Monday, 22 June 2015

United Church on what could be a painful journey

If you have not heard, Canada’s largest Protestant church, the United Church if Canada, will be undergoing massive changes in structure in the next five years.

Did I say the changes would be massive?

The reason for the change is primarily to streamline structure so as to be economically affordable.

Like most churches, the United Church has a serious financial challenge. Givings to the Mission and Service Fund, which pay for the work of the national church structure, have been flat for over two decades. Financial reserves have reached a critical level. The United Church must (not might or could but must) cut $12,000,000 from it’s overall budget of about $40,000,000 per year.

Cuts to staff are first. It is expected that 60 positions will be lost.

Restructuring is next. A four level system is proposed to be come three and geographical groupings will be greatly expanded and existing boundaries will disappear.

Local congregations will be given much more control over their property and ability to call and terminate ministers.

This has the potential to cause massive dislocation and upheaval. The closest parallel I can think of was the Hospital Services Restructuring Commission in Ontario between 1996 and 1998. If you remember those days, there was turmoil, upheaval, dislocation, protests and job losses as change worked its way through the system.

A recent analysis of the proposals for change used the phrase “disruption of the system”.

I think that’s probably quite apt. The United Church of Canada, sometimes seen as a consummate example of the Canadian identity, along with hockey and Tim Hortons coffee, is going to be different.

Organizations don’t to change well. Kathy Underwood, in a recent report to the church’s Toronto Conference, laid out the risks ahead in very clear terms.

She says that there needs to be a clear rationale for change. People have to understand what it is about and why.

Small changes have to come first, building on successes and learning from mistakes.

There will need to be a high level team leading the change, who are committed and skilled in project management and change management.

There will also need to be champions and encouragers of the change. Communication will be paramount. The leadership will have to communicate, communicate and communicate again.

If there is a flaw in what lies ahead, it is, I think, a lack of mission and vision. That may sound like a strange statement for a Christian Church, but it endemic to the United Church of Canada. It’s not that there is no vision. The problem is that there are many, many visions. And without clarity of vision, the difficulty of change multiplies.

Personally, I predict a good five years of anxiety ahead for the United Church. The proposals which will initiate the change process will be discussed at this summer’s General Council in Corner Brook, NL in early August. There may be some tweaking, but the main thrust of the change movement can’t be denied.

This will require a lot of patience on the part of church leadership and members and a concerted effort not to be anxious. That’s not going to be easy for both pastors and local congregations. But it is necessary.

My prayers are with the representatives to the General Council, called “commissioners”, and with the United Church in the next few years.

They have much to decide.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV — Grey County.