Meet our new minister!

Get to know our new minister, Rev. Dr. Russ Daye! We talk about everything from spirituality to building thriving communities, from favourite books to what he’s hoping to achieve at Bloor Street, and of course, we talk about his and Virginia’s puppy!

0:05 What should we know about you?
1:02 What led you to become a minister?
2:46 What are you most looking forward to about this position?
4:05 What gives a church the ability to thrive?
9:10 What do you hope to achieve and how at Bloor Street?
11:30 Do you have any pets?
12:20 Do you have a favourite book or movie?
14:32 What are your hobbies / what do you do for fun?
17:34 What are your thoughts on having and maintaining a daily spiritual practice?
21:22 Have you gotten to explore Toronto?
22:55 Are you looking for recommendations? If so, what for?
24:30 Is there anything else you would like to add?

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Tell us a bit about yourself – what should we know about you?

Answer: I’ve been a minister for 30+ years and was one of those now rare candidates who entered ministry as a first career in my 20s. I have a partner named Virginia. We have four kids: two sons who are at university, a daughter who’s training to be a surgeon in Halifax, and another daughter who is a data manager and engineer in Hamilton. And there are two little grandchildren who were a magnetic pull and a big part of the reason for the move to Toronto.

Question: Why did you become a minister? What led you down this path?

Answer: A spiritual crisis that happened when my father was killed in a car accident when I was 13 was a big reason for me, firstly, becoming a part of the church, and secondly, seeking spiritual answers to big questions. I wasn’t brought up in the church, but not long after that accident, I’d been invited to a leadership training camp: McLennan Memorial United Church camp in Nova Scotia. I found the loving Christian community and the Gospels’ responses to big questions or ways to live into the questions really compelling. So I started to make my way into Christian leadership that way. Until I was about 18 I figured I’d either be a lawyer or a sports broadcast. I if I had been a better athlete, I would have wanted to be a professional athlete, but I was mediocre at many sports.

Question: What are you most looking forward to about being at Bloor Street? What’s most exciting for you?

Answer: I think that the leaving the building for four years is a tremendous opportunity and a hassle. I know that it’s involves a tremendous amount of work and disruption – it’s a reality. Church, as we have known it, is in the process of disappearing. Christianity is becoming post-institutional, and maybe post-denominational, so this church has an opportunity to empty itself out into the world for four years or so, and really press the reset button, and figure out what it means to be a faith community in this time. I’m really looking forward to an opportunity to do that. There’s a theological term called kenosis, which means self-emptying. Theologically, we understand Jesus Christ to have self-emptied when he became human and at the time of his crucifixion and his passion. Kenosis is generally not comfortable, but it is necessary for renewal.

Question: What gives a church or a faith community the ability to thrive as a community / as a body of faith? How does that happen?

Answer: There are particular qualities in this time that are really important for thriving. Two days ago, Rob Fennell and I published a book called Turning Ourselves Inside Out: Thriving Christian Communities through a fairly sizable Christian publisher in the United States called Fortress Press. We spent five years investigating thriving Christian communities in Canada and the western US, and a number of qualities stood out. One is the story that the church tells itself. You could have two different churches. And one of them could be saying no: no to homophobia, and no to oppression of indigenous people, and no to predatory economic policies, and no to environmental degradation. And you’ll notice that the story they’re telling themselves is that we are about a lot of ‘no’s. You can have another congregation that says yes: yes to queer people, yes to queering theology, yes to Indigenous people, yes to justice-oriented economics, yes to the Earth, and new ways of living on it. And you’ll notice that the internal narrative of the two is going to be very different because one’s about affirmation and one’s about rejection. So, working at an internal narrative of affirmation. I think another quality is courage. In this time, I don’t know of any thriving Christian communities that aren’t taking risks at this time. And sometimes the risks lead to failures, noble failures, that cause us to learn things and start over again. Leadership that’s open hearted and embodied and touched by the quality of love is really important. Leadership needs to be shared amongst not just the clergy, but a variety of people. And then I mentioned already kenosis – I think that faith communities that are not open to perpetual renewal and letting go of old sacred cows, even sacred cows, that 10 years ago was exactly right for the time, can crystallize, be held onto, and become dogmatic and ideological. And whereas once it was wisdom and blessing, now, it’s part of the problem. And so, I think thriving requires surrendering the things we have we held dear, even important teachings, and letting those very teachings have the wheat in the chaff sifted, so that they can express themselves afresh.

