Complicated and Uncertain Times: An Interview with Rev. Ian Ross-McDonald

In speaking to the General Assembly last June in Vancouver, Rev. Ian Ross-McDonald, accepting the position of General Secretary of the Life and Mission Agency, spoke of courage. He gave credit to the congregation he was raised in and the camps he went to in his teens for forming his faith. He spoke of the hope and excitement he felt working with congregations during his previous role as Associate-Secretary of Canadian Ministries. And he spoke of courage:

“Much is asked of those of us who are in positions of responsibility in all places in the Church—in congregations, in presbyteries, and the denominational offices. And the task is large. God has called us as a Church to live in complicated and uncertain times. But we’re not alone. We’re under the guidance of the One who has called us by name and called us to follow and gives us comfort and wisdom for the journey. …

“One of the stories that gives me hope is the story of Jesus and the Disciples in the storm tossed boat. Buffeted by the winds and waves, and rolling about on the threatening but life-giving waters, the boat-Church is filled with disciples, and always on board is the life-nurturing, hope-giving presence of Christ. … Jesus does not say to the disciples, ‘Fear not,’ but … ‘Have courage.’

“And it is courage that the Church so desperately needs. Courage along with the composite elements of wisdom, honesty, faith, grace, hope, endurance, truth—all these things to be nurtured in our congregations, church courts and personal relationships, in the colleges and the agencies of the church.”

I met Ross-McDonald later in the year at his office. I began our conversation by reminding him of his speech.

ROSS-MCDONALD: The congregation I grew in, St. Andrew’s, Dartmouth, is a little unusual in that it had the same minister for 48 years. People stay there forever and there are generations of families in that church; and at the same time there are always new people because of the armed forces and banking and academic system in Halifax. So, it’s a nice mix of stability and new people coming in. It was a very stable congregation and it did the things that a lot of healthy churches [do]; it had a mix of people and generations and you felt secure.

FAIZ: And camp?

ROSS-MCDONALD: Camp Geddie was a big part of my life. My family went every year until I was about 12 and then I worked there for five or six years.

FAIZ: At what point did you think that you wanted to enter ministry?

ROSS-MCDONALD: I was maybe 25.

FAIZ: Was it an ‘aha’ moment or was it an evolution?

ROSS-MCDONALD: It was more evolutionary. I think my first thoughts were more around chaplaincy, something different than what I knew as a kid.

FAIZ: I hear a lot of ministers talking about formative camp experiences. My daughter, in her school circle, is the only one with a church life. She looks forward to her three weeks at camp.

ROSS-MCDONALD: Christian education in congregations has often been practiced as an extension of school. Sunday school is such a small period of the run of a week. We’ve lost the idea that Christian education really happens at home or just in minute-to-minute living. At camp, Christian education is more sustained and relational; you can think about the big topics together over a longer period.

FAIZ: And it’s also how congregations struggle to prioritize that experience for youth. I love this line of yours: “God has called us to live in complicated and uncertain times.”

ROSS-MCDONALD: There is a significant amount of narcissism that we all revel in. We cling to the idea that the success, whatever that means, of the church all lies within our hands or programs or structures. Part of our reality is that “This is the nature of the time we live in.” They’ve been given to us as much as we’ve created them or can fully control them. I should say, of course, that we did things in the past that have contributed to the situation we are in; but I’m also saying not everything is in our hands. We’ve been called into this; these are the times we have been delivered to.

FAIZ: It strikes me that it all comes down to money and numbers, our definition of success.

ROSS-MCDONALD: There is a great line in one of the liturgies: “We are always looking for more success than you ever had.” The ‘you’ being Jesus. We just had a nice boom in the ’40s to ’60s. Even if we look to history, there were not hordes of people in the churches all the time. Church attendance in Halifax during the Victorian period was a low percentage of the population. If we think of ourselves as being called into these complicated times then we can begin to respond with complex, nuanced and carefully thought out answers. We need some more sitting and thinking rather than reacting; more thoughtful reflection than satisfaction with simple answers that do not ultimately satisfy.

FAIZ: Your office is seen as the place from which decisions and things are done and made; that in a storm, your office will steady us.

ROSS-MCDONALD: I think there is a little bit of work to be done in the positioning of the minds of the church what the national denomination’s offices and employees are for and what they do.

There are things that cannot be done locally. There are big picture things that need to be done, administratively, and big vision things carried out related to the articulated vision of the church. Those are things that properly and most efficiently and effectively are done nationally. But national denominational staff, offices and structures cannot do many of those essential things that happen when we gather in a neighbourhood on a Sunday. We can support that work, but we cannot essentially do it.

