Sea Change in the United Church: Part Two

The Definition of Effectiveness

Reviews of Ministry Personnel

In the United Church, there are only two reasons a minister can be disciplined. One is for insubordination – pretty straightforward. The other is for effectiveness – maybe not so obvious. The processes for both are covered by the handbook, Pastoral Charge and Ministry Personnel Reviews. In Part One of this series, I discussed how a complaint against ministry personnel can be made and the difference between the then and the now with respect to that process. This post will take a look at the concept of effectiveness and its new definition.

Determining effectiveness

I like to believe that the handbooks the United Church has published are helpful. I also like to believe they are used by the different levels of the church and their respective committees. Both of those things would make it easy to figure out how to go about a review of effectiveness. And, to a certain degree, they do.

The Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice for Ministry Personnel (ESSPMP) handbook is the go to guide for exploring what is and is not effective leadership in the United Church. A breach of any of the elements within it could, and very often should, trigger a conversation about a minister’s effectiveness. That conversation, whether it takes place with or without the individual concerned, may lead to a review of his or her effectiveness using the review process set out in the handbook mentioned above.

The Standards of Practice set out in ESSPMP outlines expectations in the areas of administration, community outreach and social justice, continuing education, participation in the denomination and its communities, faith formation and Christian education, leadership, pastoral care, self care, and worship. Each area identifies the basic requirements for effective leadership.

Ethical Standards set out in ESSPMP include appreciation of and commitment to excellence in areas of competence, the understanding of conflicts of interest, personal and professional relationships conduct, one’s relationship with the Law and with people served out of one’s role as minister. They also outline some of the responsibilities of the role with respect to the denomination’s governance and procedures, protecting the integrity of funds and property entrusted to them, self-awareness, and the maintenance of confidence.

It’s a long list and a good one. And, if I do say so myself, I’m pretty effective. Indeed, my congregation ensures that I am and they ought to know. They are the ones who work with me year in and year out. They’ve been doing it for almost twenty years. When there have been situations of conflict or concern, I’ve always pointed to the processes that are available for sorting them out. I imagine that some people who left West Hill during its transition probably wish they’d taken me up on it but the reality is that, according to the standards of practice and the ethical standards, there wouldn’t have been much to argue.

Until now, that is. Now, in order to be effective, you need to be suitable. And that’s a whole other ballgame.

Suitability

Before you can really understand the difference between what was before the ruling which led to my review and what is now that the ruling is in place, you need to understand how people become leaders in the UCC. Understanding that process may still be rather misleading, though. Because what happened on the way to reviewing my effectiveness hasn’t changed the path toward ordination, commissioning, or admission; it has changed what comes after you’ve been welcomed into leadership. What used to be discerned in the process toward leadership can now be discerned afterward, too: your suitability for ministry.

Getting to lead in The United Church of Canada

Suitability is a big part of the process toward leadership in the UCC. Beginning with the individual’s congregation, he or she is interviewed by three different levels (courts) of the denomination before completing the process. And at each different level, suitability is discerned, the implication being that what one level considers suitable is further refined at the next. If a congregation believes that anyone with a heartbeat is suitable for ministry in the UCC, the Presbytery or Conference is going to demand evidence of a few more qualities and skills.

Helpful materials

The United Church currently uses the document Entering the Ministry to help individuals understand the process toward leadership in the church more clearly. It sets out the process, shares what expectations are and what administrative processes must be completed.

It is also a helpful guide for interviewing committees and helps them focus on what they are looking for in a leader. In an Entering the Ministry appendix, “Discerning a Call”, the church clarifies what it is looking for, what manifests “suitability”. Although most references to “suitability” in The Manual refer to “personal character, motives, and faith,” it is clear that having the attributes share in “Discerning a Call” or the potential to develop them goes a long way toward being found suitable.

