Assembly backs 2 year 'listening exercise'

25.6.2022 | Congregational Life, General Assembly, Church in Society, COVID-19 Emergency

On the final day of the 2022 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland one of its largest Councils, the Council for Congregational Life & Witness, were encouraged by Members to embark upon a two year presbytery listening exercise.

The Council has a wide remit to support the on-going life, mission and witness of PCI’s 500-plus congregations across Ireland in their work with all age-groups. With today’s backing of the Assembly, the Council will embark upon a two-year listening exercise across all the denomination’s 19 regional presbyteries to enable it to better resource the whole church. It will also be an important opportunity to more fully understand the impact of the pandemic on congregations.

The main feature of the Council’s work this year has been to accompany congregations on their journey beyond lockdowns and pandemic. As its Report states, ‘As the council continues to walk with congregations still experiencing a wide variety of realities as they emerge from the worst effects of the pandemic and its impact on church life, it does so looking forward to God’s leading of his people out of the captivity of restrictions into the liberty of an experience of new life as the children of God. Remembering that lifts our mood, stimulates movement and creates momentum.’

Addressing the General Assembly, Rev Colin Morrison, minister of Eglinton Presbyterian Church in north Belfast, and CCLW Convenor, said that the Council’s focus would be to continue to accompany congregations who find themselves on a variety of journeys beyond the impact of the pandemic. Speaking about the forthcoming ‘listening exercise’, Mr Morrison said, that Presbyteries had always been crucial partners in the Councils’ work. “Before the pandemic the Council invited a number of presbyteries each year to identify an aspect of church life that required particular attention by congregations within their bounds. Having done so, an event tailored to exploring that area was then co-constructed and delivered.

“These events proved well attended and often enabled fresh thinking, energy and encouragement. All of this was interrupted by the pandemic. As yet, it does not feel like the right moment to try to resume this initiative.

“Instead, to help gain a wider perspective on particular challenges and opportunities in congregational life and witness across our 19 very diverse presbytery situations, the Council is bringing a proposal to this year’s Assembly to begin a presbytery listening exercise from September 2023. This will help the Council further nuance its work, tailoring it to a variety of congregational realities, starting points and capacities,” he said.

Speaking of another initiative, he said that over 500 leaders from nearly a third of congregations across Ireland had taken part in the recent ‘Coming Back: Going Forward’ events, 7 in-person and 1 online, which were “intended to encourage congregations in this moment in which they find themselves to both regather and reshape ministry for the future. Despite the challenges congregations continue to face, it has been great to see an increasing sense of hope and anticipation among so many key leaders,” he said. The final event took place just before the General Assembly in Newtownards earlier this month.

As the Council seeks to get its work back towards more regular patterns of activity, there are a number of important balances to be struck. As the Council’s report states, ‘There is a balance between gaining momentum and setting a sustainable pace which is realistic about capacity, as well as watchful concerning the wellbeing of those charged with doing the work. There is a need to restore some previous activities, but also to take time to reassess priorities and to reshape for the future, rather than impatiently revert to previous patterns of activity. Timing is crucial, as it is possible to be doing the right thing too early as well as too late.’

This theme was picked up in the speech made by CCLW Council Secretary, Rev David Thompson, “A variety of core areas of congregational life will need to be examined and addressed as we further emerge from the pandemic,” he said.

“A freshness is something the Council is committed to as it goes forward. We don’t want to simply return to what we have always done in the way that we have always done it. Experiments during the pandemic with webinars, podcasts and other new ways of engaging congregations and their leaders in-person have generally proved fruitful. We will want to build on them, in so far as they continue to line up with any new realities congregations find themselves facing as they regroup and travel on. Some things have been easier to get back on track than others,” he said.

Mr Thompson also highlighted some of the events the Council would be organising over the coming 12 months, which include six regional events for leaders in the areas of children and youth ministry designed to encourage, envision and equip for the circumstances in which they find themselves. There would also be ‘Youth Night style’ gathering for young people on the Saturday night of the October school half-term, a regional Kids’ Big Day Out for children of primary school age, and Family Big Day Out intended particularly to be something that churches can invite families on the edges of church life to come and be part of.

A major eight session Bible Study resource entitled ‘Expressions’ will be launched in September in time for new church year. A ‘Back Together Again’ booklet that captures some of the learning from the period of the pandemic around the crucial area of the community of the church will be launched in August.

Yesterday the Council presented ‘The Turning of the tide’, this year’s General Assembly alternative presentation, which allow PCI’s Councils, to focus on a particular aspects of their work, mission and ministry, or specific issues relating to them. During CCLW’s presentation, Assembly Members hear how congregations were emerging from the pandemic, with stories focusing on pastoral care, discipleship and leadership for this season. Moving forward, it also looked at opportunities and challenges for youth, children’s and women’s ministry and new resources to help and support congregations.

Photo: Rev David Thompson, Secretary to the Council for  Congregatinal Life & Witness.

The 2022 General Assembly opened on Wednesday, 22 June and closed today, Saturday, 25 June. You can find an overview of its proceedings here.


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