Choosing Our Leaders


Easter 7, Year B

Resonating Scripture: Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26; John 17: 6 - 19


Preached at Fairbank United Church, June 1, 2003

by The Reverend Judith M. Evenden.



"Breathing Together: You Are Beautiful."  These five words comprised the theme which flowed throughout the gathering, last weekend, of the 79th Annual Meeting of Toronto Conference.  Our meeting this year took place in the Crown Plaza Hotel right here in Toronto, and was graciously hosted by Don Valley Presbytery.


 "Breathing Together: You Are Beautiful."  Such a theme invited us to take time to breathe, to reflect, to pray and sing together, as we went about the tasks, the business, that always comes before this yearly gathering of lay and order of ministry leaders of our United Church.  "Breathing Together: You are Beautiful."

This was no easy goal for a group of almost five hundred people who had to pass a budget, deal with motions, resolutions, and petitions to General Council and choose leaders for ministry.


The President of Toronto Conference, the Reverend John Lee wrote a letter to those of us who would be attending the meeting.  This letter introduced the theme: "Breathing Together: You Are Beautiful", and laid out some of his hopes for our time together.  I wish to read to you some of his opening and closing remarks in this letter.  "


In God's creation narrative, we find that God already created all things good and made us in God's image.  In this story, the breath/wind/Spirit of God was with God's creation of all things.  This same Spirit was with Jesus' proclamation of the good news of God and with this Spirit, Jesus affirmed his great commission, "not my will, but thy will be done."  This Spirit leads us to the ministry of "That They May All Be One".  (This phrase is found in John's gospel, chapter 17, verse 21, and also is found on the United Church Crest)


We are called to reveal God's work (John 9:3).  It is to live out Christ's peace through justice, reconciliation and healing with the Spirit.  As we breathe together as One Spirit with Hope, God's good creation will be revealed.  During the last year, as I visited every corner of the Conference, I realized that tremendous gifts were left hidden.  These are God's unique gifts in each of us and they need to be woven into a beautiful masterpiece. Sharing stories means to recognize these gifts as God-given and to value them, to make our church into one body of Christ.  In this faith journey, we will discover "who we are" as the carriers of God's image....Respecting others, recognizing their differences, and valuing them as God's gift will enable us to journey as one body.  It is our humble journey of trusting God's good creation.  In this our journey, we will be breathing together as One Spirit, and we will surely find God's beauty in each one of us, and will say, "You are beautiful!"  In this mutual affirmation, we will celebrate God's presence in our ministry with saying 'Thanks be to God'."  (end quote)


President Lee had high hopes for us last weekend.  He very much wanted, I believe, this eclectic group of lay and clergy persons to truly breathe together, see the beauty in each other,  and discern God's will for us as we received reports, discussed motions, resolutions and petitions, and made decisions for the future.  To that end, he offered to us, along with his hopes, a concrete process which, if we were open to it engage fully with it, would provide us with moments for the kind of breathing together that can only happen when we truly wait upon the Spirit of God to speak to us.


How did this happen?  Well, first of all you need to have in your mind's eye a picture of our setting.  About 500 of us were gathered in the main ball room of the Crown Plaza Hotel near the Don Valley and Eglinton. We were seated at circular tables in groups of six to eight people.  W were free to choose where and with whom we sat.   As happens at most Church gatherings, including most Sunday morning worship services, where people ended up Friday night is where they stayed for the rest of weekend.  I was blessed with the company of both old friends and new ones.


Each delegate was issued a voting card.  This neon orange piece of card stock has our names clearly printed on the front.  "Voting card for Judith Evenden".  This was ticket or passport for decision making.  Having a voting card at Conference is not new, but what was new was the information contained under our name.  Discernment Listening Guidelines: The goal of spiritual discernment is to receive God's guidance.     There is a list of ten guidelines.

1.  Take time to become settled in God's presence.

2.  Listen to others with your entire self (senses, feelings, intuition, imagination, and rational faculties).

3.  Do not interrupt.

4.  Pause between speakers to absorb what has been said.

5.  Do not formulate what you want to say while someone else is speaking.

6.  Speak for yourself only, expressing your own thoughts and feelings, referring to your own experiences. Avoid being hypothetical.  Steer away from broad generalizations.

