Making the Call
Do you remember back a few short weeks ago, when COVID-19 didn’t have a name yet and we weren’t sure if the coronavirus mentioned on the news would affect us? Before social distancing and self-isolation became the norm in much of Canada? When things changed, they changed fast, and churches had to figure out how to respond.
Ellen Baynton-Walker, in team ministry at Forest Hill United in Kitchener, ON, recalls the flurry of emails flying in and out of her mailbox, each spinning from a different perspective on the question: Should the church close because of the pandemic? Is it necessary? Is it time?
It became clear that the council needed to gather in person to come to a consensus.
Ellen is a graduate of the Centre for Christian Studies (2014), and her ministry partner, Rev. Gary Clark, is a former student. They share a great respect and enthusiasm for the “productive and positive nature of the CCS Spiral model when the chaotic waters of ministry become murky,” says Ellen. “So when we were faced with the challenge of deciding whether to suspend Sunday services, Gary and I realized it was the perfect time and place to introduce the CCS Spiral model as a clarity tool for our council’s work.”
The “Spiral” is an action-reflection tool developed by CCS students and staff over many years. It encourages discernment by asking participants to consider an issue from four angles.
“At first there was a little hesitation,” recalls Ellen. “You see, I had just put the initials of each section of the spiral – C.E., R.O., A.C, and A.E. – up on the whiteboard.”
Ellen first introduced the Concrete Experience the congregation was facing: The global pandemic, and the decision of whether or not to suspend Sunday church service.
She then asked the council members to reflect on what they were feeling or thinking – Reflective Observation. Right away the extroverts spoke up, and then slowly the quieter members began to “spiral” off what someone else said. Words like “fear”, “anger”, “disbelief”, and “insecure” were written on the whiteboard, along with “W.H.O. and world leaders are creating chaos,” “Can we just have service and not have coffee and cookies?” “It won’t get so bad here in Canada,” etc.
Leaving some space for more reflecting Ellen then moved to Abstract Conceptualization: What are the facts as we know them now? “World Health Organization is advising protective measures.” “As a council we hold the responsibility for the physical and spiritual health and welfare of our congregation and community.” “Our building partners will be affected if we close.” “There will be a loss of revenue.” Abstract Conceptualization is also an opportunity to connect ideas and theories, look for patterns, and draw on scriptural and theological insights. “This could open us to new ways of being church.” “Letting go could bring newness.” “Connection to Lent and Easter Resurrection.” “We are a people of faith and hope.” “We are not alone, God is with us.” “We live in God’s creation,”etc.
Very shortly one white board was filled and then another, as people around the table began to layer in more feelings, thoughts and information. “When that was clear,” says Ellen, “the decision to suspend worship and other gatherings was much easier”
What evolved in pretty short order was the clarity of next steps – in other words, a plan for Active Experimentation. The council made plans for notifying all congregants by phone or email that Sunday service was suspended, and for letting building partners know that if they wanted to continue using the building they would need to sign a waiver. Gary and Ellen would start to explore alternate ways of worship, the council would hold meetings by Zoom, the stewardship committee would send out an information letter encouraging donations through pre-authorized remittance, etc.
Ellen recalls that as they closed the meeting with a check-out and a prayer of gratitude, there was great comfort and lightness around the Council table. People expressed confidence and ownership of the decision. “Indeed God’s Holy Spirit had been a part of our decision making!”
“On behalf of Forest Hill United, Gary Clark, and myself, we offer our heartfelt gratitude to CCS and its wise elders for giving us a tool to actively live out our ministry.”