Deep spiritual life: Ministry requires a profound sense and experience of the Spirit of
God within the individual, ongoing discernment of the Holy, and passion for being part
of God’s mission in the world.
Integrity of self: Authentic ministry is grounded in the integration of the emotional and
spiritual self with acquired knowledge and abilities.
Understanding of human behaviour: Pastoral ministry requires a well-developed capacity
for active listening. It also requires a psychological and sociological understanding of
human dynamics in individuals and groups.
Scholarship: The ministry of leadership requires an ability to comprehend and teach
theological concepts, the traditions of the church, and biblical scholarship, as well as to
nurture the faith in others.
Commitment to and longing for justice: The commitment to work prophetically for all is
the direct result of a robust faith.
Capacity for critical reflection: The ability to be self-critical, to assess situations
appropriately, and to reflect on one’s actions and their effects on others is important.
Capacity to be a lifelong learner: The openness to admit there is much to be learned
and a growing demonstration of the willingness to integrate new ideas, patterns of
behaviours, and skills are essential for ministry.
Appreciation of administration: Ministry requires respect for, and knowledge of,
church polity and the ability to oversee the institutional health and well-being of a
congregation or community ministry. Does the individual understand administration to
be part of the call?
(Entering the Ministry, Appendix A, pg. 25)

Indeed, these attributes remain before candidates once they are ordained. They all appear in the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice for Ministry Personnel handbook, embedded and expected in ongoing ministry.

The Process

As noted above, individuals interested in ministry in the UCC engage with three different levels of the church on the way toward achieving their goal. At every level, suitability is discerned. As stated in the Entering the Ministry handbook,

When the United Church makes a wrong decision and ordains, commissions, or recognizes a person who does not have the calling and gifts for ministry, the committees of the church do a disservice to the individual and to the whole church. The result may be future pain and conflict in a congregation, a large financial burden, and frustration and anger on the part of the individual. To “speak the truth in love” and be honest about perceptions and concerns early in the discernment process will help an individual to make a decision that, hopefully, will be the right one for both the church and the person. (Page 28)

We try to get it right before we ordain, commission, or admit someone to leadership in the United Church. Afterward, effectiveness is the test and it can be a difficult time for both the clergy person and the congregation served. So discerning suitability is way preferable to dealing with a review of effectiveness when the wheels fall off the bus.

The Congregation

The congregation discerns the suitability of lay members for leadership and identifies them as inquirers. It then works with the candidate and the presbytery to further discern what type of ministry the individual is suitable for. This could be ordered – ordained or diaconal – or lay.  If the individual is found to be suitable for ordered ministry, the congregation recommends the inquirer to Presbytery to be received as a Candidate. (Note 1)

The Presbytery

The Presbytery “enquires” into the “call to ministry, character, motives, academic record, doctrinal beliefs, and general fitness for ministry”. When educational requirements are successfully completed, it recommends the Candidate to Conference for ordination. (Note 2)

The handbook used for the discernment of a call to ministry and the assessment of suitability refers to “the inquirer’s call to ministry, personal character, motives, and faith.” Since “call to ministry” is distinguished from “suitability”, suitability refers to personal character, motives, and faith.

The Conference
Queen's Theological College Graduation, 1990. With Carolyn Woodall

Queen’s Theological College Graduation, 1990. With the soon to be ordained Carolyn Woodall.

The Conference Education and Students committee does the final checking of those seeking leadership in the United Church. While the process will undoubtedly be in flux during the church’s transition into the Effective Leadership structure, candidates continue to be examined in accordance with previous guidelines.

In Toronto Conference, the process is outlined in a document prepared for its 2014-2015 Interview  Committee. The exploration of suitability takes place in early interviews while the final interview ascertains “readiness” for ministry.

The General Secretary’s challenge

When asked by Toronto Conference to develop a process to deal with “a minister who describes herself as an atheist”, she didn’t have a lot of wiggle room. The Conference asked her “what process” they could use to deal with concerns they were hearing. The motion the Conference Executive passed specifically asked her to

outline a process for considering concerns that have been raised regarding the on-going status of an ordered minister, with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union 11.3

I know, it is a bit confusing. First the letter seems to ask the General Secretary to choose from the existing processes – they Executive notes that it was not sure “what process” to use which suggests they were considering existing processes. In their motion, however, they ask her to create an entirely new process.

