess.
    I personally don’t like your choice of the word ‘atheist’ although there is certainly a history to support your usage. I never liked the Russian choice of ‘Atheist’ museum and the slant of all the things that religion has done to be the cause of violence. I prefer to see that the church and religion through the ages as having been held hostage by those who would take what is good and beautiful and corrupt it for their own ends.
    Most recently I have experienced a situation in which religion was not a part. A woman in a position of authority took to dogmatically imposing her beliefs that ‘Registered Psychologists’ were the only right and true way and dismissed, discounted the rest of us who were either ‘Clinical Social Workers’ or ‘Registered Psychotherapists’. I am also the latter as well as a minister. It was devastating and the powers that were in the organization took forever but eventually acted and she was fired. This was not before my colleagues all resigned. The demise of the whole department and the work it was doing destroyed. Some of the people both within and outside UC are likely dogmatic and rigid as she was. The only thing that I perceive is that such persons are fearful and employ rigid, unlistening and dogmatic rightness to the supposed dialogue to further what they perceive as more secure.
    The system I was in wasn’t as broken and didn’t have elected people but hired employees. They had people and a whole system that understood the system and yet little was done. My point is that you have neither a system that is whole or an educated personnel that knows either the long standing theological, and philosophical case that you are making.
    So I ask you, what do you think should happen now? Not what shouldn’t have happened, not what is wrong or happening but where to from here?
    Is there with any integrity a compromise? We have had a thesis and antithesis, what is the synthesis? Is there one? Is there a way that you and West Hills can stop being victimized and hurt and the United or un-tied church can save face?
    It is very apparent to me you have the brains, do you have the heart to help the United Church out of the chaos and its pending collapse.
    I don’t know whether I would want to if I were you but if you care for the church wider than West Hills maybe you can set your mind to figure a solution that provides solace for you and saving grace for the UC. I am asking you and everyone else to step out of the win -lose scenario. I am uncertain the church can but I am wondering if you can and provide the leadership that we very much need.

    Just a few thoughts from way out here in no persons land.


Comments are closed.