On the Practice of Congregational Ministry and Leadership Development


This workshop is designed to introduce and animate the online congregational resource by the same title posted at the General Council Office website for the United Church of Canada:
http://www.united-church.ca/files/sales/publications/ch10522.pdf It is usually offered for a full one-day format, but it has also been adapted for Presbytery and Conference meetings.

The focus of Alive and Kicking is helping rural congregations and pastoral charges make the paradigmatic shift from survival and maintenance to mission and transformation. Alive and Kicking uses seven lenses for assessing congregational life and vitality in the Canadian rural context: 1) Purpose and Identity, 2) Context, 3) Worship, 4) Caring and Generosity, 5) Learning, 6) Healing and Transformation, and 7) Sustainability.

Alive and Kicking is an up-to-date, practical, and ecumenical compendium on the diverse contexts of rural and small town ministries across Canada. This same diversity is found across the United States, where Alive and Kicking has also been used as a relevant resource for revitalizing rural congregations and pastoral charges in rural contexts ranging from Tennessee to Alaska.

Written as an accessible resource for congregants and leaders in rural and small membership congregations, Alive and Kicking functions as both a workbook and study guide. It provides a lively dialogue between the demands of rural congregational ministry and the practice of mission in those rural communities and small towns in which that ministry takes place. Click on the link for a Rationale for Alive and Kicking Workshop to better appreciate the hands-on outcomes from offering this workshop.

To date, this workshop has been offered primarily in rural and small town Presbyteries in six United Church of Canada Conferences: Montreal and Ottawa, London, Hamilton, Bay of Quinte, Toronto, and most recently, Alberta and Northwest. It is also suitable for urban and suburban Presbyteries where small membership congregations are the norm.


This workshop was first offered at the Annual Town and Country Ministry Team Retreat for the newly-amalgamated Upper New York Conference of the United Methodist Church of America in the fall of 2010. Adapted from the Alive and Kicking online resource, it is designed to inspire Town and Country (rural) congregations to honor the local ministries to which God has called them, so they can thrive where they are.

Rural pastoral charges and small membership congregations are often seen by their denominational offices as inadequate and fated for closure or amalgamation, because of their declining numbers or size. This workshop reminds the faithful ministers and members of those same churches to be remain faithful to who God has called them to be, and to where God has called they to live and minister.

Drawing on the ecological paradigm, this workshop stresses the genius loci of each and every ecosystem to recognize the inherent gifts and worth of each place. Town and Country congregations can indeed flourish if they know who they are and where (context) God has called them to be in ministry – as disciples of Jesus Christ

“Town and Country” and small membership congregations are found in the countryside, in hamlets and villages, and in small towns and sparsely-populated resource-based communities across North America. Yet surely the multiple biological and social ecosystems that belong to the dense rain forests of British Columbia are as diverse and complex as the ecosystems that flourish in the arid, desert wilderness areas of New Mexico, or among the diverse grasslands and prairie ecosystems of Saskatchewan and Nebraska. Why do we value and venerate one form of ecosystem over all the others?

Is the mega-church formula for numerical church growth and success, based as it is on a metropolitan template, therefore normative for all congregations? Is this formula, well-touted in the church growth literature and on book table displays, a suitable criterion for assessing the health and viability of small membership and rural congregations? Finally, is this congregational growth at-all-costs model appropriate for most churches in small towns and rural areas, where the local population is static and real demographic growth is highly unlikely?

The bold and biblical premise of Thrive Where You Are – in the face of rapid climate change that is radically changing how we think and live about everything – is soundly ecological, not expansionist. It honors the inherent beauty of each place, unique to each ecosystem in the whole of Creation.


This course draws on my M. Div. course, The Church in Changing Rural Communities, offered at Saint Paul School of Theology, and my more recent STM course for CiRCLe M, Revitalizing Rural Ministries: From Survival to Sustainability. It shares the same ecological and theological premise as the previous workshop, Thrive Where You Are.

When the same industrial formula of “bigger is better” that has decimated the traditional livelihoods and local economies of hundreds of small farming communities and resource-based towns across North America is then promoted as prescriptive for Town and Country churches, one has to wonder if this urban/suburban formula for growth fits those diverse rural and resource-based contexts, and the very people who live in them.

