July 2022
ECF Fellows: Innovating in The Episcopal Church

Flight Adjustments in a Changing Church

Ten years ago, I began a doctoral degree with twin desires: to learn and write about Anglicanism in its global context, and to further a vocation in theological education. The two desires were related. In travels in the Anglican Communion before the doctorate, I spent time in seminaries and theological colleges and delighted in the thoughtful, hopeful, creative and critical engagement with the reality of the church I found in them. I began to understand my vocation to include a connection to these vital centers of church life. The support provided by the Episcopal Church Foundation fellowship allowed me to complete a doctoral degree and take steps into the work of theological education. But it hasn’t always worked out the way I anticipated.

Church leadership and the Millennium Falcon

I have recently become fond of describing institutional church leadership these days as being akin to flying the Millennium Falcon, the bucket-of-bolts spaceship piloted by Han Solo and friends in the Star Wars movies. What stands out to me about the Falcon in those movies is the way it suddenly, frequently and abruptly makes changes to its course, first flying one way, then flipping over, then zooming through the Death Star and so on. In this day and age, church leaders are, I believe, in a similar position. We inherit a great stock of resources – buildings, wealth, relationships – that are suited for the church in a previous era. Our role today is to flip, twist, turn and somehow transform these resources so that they can serve the church that is emerging today.

For the last five years, I’ve served as principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College (widely known simply as “Dio”). We are preparing for our 150th anniversary next year and for most of that time we’ve had an affiliation with McGill University. We also work closely with two other denominational colleges in an ecumenical consortium. Our students are jointly enrolled in programs at McGill and in our consortium. It is a complex institutional structure held together, at its best moments, by goodwill and a commitment to consensus. But it’s also a structure that is perhaps best suited for the late 19th or early 20th centuries, when it originated.

Turns and course changes in the world of theological education today

Part of my work over these last five years has been thinking about how we are called to restructure ourselves. That has meant lots of work with our partner colleges, particularly the United Theological College (UTC). We’ve recently reached an agreement that will see UTC continue a process of winding itself down while Dio takes on new programmatic commitments to ensure that ordination training for the United Church of Canada continues in our consortium. Reaching that agreement has tested all my skills and made me fall back on a piece of advice I often give my students: “the key to success in ministry is being willing to ask for help.”

We’ve also launched several new programs that serve the needs of a changing church. One of the highlights of my time in this role has been seeing the immense interest from people in the church in our online, open enrollment courses. Well before the pandemic made everyone familiar with Zoom, we were using the platform to share congregational-based adult education courses with communities across Canada and the United States.

It’s been such a treat to see how people in churches are able to connect with the college and realize how much their walk with Jesus can grow by engaging with the resources we have to offer. We continue to take steps towards new programs as well, including the recent launch of a summer internship and vocational discernment program for young people of faith from across Canada.

The work I am doing in this role is not work I would have imagined myself doing ten years ago. But it is energizing (also exhausting), creative (also challenging), and delightful (also difficult). It is what flying the Millennium Falcon through the world of theological education looks like today.

Global, cultural diversity, abroad and at home

But what of my interest in Anglicanism in its global, cultural diversity? That, after all, has long been a key engine of my vocation. I did revise my dissertation and publish it as a book and have been grateful for the feedback and connections that has permitted me. But a regret of my current role is that it leaves me less time for the kind of writing that I would like to be doing. I have an interesting project on the Anglican Church in Rwanda to share more broadly at some point, and there is less time for the kind of travel I once did to connect with Anglicans around the world.

This is where I am realizing what a gift it is to live in a world-class city like Montreal. Montreal is a city of immense cultural diversity. While there is a secularization narrative that is strong here, you don’t need to look far to find diverse and dynamic religious expression, including in the Anglican Church of Canada. Shortly before the pandemic, the church I attend had a service of welcome for those who had joined the church in recent months. Of the twelve new people standing at the front of the church that day, not a single one was born in Canada or the United States. They were from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

I had a vision then of what it means for people from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” to worship the Lamb on the throne (Revelation 7:9). It hasn’t always been easy for this congregation to come to terms with its intercultural reality. It demands all of our faithfulness and all of our creativity. But it is what Christianity looks like today and will continue to look like into the future.

It is a different shape than I imagined a decade ago, but in the interplay of Anglicanism, cultural diversity and theological education, I continue to find vocational satisfaction.

The Rev. Canon Jesse Zink is principal of Montreal Dio and canon theologian in the Diocese of Montreal. He is the author of Backpacking through the Anglican Communion, A Faith for the Future, among other books.


This article is part of the July 2022 Vestry Papers issue on ECF Fellows: Innovating in The Episcopal Church