7.  Do not challenge what others say.  (I can tell you that this one caused considerable discussion at my table group!)

8.  Listen to the group as a whole - to those who have not spoken aloud as well as to those who have.

9.  Generally, leave space for anyone who may want to speak a first time before speaking a second time yourself.

10.  Hold your desires and opinions - even your convictions - lightly.


Each of us read over the guidelines, and while we were all still holding our breath, for we certainly weren't breathing together at this point, the President explained how we would try to live out these guidelines during our time together.  As he explained it, this was the process we were going to follow.


As each report, petition, resolution or motion was presented, the main mover, that is the person who was making the motion,  would have three minutes to explain why they thought this action was important.  Their explanation was followed by a time for ¡®questions for clarification'.  In other words, we could ask questions about the issue, but we were not allow to make speeches about whether or not we liked the idea.  Our questions were answered by the presenter, or by others who were part of the process of bringing the motion to us.


After all our questions were asked and answered, we then had the option of having time for discussion at our table groups.  The amount of time for discussion was dependent upon the number of hands that went up when the President asked if we wanted table group discussion.  If there was even one person requesting small group discussion, we would have it.  One hand meant about one minute for dialogue.  If there were many hands we might spend as much as ten minutes to chat amongst ourselves, following, as well as we could, the ten guidelines, trying to listen well to each other and to God's Spirit working amongst us.


The next step was open floor discussion by all present.  We were invited to go to one of  three microphones on the conference floor and express our opinions, in favour or against the decision that was before us.  The only restriction, we had to do in ninety seconds or less.  After ninety seconds, a the countdown clearly visible on a large screen in front of us, the microphone was turned off.  (All I can say is that I am glad the off switch for the pulpit microphone is right in front of me!)  At the end of our discussion, a time determined either by there being no one left at the microphone to speak, or when the President felt we were beginning to repeat ourselves, he called for a moment of silent reflection for us to discern the Spirit of God and to privately pray for direction in the matter before us. We held silence for one full minute.


This silence was hard for some.  But I believe it was the most important part of our debates, for it provided a clear and concrete time when we were actually invited to breathe together and listen, really listen, for God to speak and direct us.  After the minute of silence our worship leaders lead us in a sung chorus.  These songs included words which were very reflective. We sang: "Wait for the Lord, God's day is near.  Wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart!" and we sang, "O God hear my prayer, O God hear my prayer: when I call answer me.  O God, hear my prayer.  O God, hear my prayer: come and listen to me."


 As soon as the singing ended, in that moment when we were all breathing silently together, the President said: "All in favour of the motion raise your voting cards.  All opposed raise your cards."  And the decision was declared carried or defeated.


Having attended annual meetings of three Conferences since 1985, I can honestly say that this was the first time that I have ever experienced a group of people, of Christians, really working hard to listen to each other and seeking to hear God's Spirit working with us.  While I know this process was not easy for everyone, it provided a means for discussion which was more considered, respectful and prayerful than what has been my experience in any other meeting, large or small. We did breath together, and we were and we are beautiful because of it.


Well, what does all of this have to do "Choosing Our Leaders" both the title for this sermon and the subject matter of our reading from Acts this morning?  As I looked back over the agenda of last weekend's meeting, I realized that much of our time was spent choosing our leaders.  Unlike the disciples who cast lots to choose the replacement for Judas, we engaged in a process of listening, both to those who names were put before us, and listening for God to direct our decisions.


This process began long before our meeting was ever called to order.  For some of our new leaders it began years ago when they first heard God calling them into the Ministry of Word, Sacrament and Pastoral Care.  Friday night we heard from seventeen women and men who wanted to be chosen as those who would be ordained on Saturday night at a Celebration of Ministries Service at Timothy Eaton United Church.  AT the same time we were also introduced and heard from a group 5 women and men, who, although already Ordained ministers, we asking us to choose to be Ministers of Word, Sacrament and Pastoral Care within the United Church of Canada.  We listened to each of them, as they tried to condense their message into one minute, and then we listen for God's Spirit.  After the ballots were cast, we, in effect, said to each one of them  "Yes.  You are beautiful, come and be one of us as a leader in our faith community."


Another leader we had to choose was the President Elect for Toronto Conference, the one who will be installed as President at the end of the meeting next spring.  Again, this journey of choosing began long before our meeting ever started.  It began with people discerning God's direction for their lives and whether or not being in this position of leadership, one that is really a three year commitment, was a gift they had to offer.  Two were nominated, two spoke to us, and one was chosen.  The Reverend Michael Kooiman of Scarborough Presbytery is our President Elect.