Is globalization from above or from below? Whom does it benefit, and on whose backs and at whose expense does it work? With specific attention to Jennifer Sumner’s recent book on Sustainability and the Civil Commons: Rural Communities in the Age of Globalization (2005), this course will identify the systemic socio-economic challenges which rural communities and their respective congregations face in the wake of the economic downturn and the loss of traditional industries in resource-based communities, i.e., fishing, logging, farming, etc.

This course focuses on specific pastoral strategies as well as congregational and community-based resources that promote sustainability, as referenced in the final lens of Alive and Kicking: Revitalizing Rural Ministries. It identifies how these strategies and resources can be used to stimulate the local regeneration and revitalization of these rural communities and their respective congregations.


This workshop was first offered at the 116th Annual Conference of Queen’s Theological College in Kingston, Ontario, in the fall of 2008. The same content has been specifically formatted for people diagnosed with cancer, through my course on Spiritual Growth at Wellspring in Toronto. This workshop or course is principally designed to help students/participants recognize how our aversion to change (Who likes change?) often masks our resistance to loss.

More and more of our United Church ministry personnel and ministers from other denominations are worried by declining membership and revenue. They are reporting higher rates of medical leaves due to fatigue and burn-out. Many of them, in rural and urban congregations, worry about their future. Along with many of the lay leaders with whom they work, they fear for the worst – the dreaded fate of closure or amalgamation. Either fate signals for them the ominous demise or death of their beloved and historic church.

Meanwhile, we are informed almost daily of severe weather systems, i.e., tsunamis, earthquakes, flooding, firestorms, etc. Some of us have been directly affected by them. In the wake of these global traumatic events and the tragedies that we experience locally, we are often left feeling overwhelmed and depressed in the magnitude of such loss. After the recent economic meltdown, for example, psychologists and financial advisors from Toronto to California reported on the deleterious psychological effects of losing capital and wealth. They observed that the sudden loss of wealth experienced by their affluent clientele often triggers the same scenario of psychological stages – denial, anger, remorse and acceptance – as other traumas.

But lament is not lame! Lament is the expressed anguish of loss. Loss is the rude awakening to the fact that we do not have as much control as we like to think we have, or would like to have. The well-known biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has warned of the alarming absence of lament “as a form of speech and faith” in our churches today. If Brueggemann is right, then our psychological and communal capacity for processing and expressing human anguish through lament is effectively muted.

Without the capacity and faith to lament, we are rendered paralyzed and apathetic. To the extent that we are no longer capable of truly grieving and mourning as well as expressing responsible anger and indignation, we risk becoming powerless in the face of change and loss. We are often afraid to surrender to our anger, for fear of what it will do to us and tell us. Yet “righteous” anger and indignation is paramount in the biblical genre and liturgical practice of lament among the prophets and in the lament psalms.

Who does Brueggemann cite in one of his commentaries on grief and the lament psalms, but the celebrated author of the best-selling book, On Death and Dying, by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross? The first stage, which we all remember, is denial and isolation: “No, not me, it cannot be me, this cannot be true.” Kubler-Ross’s classic book brings to mind another book published in the early seventies investigating the psychological role of denial, Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, which earned Becker the Pulitzer Prize.

The observations above are discussed in my chapter, “Living in Denial? Lament as a Liberative Act,” in Sacred Earth, Sacred Community: Jubilee, Ecology and Aboriginal People (2000). (Click on the link for Publications). Within a consumer-driven society characterized by apathy and boredom, the subsequent indifference bred by this apathy makes it difficult, if not inconvenient, to pay attention to the growing loss and suffering of the natural and human world around us. I stressed the pervasive and systemic denial of the ecological severity posed by the rate of climate change then. It is worse now.

By consciously or unconsciously refusing to accept the suffering and emptiness of our loss, we forfeit our spiritual capacity of moving through and beyond the pain of that loss. This in turn can paralyze us, or leave us bitter and cynical. Unless and until that loss is ritually mourned and grieved in appropriate psychological and communal ways, the door to future personal growth and congregational spiritual renewal remains closed.

Furthermore, this course/workshop provides students/participants with a more critical theological and biblical understanding of what lament is, and how lament works. For ministry personnel and lay leaders, it is prerequisite to the spiritual revitalization of our congregations and pastoral charges, as stressed in the Alive and Kicking resource.

In summary, this course/workshop simply reframes how our personal energy for spiritual and congregational renewal can be primed and released – when significant personal and/or community losses are expressed ritually and sacramentally. Students/participants will also be given practical examples of innovative lament rituals and liturgies that can be used in their congregational settings.


