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Credit: Richard C. Choe

Presbyteries are gone. So now what?

Here's what the United Church's new three-court system will look like.

By Mike Milne

It took almost six years to reach the hour of decision, but once it arrived, agreement was swift. During the first day of its official meeting, the 43rd General Council of The United Church of Canada enacted four key restructuring decisions. These far-reaching changes will soon be enshrined in an altered United Church constitution.

In the biggest move, commissioners voted to replace the traditional four-court system of General Council, Conferences, Presbyteries and pastoral charges with a more streamlined three-council model. The new structure features a denominational council, regional councils and communities of faith (including churches, pastoral charges and other spiritual communities). Commissioners also approved eliminating the transfer and settlement option for ministers and creating an Office of Vocation that will take over most ministry personnel work (see page 37). Finally, they said yes to a new funding model for church governance and administration. The most serious opposition, 12 percent of commissioners, was registered in this fourth vote, which will see overall assessment costs rise for many communities of faith.

The enactments marked the end of a lengthy process, beginning with a Comprehensive Review, followed by the design of a new church structure three years ago at the General Council in Corner Brook, N.L., and then three more years of studying and approving that plan in church-wide votes called remits. Since a majority of pastoral charges and Presbyteries had supported the proposed changes, their passage in Oshawa was almost inevitable. Afterwards, Moderator Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell offered a prayer about the restructuring process: “Holy, disturbing, grace-filled God, this has been such a long, sometimes difficult, often joyful and exciting journey for us,” she reflected. “We are always and forever a work in progress.”

Once the remits were approved, commissioners spent the next six days filling in details of how the key structural changes will be implemented. Some decisions were easy — like adopting the name General Council for the body legally known as the denominational council. Others, like deciding whether all of the church’s regions should be represented on the much smaller denominational council executive, were not.

As part of the proposed move to a leaner governance model, the previous General Council decided an 18-member executive (down from the current 50) needed “competencies in theology, governance, finance, and vision and should reflect the diversity of an intercultural church, lay/ministry personnel and geography.”

With places reserved on the new executive for the moderator, past moderator, general secretary and an Indigenous representative, the creation of 16 regions means all of them can’t be assured of representation. While the remit on the three-council model passed without resolving this dilemma, proposals on the issue from two Conferences were later referred to the general secretary for study.

Jean Brown, who represents Newfoundland and Labrador Conference on the outgoing Executive of General Council, was disappointed. “What I found was I brought the wisdom from my region [to the Executive],” she says. “And by the same token . . . if any congregation or Presbytery wanted more information, they could call me.” Without a direct link, “all that is lost.” Rev. Ha Na Park, minister of Immanuel United in Winnipeg and a member of the incoming executive, told Council that the new group will “experiment with starting an intentional community where, as possible, racism and white privilege, settler privilege and other dominant privileges have less power over our wisdom-building.” She hopes that when decisions are made “by those who are affected by these oppressions directly, [we can] pay more attention to the work of the Spirit.”

Anticipating that General Council would enact the remits, church leaders have gotten a head start on applying the changes. With boundaries in place, regional council transition commissions — made up of Conference and Presbytery officers and volunteers — are developing staffing and governance models. According to remit implementation project leader and former Toronto Conference executive secretary Rev. David Allen, “They’re working on budgets, a process for choosing a name for the regional council, and a host of other matters that will be needed so the regional councils are functional on Jan. 1, 2019.”

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