Cutting “priorities” tells the truth about our priorities

On Tuesday, I saw status updates and tweets from friends in national church organizations mourning the layoffs happening at that moment in the United Church of Canada.

In the early millennium, I sat in a cube farm I had dedicated a great deal of my time, energy and creativity to, and watched as 14 of my colleagues were called into the manager’s office, one by one, and then walked back to their cubes, escorted by our manager, to collect their things and then walk out the door. It was a day of no eye contact, except for one. Dwayne. Dwayne somehow found the grace to come to each and every one of us to thank us for being great co-workers. I can’t blame any of the others. I’m sure my substantial hurt and anger was only a speck of theirs.

At the end of the day, there were four of us left, our manager, another co-worker who was hired the same time as me, and a newer hire who had exceeded everyone’s expectations. We were pale, we shook, feeling so ill we couldn’t even imagine going out to drown our sorrows.

And, not being in management, the ones who make the decisions, we then look back and question the decision. Yes, cuts need to be made, and that those cuts would affect jobs is inevitable. It must be excruciating to be the one to make that call. It is too easy to assume the decisions were made because those in management are trying to save their own salaries. Difficult choices had to be made, and I trust that the decision was made with prayer and compassion.

And I share the anger with Doris Kizinna, Martha Martin, and the Rev. Tom Sherwood in this article from the United Church Observer. They stated that, like most national mainline churches, the United Church of Canada named youth and young adults as a priority, and then the programs are drastically cut.

Now that I am a brand new youth and children’s minister, I am well aware of the prophecy, “The youth minister is the last one hired and the first one fired”. In other words, only when churches feel financially comfortable do they hire a youth minister or invest in youth programs, and as soon as finances get tight, the youth minister is the first one to go.

This is not exclusive to the United Church of Canada. The United Church is one part of a larger Christian institution led by a culture where maintaining buildings and systems is far more important than ministry and programs. According to the Observer, the departments that were cut were Youth and Young Adult programs, Communities in Mission and French ministries. All programs, programs that we know are vital to our proclaiming the Gospel and reaching out to the most vulnerable and those on the fringe of our experience. Many call young adults “the missing generation” (see Carol Howard Merritt’s blog as an example), a vital and critical target group, and now they are lumped in with youth, young teens and children. I have a mandate for youth and children for one church and it is more than a full time job. And I am rare. How is one person supposed to deal with programming for people 0-30 years of age for a whole country? No matter how good that person is (and my experience of the current staff person is she is very, very good), this is a formula for burnout at worst and a drastic diminishing of services and programs at best.

Several years ago the Anglican Church of Canada decided that youth ministry was better managed by dioceses and decentralized. There is a lot of good to be done by depending on local authorities to manage ministries. The difference with ministry to children, youth and young adults is that there are so few dedicated staff, sometimes only one or two in a diocese, often only committing 5-15 hours per week, that it is virtually impossible to connect with one another, support each other, seek and offer feedback, and participate in larger programs, like conferences that many adults would look back on and say were life changing experiences in their adolescence.

My bottom line in this post isn’t a wagging of the finger at those working in Church Houses. The United Church of Canada and my church, the Anglican Church of Canada, are synodically governed. These choices begin at the concilliar level, speaking for congregants and parishioners across our country. These councils only reflect the priorities of those who sit in pews every Sunday. My point is that we are stuck in an entire Church culture that can not look ahead beyond our current stage and experience. Anything that looks forward carries it with it so much uncertainty that, when finances get tight, the first thing we eliminate is chance and risk.

Except that it is in those risky, forward looking places that we are most in touch with the vision of the Kingdom of God, like the disciples who listened and were constantly seeking the Kingdom because they knew they had not found it yet. When we are mired down in our present, the vision of Kingdom becomes a smaller and smaller light on the horizon, to the point that it disappears amongst the landscape of current progress or recession.

