At a typical, in-person workers’ meeting, Ontario Conference workers from across the province gather to worship, glean best practices for ministry and receive administrative updates. This year, due to COVID-19, our workers’ meeting was virtual, but that didn’t prevent it from being an amazing time of fellowship and growth for our pastors, teachers, support staff, directors and administrators. In many ways, this workers’ meeting, held Monday, Sept. 28 to Wednesday, Sept. 30, was revolutionary. The virtual platform broke down walls, as workers from all regions, cultural and language backgrounds worshipped, shared their burdens, prayed and learned together. With dedicated times for open discussion, this workers’ meeting surpassed others by kick-starting the critical conversation on moving our conference forward in an ever-changing context.
As per the theme of modelling how Jesus lived and led, this workers’ meeting inspired attendees to take their ministry to the next level. The first challenge was to love like Jesus. Monday’s worship began with a clip on the woman at the wall from The Chosen TV series. Then, we heard the story of Jessie, a young, modern-day “woman at the well,” who’d fallen into prostitution after years of sexual abuse and exploitation. One day, a woman in a parking lot gave her a Bible tract, told her God loved her, then walked away. These words rang hollow. She’d heard them before—from her abusive father and her mother, who didn’t protect her. It wasn’t until someone met her practical needs—for food, clothing, stability and love—that she wanted to know the Jesus she saw in them. Eventually, she got baptized. Jessie asserted, “Telling people that God loves them is good theology, but showing people that God loves them—no strings attached—transforms the world.”
The second challenge was to take a strategic, yet flexible, approach to ministry. First, Pastor Bonita Shields emphasized that we must be still to receive clarity from God on what He’s calling us to do. Dr. Fredrick Russell, immediate past president of the Allegheny West Conference, then introduced the U.S. military term VUCA, which stands for volatility, complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity. In today’s VUCA environment, we must be ready for anything, which begins with intensive prayer and Bible study. Other success factors include agile thinking—“the ability to consciously shift your thinking when and how the situation requires” and grit—“perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”[i] Finally, on the pastors’ side, Dr. Philip Baptiste, secretary-treasurer of Adventist-Laymen Services and Industries (ASI), stressed the need for a clear, inspiring purpose driving all facets of ministry [click here for some strategic planning exercises].
The program for our teachers also covered strategies for excellence in their sphere of ministry. They were also inspired by the stories of the biblical and modern-day women at the well on Monday and by Pastor Shields’ session, titled “How Jesus Lived.” In separate programming on Tuesday, they engaged in Powerschool Training—Ontario Conference’s online education platform of choice—with newly retired interim Superintendent of Schools Daniel Carley. Then, they gained some tools for mental wellness and resilience with Michael Cox, a licensed professional counsellor. Overall, the takeaway for Ontario Conference workers was that God does not call us to exhaust our resources in aimless activity. Rather, He calls us to fulfill the great commission one mindful, purposeful step at a time.
Finally, the Ontario Conference administration set the groundwork for a new era of ministry. Executive Secretary Jakov Bibulovic first presented an eye-opening state of the conference report. The Ontario Conference Evangelism and Church Growth committee studied North American Division’s suggested indicators of four kinds of churches—multiplying, growing, plateauing and declining—to define our conference’s reality. As per these indicators, 33.1% of our churches are plateauing, 31.4% growing, 29.1% declining and 1.1% multiplying. At workers’ meeting, he noted how many churches fell into each category, then gave a regional snapshot.
Overall, some churches and regions are doing well, but the fact that most of our churches are plateauing is unacceptable. Once the Conference’s baseline was established, administration made it clear that we cannot be satisfied to stay there. At the close of workers’ meeting, Pastor Edwards cast an inspiring vision for our conference to shift from mostly plateauing to growing and multiplying churches. He then announced that 2020-2025 would be years of multiplication.
“I want all of us to feel challenged to move strategically from here to make the future brighter than the past. We have to intervene now,” Edwards stated.
In these challenging times for ministry, Ontario Conference has already started intervention measures. One was having several directors oversee churches, with Edwards and Bibulovic willing to step in as needed. Another was re-districting pastors to spread resources more effectively. Yet another was opening the floor for different groups to discuss challenges in ministry and brainstorm possible solutions. Such discussion began at workers’ meeting, with conversations to continue at regional ministerial meetings and other forums. Finally, Edwards mentioned creating two think tanks among Conference directors, tackling 1) reversing declining and reducing plateauing churches and 2) moving churches from growing to multiplying.
Workers responded positively to the report and strategic direction set by administrators. “AMEN! Do a biopsy now, and don’t wait for the autopsy,” said Pastor Alex Golovenko, Windsor Church. In an extended sharing time, workers’ suggestions and concerns included increasing ministry in downtown Toronto, planting churches in high-visibility areas, creating online churches, reimagining directors’ roles as consultants for churches, reaching the Canadian-born population, including immigrant members’ children and much more.
“This is the right kind of dialogue. It should be a continuing dialogue. Thank you to the administration for this,” said Pastor Ron Teranski, St. Thomas and Woodstock Churches. Feedback from Teranski and others both during and after the workers’ meeting showed that the Conference and workers are finally speaking the same language.
In his final charge, Edwards used the story of Jonah to illustrate that God often sends storms to redirect us when we forget our assignment to reach those, like Jessie, whom we might consider unreachable. He again urged workers to aim for a higher standard of ministry, concluding, “Let’s pray that we do not drift into the corner of recalcitrance so that God has to send a storm just to bring us back to our senses and back to our assignment. God calls us [in all circumstances] to lead like Jesus—with kindness, compassion, patience and humility.”