Growing God’s Mission in Athabasca: Archdeacon for Mission Development renews ministry in the north

The Diocese of Athabasca is enlivening parishes and expanding mission through an innovative new ministry. The Archdeacon for Mission Development role, filled by the Venerable Canon Terry Leer as of November 2013, emerged from diocesan discernment about growing God’s mission in parishes, throughout the diocese, and the world as a whole.

Ministry in the Diocese of Athabasca faces distinct challenges; it covers the entire northern half of Alberta, but is made up of just 18 parishes served by 18 clergy. This sparse geography means sharing resources and amalgamating is more difficult than in many southern dioceses. Like elsewhere in the Anglican Church of Canada, the diocese is also facing the challenges of aging congregations, declining financial resources, and an increasingly secular and multi-faith culture.

Diocese of Athabasca Bishop Fraser Lawton saw that his diocese was ready for an ambitious response to these challenges. “It truly was the right time,” he says, “a lot of things came together. A few years ago we wouldn’t have felt the ability to take this leap into action in terms of being a people of mission.”

The vision for the new diocesan staff position began to take shape in advance of Synod 2012, “Relearning Christian Community.” During this time the diocese surveyed every congregation about starting or expanding ministries and how to strengthen community connections. The results called for renewed emphasis on supporting and growing ministry in the diocese. The survey also revealed “parishes weren’t prepared to start talking about church planting, evangelizing, and growing mission because they were feeling not healthy themselves,” says Lawton.

Synod delegates decided the best way to connect to their communities, engage with the world, and evangelize was to create a new diocesan staff person charged with working directly in parishes. Leer affirms that his new role is an expression of the diocese, “I’m a diocesan minister with responsibility for living and feeling and thinking out God’s mission. It’s not just me, and not just the bishop – it’s the whole diocese.”

Leer felt called to this new ministry immediately. “It looked like someone had gone through my resume and created the job for me. The past 30 years has been training me for this position.”  In particular, he was drawn to the strong emphasis on community building and teaching, combined with a focus on mission. Leer felt he had deep understanding of how parishes interact with local communities and how to make sense of the Gospel with people who are unfamiliar with it.

The Archdeacon for Mission Development approaches his work with the same spirit of openness and collaboration that created the role. He travels throughout the diocese and meets parishes not with a preset agenda, but with a hope of understanding the particular needs of each community. “I’m forever asking,” Leer says, “What do you need? What are your goals? What is God calling you to do?”

So far Leer has been impressed with his encounters. “In almost every parish or deanery situation, there’s been a willingness to experiment. People know the status quo isn’t working, and they’re willing to try something . . . even these bizarre exercises and tasks I assign them to!”

The archdeacon takes on a variety of work including training lay readers, mentoring postulants for the diocese, and helping parishes develop more intentional relationships with nearby First Nations communities. “Often there is a heart for the work already,” notes Fraser, “but parishes need support in prioritizing and launching the ministry.”

Six months into life as the Archdeacon for Mission Development, Leer is optimistic that new visions are taking hold. “I’m hoping that my work enables people to think of mission as God’s work in the whole world, not just the diocese. We need to be built up so that we can turn outwards,” says Leer. “So far, parishes are responding with their time, talents, and treasures.”

From Lawson’s perspective, this new ministry is also impacting diocesan culture. “The archdeacon’s work helps reinforce parishes being more interdependent and cultivates a sense of the diocese as a family. Parishes are starting to see themselves as local expressions of the whole diocese and there’s an increased sense of being in it together.”

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