God is good! As we set our faces towards the Star of Bethlehem, let us recall that we are created and infused with love from the stardust that was present at the spark of the world’s dawn. From Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s Holy name… God knows how we are made, that we are but dust, but the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.”
We join the host of those who have gone before us to sing God’s praise and glory, and it is in community, in service, in relationship that we hear the Voice of Love echo back to us. I asked the Rev. Canon Ruthanne Ward to share in a conversation with me about holy listening, as we are in a gritty and embodied season of Advent – a time of preparation for our Church, coming through this global pandemic. Here are some of our reflections:
We are being invited to listen to where God’s Spirit may be leading us, and it is vital to do some preparatory self-examination. I ask of myself as a bishop in the Church, even before I ask other trailblazers, is the Church leadership ready to engage with pathways that may challenge our current ways of doing things? We often want to dive into ministry with a plan of action – an idea or activity that people can rally around, sign up for, get involved with. It’s much more difficult to start with listening conversations.
As we look towards more sustainable ministry in our areas and parishes, we are talking more and more about shared ministry, or regionalization. Suddenly we see broadly what we have seen on a smaller scale for some time, that the economy of running the average local parish is not sustainable with the familiar methods (tithing and volunteer support that is diminishing in numbers). How can shared ministry benefit sustainable ministry? Is it possible that some visions of shared ministry might even take us into healthier and sustainable ways of being Church in our changing world?
The model of a professional priesthood, where one (or if you’re lucky, two or three) priests do all the work of the parish with some volunteer support has led us into a time of burning out, and many ministries find it increasingly difficult to be sustainable. How can regionally shared ministry invigorate the places of service to which we have a sense of God calling us?
We use the word “sustainable” because we are becoming more aware that the resources we have are not always well matched to the needs and callings we identify in the communities around us. We may not have enough money. Our clergy are finding themselves stretched beyond capacity with many of the evolving demands of church life, especially due to the pandemic. And our lay leaders are also feeling that stretch. There seems so much to do, and yet we wonder how we can possibly do it. We are so grateful to our volunteers, our lay leaders, our clergy, for their faithful perseverance and dedication, and we want them to know how much they are appreciated, valued and supported. And into this God calls us to pray. “Glory to God, who can do more than we can ask or imagine…” Imagine. How do we imagine doing ministry together in new, sustainable and life-giving ways? We start with listening conversations. We find ways to have these conversations in our local area, with local people, both of the church and those around the church.
For Jesus to be born to Mary, a conversation had to happen first. A heavenly messenger brought news to her that she would never have dreamt up on her own. The conversation was also an invitation, for God does not force us into doing ministry that isn’t life-giving, but rather invites us into pathways that will always take us into new life.
In the Oshawa Deanery, four priests are starting just such a conversation, as no doubt many other priests have done, both informally and formally. In Barrie, we are learning to collaborate well while “thriving in place,” recognizing the merits and gift of our material location, that God has a plan for us here, but we need help! We are being both courageous and humble, in recognizing that we are not “lone rangers.”
Experimenting seems like a risky endeavour. How do we experiment when it is easier to do what we know has worked in the past? It is an investment of serious time and energy that goes into listening first; we want to “get busy,” not sit around praying and talking! And what if our shared ministry endeavour fails? We need to re-frame that question, to ask: was it failure, or a pathway in which we learned new things and were led in new directions? How do we bravely “fail forward” in this time of preparing the ground for the Reign of God in our communities?
Smaller parishes are struggling to keep full-time or even part-time priests. How can shared ministry benefit them? Does shared ministry mean more work? No! Just different kinds of work, and hopefully, work that allows us to re-allocate, to use our resources well and wisely, without overtaxing any one system or person. A key question to be explored: If shared ministry is to flourish, what kinds of infrastructure will be offered and needed on an area or diocesan level to help?
In this time of re-forming, looking for a guiding star, and listening, how can we be present to conversations amongst the community and the Holy Spirit so that we might discover the revelations of God, calling us into new and sustainable life?