The purpose of this course/workshop is to critically examine the nature of conflict in congregational settings, with emphasis on skills and strategies for healing and resolving “generational and congregational rifts.” This course/workshop identifies some of the salient issues and frequent tensions that surface in the wake of congregational conflict, recognizing that there are different levels and interpretations of “conflict.”

As a course, it would provide a summary review of various approaches for understanding and negotiating conflict between different generations and constituencies within congregations. This course would specifically analyze the role of blaming and shaming in the “family system” context of local congregational conflict, including lectures, plenary class discussion, and role play games on how malicious gossip, projection, triangulation and scapegoating work. The primary aim of this course is to help students/participants to develop a repertoire of viable conflict-management skills, including an enhanced self-awareness of how each one of us reacts to conflict, and best deals with conflict.

Specific attention is given to learning how to: 1) use psychological resources and spiritual disciplines for dealing with conflict, 2) understand, analyze and interpret conflictual situations in light of systems theory, 3) develop pastoral strategies and mediation for intervention, problem-solving and conflict resolution, and 4) model and mentor leadership skills among laity and clergy for dealing appropriately and creatively with conflict in the local congregational context.

This course/workshop is primarily based on my M.Div. course, Managing Church Conflict, offered at Saint Paul School of Theology (2003-2004). It has subsequently been offered as a workshop, Where Two or Three Are Gathered, There is Conflict, in Bay of Quinte Conference (2006). Furthermore, I draw explicitly on my extensive historical, sociological and anthropological research into the topic of gossip and orality, in which I lecture on “Gossip: The Lifeblood and Toxin of Community.” The malicious practice of gossip is related to the sociological phenomenon of scapegoating, and in order to help students/participants better comprehend this phenomenon, I rely on role play games.

I have also used the acclaimed PBS video, Three Sovereigns for Sara, in tandom with this course and other courses. This film is a PBS historical re-enactment of the Salem witchcraft trials, starring Vanessa Redgrave in one of her most compelling dramatic roles. As an historical theologian as well as consultant, I have found history to be an effective pedagogical mirror for helping students/participants see what we do to ourselves and each other in the context of projection, triangulation and scapegoating.

Whether in one-day workshops or in seminary or university classrooms, my pedagogical rationale for using historical films and role play games is based on this observation: The more pernicious and darker side of projection, triangulation and scapegoating (which surface even in low levels of conflict) may often be more readily comprehended analytically by first seeing it dramatically presented in the above PBS film, and by then acting it out through participant learning and role play.

I have used “The Witch Hunt Game” designed by Dr. Nancy L. Locklin-Sofer, an early modern American historian, to help students better appreciate the sociological nature of triangulation and the group dynamics of scapegoating through role play. Dr. Locklin-Sofer, an Associate Professor of History at Maryville College, Tennessee, created “The Witch Hunt Game” for her History students. Dr. Locklin-Sofer may be contacted at: nancy.locklin@maryvillecollege.edu

“The Witch Hunt Game” not only concretizes abstract historical learning and systems theory for students, but it gives them immediate and experiential insight into the complex social dynamics of malicious gossip, scapegoating and triangulation that characterize the countless victims of religious conflict and violence in different historical contexts – not to mention the victims of less traumatic conflicts within congregational settings.

Rest assured, I promise every class or group before commencing this game that any final determination of a guilty verdict, in the course of playing it – will not result in the drowning or burning of suspected witches.


The focus of this workshop is to engage participants in reflecting on the “tapestry” of their lived lives, and the legacies that they leave behind them. Regardless of our age, the ageing process usually forces us to think about the meaning of our lives and the life-changing events in our lives, such as losing a job, the collapse of a marriage, the death of a child, living with chronic illness, being diagnosed with cancer, etc.

This workshop on Reweaving Our Tapestry urges those of us who are middle-aged and older to ponder the two questions we already may ask ourselves: 1) What does my life mean? (This is the re-creative and spiritual work of what is called “life-review” in gerontology circles.) 2) What am I leaving behind me, as I leave this world? (This is the work of naming the “legacy” each of us leaves.)

As with the image of a tapestry or quilt, this workshop urges participants to reflect back on their lived lives in order to reframe how they have interpreted those life-changing events and their future importance in forming who we have become and who we are today. It ties together the various, often disparate strands of our rich life experience, in order to reweave and retrieve those very strands which have seemed irreconcilable and incoherent, and most frustratingly, imperfect – to heal the whole of our lived tapestry.

