Reflecting on 30 Years of Ministry

30 years ago this weekend I arrived on the campus of Mount Allison University, one among 14 to be ordained into the ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral care by Maritime Conference of the United Church of Canada.

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news…

With those words echoing into the woodwork of the Marjorie Bell Convocations Hall I was ordained into the order of ministry of the United Church of Canada in May of 1991.  Since September of 1990 I’d be serving as weekend supply at what was known then as the Wentworth New Annan Pastoral Charge.

Lloyd with Debbie Cameron and Shirley Swan (of the New Annan Pastoral Charge) following his ordination on May 26th 1991

On Friday afternoon I would set out for Tatamagouche where Jimmy and Shelly Lafrense provided accommodation for me at the Train Station Inn.  I still remember the muffins Shelly would bring me each morning I was there.  On Saturday I would do pastoral visits and on Sunday I would do three services, beginning at either Wentworth or New Annan at 9AM with 11AM at the other, and end the day with a service at Tatamagouche Mountain, The Falls or Earltown before driving home to Halifax where classes would begin again on Monday morning.  It was here where I did my first solo funeral (for the local bootlegger) and learned for the first time that ministry is really about being among the community, and that the good news we all long to hear, is that we are worthy, that we are good enough!

As ordination and settlement approached, the good folk of the New Annan Wentworth Pastoral Charge asked me to stay but Anna and I had already decided that we wanted to go west…

And so it was, that after my ordination in May we headed west, driving through the United States after an obligatory stop at Niagara Falls (there is a really funny story to be told in other contexts about sea gulls on the Maid of the Midst)… buying dishes and household items along the way, with a stop in Winnipeg to visit some folk of Augustine United Church where I’d done my first internship… arriving after what seemed like forever in the town that was to be our home for the next four years: Acme, AB…

Yes, I know what you’re thinking and Anna and I thought it too – when I received the call that spring morning at 4AM (they’d neglected to take the time difference into account)… Road Runner and Willie Coyote…

The Acme Pastoral Charge was made up of two congregations: Acme and Bieseker… and the people in each were salt of the earth farmers who tended and nurtured me in ways that I am thankful for to this day. 

Lloyd and Justin, August 1993

I arrived thinking I knew it all, that I was ‘bringing good news to the oppressed’.  Art & Mary, Ray & Muriel, Frances and Orest and so many more, were so very patient with me, and so very supportive and when Anna and I suffered numerous miscarriages, and the death of loved ones so far away.  They ‘bound up the broken hearts’ of those two from the east that were living in the Manse – they loved us.

It was in Acme where Justin was born and where I got to minister to and be ministered to as I fulfilled my childhood dream of being a cowboy.  It was also here that I began to mentor candidates for ministry through a ministry of educational supervision with Jennifer Fletcher (now Fletcher-Power).

In 1995, after a period of discernment that involved a whole bunch of interviews at Churches that I had no business being considered for, I accepted a call to John Wesley United Church in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario.  

Our goal was to get a little closer to grandparents… we soon found out that Sault Ste Marie while closer to the East Coast, as the crow flies, is in fact, more remote from the east than Calgary… 

Lloyd, Zachary and Justin, September 1996

Nonetheless I settled into the cycle that is ministry in a boom/bust steel town that is 15 minutes away from the USA… here I continued a ministry of pastoral care, worship leadership and educational supervision.  

The congregation of John Wesley is responsible, in part, for the formation three candidates for ministry: Sung Chul-Choi, Shaun Yaskiw and Karen Ohrt. It was in the Sault that Zack was born and I began to explore the field of conflict resolution as an area of ministry.  Tom & Norma, Eleanor, Ed St. Amand and Evelyn and Percy Dinsmore are just some of the folks I remember from the years at John Wesley.  

Regrettably, I made some poor choices while there and came close to burning out – and so it was in 1999 that I accepted a call away from the Sault. – to Moncton, where the Manse was but a block and a half away from Anna’s mother’s apartment.

It was good to come home.  Upon reflection now, I know that I was called away.  I just needed out and Wesley Memorial provided that… 

After a year of waiting, listening and learning the cycles of life at the corner of St. George and Cameron St., I began to nudge the community toward a ministry with those in its neighbourhood: the clients at the John Howard Society and the sex trade workers who walked the block around Victoria Park.   

It was also during this time that I began to do conflict resolution work in earnest, mediation work for the Conference and for local organizations and victim/offender mediation for the RCMP – there is a satisfying warmth and joy that comes from witnessing an offender ‘receive a garland’ from one they have harmed ‘instead of ashes’.  

I can only say ‘Thank You’ to all the people of Wesley Memorial, for the freedom you afforded me in the ministry we shared, and it is a deep joy and honour that many of you still stay in touch and ask that I officiate at your life events (even after I’ve been to prison)…

Yes, and I must say, my time in prison was the pinnacle of my vocational journey… 

My 8 years as a Chaplain at Springhill Institution and 3 years as owner/manager of an entity that provided chaplaincy services to the Correctional Services of Canada right across the country… my 11 year bit as the guys would say.