People’s experience of church is not 50 Wynford Drive [the denomination’s national offices]. It’s not universally positive for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we have failed. Sometimes it has not been possible or not appropriate for us to do some things. Sometimes we have not had the resources. Sometimes the church has given us specific tasks to carry out. And to some extent we occupy a fantasy spot in the life of the church; we have all said “if only people at 50 Wynford Drive would do this or that” things would be better. I don’t think there are any quick or easy fixes.

FAIZ: Anxiety, trauma, leadership. What do they mean?

ROSS-MCDONALD: In our system, leadership is broad not high; there are things all of us are to do as leaders in these anxious and uncertain times.

Yes, there is the trauma that comes from the loss we feel and one of its expressions is anxiety. And the anxiety lessens us and makes us something other than we are called to be. Other expressions of the trauma are passivity, lack of trust, and also hostility, I think. In addition to vision, these are some of the things that need to be courageously analysed.

Leadership is another important matter. If you’re in a boat in a storm, you wouldn’t say, ‘All we need is simply a better mast.’ To deal with the storm, we need all the parts of the ship and the people in it to be strong and work together. To me, leadership is a constellation of things; it’s not a technique, it’s not list of 10 steps to success. Leadership is more about the cultivation of insight, knowledge, carefulness, courage, faith, hope, grace, endurance; not a single program or quick fix.

FAIZ: People feeling frustrated because they don’t know what else to do; presbyteries, volunteers, are all stretched. The anxiety goes up and goes to your feet and the cycle is endless.

ROSS-MCDONALD: We constantly ask: ‘Why isn’t somebody doing something?’ But we both know that as soon as somebody does something, that’s when the fun begins. Congregations say, ‘If the presbyteries would just tell us what to do, we would do it.’ And everybody knows that as soon as the presbytery says, ‘This is what you must do,’ it gets complicated.

It’s easy for me to say, ‘It’s obvious what you have to do right now,’ and if I were to give that prescription, it’d be bloody.

FAIZ: We all want change but not that change.

ROSS-MCDONALD: Yeah. But, what change do we all want? We want it to change from what it is, but to what? To something new? To something more familiar? It’s a complicated conversation. We haven’t agreed on that what change looks like. Every congregation says, we’re engaged in intentional renewal and sometimes that means being without a building, or going to a new structure, or finding new configurations of leadership, or making everything different in worship. For others it is as simple as a new sign. Renewal looks different to everyone and nobody can agree on what renewal is and it cannot be the same thing in every context.

FAIZ: I sense we’re all struggling with how to have this conversation. We are so overwhelmed by our anxieties. I think a lot of people looked at the Haynes’ Report as an expression of those anxieties.

ROSS-MCDONALD: The Haynes’ Report was a study of the PCC and how the Life and Mission Agency and the church might respond to a forecast for the future. And, if you look at the recommendations, there are things that might be done locally or at the presbytery level, potential changes needed in our polity and our structures. There are things for the church to think about, not just one agency. When people say, ‘They didn’t implement the Haynes Report,’ well, this office can’t do all of things suggested by the report. Some of the choices are to be made by people and bodies elsewhere as they think about how best and faithfully to organize things. I find myself invoking the Life and Missions Project Committee Report. People can elect to use its suggestions or not and every generation needs to go back and look at it again.

FAIZ: I understand but it goes back to the mode of communication, on how things are heard. I would never accuse LMA or 50 Wynford of being great communicators to the rest of the church. The Haynes’ Report is on one level an amalgamation of 50 years of similar reports. There is a line early on in the report, “We watched this happening to us …” So, communication, anxiety, leadership.

ROSS-MCDONALD: Yes, that is true. We have not always communicated well with each other. And there have been many lost opportunities. And we remember that the church through General Assembly, committees, agency committees, etc. work together to discern what best to do at any time. The church is often perceived as balanced on a few shoulders but there is more freedom and opportunity for many to make a difference than we sometimes remember or exercise.

FAIZ: As a congregational minister, you’ve been in the heart of the anxiety fields.

ROSS-MCDONALD: I was very fortunate to be associated with great congregations. There was a great woman at one of the congregations I served. She was a smart, clever, outspoken woman. She decided to sell her condo and move into a kind of retirement home while she was in good health. I told her, ‘You’re an independent woman, this seems like a bad idea.’ She said, ‘No, better to do it now when I can make my own decision.’