As we complete each of our lives, we as elders can then consciously and creatively re-view, if not reread and rewrite, the many chapters of the rich and complex narratives of our life stories – for our own benefit and for the benefit of those who come after us.

The following books are recommended for reading in advance of this workshop: 1) James Hillman, The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, and 2) Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller, From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older. One of the suggested exercises from Age-ing to Sage-ing is “A Testimonial Dinner for the Severe Teachers.” This is an imaginative exercise in which participants are encouraged to invite those very people back into your life who may have formerly hurt your or fired you and for whom you may still feel some animosity or hurt.

By hosting them to a testimonial dinner, these “severe teachers” as Schachter-Shalomi and Miller aptly call them, are now recipients of your hospitality. Recognizing that we often learn more from our “severe teachers” than our favorite ones, this exercise helps participants to thank those people for the unexpected and unsolicited “good” that may have come from the apparent injustice that was done to them at the time.

This workshop was most recently offered by the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto as part of its Wellness Series for its professional staff (2010). It has also been offered for numerous classes through my course on Spiritual Growth at Wellspring in Toronto, specifically for people diagnosed and living with cancer.


The purpose of this workshop/course is to both inform and engage participants in the vast literature directly inspired by past poets, sages and mystics from the world’s religious traditions. This workshop/course introduces participants to some of the wisdom and spiritual writings familiar to many Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, and Aboriginal people and other people from religious communities from around the world.

The upsurge of interest in the topic of “spirituality” shows no sign of abating. In fact, the mass media infatuation with spirituality, including Christian spirituality and the equally ambiguous topic of “mysticism,” has become captive to one of the most sophisticated marketing strategies among booksellers and workshop retreats in both Canada and the United States.

Regardless of the multitude of ways in which this hot market for spirituality is driven and commercially exploited, there is no denial that the consumer demand for spirituality is significant. It shows a resurgence of interest in the personal meaning and appeal of religious faith in a largely secularized society. But it also reveals the voracious spiritual hunger today among people of all generations, churched and “unchurched.”

Alongside the increasing visibility of interfaith dialogue, there is a yearning to learn more about spirituality among those who have no connections to any faith community as well among those who do, or once did. For those who consider themselves United Church of Canada or mainline Christian, this spiritual appetite has seldom been satisfied by their local church offerings – and we’re not talking here about fish dinners or potluck suppers!

As an adult educator and consultant on congregational renewal, it has been my experience that people of different generations are more likely to become involved in faith communities – if they find that those same communities can provide them with hearty and substantive spiritual food that they can’t find any place else! When congregations, no matter where they are, take seriously the intellectual and spiritual hunger of their own members as well as of those who live in their neighbourhoods and towns, congregations grow by feeding them spiritually.

Sadly enough, local congregations have seldom recognized the missional role of ministry and leadership development within their own neighbourhoods and communities as learning organizations. Whether through adult educational programming, preaching, Bible studies, retreats, lay preaching courses, etc., congregational leaders (both ministry personnel and lay ministers) can offer people what no one else can: the common wealth and wisdom of the sacred writings of our ancestral and historical religious traditions.

This literary and culinary canon not only includes the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and growing research on them and the historical Jesus and Paul, etc. It also includes the vast corpus of sacred writings and devotional literature from the worlds’ mystical and spiritual traditions. Past participants of my course, Mysticism East and West, for example, were invited to read aloud and listen to selected translated excerpts from the mystical writings, sermons, and ecstatic poetry of two Eastern mystics and two Western mystics – Rumi and Kabir, Meister Eckhart and Marguerite Porete. No one complained after the course each evening that they were still hungry!

This workshop, Whetting Our Spiritual Appetite: Growing Congregations by Feeding Them, was initially offered at Maritime Annual Conference of the United Church of Canada (2007). It was conceived and developed through adult education courses I was privileged to team teach with the late Deo Kernahan on Mysticism East and West (1999-2000). Deo was a former editor for Vision TV and a prominent Hindu spokesperson in the Greater Toronto Area. More recently, this workshop was offered as a Winter Smorgasbord at Scarboro Missions in Toronto, Ontario (2009). Scarboro Missions is recognized internationally for its ground-breaking work in interfaith dialogue; their website is found at: www.scarboromissions.ca