This past Friday, the United Church of Canada’s “Comprehensive Review” task force hosted an online discussion on something it proposed in it’s report “Fishing on the Other Side” (found here).

One of the radical suggestions the report had was a “College of Ministers”. Akin to the Bar for lawyers or similar professional organizations for doctors, psychologists, and so on.

I watched this discussion with great interest, because this would have great impact on my position within the church as clergy. So I need to understand what is happening, and I need to have the opportunity for input.

Below are some of my thoughts on the topic. If you would like to see the video yourself, here it is:

And here are my first thoughts in the few hours since I’ve watched the video (twice).

My initial reaction (and the same for other clergy I’ve talked with) was the urge to be ill. We are seriously concerned about how this will work.

The Comprehensive Review task group was invited to propose a future for the United Church of Canada. So they’ve taken a bold step in proposing what they have in the “Fishing on the Other Side” document. It is a very different approach that’s for sure. I commend them for willing to take a risk and step outside of the norm.

However, in doing so they have created more holes and concerns than one can entirely capture in a single blog post. So I shall try and stay focused on the “College of Clergy” component of this document and video above.

The “college” will be a mandatory structure in denomination. All ministry personnel will be required to join. It will handle the discipline, the oversight, and the admission of all ministry personnel within the denomination. It will “hold ministers accountable”… a statement that worries me greatly. This college will act primarily on a “complaint model”, meaning it will only interact with ministry personnel if there are complaints (aside from the admissions process).

It was said in the presentation that 80% of our volunteer work at the local level is supporting clergy who are struggling. So with 5 staff at the national level, they propose to take on all this work with these staff and a volunteer board. If we are indeed spending so much time dealing with ministry personnel issues, I’m not sure how this can be more efficient, both in use of time and finances.

I don’t really see how this would work in cases of clergy abuse. “Fishing on the Other Side” actually reduces the oversight of local ministry units quite a bit. So where is the oversight and discipline of ministry units going to fall? Where does a minister go in this case?

If these issues go to the proposed “association of ministers”, I cannot see how this association would have any power at the local level. Yet this is where “minor” issues are supposed to go (those issues outside of major abuses by clergy).

And speaking of the “association of ministers”, this is apparently an “optional” membership for clergy, but I believe it was said all clergy will be required to pay for it (there was a slight audio glitch during that statement, so cannot be 100% sure).

The “college” would be mandatory. It handles admissions and discipline. Because this is all it does, the “association” is also required to exist. The “association” is nothing more than a union by another name, because it’s functional description sounds like a union. There wouldn’t be the same legal standing, because to unionize nationally would be difficult given different provincial labour laws. So the alternative is to call this union an “association”.

Paul Miller reminds us in the video that our current structure does so much more than just react to complaints. Our presbyteries are overseeing relationships, and these can only be monitored at a local level, with people we know, with people we are in relationship with already. This new model loses this relationship aspect and removes it to a “professional” level where we call 1-800 numbers and get a case number while we wait for the qualified staff to call us back.

This is adopting a secular model in a faith based organization. This is a major concern. It is also taking power away from local leadership and pulling it into head office. We are a grassroots church, or at least we’re supposed to be. Yet what I see is the consolidation of power  and decision making at the national level. We also heard this probably won’t be any cheaper than existing processes. So what’s the point if we already can do these things at a local level? There is no acknowledgement to the loss of local nuances and knowledge we will suffer in the new model.

I also have great concerns over the admissions process with this model. As I am one who is in disagreement with some stances the denomination has taken in recent years, yet am in full agreement with the founding statements of the denomination, where does someone like myself fall in the admissions process? Inside or out? Are we creating a society of “like minded” ministers? I’m hopeful that we aren’t, but the possibility is there as we look at what constitutes a “United Church minister”.

We have our problems with our current structure. We cannot ignore it. But there are some glaring holes in the whole “Fishing on the Other Side” proposal which cannot be ignored.

As Paul Miller said in the video, “Change is always the exchange of one set of problems for another.”

My concern is the new set of problems are far greater than the current set we have. We have examples in our denomination where the current structures are working, and working well. What can we learn from them? What are the best practices in what we already have?

I also have concern about how this will impact the churches I serve. I’m not sure this will improve their ministries. While it may not directly impact them, it will directly impact me, which in turn, impacts them.

I believe strongly that our denominational structures must change if we are to continue existing. It is a reality we must all face.

But, a “college of ministers” along with many of the other proposed changes by the Comprehensive Review raise far too many concerns that cannot be overlooked.

I am looking forward to seeing what other proposals for governance we might have surface in the coming months. And if you are looking at it, I’d be more than happy to talk to you about it.