From CCS to the United Church General Council office to Writing Workshops to Thailand and Beyond: Threads of Educational Continuity
by Ray McGinnis
As the new chairperson of the Communication and Promotion Committee I was asked to write a few words about what I’ve done since graduating from CCS in 1980. Back then I opted to remain a layperson and worked at several congregations in the Vancouver area as a Christian Education Director. In 1983 I was appointed Youth & Young Adult Ministry staff for Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery. My role was to give support to congregational programming for youth and young adults, and to create a network for Presbytery-wide rallies, retreats, leadership training and voluntary service projects. The position was successful and expanded to include Vancouver-South Presbytery in 1985. While the position remained in place for three decades, I was hired in 1986 to join the staff team for Youth & Young Adult Ministries at the United Church’s national office on St. Clair Avenue in Toronto.
All of these positions involved designing programs, leadership development events and special events. I drew on the lessons I’d learned as a CCS student about the planning cycle over and over again. It made the planning Youth Forum at General Council and Kairos conferences for Young Adults go much more smoothly. The task of Youth Forum was to build community among the nearly one hundred delegates from presbyteries (and Newfoundland Districts) across the country and navigate the proceedings of General Council. With the leaders I helped train before the youth arrived, we equipped them to reflect on the daily events of General Council and to give input. Youth Forum at General Council took place every two years. The Kairos conferences ran on alternate years. Consequently, there was an 18-month timeline of planning for a large conference every August during the nine years I was on staff at the national office.
In 1995 I was appointed as part of the Program Management Team at Naramata Centre in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. My principal responsibilities were to co-lead the summer programs for children and youth. This involved a week of training for 25 or more staff at the end of June and assisting in the weekly leadership for either Junior, Intermediate or Senior youth programs. We worked with an “emerging design.” This meant that we were adjusting our program to fit the emerging felt needs of the group based on the reflection and evaluation of the leadership team. In the Winter months I co-lead Winter Session, a four-month program for 18 to 25-year-olds. Participants lived in community, learned to deal with conflict, developed communication skills, explored their spirituality and had a one-week visit to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as seen through the lens of First United Church. Participants were also helped to decide together what they wanted to learn as a group and what guest resource persons they wanted for topics such as healing touch, pottery, yoga and other electives.
In 1999 I took a program at the Center for Journal Therapy in Denver and courses at the Banff School of Fine Arts in poetry. I started a business called Write to the Heart, offering workshops on journal writing, journaling through grief and loss, journaling for health and wellness, poetry and nature walking, prayer writing and memoir writing. The design skills I learned at CCS continued to be adapted over time, together with subsequent instruction I received elsewhere. Over the next two decades I taught over 1,100 writing workshops in over 400 different towns and cities. I got to know Canada very well. But now I was not only offering workshops in United, Anglican, Lutheran, Unitarian, Presbyterian or Baptist churches. I was also leading workshops in public libraries, hospitals, funeral homes, mental health facilities, grief support groups, women in business conferences, ministry personnel retreats, universities, community centres, social work settings, domestic abuse shelters and Pro-D days for first responders.
In 2005 I wrote Writing the Sacred: A Psalm-inspired Path to Appreciating and Writing Sacred Poetry. The book was designed for anyone who had taken any of my workshops to be able to access the Biblical Psalms. The book provided tools for readers to understand some of the different themes the Psalms addressed including thanksgiving, creation, lament, wisdom, vision and others. Readers were given practical prompts for writing their own new Psalms or spiritual poems. I also included new Psalms/Spiritual poems from thirty writers across North America. While many were Christian, other contributors were Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and of no faith tradition. Fortunately, the book met some need and has sold over 5,500 copies into its fifth printing. The way I wrote the book was informed by my CCS background. I didn’t want to write another book about the Psalms telling readers what the Psalms were. I wanted to engage the reader and invite them to write, to have the book be a catalyst for their own experiential learning.
In 2015 I headed off to Thailand to co-lead my first tour with World Pilgrim Global Education.
I had been invited to come to Thailand by different sets of friends between 1990 and 2012 on four occasions. Each time I went I thought it would be for the last time. However, BC Conference staff Doris Kizinna heard through the grapevine I had been to Thailand a number of times. She wanted to add tours to Thailand to her roster of World Pilgrim tours. A pilgrim is one who travels with awareness and intention. As a CCS grad who values creating experiences for people in community that combine awareness and intention, I was able to sign on to co-leading a tour to Thailand. I agreed with the statement: “At World Pilgrim we strive to offer experiences of alternative tourism where education, awareness, and cross-cultural connections are the focus.” The tours involve a careful weaving of daily outings and a chance for participants to reflect on what they are discovering about themselves and the country there are visiting. In 2020 I’ll be co-leading my first tour to Bali.
While the work I have been engaged in has been diverse these past four decades, the threads of intentional learning, building community, honouring each person’s voice and the requirement as a leader to plan and design unique experiences has been for me like the Biblical mustard seed Jesus spoke about.