Does the United Church need to define its mission before determining what forms and streams of ministry are needed?

A fork in the road in foggy, autumn hills.
Credit: Mike Beales, Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Published On: March 23, 2018

Ever so often in the church I hear statements and experience attitudes that cause me concern. One such incident occurred recently in response to the outcome of Remit 6 (One Order of Ministry.) My concern is not about the apparent merits or demerits of Remit 6, or about who voted either for or against it. They say fools rush in where angels fear to tread (and I hope that I am not the former), yet there is something about the conversation swirling around Remit 6 that doesn’t sit well with me. Here’s why.

I believe mission determines ministry. In other words, the understanding of what we are about, and what we need to be doing, determines how we get it done. This understanding of what we are about is not a nebulous concept but an intentional way of thinking, which in part holds the church together.

Some people (myself included) believe that an understanding of mission was missing in both Remit 6 and the discussions about it. In the absence of this crucial understanding of the mission of The United Church of Canada, the conversation was focused heavily on the issues of ministry status and educational qualifications. This raises an important question: What is the mission of The United Church of Canada?  I have asked this for a long time now. Unfortunately, I have yet to receive a clear and succinct response. How do we, as a church, understand what our mission is, and how do we see it reflected in the issues and priorities of the denomination as a whole?

At the 42nd General Council a proposal from the Bay of Quinte Conference asked the church for a mission statement. The discussion from the Commission dealing with this proposal is enlightening. The Commission noted that, “our A New Creed and A Song of Faith are statements of our mission.” Ultimately, the Commission concluded that “the possibility of developing a new mission statement to the full satisfaction of the entire church is a next to impossible mission” (Record of Proceedings of the 42nd General Council, page 180).  I have a different opinion to that of the Commission concerning the existing mission statement. I also regard the Commission’s findings to be troubling. By definition a statement about the profession of faith is different from a statement about mission. To conflate the two is dangerous.

To be clear, a mission statement is not the same thing as having a clear mission. To some extent mission statements are unnecessary—unless they are a living and evolving foundation of an organization, which often isn’t the case. I’m not advocating for a mission statement per se, but it is vitally urgent for us to define our mission given a lack of clarity about it.

This lack of clarity has resulted in a potpourri of ideas and suggestions about our mission. And each one comes with the caveat that what is being expressed is not really the mission of the church, but rather a hope or glimmer of what it could be. Back to my concern on the discussion surrounding Remit 6 (One Order of Ministry), if we can’t articulate, with clarity, our mission how can we determine what forms, or streams, of ministry are needed to best serve our mission?

The historic understanding of the presbyter (elder) and deacon in the early church came out of an understanding of the mission facing the church in that time. In other words, each form of ministry seemed to have developed based on the church’s understanding of its mission. If we are to have ordained ministers, diaconal ministers, and designated lay ministers in our current church then the starting point in asking if each is needed cannot be in what we see them doing in the church today nor can it be who is better educated for the task. Their purpose and function must begin with how they enable the church to carryout and fulfill its understanding of mission. If any stream of ministry does not enable our mission, let’s ask if we really need it anymore.

Remit 6 sparked an intense discussion about ministry status.  It is regrettable that the impression continues to be given that we have a hierarchy in ministry which places the ordained minister at the top.  We urgently need to advocate that there should be no hierarchy in ministry—even as we continue to look at the forms of ministry that are relevant and required today. However, the status of the ministry type is a different issue from the relevance of types or forms of ministry needed in the church today.  Looking at ministry through the lens of mission, it is clear that different streams can play a vital role in the church’s ability to carry out its mission. Indeed, all streams must rely on each another if the whole body is to accomplish its mission.

Again, my concern around the Remit 6 conversation is rooted in the absence of discussion on mission, which must guide the church going forward. This crucial sense of mission may be there, and I am just not seeing it. Let me know what you see.

The remits are behind us for now as we await the 43rd General Council. Administrators are now doing the necessary and important job of working through the details of how to implement the proposed changes in the church. What we need now is leadership! Leadership that will engage us as church about our mission and hold up a vision for the way forward. Until then, I remain concerned.

—Paul Douglas Walfall is the ministry personnel in the Fort Saskatchewan Pastoral Charge in the Yellowhead Presbytery, Alberta and Northwest Conference.

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