She recognized curiosity in me…”
Judy Astley (UCC 1990) came to the Centre for Christian Studies as a spiritual seeker. She says, “Katherine Edmonstone (UCC 1986), the diaconal minister at my church in Kitchener, recognized that curiosity in me and suggested I check out CCS. I decided to study for my own interest, with no particular end in mind.” It was only after graduation, while working part time doing Christian Education, that Judy entered discernment to test her call to ministry. She ended up being commissioned in 1992 and settled at the Millbank-Hampstead Pastoral Charge.
The two churches, one in town and one in a farming community, were very different. Things that resonated with one weren’t as well received in the other. It was there that the skill of being able to reflect on experience came in handy. “I would preach in one congregation and realize in the car driving to the next service, ‘that won’t really work there’, so I would have to change things.”
In the same way that Katherine recognized Judy as a seeker, Judy saw a sense of adventure in Christine*, a young woman of 17 in her first confirmation class. “She was the one asking questions and who wanted to know about the world outside that small community.” When an opportunity came up to take part in a London Conference exchange trip to Cuba, Judy encouraged Christine to apply. It gave her a chance to see how people are the church in another culture and, at the same time, to strengthen her commitment to her own congregation.
Later while serving in a congregation in Kitchener, Judy found that what she learned at CCS was useful in recognizing certain power dynamics. “When I started, one member thought he could tell me what worship would be like. I decided to invite someone from the worship committee to meet with him and me. We talked about how worship was the work of all the people not just one individual—he didn’t have the last say.” Judy found that it took courage to name power issues but facing them directly always helped improve those situations.
When Judy began her studies at the Centre for Christian Studies in 1987, she was living in Waterloo. Instead of moving into residence in Toronto, and living away from her family, she made the one-and-a-half-hour trek to class nearly every day.Commuting to learning circles and courses was “interesting” Judy says.
Over the intervening 30 years, things have changed. Distance is no longer an obstacle to getting together. When she’s on holiday in California, Judy can easily talk to her grandchildren in Waterloo and Toronto on her laptop. With that familiarity with communicating online, Judy was intrigued by the possibilities for connected learning that CCS was proposing with online learning circles.
It would meet a new generation of students right where they live: increasingly in online spaces and scattered across the country. Current CCS students travel from even farther afield than Judy did to attend in-person learning circles. Having some circles online would improve accessibility but also allow people with curiosity to join a circle and have an experience of learning in community.
Michelle Owens’ enthusiastic description of the idea inspired Judy to make a gift to fund the creation and hosting of the “Living Scripture” online learning circle. She wanted to underwrite this innovative offering so CCS could extend its reach to new audiences. “If there is a value in lifelong learning then it’s worth supporting the efforts of CCS to extend it. When someone has a chance to learn and then put their faith into action, the ripples go out farther than we can imagine.”
Thanks to Judy’s gift, an online circle with 12 two-hour sessions was offered earlier this year using Zoom technology. Nine students were fully engaged in a learning community that felt similar to an in-person circle, even though the medium was different.
After sitting in on one of the sessions, Judy commented, “Switching into breakout rooms was awesome! It made the circle feel like the ones I remember from when I was at CCS. Chats in a group of three resulted in more in-depth discussion of the material and collaboration. I must say I was impressed. It is a powerful way to connect the group and gain a satisfying experience of learning together.”
Thank you, Judy, for investing in this new way of learning in community.
*not her real name
Lori Stewart is the CCS Development Coordinator.