A mixing of kinds

In order to overcome the apparent conflict within Toronto Conference’s Executive Committee’s request, the General Secretary was required to look at the existing processes while considering them in a new light. The existing processes were clearly not up to the task. Indeed, when David Allen met with Randy Bowes, Chair of West Hill United Church, and I to advise us of the request to the General Secretary, he made it very clear that there were no grounds for a review of my effectiveness and no situations of insubordination. Those processes simply wouldn’t work.

And so the General Secretary looked at those processes in a new light. With this new illumination and the new insights it provided, she ruled that a review of effectiveness could be used to discern “continuing affirmation of the questions of ordination, commissioning or admission found in Basis of Union 11.3.”

The questions of ordination, commissioning and admission

You probably don’t have a United Church Manual at hand so here are the questions of ordination, commissioning and admission as found in the Basis of Union section 11.3.

1.Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and do you
commit yourself anew to God?
2. (to each Candidate being ordained) Do you believe that God is calling you to the
ordained ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Pastoral Care, and do you accept this call?
(to each Candidate being commissioned) Do you believe that God is calling you to the
diaconal ministry of Education, Service, and Pastoral Care, and do you accept this call?
3.  Are you willing to exercise your ministry in accordance with the
scriptures, in continuity with the faith of the Church, and subject to the oversight and
discipline of The United Church of Canada?”

As it turns out, I never answered those questions. I found the service bulletin of my ordination service while unpacking a box of papers in the basement a couple of months ago.  I was ordained by Bay of Quinte Conference in 1993. For that service, the questions of ordination had been rewritten to reflect the well-loved liturgical piece known as The New Creed. The questions I answered had no traditional Trinitarian language in them. I did not say that I believed in God: Father, Son, and Holy  Spirit. Who knew?!

Technically, then, asking me the questions from the Basis of Union doesn’t actually confirm whether or not I am in continuing affirmation of the questions I answered affirmatively in Pembroke back in 1993 because they weren’t the questions I answered. But we’re quibbling….

Suitability redefined

Although Congregations, Presbyteries, and Conferences are on the front lines of the work of discerning suitability for ministry, closely matching what they’re looking for with the requirements for effectiveness, the General Secretary made the one dependent upon the other. From her letter to David Allen:

The questions set out in Basis 11.3 relate to belief in God, call to ministry, and the exercise of ministry within the faith of the Church. They go to the suitability of the person to serve in ministry in the United Church.

I know that the General Secretary has the right to interpret polity but I think that arguing that the questions asked at ordination address the question of the individual’s suitability for ministry is a stretch. Are they being posed in order to get the individual to affirm what has already been discerned by a Congregation, Presbytery, and Conference? Are they the ultimate test of suitability?

And what about all those other things that congregations, presbyteries, and conferences have been looking for, lo, these many years:  the deep spiritual life, an integrity of self, an understanding of human behaviour, the willingness and aptitude for study and teaching, a commitment to and longing for justice, the capacity for critical reflection and the desire to be a lifelong learner, and, finally, an appreciation for the administrative tasks of ministry? I don’t find any of those attributes embedded explicitly or implicitly in the questions of ordination.

The General Secretary correctly identifies the questions as relating to belief in God, call to ministry, and the exercise of ministry within the faith of the church, but she’s wrong about them being the ultimate test of suitability. If she’s right, then why don’t we just ask people those questions at the outset and forget about the years of discernment each candidate undertakes with the many people who volunteer and work to support them? If an affirmative answer to those questions is all it takes to discern suitability, then ask them and get it over with.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The General Secretary’s response to Allen’s letter continues:

Within our Polity, the Conference Interview Board is the body that is charged with making the assessment of suitability. The mandate of the Conference Interview Board is set out on page 6 of the Conference Committees Resource [2013] and includes:

(b) assisting presbyteries and other bodies in determining the suitability of people for functioning as ministry personnel in the United Church;
(c) reporting the results of the interview to the referring body and the person interviewed;

In fact, as The Manual notes in several places, it is not just the Conference Interview Board (read “Committee”) that makes the assessment of suitability. They may make the ultimate assessment but suitability has been discerned throughout the process by congregations and presbyteries, as the resource quoted notes.

Forging the final link

The final link that the General Secretary forges in order to introduce theological orthodoxy as the test of suitability is hammered out in her opinion.

