An interview with Chris Ferguson

Chris Ferguson was elected general secretary of the WCRC at the executive committee’s 2014 May meeting, taking over in September from Setri Nyomi, who had served the allowed two terms. An ordained minister in the United Church of Canada Chris has served in ministry in Canada, the Middle East, various parts of Latin America and at the United Nations.

What originally convinced you to become a minister?

Faith journeys are deep so a brief answer is difficult. For a whole series of reasons, I found myself interested in helping and serving people. When I was at loose ends for a summer (as a teenager) my mother pushed me to take a summer job: “Why don’t you help out at a camp?” ChrisInterview The experience open to me was to help at a camp run by a United Church of Canada (UCC) inner-city church on an island outside of Vancouver. Mostly First Nations people came to it, the poorest of the poor; kids on the edge, with all sorts of tough stories.

I saw this world for the first time as someone trying to help. So I was convinced after some very dramatic experiences as a camp counselor that I would go find out about the life of these kids in the inner city. I went, and who I saw effectively standing up and being with these people in really hard circumstances was the church, and the role models I saw were these incredible ministers.

What I saw from them in ministry did not remind me of anything I had experienced. I had the usual idea of what ministry was—static, boring, preaching of a warmed over Gospel to disinterested people that didn’t mean much to me as a 16-year-old. Then I saw that ministry was really being a service of bringing the Gospel of life to people in the places where they lived and where their pain was.

The short answer: I got out of the church and into the world. And I had pretty impressive role models.

What, if any, learnings/experiences/knowledge from your time as a parish minister do you still carry with you?

I think there are three:

1) The first response of ministry is to go to where the people are, to where the pain is, go and be physically with those who are suffering and who are hurt.

2) Without a shadow of a doubt—and I think this is true to our tradition—we’re all in this together. We’re all in ministry. The ministers are the congregation. Together we’re called to ministry.

3) The world continues to evangelize the church equal to the church evangelizing the world. God works through the world to bring the church to the service of the Gospel as equally as the other way around.

You seem to have an affinity with both social justice and Latin America. What led you in those directions, both thematically and geographically (both initially and longer-term)?

The simple answer would be the coups in Chile, Argentina, the dirty war, the revolutions in Central America. But it didn’t lead me intellectually. Those massive displacements meant my world was flooded with refugees. Latin America was engulfed by these horrible situations of displacement, injustice, etc. which meant its people were seeking refuge. Always welcome the stranger because in so doing many have welcomed angels unaware. Latin America came to me, and then it seemed only right we go to be with the brothers and sisters in Latin America and share what we could share.

You can’t attend to everything but there North Americans (and Europeans) need to consider as an ethical imperative those things where we are complicit in the injustice. In Central America there was a particular North American complicity—economically and politically.

You’ve clearly gotten around. What are some of the highlights of your professional career?

All my formal jobs have really been ecumenical, partnering with others.

For the first decade of my professional life many would know me as a community worker with a strong psychology emphasis. I helped design a process of training community workers and founded a crisis centre and youth centre.

Then it was moving to Quebec and theological education and counseling. At that moment one of the issues was connecting work on a university campus with working with refugees. Social justice and ministry with refugees was a big highlight. I try to create structures and find a way to put wheels under the bus, to make these ministries endure. Sometimes it’s more service than transformation.

The other big highlight was the work in Canada combining social justice and mission work and developing gender justice in global mission work—forging new understandings of mission partnership (with both the UCC and the World Council of Churches (WCC)), including that mission is from everything to everywhere—the whole Gospel for the whole world.

Being general secretary of mission and the ecumenical officer of the UCC—being both in mission and in unity. What I see in this job now was God’s hand, having this unusual combination: Activist-mission guy versus the unity-communion guy.

When we were missionaries between ’87 and the ’90s in Costa Rica some of the highlights were the privilege of doing theological education in the midst of a sea of countries all at war. All these students who came from all these Central American countries were needing to equip themselves for ministry in a sea of violence. How can this make a difference? It wasn’t just a question of ministry in their congregations. They would be some of the few people in a post-war/conflict situation who had a university education, so we had to ask, “What would be the Gospel values that should be in a constitution?”

I was privileged to give accompaniment to Rigoberta Menchú [winner of a Nobel peace prize] into the Guatemalan war/conflict zone. And in 1989, I was giving a workshop in a Baptist church in El Salvador when the war came into the city. I coordinated for a time the human rights work and pastoral care of the missionaries and church workers who were caught up in the war. I’d collect human rights information during the day and fax it to Geneva at night. That confirmed for me that ministry was really being there for the church, to see the church there in situations in conflict and see how we can make a difference.

