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"Critical need" to train new ordained ministers in Canadian indigenous communities

Posted on: March 20, 2017 4:19 PM
Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, pictured at General Synod 2016,
Photo Credit: Anglica Journal
Related Categories: Canada

[Anglican Journal, by Andre Forget] Training new ordained ministers is a "critical need" in many Indigenous communities—but not one traditional seminary education can easily fill, says Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh.

"Seminarians are not coming to live among our people, and they are not trained to serve in a remote, isolated little reserve," Mamakwa explained. "We need to look at alternative delivery of ministry." Mamakwa’s comments came at a February gathering hosted by the national church in Niagara Falls, Ontario, to discuss the future of the theological education in Canada.

Though Mamakwa was unable to attend due to a crisis in one of her communities, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald read a statement she had prepared outlining Mishamikoweesh’s leadership training needs, and presenting possible solutions.

The key challenge, Mamakwa said, is the need to balance support and resources from institutions and schools outside Mishamikoweesh with ensuring education is still run by and for Indigenous people. Since 2003, education for ministry in Mishamikoweesh has taken place through the Dr. William Winter School for Ministry based out of Mamakwa’s home community of Kingfisher Lake, in northern Ontario. Named for its founder, the late archdeacon and elder William Winter, the school was set up to provide training to Indigenous people in what was then the diocese of Keewatin; over 70 people have participated in its Diploma in Indigenous Anglican Theology program since its inception. Students attend the school for intensive two-week sessions twice a year, and work with ministers in their home communities for the rest of the year.

However, the school currently does not have a set curriculum or offer a diploma-granting program. Teaching is done with the help of elders, and supplemented by seminary-trained educators and instructors teaching at seminaries in other parts of Canada. Until recently, the school was in a partnership with the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad, in Saskatoon, which helped provide the school with a curriculum, teachers and, upon graduation, a diploma. This partnership came to an end in 2011, when Emmanuel and St. Chad faced the possibility of closure. Though the college remains open, its relationship with Dr. William Winter School for Ministry has not been renewed.

Mamakwa said the school is in the process of deciding whether or not it should try to affiliate itself with a seminary. In the meantime, Wycliffe College in Toronto has agreed to provide teaching support. One of the reasons why Dr. William Winter School for Ministry has not simply adapted another school’s curriculum is due to a strong conviction that it should be, in Mamakwa’s words, "controlled and run by Native people to teach Native people."

Indigenous ministers, she said, face unique challenges, and need to be able to function in an environment where people suffer from addictions, trauma and family dysfunction that are part of the toxic legacy of the Indian Residential Schools system. 

Moreover, in many Indigenous communities, she said, elders play an important leadership role, and must be part of any training program for Indigenous priests and deacons. In a March 8 interview with the Anglican Journal, Mamakwa expanded on her earlier statements. One of the major problems facing the school, she said, is recruitment—specifically, how to recruit students interested in becoming priests. "Right now, we just make [attendance] open for anyone who wants to come," said Mamakwa. "There is a high interest in people wanting to come and study, but not necessarily seek ordination."

Until recently, leaders from the school would visit communities and identify potential students and encourage them to pursue studies with view to ordination. The high cost of flying in and out of northern communities, however, has meant this is no longer financially feasible. And yet, in the cultural context of Mishamikoweesh, spending time in communities and meeting potential candidates is a key part of discerning who should pursue training for the priesthood or diaconate. Mamakwa explained that in many Indigenous communities, people do not put themselves forward as candidates for ordination; instead, their communities identify them as being potential spiritual leaders.

This was certainly true for the Rev. Elizabeth Beardy, who was encouraged to attend the school by Winter himself when he visited her home community of Split Lake shortly after the school’s inception. "[Winter] used to come to our community…he would look around and pick out people and invite them to come to that school," said Beardy, who studied at Dr. William Winter School for Ministry from 2004-2008.

Beardy was ordained to the diaconate in 2016. She said it had never occurred to her to pursue a seminary education, but that she found the training provided by the school to be of great use. In particular, she draws on the training she received in counselling when dealing with members of her community dealing with spiritual or emotional issues.

"When they see me, [people] come to me and say ‘oh, I’m going through this, can you come and pray for me?’…And there are some that have problems with their family life, so I talk with them," Beardy said in an interview. "There is a great need of pastoral care up north." Beardy said the shortage of ministers in her part of the country, northern Manitoba, is a problem, where many communities have an active church community but no priest.

Often a community will have to pay travel costs for a priest from a neighbouring area to come in and do a burial when a person dies, she said. The obstacles to providing ministry training remain real, but Mamakwa is confident the school will find a way forward.

The issue of recruitment is one of several items on the agenda at an April planning meeting where Mamakwa, MacDonald, several other school stakeholders will discuss curriculum development and the establishment of program guidelines. Meanwhile, Mamakwa encourages anyone interested in supporting the school to consider doing so either financially or offering to volunteer as a teacher. "What I would like to see is if a parish or the national church…or even an individual could sponsor a student. That would be really helpful," she said.