Thursday, September 06, 2012

Open Space

I haven't blogged about my experiences as a Commissioner to the 41st General Council of The United Church of Canada, held at Carleton University in Ottawa on August 11 to 18. The week was dominated by receiving reports and debating and voting on proposals, as has happened at all 40 previous General Councils and at the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist assemblies that preceded them.

However, Thursday was novel - the day was given over to Open Space, facilitated by leaders who had previously been the facilitators for a similar exercise at our denomination's Maritime Conference. Open Space comes from the same roots as the Unconference which I've attended at Stony Point NY. Unco has become sufficiently well-attended to spawn a Western offshoot in San Francisco. Perhaps this is the new way of collaborating on new ideas for the church.

Basically, Open Space or Unco are crowd-sourced conferences, with attendees setting the agenda and providing discussion leadership. At the 41st General Council - known as GC41 - Thursday August 16 began with the facilitators explaining how Open Source would work in a one-day setting with 300 elected Commissioners, plus Youth Forum delegates. This was a larger group than Unco has been. Then all ideas were welcome - any Commissioner or Youth Forum delegate with a discussion group idea came up, wrote their idea on a sheet of paper, spoke into a microphone stating their idea, then proceeded to a wall where the pages were posted in time blocks. There were three blocks of an hour and a half each, one morning and two afternoon. Each sheet was then given a number, which matched that on a pole topped with a colourful windmill so people wishing to attend would be able to find each group in the large meeting space.

I jumped up and proposed a discussion on The Challenges of Sustainable and Vibrant Rural Ministry, wrote it on a page and posted it in the first afternoon time slot, where it received the number 13. When the time came I found where pole number 13 was placed on the floor and arranged some chairs in a circle. These were promptly filled by Commissioners anxious to talk about the issues of rural ministry, and I threw out some opening questions and let the discussion take off from there. I asked one of the attendees to take attendance and notes on ideas that came out of the discussion, and at the end of the time slot went to a bank of laptops and typed in the report for Group 13. These reports were later collated and read by church leaders.

It seems that Open Space/Unconference formats are ideal for letting ideas come forth that may otherwise be held back by our proposal format with three courts of the church - congregation, Presbytery, and Conference - passing on formal motions to General Council. The topics covered included several that were only mentioned in passing or not covered at all in other General Council business, such as rural ministry, clergy pay, outreach ministries, suburban church growth, and LGBTQ experiences in ministry. Perhaps our processes will evolve so that a future General Council receives most of its input from crowd-sourced discussions and formal reports and motions occupy the minority of Commissioners' time.

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