As Church, we are called to be the ones who point towards the Kingdom of God. When youth and outreach ministries become disposable, as they have in the past few years of recession, we get lost in the landscape as well.

My prayers remain with those who have been laid off and those who, like I did, remain in those offices, facing empty desks. I hope these layoffs serve as a warning to our councils, our good Sunday morning folk, that unless our priorities shift, our presence as national churches will be irreparably diminished before we disappear forever.

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11 thoughts on “Cutting “priorities” tells the truth about our priorities

  1. Dave Robinson

    An very thoughtful and compassionate piece, Dawn, thanks. As someone who has been in the management seat and having to make those cuts, I hope I have done it with compassion and with the ability to look everyone in the eye. (I’ve been on the other side of the table as well) The nature of the work and the institution we struggle to work in is cyclical, and the things many of us think critical seem to be the things constantly being built up and torn down. I think Judy Steers nailed it on the head when she told General Synod that sporadic, inadequate support/funding is far worse than no funding at all. I fear that what we are seeing at the General Council Office is a foreshadowing of what is coming at 80 Hayden. God help us all.

  2. Charles

    A few years ago, I remember sitting in a diocesan Executive Committee meeting and discussing what programs needed to be cut in order to accommodate the residential school settlement. I had serious concerns with the recommendation of the Administration and Finance committee since it significantly reduced summer internships. prior to that, Algoma had a great summer internship program which many young people did, many of whom did not do the internship as an requirement for ordained ministry, but went on to careers in health care, education and in one case law. The response I received from an elderly woman who was a grizzled member of the committee was that we could do without summer internships. We could do without paying a young person to hang out at the church for the summer. I did not appreciate the response, however, my point was mute since to change the budget cuts the budget would have to go back to administration and finance and then come back to an special meeting of the executive committee, which in Algoma costs around 5,000/2 days of meeting. I remember having a conversation with A&F afterwards and saying that this was going to kill youth ministry in three of our deaneries: in Muskoka, which ministry in general was at time a seasonal affair; in temiskimning who needed some support from summer interns; and Sudbury whose vast geography made meaningful ministry difficult. I was told that I was new to the Executive Committee, and that I should look at what my role really is. I responded by reminding the member of A&F that I had been on the committee longer than she had and that maybe she should learn her place on the executive committee. In the following four years, we limited our internships only to candidates for ordained ministry and saw a significant decrease in the activeness of youth in those three deaneries.

    The year which I retired from the Executive Committee (after 4 years, 152 days on the executive), there was a series of appointments to the diocesan committee which oversees youth ministries. During my 4 years, 152 days as the principal advisor to the committee, we instituted a number of protocols regarding the appointment of the committee, including seeking the approval of youth in the deanery before the letters of appointment are issued from the Bishop’s office. For all three of those appointments, none of them had significant interest in youth ministry, nor did any of them have the approval of the deanery youth. In one case, the appointment was made against the explicit recommendations of the territorial archdeacon, deanery youth executive and and diocesan youth staff. My thoughts is that the appointment had more to do with who the father of the appointee was than her qualifications. In the following years, I witnessed several key youths who were passionate about the church left because of the appointment of someone who was not qualified for the position they were holding.

    I frankly am sick and tired of poor policy decisions being made by our institutional church. I am disappointed that the church thinks that good institutional policy can be made by a lawyer, a priest and an accountant (as was the case with the governance report). I frankly think we need to increase the staff at the national level of our institutional church. We need dedicated professionals who know how to promote youth ministry. (Further, since the current trend is to become good at governance, we need to add staff members who are trained in governance). The fact is that professionals are essential for programming. We cannot continue to think the volunteers can do everything in the church.

  3. Dave Robinson

    Charles, your point is very well taken, the simple question is who’s gonna pay for it?
    Right now we have 30 dioceses across the country, some of which have less than 20 congregations in them. These small dioceses are in the north and have real challenges of travel and distance (as you obviously know). Do we need 3 dioceses in Alberta, 3 in Saskatchewan, 3 in Manitoba? Bishops and diocesan structures are expensive, we are subsidizing over half the dioceses in the country, perhaps fewer bishops/dioceses would give us the resources to devote to program?