In my opinion, a person who is not suitable for ministry in the United Church cannot be “effective” as United Church ministry personnel. Where a question has been raised about the minister’s suitability, the presbytery may consider that a question has been raised about “effectiveness” so as to initiate a review of the minister on that ground. The questions set out in Basis 11.3, which are asked at the time of ordering, are appropriate for assessing on-going suitability.

In order to be effective, one must be suitable. That makes sense. After all, congregations, presbyteries, and conferences across the country work hard to ensure that candidates for leadership in the United Church are suitable: before ordination, commissioning, or admission. Once you’re a member of the pension and benefits plan, it’s effectiveness that gets assessed. And we have guidelines for discerning effectiveness.

The General Secretary could not use those guidelines, however, because they make no assertions about theological orthodoxy. And there were no grounds within them to review me as no complaints had been raised about any of the issues covered in the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice for Ministry Personnel.

It seems that, guided by the Conference Executive’s motion, the General Secretary situated the idea of suitability within the questions of ordination where they conveniently met the work of the Conference Interview Committee. Welding the questions together with the idea of suitability didn’t even really require that any new functions or committees be created. The Conference Interview Committee, already well schooled in discerning suitability, could easily take up the responsibility. And that is just what she ruled the process would be.

Based on the Polity set out above, I rule that the following process would be appropriate for responding to these kinds of concerns. I will refer to the Conference exercising oversight of ministry personnel rather than the presbytery since this ruling was requested by Toronto Conference.
• The Conference (through its Executive or Sub-Executive) orders a review of the
minister’s effectiveness under Section J.9.3(a) [page 194].
• The Conference may direct the Conference Interview Board to undertake this review,
interviewing the minister with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all
candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union 11.3.
• The Conference Interview Board conducts the interview and reports to the Conference whether, in the Interview Board’s opinion, the minister is suitable to continue serving in ordered ministry in the United Church.
• The Conference receives the report from the Conference Interview Board and decides on
appropriate action in response to it. In making this decision, the Conference may take into
account the Basis 11.3 questions as well as the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is suitable to continue in ordered
ministry, the Conference may decide to take no further action.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is not suitable, the Conference may decide to take one or more of the actions contemplated in Section 9.4 [page 195],
• Upon the minister’s completion of the action, the Conference decides whether the minister may continue in paid accountable ministry in the United Church as set out in Section 9.8 [page 196].
If the Conference decides the minister is not ready to continue in paid accountable ministry, it
must recommend that the minister’s name be placed on the Discontinued Service List
(Disciplinary).

What she has really done, then, in the weaving together of the questions of ordination and the concept of suitability is provide United Church conferences with the opportunity to review of ministry personnel on the basis of theological orthodoxy. Any ministry personnel.

That ruling is here to stay.

Notes

  1. Basis of Union II. The Pastoral Charge. Section 5.10.2 (4) It shall also be [the Session’s] duty to recommend to Presbytery suitable inquirers to become Candidates.

  2. Basis of Union III. The Presbytery. 6.4.5 It shall be the duty of the Presbytery to examine and where appropriate:
    (1) to receive an Inquirer who has been recommended by a Session (or its equivalent) as a         Candidate for the Order of Ministry; and
    (2) to certify each Candidate to a United Church theological school;
    6.4.6 to exercise faithful supervision of each Candidate; to enquire each year into the genuine call to ministry, personal character, motives, academic record, doctrinal beliefs, and general fitness for ministry of each Candidate; and to receive annual reports for each Candidate from the theological school;
    6.4.7 to make a recommendation to the Conference regarding each Candidate for the Order of Ministry upon completion of the prescribed requirements for ordination or commissioning;

 