This summer, in Wolfville Nova Scotia, the 38th General Council of the United Church of Canada will be holding its meeting.  Last weekend we listened and choose 19 lay persons and 19 members of the Order of Ministry to represent Toronto Conference at General Council.  We also elected a new Lay Representative for the General Council Executive, a six year commitment for Paul Stott of Trinity St. Paul's United Church.


So you see, much of our work last weekend was about choosing our leaders. We did this work prayerfully, with laughter and a few tears, and by listening, discerning God's direction for us and for those who stood before us.


For me, the most powerful moment of the weekend was not while we were choosing our leaders, but rather, when our retiring leaders were offering their words of final farewell.  However, I believe the power of this moment was made possible because of the time we had already spent listening, discerning, praying and singing together. "One more step along the world I go, one more step along the world I go, from the old things to the new, keep me travelling along with you: And it's from the old I travel to the new; keep me travelling along with you."  It was with this hymn that we began the worship service titled:  "In Celebration of Those Retiring."  After singing, we prayed together: God, you have blessed our lives with your care and goodness.  You have given us life and breath; you have given us people to love, and to journey with on the way.  Through Jesus Christ, you have shared you mission, and have given gifts of faith, courage, and strength.  In your love, you have given us the seasons of our lives: a time for work as well as a time for rest, a time for activity as well as a time for reflection. Today we thank you for all the ministers and the ministries of our United Church of Canada, especially for those we honour today for their faithfulness and service in your name. Bless them and us in this time of celebration and thanks.  We pray in Christ, Amen."


Following this prayer we were introduced to the Retirees and they were invited, one by one, to offer words of reflection, in 60 seconds or less, completing the following sentence: "My Gift to the next generation of ministers..."  After many years in ministry, these talented women and men offered profound gifts, not just to the new ministers, but to all of us present.  As this congregation begins it's journey of choosing a new spiritual leader, I wish to gift you with their words.  May these words of wisdom guide you as you choose your leader.  "My gift to the next generation of ministers..."


From Paul Dempsey, retiring from Bracebridge United, Muskoka Presbytery: "Just enough trouble to deepen your relationship with God."  


From Shirley Dyck, retiring from Glebe Road United, Toronto South Presbytery: "Love your congregation as you love yourself".


From Ralph Garbe, retiring from Central United, York Presbytery - "The gift of Jesus Christ in your life".


From Edmund Hanssmann, retiring from Deutsche Evangeliums Kirche or German United Church, Toronto South Presbytery: "The words of 2 Timothy 2: 15  "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by God, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth."


From Bob McElinney, retiring from Davenport-Perth United Church and the Davenport-Perth Community Ministry of Toronto West Presbytery: "To hear the Gospel again through the ears of those you serve".


From Janet MacPherson, retiring from Chaplaincy in a Nursing Home in Toronto South Presbytery: "Don't plan your career.  Go where God needs you."


From Elizabeth Keeler, whose retiring information I could not find: "Faith until it becomes providence".


From Ann Morwood, retiring from Leaside United, Don Valley Presbytery: "The gift of laughter when the world seems mad.", and these words from Micah 6:8 - "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"


From Lawrence Pushee, retiring from Glen Rhodes United in Toronto South Presbytery: "Flotation devices, in whatever way you imagine them, be they water wings or the wings of God's eagles.  And be open to the unexpected, upon which Lawrence sat down at the grand piano and played the beginning of the "Teddy Bear's Picnic".  "If you go down to the woods today You're sure of a big surprise."


From Philip Rogers, retiring from Forest Grove United, Don Valley Presbytery: "The gift of Patience and the words of Sondheim's song, "Send in the Clowns."  "Isn't it rich, aren't we a pair, Me here at last on the ground - and you in mid-air, Send in the clowns."


And finally, from Wenh-Ig Ng, a retiring Professor from Emmanuel College: "With deep gratitude and in quiet hope I share with you, fellow pilgrims in ministry, the gift of a spirituality of "emptiness"....and the wisdom that comes from these words of the Dao De Jing: Shape clay into a vessel:   it is the shape within that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows for a room: it is the holes that make them useful. Therefore, profit comes from what is there; Usefulness, from what is not there.  Thanks be to the One who is present in what is not there as well as in what it there. Amen.


May these gifts and many more, be given to all of us as we continue our journey in faith, breathing together, for  together we are beautiful.   Amen and Amen.





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Posted on July 2, 2003 by permission
© copyright 2003 by Judith M. Evenden
Please acknowledge the appropriate authors if citing this reflection.