    1. Charles

      I agree we need to rethink our structures. We also need to look at better ways of doing things. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to have four ecclesiastical provinces, which really only consecrates bishops and elect metropolitans to consecrate bishops? (I know that’s not fully true)

      We also need to look at shared services between dioceses maybe two dioceses with part time bookkeepers can have one full time for both (same could be said for program staff). I haven’t seen any innovation in the diocesan structures and administration. I’m not terribly concerned with the amount of diocese which we subside, I’m concerned that there is no innovation in them. I’m concerned that there is no sharing of best practices between dioceses. These are critical things for any organizations to do.

  4. theflagsofdawn

    At General Synod this year there was a motion to form a task force to investigate options for streamlining our structure, including evaluating our provinces and looking at diocesan boundaries. There was an interesting moment when the Bishop of Quebec came to the mike and instructed Synod to consider who were speaking against the motion…mostly bishops, those who feel charged with protecting the institution at all costs.

    It is amazing to me that considering the size of our organization we are so unprofessional in our management. And it is those who have less opportunity to speak for themselves who lose out in the end.

    Charles, I have been in those meetings too and they are infuriating! So condescending.

  5. Charles

    I remember watching his comments and finding them interesting considering his former career. We have a bishop who was responsible for running a government department and did so quite professionally and efficiently.

    I sometime think that we need to do away with the governance working groups upon governance working group and commission an commission of inquiry who will give fearless advice, about the whole structure. In some cases diocese boundaries need to be changed, in others it wouldn’t make too much sense (i.e. if Algoma, the Artic or Moosonee gets any physically bigger the entire diocesan budget will go to travel, but the prairies need some rethinking)

  6. theflagsofdawn

    Or what about bringing in an outside consultant who is not so emotionally bound up in the organization? Synod is not a place to depend on to make difficult decisions.

    1. Charles

      I understand the rush towards consultants, but I find that usually consultants do no make good policy for non-profit organizations. Most consulting organizations take a business model approach to non-profits. I would probably say that a public sector approach would be better for the church. If we look at our structure it’s closer to a public sector approach (i.e. division of authority, federalism, structure).
      I think too often we fall into the trap of thinking a lawyer, an accountant, and a lay person with little volunteer experience can make good policy.

      What I would do is have a policy analyst come into Church House, and begin with a needs assessment. A needs assessment can be done in a year, and can actually tell us a lot of what our structures should be. From the needs assessment, the policy analyst should be able to use tools suchas the strategic plan to look at what is needed in structure, and create discussion based on that. For now, we are stuck with the number of dioceses we have (it takes an incredibly long time and an incredible amount of resources to merge, dissolve or change diocesan boundaries). What I would focus on is the sharing of best practices, resources, staff, and information; and believe it or not, the boundary issue will resolve itself.

      It’s kinda like the four townships in northern Ontario, each township had a population of less than 500 people. The townships begun to cooperate with each other first by sharing by an accountant, eventually the decided to amalgamate the roads department, a year later they hired a shared CAO, three years later they decided to merge. It was one of the most successful merging of a municipality in Ontario history. Another municipality in to the south was forced to merge, ever since it did the former townships resented each other. The thing is if we encourage cooperation among the dioceses, including sharing of staff and resources, that would do more to reduce the number of dioceses in Canada than a million reports which recommends diocesan mergers.

      1. theflagsofdawn

        You are right, Charles, it is always better when people choose co-operation. I don’t know enough about Toronto to say this is the case here, but it seems like this co-operation only happens when we stop rewarding dysfunction. It is when people are forced to change that these kinds of opportunities come about. When we continue to seek out short-sighted solutions that impact those who aren’t in power, then we just die because of lack of creativity, like the solutions you have cited.

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