11 thoughts on “Sea Change in the United Church: Part Two

  1. Robert Tulip

    Gretta, your situation reflects schismatic tensions that are splitting the church into opposing camps whose ethical values are primarily grounded either in faith or reason. It appears the conservatives want a schism that will force those who place primary value on scientific evidence and reason to create new institutions, and to give their church properties to the conservatives.
    Values based on reason lead ineluctably towards respect for atheism, through the insistence that we should not hold beliefs that conflict with scientific evidence. By contrast, values based on faith accept the supernatural idea of a personal intentional creator God, a view that science rejects as pure cultural myth. However, the power of faith is essential to a community’s sense of meaning and direction, so these values of faith and reason need to be held in a creative complex tension. But the tectonic conflict is growing.
    We have similar growing political conflict in the church in Australia. Conservative groups place primary value on faith, and see the liberal rational progressive attitude as failing core tests of suitability, in terms of loyalty, belonging and identity. The problem is that those tests of suitability were rejected hundreds of years ago by the scientific enlightenment, which demanded that evidence and logic should be higher values than tradition and authority. “Suitability” is a metaphysical concept aimed at social control, that in practice in your case is really akin to the impossible demand that a caterpillar stay in its cocoon rather than emerge as a butterfly. This move towards a hierarchical church model involves a pharisaic type of faith that stays with the cross rather than the resurrection.
    Long-standing cultural and philosophical conflicts between faith and reason surround your case, and these conflicts are only partly conscious. Thank you for the updates.

  2. Gordon MacWillie

    Gretta, it is obvious! They chose questions to which they knew you would not be able to give the answer that they would say are required to be suitable. Sadly, they have had you in their “sights” for a long time, it is just that now they found the bullet to fire.

    Gordon

  3. bill davidson

    I try to avoid belief systems. They interfere with my curiosity.

    You do great things, Gretta.

    Love and peace. bill

  4. Caroline

    Would you please give the questions that were put to you on Ordination? Knowing that, helps to understand your point better. Thanks. “For that service, the questions of ordination had been rewritten to reflect the well-loved liturgical piece known as The New Creed. The questions I answered had no traditional Trinitarian language in them. I did not say that I believed in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

  5. Melba (Chris) Gulick

    I am just now reading AMEN. Surely you are aware of Unitarian Universalism and its history but I find no references in AMEN. Welcome to the fold. Chris Gulick (grateful@frontier.com)

  6. Ponti Venter

    A whole crowd here supports an atheist priest – that is already a contradiction in terminis. They play “conservatists” against adherents of “science” – the previous group believe in the primacy of faith; the second in the primacy of science which supposedly proves Biblical faith to be fables.
    I am always surprised about these games. “Science” always has presuppositions that are believed in – and it is simply beyond science to determine the origins of the universe or to bring a theory of everything.
    In fact the humanism preached by atheists contradicts its naturalistic presuppositions: there simply is no good reason to view the human being as but a more complex piece of mineral to be disposed of by more powerful minerals.

  7. Curt Senka

    Reverend Vosper is entirely suited to be clergy within the United Church of Canada. The proof is in how there are dissenters on the church committee to having her removed because the “growth of our doctrine is not complete.” What Vosper is NOT qualified to be clergy in is a Christian church.

  8. Zoe

    Gretta,

    I was just watching the opening of The View television talk show on ABC.

    Though no names were given, I believe they were talking about you. “Atheist Minister” – Canadian – church looking to get rid of her. Something about a Canadian comedian making fun of you.

    Whoopi Goldberg asked you to come on their show. Thought I’d leave this comment in hopes you would see it. <3

  9. janet phillips

    “Suitability” and “effectiveness” and are arguments that you cannot combat. When the ESSPMP handbook was created I am sure the United Church never dreamed that they would run into the situation of atheism, because atheism has no place in any United Church. You need to start a new “faith” It should not be called Progressive Christianity” because Christ is in Christianity whom apparently you don’t believe in.

  10. Steve Schuh

    Thanks for your thorough review of the process, Gretta. I’m curious to know, though, whether you feel the Report accurately describes your views. Was the Committee at least working with a relatively accurate account of your beliefs? Or does the Report skew or spin your responses to fit their negative conclusion?

    1. Caroline

      I’m interested in Steve’s question too. It struck me that they’d picked ‘headline getting comments’ and wondered how accurate they were to your own statements. I’d have preferred to hear a recording of the interview. Was a recording done? So much of what has hit the ‘news’ has not been direct quotes but seemingly inflammatory interpretations of things you’ve said: similar but different, especially considering the issue is about subtle interpretations of Words that mean very different things to different people. ie. they said you don’t ‘do communion’ but when I looked on the Church web site, that term was in fact used. Thanks.

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