She’d seen what was coming in five years and she did something. That is wisdom. It is more difficult to do this in groups. A group does not get up one morning and all say, ‘If we won’t do something, we’ll be in a worse situation.’ And then all make one decision. Groups are more likely to say, ‘How do we continue being this group in a familiar way?’ Congregations easily can miss the opportunity to take a step partly because we make decisions as a group. I’m not being critical, I’m being descriptive about a complex reality. And of course we all say, ‘If we only had a bishop to tell us what to do.’ We don’t have a bishop and if we had one, we would all be furious about being told what to do. What we have is another kind of governance where everyone has to take responsibility and that is difficult work.

FAIZ: But your office is sometimes seen as a bishop’s office.

ROSS-MCDONALD: Is it?

(Both laugh.)

FAIZ: I think so. The person in your office is seen as someone who can direct, actively shift.

ROSS-MCDONALD: I’m going say something that won’t be very popular. Some of the things we can offer, people don’t want. What people want, in some areas, is what we cannot or should not give. It’s like a pastoral relationship; the things they want from a minister sometimes should not be given. The things the ministers have to give, sometimes are not appreciated.

FAIZ: That goes back to communication.

ROSS-MCDONALD: Yes and sometimes it’s the understanding of what the national office is for. There are some opportunities to shift some things and direct resources in the direction of needs.

FAIZ: How do you see your job?

ROSS-MCDONALD: It has a facilitating role to some extent; it needs to facilitate actions among the moving parts of the church. It is to see and communicate the various movements in our denomination. It’s about conveying information, picking up things happening in one place and being able to use that information to influence something else in another place. There are the mundane tasks and legal issues. But also setting the course with the Life and Mission Agency; working through what we’re going to focus on or how we’re going to respond to things. I think it’s about identifying some emphases, how do we do all this stuff together, and thinking about how we all work together.

FAIZ: What is the tone you’d like to set?

ROSS-MCDONALD: The anxiety and the fear can make us a little sharp with one another. Maybe we all need to be a little more patient and gracious, a little more realistic about what can and can’t be done. We can all try to be a little more open.

One thing we need to talk about is trust. There is not a lot of trust in the system: not just between the denomination’s offices and the church across the country. But even within presbyteries, there isn’t must trust anymore in some places. Can you trust the clerk to do the job? Do you trust your colleagues? Do congregations trust their ministers? We need to talk about trust within the church but at the end of the day we have to also ask if our faith in the church or in Christ?

FAIZ: Isn’t that how the whole church is structured? Christendom—God would come to us through church.

ROSS-MCDONALD: The church is not the Kingdom. The church is one of the tools that could and should help be the means by which the reign of God is established. But how did we in our Christian education leave behind the mistaken idea that the Kingdom of Heaven referred only to heaven or mistake the Kingdom of God for the church?

Those things are hard to mix up after reading scripture but we did it pretty easily.

What is the church for or not for?—that’s a good question and if we asked that question, things might be a little different. Are congregations there for the sake of the congregations, or are they there for the sake of the world and for the facilitation of nurturing faith and education for discipleship? Are congregations there only as congregations? Or do they have a role beyond themselves?

FAIZ: I think it’s a great question. The older I get as a member of church I realize I have to learn to unlearn stuff, my very basic ideas of church and ministry. See Christ with more clarity.

ROSS-MCDONALD: I think there is a sense that we might be owed something by the church, perhaps because we have mistaken it for Christ or the object of faith. Somebody said to me on the weekend, invoking that John F. Kennedy speech, ‘Ask not what the church can do for you, but what you can do for the Kingdom.’ They felt embarrassed by how juvenile and optimistic that sounded but I think there might be something there.

Again, we need courage to face up to the truth of the church, warts and all. So the church has racism in it? Why is that a threat to say the truth about the church acting in ways in ought not to have? Why are we shocked? Why is that threatening? Yes, we’ve messed it up in huge and disturbing ways and that has left behind, in some places, tragic legacies that will outlive us. The course of history is long and we are bound to get it wrong before getting it right.

FAIZ: I know quite a few people who come to church not to be assaulted by society at large. For them church is an escape from society.

ROSS-MCDONALD: Why did we think church was a retreat? Retreat to and from what? Maybe there is or should be an aspect of retreat about the church but we don’t generally do a good job at offering retreat to or from the important things.

FAIZ: Now is jour job to fix it all.

ROSS-MCDONALD: I don’t know about fixing. It belongs to all of us to address the times. In part, my job is to name some of the issues that bind us and to name the issues that challenge us; to be part of a diverse conversation, to make sure we take into account a broad and large view of things. And to listen to what is being said and then, I suppose, to carry out resolutions decided upon by the church in the best way that we can and also to make some difficult and even unpopular decisions at times based on what I see and come to know.

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About Andrew Faiz

Andrew Faiz is the Presbyterian Record's senior editor.