“I started slow…the middle was slow…it ended slow. 90 minutes I’ll never get back. The end.”
That’s my ideal book report on the Fort Saskatchewan town hall meeting last night. The host congregation and pastor were gracious and generous – and I really want to know who made those brownies and chocolate cupcakes because those could be secret evangelism weapon. I’d definitely go back for more. The town hall itself, meh.
Let me be perfectly clear: it’s important to be with the people who are affected by the insolvency. It’s a way to show some solidarity and support for people devastated by the debacle, but I wouldn’t have any expectations of breakthroughs or flashes of insight or anything. Then again, the nature of this meeting was distinct from reports of the meetings in the lower mainland.
Fort Saskatchewan is a short 20 minute drive northeast of Edmonton. It’s a bedroom community nestled alongside the North Saskatchewan River with ties to all the refineries and chemical processing plants in the area. Housing is cheap and there are all the conveniences of big box stores and supermarkets. It’s a big town near the big city.
There were 32 people in attendance, the majority being older folks. An older, respectful, and sedate crowd.
UPDATE: I missed the first 90 seconds because of an unscheduled pitstop…DPE Schaeffer announced that Rev. Astley was unable to attend because of a funeral at his congregation in Kitchener, ON. My apologies for missing this detail.
The only church official at the front was District President Elect, Rev. Dr. Glenn Schaeffer. Rev. Nolan Astley wasn’t there. His absence was disappointing for the people I spoke with.
The meeting began with a prayer by DPE Schaeffer. He then outlined the last several weeks since his election. He admitted that his skills “aren’t exactly matched to the administrative and financial side” of things. That admission, which he made at his speech at convention has always struck me as a bit odd. Any church leader is primarily an administrator with some ecclesiastical duties. Then again, that would kind of explain the mess we’re in now.
DPE Schaeffer framed the meeting as a chance to listen. No one stood up and gave an account of how they’re affected by the District’s insolvency. The evening was entirely a Question and Answer session. It went a bit like this:
Q: Is there any money left?
A: Yes, the Chief Restructuring Officer is working on it. We have about 40% left.
Q: Out of the churches that are owning, how many are paying back their loans?
A: The Chief Restructuring officer is helping congregations find other financial institutions to refinance etc.
Q: It’s going to be difficult to rebuild trust in District. How are you going to manage that
A: The Chief Restructuring officer said that even if all the money was recovered, trust would still be lost. We have to take baby steps to rebuild trust. All I can say is I’m sorry it came to this.
That was kind of the theme of the night: the Chief Restructuring Officer is fixing the insolvency as much as possible, the lawyers are lawyering, and other experts are doing what they do to make things right.
There were a few tidbits which offered some insight. Someone raised the question of wanting to help troubled congregations, but couldn’t because they didn’t know which congregations were in trouble. The DPE said one congregation, King of Kings in St. Albert, has lost its building. Two more, Shepherd of the Valley in Canmore, and Trinity in Fort MacMurray are in jeopardy of losing their buildings. This is where the incongruity kicked in a bit. Following the worried talk about congregations losing buildings, the DPE said, “I’m a church planter by nature. My gut reaction is to get out of the property business altogether.” That’s nothing new; he said as much in his annual report to the convention. Still, an executive who is charged with helping congregations retain their property when they don’t really believe that’s necessarily the best thing…is…er…*shrug*
Another insight came when a questioner asked how District defines missions, because it reports 100% of remittances go to supporting missions. The momentary silence after the question caused a vacuum that nearly made my ears pop. The answer: “If you think of missions in the broadest possible sense, then yes, 100% goes to missions.” But then the DPE admitted that a third of District’s income pays for salaries, and a third is for mission work, and the last third is sent to Synod. If you define administration as administration and not as missions, District spends half of its budget on salaries. If administration counts as mission work, then yes, one hundred percent goes to missions.
It’s kind of catching the warmth of the sun break through an overcast sky, only to be clouded and chilled all over again.
Another questioner asked about District’s lack of financial reporting. The DPE’s answer was right out of the 90’s: “If we can have that online, then that’s what we should do.” He could just as well have said, “What is this interweb of which you speak, and do we have access to those tubes, so we too may partake in this rapid and mysterious form of ethertechnolopy communicateyness?” It’s not that financial reporting IS online, or that it’s the plan going forward. It’s that if we CAN, we SHOULD.
There were plenty of moments like that.
Another moment: someone asked why District says it only has three staff, when really, there are five (including DP Schiemann, and an accountant on contract, and the Exec of Financial Ministries). The actual question was “If you have three District staff, who does Kurt Robinson work for?” You’ll remember Kurt Robinson is the Executive of Financial Ministires for District. The answer: “He works for Encharis.” Sure, on paper Kurt Robinson works for Encharis. But on paper, Encharis is part of District. On another piece of paper called an Affadavit Kurt Robinson submitted last Monday, he represents District, EMSS, and ECHS. So really, he works for District. But the DPE wasn’t really clear on the reporting lines and how Kurt Robinson is paid, and said he’d have to look that up.
Lack of administrative skills indeed.
I’ve said before that the town hall process is flawed. Listening is one thing, but going through a process without clear goals and outcomes is pointless. “We’re listening.” Okay. Sure. Fine. But what you do with what you hear is where the rubber hits the road. I think there’s an addendum we can add to the question of town halls. For all their clumsiness and awkward discomfort, the town halls are necessary. They highlight the weaknesses within the institution. The first step to fixing a problem is identifying the cause. It’s pretty clear it’s “causes,” plural.
District needs to do a lot of to get back on track, let alone regain trust – if there is even a District in the future. If we speak out with personal stories and questions, the way forward will become clear to leadership, and each other.
Here’s the schedule for the next series of town halls:
- September 10 – the Wetaskiwin Circuit will meet at Zion, Wetaskiwin at 7:00 p.m.
- September 11 – the Calgary Circuit (Place and Time to be determined)
- September 13 – the Okanagan Circuit will meet at Redeemer, West Kelowna at 3 p.m.
- September 15 – the Peace River Circuit will meet at Faith, Grand Prairie at 6 p.m.
- September 16 – the Edmonton Circuit will meet at Concordia, Edmonton at 7:30 p.m.
- September 20 – the Cariboo Circuit will meet at Zion, Prince George at 3:00 p.m.
Andreas Schwabe is editor and publisher of SolaGratia.ca, and an Edmonton-based multimedia & communication strategist and producer. His focus for SolaGratia is on administration, governance, and issues of faith. For clients, he writes or produces just about anything.