After being in Jerusalem (which was also a highlight, trying to bring together the churches in Jerusalem in the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre), I was asked to represent the World Council of Churches at the United Nations. My first day on the job (or so) I’m sitting in the office and this woman comes in and says she’s with the Mennonite Central Committee and has one question: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (of Iran) is coming, President George Bush is refusing to meet with him—lots of tensions—would the WCC partner with them to have a dialogue on a religious basis with Ahmadinejad? Our fundamental commitment was that yes, we believe we should talk and dialogue—even with enemies you’re called to love.

Being able to create these opportunities for dialogue on the international stage—it was a highlight for me.

What do you hope to bring to the WCRC?

I think that the people who know me often say to me that I have a lot of passion and energy, and I am also fiercely inquisitive theologically. I have been gifted by the affliction of analysis. It’s incumbent on us to be critical to see how things work.

I push and I shove but also at the same time am extremely committed to relationships, reconciliation, building bridges, bringing us together. We have to move forward so that we all arrive together. It’s forward movement that allows us to get together. Forward movement is a force of unity.

I think I bring a sense of not only passion but imperative urgency. That I do feel that it isn’t only passion of investing oneself in but that I’m motivated that we’re in a bad place as a planet. We can’t defraud God’s gift and let a scandalous situation remain. This includes human and ecological injustice.

I bring a humble sense that I’m not finished learning yet. This is an opportunity for the WCRC to continue to offer gifts to all of us. There’s so much learning to do about what we can bring and contribute to the larger ecumenical family.

What do you think the Reformed family brings to the world today?

I think it’s important because the historical roots and the gift of the Reformation is this protestant principle that nothing is ultimate except the ultimate itself. What we bring is this spirit to renew and transform ourselves because we understand that those called are called to transform the world. What we bring is that we transform vibrantly, theologically, in the light of Scripture. This is a gift we’ve been given.

In tough moments when the integrity of the faith is challenged by injustices we know we can confess and proclaim theologically to the world—which allowed for such statements like Barmen, Belhar, Accra. We bring this almost laser-like focus on a relationship with the God whose theatre of activity is the whole world and the belief that anyone who impedes feeling and experiencing the Lordship of God will be called out. Where life is threatened, that is a theological issue.

That obedience to God requires us to be in and of the world, putting Scripture first and understanding how God is active in the whole world, that God’s grace is for the fullness of life.

This isn’t thinking that we’re special. Instead we feel a burden of responsibility to that gift that the Reformed tradition has equipped us with as a legacy. We must constantly reform ourselves. Unless the church is reinvigorated in its mission and understanding it will fail to be a force of transformation for the world.

The United churches also bring a unique part of this picture. They also have other senses of how that Reformed story has to mean other things. It’s the dynamic playing out of this idea of understanding God’s action in all of history and the Christians’ role in the transformation of the world.

The other part of this mix is: To be Reformed is to be ecumenical. This is all meaningless unless we bring this to the whole family. To be Reformed is to embrace inter-religious cooperation.

How do you see the importance of the WCRC in today’s world?

Called to communion, committed to justice, the WCRC is dedicated to unity for the transformation of the world. We bring together an often very divided confessional and historical family so that we can share our unique gifts with the wider ecumenical movement and the world in crisis.

The WCRC is a crucial space for creating tighter bonds of communion, solidarity, mutual care and common action in response to God’s call. We need to address the issues that divide us as a family so that we can better fulfill the mission God has given us. The WCRC is the vehicle for that process of common study of the Bible through which we can overcome divisions and discern together how to act in faithfulness to God and in the liberating spirit of Jesus Christ empowered and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.

We need to bring back the imperative of the Lund principle: churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.

We in the WCRC have shown that we can address the urgent issues facing humanity and the planet, drawing on our Reformed and Uniting traditions to read the signs of the times in the light of the Bible and act together, confessing our faith in order to transform. And we need to keep doing this. It has never been more urgent. The whole ecumenical movement counts on us to make our contribution.

We are charged with the imperative to contribute to the wider ecumenical movement at a time when the way forward is not clear and the energies are flagging. We are charged with the Gospel imperative to participate with the triune God in the transformation of the world so that all may have life abundant. That is to say that not only is the WCRC important for the member churches, the ecumenical movement and the world, but it is also burdened with a God-given responsibility to stand up and be counted for the cause of unity and justice.