Living in a spiral world

Catherine Gutjahr deep in discussion with classmates

Living in a spiral world

by Kimiko Karpoff

Sometimes ministry takes us to places we don’t expect. Those places can be both literal in a geographic sense and to moments or situations that are unanticipated, even if not surprising. Against all evidence to the contrary, we often hold the notion that congregations are places set apart, little tastes of God’s Kingdom. In reality they are both in the world and of the world, in all its brokenness. 

Diaconal minister Catherine Gutjahr grew up in Sudbury, perhaps the most quintessential of blue collar working class towns in Canada. Life circumstances and family have landed her in Ottawa where she serves as part of a team in a mid-size congregation. Ottawa is not Sudbury. The culture clash of that hit Catherine one day when a conflict arose in the congregation and a parishioner said, “We are a congregation of lawyers and judges and we deserve to be consulted about worship.” Catherine heard, “We are the privileged. We deserve.”

Catherine waited for someone to challenge that comment, but nobody did. While it is true that the congregation has lawyers and judges, it is equally true that they have refugee families and people from all walks of life. And Catherine wondered about his notion of an expectation that a greater level of education and income should somehow privilege someone to a certain level of consultation in a congregation. It got her thinking about power and privilege and how that plays out in the church. 

Serendipitously, during this time she received a notice from CCS about the upcoming learning circle on Power and Privilege. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore these issues. 

One of the symbols that is common among diaconal ministers is the spiral. It holds a variety of significances including as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. For those of us who have gone through ministry training at CCS it is also the symbol of one of our critical tools for reflection and understanding. The Spiral Model of Reflection takes you through four ways of looking at an issue, situation or story, promoting deeper understanding. 

It begins with the Concrete Experience, looking at what actually happened. Who was there, what was said, who was not there, what was not said? It moves then into Reflective Observation, a time of examining emotions and feelings. What are the tensions? How am I unsettled? How are others experiencing this? The Abstract Conceptualization helps to make connections, see patterns, and invites a theological lens or research to hear voices from different perspectives. The Active Experimentation asks the question “How can I act?” This is a “what next?” reflection. What would I do differently next time? What more do I need to learn? What follow-up do I need? What blocks and supports are there? 

The spiral takes us back to the original story or situation with, ideally, a new way of seeing it or a different way to respond. 

Catherine admits that she was taken aback by the congregants statement of privilege. And it made her wonder, “What is my role as a minister and what is the expectation from congregation members?” And, realizing that they may not be the same thing, “How do you move between that?” So when she saw the Power and Privilege learning circle notice, she saw it as a piece of the spiral. She had her experience and had already been reflecting on how it had impacted her.

Learning Circles come with a stack of readings as well as the opportunity for face-to-face conversations and exploration. The Power and Privilege learning circle included readings on social location and white privilege, social analysis, understanding power, the impact of systems, the social gospel, and prophetic diaconia. Students engaged these with each other during the circle. 

Issues around power and privilege are challenging because so often they are hidden, a current that runs swift and deep under waters that look tranquil. And a deeper question about power and privilege is, with an understanding that we hold it, what do we do with that? 

A notable trait of spirals is that they do not have an end point. Each rotation takes us back to the beginning, but with a slightly different perspective, sending us around the spiral again. Catherine didn’t come away with all of the answers, but she did find a greater understanding of power and privilege in systems. “What’s my role in that?” she wondered. “How do I bring this to the forefront and hopefully enable change so that everybody has some power?”

“The action reflection model is how we do ministry,” Catherine noted. “Sharing that with others who understand is helpful. Then I can go and do my ministry in a way that is calling to who I am as a diaconal minister, to what I believe is diaconal ministry.” 

Catherine graduated from CCS in 2010. In 9 years she has served in three very different congregations. She feels it’s important to continue to reflect on ministry, who we are in it, and the issues that challenge us. CCS learning circles continue to provide a place for everyone — students, ordered ministers and lay people — to wrestle with important issues that challenge us, challenge congregations and the world writ large. 

Catherine Gutjahr serves at Emmanuel United Church in Ottawa as the Minister for Faith Formation and Pastoral Care. She attended the Power and Privilege learning circle at CCS in March 2019.

CCS learning circles are open to everyone. Check out our upcoming learning circles. The next Power and Privilege learning circle will be held as an on-line course beginning in January 2020, making it accessible from wherever you are!


Comments: 1

  1. Diane Trollope says:

    Hi Catherine!!!!

    How wonderful that you took the time and chance to reunite where your learning took hold
    to learn more about this spiral world. It certainly is that.
    Good on you. I can’t help but smile at your ongoing quest to learn about yourself and what is unfolding around you.
    My prayers continue to journey with you. I was on Catherine’s Learning Circle
    here in Sudbury through her training.

    Diane CCS’70

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