As he nears the end of his long career with the diocese, Canon Dave Robinson is planning another sort of journey. Next summer, he will sail his boat from Toronto Islands to Thunder Bay, stopping along the way at ports on Lake Erie, the North Channel and points west.
Canon Robinson has sailed on all the Great Lakes, but this trip will have special significance. After Thunder Bay, he will start a new chapter of his life in Winnipeg, where his wife, the Rev. Canon Heather McCance, the former incumbent of St. Andrew, Scarborough, is the new Diocesan Ministry Developer for the Diocese of Rupert’s Land.
Born and raised in the Diocese of Toronto, he has mixed feelings about leaving the place he knows so well. But he admits he’s ready for new challenges and horizons. “I’ve always been a bit of an adventurer,” he says. “I’ve sailed and canoed all over the place — these are new shores to explore, and more time to do it.”
Canon Robinson will retire as the director of the diocese’s Congregational Development department on Nov. 1, ending a remarkable career that began in 1987, when he was hired as the frontline youth worker at Flemingdon Park Ministry, a diocesan outreach in Don Mills.
After three years, he became the diocese’s youth consultant, then a consultant for Congregational Development (then called Program Resources), specializing in parish conflict resolution. He went on to become the department’s lead consultant and then director.
Known for his encylodpedic knowledge of the diocese and its history, he reckons he has visited every church. “This is the family firm,” he says. “My Dad was coming to meetings at the Diocesan Centre when I was born. He was the president of the diocesan AYPA (Anglican Young People’s Association) and my mother was the diocesan secretary. There were always stories around the kitchen table when I was a kid.”
He’s passionate about the work of Congregational Development. “What we’re really all about is helping congregations and mission to thrive. Worship Jesus Christ, proclaim the Gospel, embody Christ in word and action – that’s what we want congregations to do, so we try to figure out the resources they need to get there.”
One of the things he is most proud of is the creation of the Supporting Congregations Volunteer Corps, a 70-person group of trained coaches and facilitators who work with individuals and congregations to build up the church during times of transition, challenge and change. They are highly skilled and committed, assisting parishes with everything from Natural Church Development and parish selection committees, to parish administration, amalgamations and reconfigurations.
Canon Robinson says the corps is indispensable to the diocese as it seeks to grow healthy, missional parishes. Without the volunteers, he says, a lot of important work simply would not happen. “People in other dioceses ask us, ‘How do you do all this? How can you trust lay people to do this?’ These are smart people with incredible gifts.”
He also played a role in developing the diocese’s Strategic and Sustainable Ministry Policy, which provides a set of definitions and principles about sustainable, strategic and unsustainable parish ministry. The policy helps the diocese assess the viability of churches and their ministries.
Canon Robinson was one of the people who created a matrix that helps determine if a parish is sustainable or unstainable, based on a variety of factors. The “Toronto Matrix,” as it is called, has been used by dioceses across the Anglican Communion.
The policy, the matrix, the use of performance data, mapping and other resources help the diocese provide oversight and strategic direction. “We’ve built something really quite special here in the Diocese of Toronto,” he says. “We’ve got some pretty amazing stuff underway to refocus on mission. We’ve really taken the bull by the horns and got out ahead in this area.”
Canon Robinson was one of the early champions in the diocese of Natural Church Development, an initiative that helps parishes become healthier through regular cycles of self-evaluation and action. To date, there have been 300 cycles.
“We’ve seen some parishes that are six or seven cycles in that have been transformed,” he says. “They’re healthy, vital and missional. They’re kicking out all kinds of amazing ideas and efforts and connecting with people in their neighbourhoods. It’s not the same old hiding behind locked doors of the fortress anymore.”
He admits it’s sometimes hard to see that the diocese is benefiting from all the effort. Fittingly, he uses a nautical image to describe the feeling. “The diocese is like a supertanker: you only know it’s changing course by looking at the wake and seeing the curve.”
But he is confident it is heading in the right direction. “Yes, we’ve shrunk numerically overall, but 25 per cent of our churches are growing. I think we’ve really succeeded where some denominations have not.”
He says the diocese also plays an important role for the rest of the Canadian church. “We’re a big, growing diocese and we have resources that other dioceses do not. Being able to share those resources is very important.”
Looking ahead to Winnipeg, he says he might do some consulting work for other dioceses. On a personal level, he plans to work on a family history project and, of course, explore Lake Superior on his boat, which he will keep in Thunder Bay. He will also keep in touch with lots of people back home in the Diocese of Toronto. “Farewell for now and we’ll see where it goes,” he says with a smile.