The Chapel at Springhill Institution

It was January of 2005 when John Tonks, then Regional Chaplain for the CSC convinced me to ‘just go check it out.’  I’d been inside before.  I’d volunteered at Dorchester and Springhill while I was a student at UPEI… Anna wasn’t keen on me doing chaplaincy, and nor was I.  The contracting/employment relationship seemed questionable at best and the pay was less than what I was making at Wesley… but after John had asked for the third time, I went… and from the moment I walked into the chapel and saw the chairs arranged in a circle, I knew it was where I had to be.

John was able to bring the contract amount up to the level of what I was presently being paid and over the next eight years the United Church of Canada became ever more responsible for the ministry I offered on their behalf – owning, in a very real way the ministry of bringing “good news to the oppressed, binding up the broken-hearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…”. 

I remember well the joy of hearing the words “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me… “ read aloud in the Chapel at Springhill, in the presence of folk from Wesley Memorial and others from the Presbytery and Conference.

And many a times I ended up in Catherine Gaw’s office or Kendall Harrison’s office or on the phone with someone at the General Council Office lamenting about the administrative nightmare that is CSC and the way it grinds the human spirit… and they would hold hope for me as I tried to hold it for others.

Eid feasts, Christmas, Winter Solstice, Easter and all the in between times, baptisms and weddings, retreats and Marathon circles, visits to segregation, so very many opportunities to walk alongside men, who in many instances, didn’t have a chance since they drew their first breath: racism, abuse and poverty conspiring to hold them down and tell them they were no good…. 

During these years I was privileged to fill in here with the Sackville Pastoral Charge on a Supply basis for period of time and then with the Cumberland Pastoral Charge followed by the Nappan, Maccan, Fenwick Pastoral Charge.  Having a foot in pastoral ministry kept me grounded and, kept the pastoral charges connected to the men inside – more than once they heard stories about one situation or event or another…

And I am so very thankful for the many ways this congregation and so many others of the Maritime region supported the ministry I offered on your behalf: by volunteering and sharing Christmas cards, calendars and cookies… together we ‘proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favour’.

All of this together, is why in 2013, I was so distressed when the government of the day, first announced reductions in levels of service that would be provided by minority faith Chaplains, then changes in contracting system – a move to a sole source contractor… and why, I joined with four of my colleagues in the same year to form a company to bid on the contract… 

Kairos Pneuma Chaplaincy Inc.  Opportune Time of the Spirit.

I remember well the day I learned that we’d been awarded the first of two contracts: I was in Madison, Wisconsin at a Courage to Lead event with Parker Palmer and former Moderator, Mardi Tindal… talk about courage to lead… I was scared stiff.  What had we gotten ourselves into!

For the next three years it was as if all the galaxies of the cosmos had aligned and I was able to use existing skills in new ways, learn new skills and draw on long established relationships as we moved the ministry along.  Within six months we had 200+ religious leaders of numerous traditions working for us and with us… and together, in various languages and out of various religious traditions we were holding hope for inmates and proclaiming liberty and release…. I remember especially the joy that came in bringing together 20 Muslim Imams in Ottawa and providing space for them to talk about the challenges of the work they shared… and of working with other managers to develop policy and procedures that would assist chaplains in navigating the bureaucratic nightmare that is CSC…

Regrettably, it was about this time that my marriage to Anna ended. So much grief and sadness. And the sadness and grief continued into August when we learned that we’d been underbid and would lose the contract as of March 31st,, the next year, that we would have to lay off all of those chaplains who had trusted us with their vocational aspirations.  Thankfully most of them got work with the new contractor and our managers landed well in other positions… and I made my way to serve with the people of Parrsboro Pastoral Charge…

Again, upon reflection, I know now that the call to ministry along the shore was a call away from something – and while we shared moments of satisfying joy in Lectionary Studies and other gatherings in Manse, and times of community and service up and down the shore, in January of 2017, I was approached by two members of this Pastoral Charge, and asked if I would consider applying to the vacancy that had been declared at the Sackville Pastoral Charge.

I remember vacillating back and forth… between feelings of guilt about the possibility of leaving Parrsboro so soon and excited about the possibilities and opportunities that I saw here… and aware that a move to Sackville would be much more amenable to the new relationship that was developing between Jennifer and I… 

Eventually, I came to choose that which was birthing joy again in my spirit, and arrived to begin sharing ministry with you and among you in May of 2017, just four years ago now… and it has been a continually growing joy as we have sought to be a hopeful and helpful presence in the communities of Sackville and Upper Sackville… thank you for your continued trust, support and care. It is a privilege and deep joy to share this ministry with you.

This Sunday as we mark the celebration of Pentecost, we will proclaim again, that the spirit of the Lord GOD is upon us, because the LORD has anointed us; sent us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour… may it be so and may we be filled with joy in the doing…

I look forward to seeing you at 9AM at Upper Sackville United Church and 11AM at Sackville United Church and on Facebook Live.  We will celebrate communion.  If you are participating from home please set your table with a candle, bread and juice, and gratitude for all that life brings us!

Faithfully,

Lloyd Bruce

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