When you think of leading a church, you want to do leadership that attends to the congregation that exists. But you also want to do leadership that attends to the congregation that might be – the congregation that’s imagined in the eye of the Divine. And you have to give time and energy to both of those things, even though sometimes they’re just in tension with each other. It’s like improvisational jazz: you have the harmony, you have the melody, then you wander off and you lose it, and then you come back. There’s no creativity without tension, and probably no real growth without conflict. I don’t think it’s good to be addicted to tension or to conflict; I think times of harmonization are really important, but so is tension.

Question: What do you hope to achieve at Bloor Street?

Answer: I would hope to engage a very diverse circle of people. I really hope to grow into relationship with BIPOC people and to help create a community that is more welcoming and BIPOC people, the same for queer people, the same for younger people, the same for elderly people and marginalized people, people with mental health. But how to do that in this context? Whether it be Bloor Street or Toronto, I don’t know the context or the congregation well enough to articulate specific targets or goals. I will say I think one of my jobs will be to host a conversation about all those things. I had the great, great privilege for seven years of being the co-chair of the United Church’s Living Into Right Relations task group that worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I got to work with Indigenous elders and white Christian leaders and host conversations about really challenging things all around the country. I did my PhD on the Truth and Reconciliation processes. I think one of the things that I’ve developed some skills for is hosting conversations about challenging transitions. So one goal I have is to, with other leaders, find a way to host the conversation for Bloor Street.

Question: Do you have any pets or are you thinking of getting any now that you’re here?

Answer: Virginia and I have a six-pound dog. I’m not convinced that Coby actually is canine – I think he may be a combination of a cat and some kind of rodent. But he thinks he’s a dog. And he’s alternately very affectionate, and six pounds of aggression. He’s frequently got small dog syndrome. He’s about the right size for a 15-story condo in the Village.

Question: Do you have a favourite book or movie?

Answer: I realized that my favourite books are located at the intersection of spirituality, masculinity or male identity, and violence. I enjoy the books of John le Carré – I’ve read all of them at least once and they really speak to me. Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey are some of my favorite movies.

Going back to what led me into ministry, though, where do those things intersect? That’s been a kind of nexus that I’ve been working on my whole life. Partially, trying to figure out in a world in which men, and straight white men, have been so much a part of colonization and so much of part of the violence that has issued from colonization, I realized I’ve been trying to almost on an archetypal level, work my way into that. And I think, “Is there a more healthy and helpful way for privileged, straight white men to live into this world with some spirit?”. I’ve been reflecting on this.

Question: What are your hobbies – what do you do for fun?

Answer: I do some things every day – I meditate, I do yoga, or Pilates and Tai Chi. Desmond Tutu said once if he doesn’t take time to do a spiritual practice in the morning, he feels physical pain during the day. I think I’ve learned that if I don’t take time to meditate and do spiritual practice in the morning, that people around me experience pain during the day, so I do those things and enjoy them, but they’re more a discipline than a hobby.

I really love time in the outdoors. I love kayaking and canoeing. And until COVID, annually I would go for at least two or three weeks of camping, usually alone in the desert. I love the desert and think it has much to teach us. I look forward to a time when I can go back there. Sometimes I go with others – Virginia and I have gone, my son Sam has come with me. I spent a lot of time in Death Valley. It is a really good time of introspection. I’ve learned a lot from the desert. I first went for a long, long time when I was going through a crisis, a divorce. And I had to let go of a lot of things. And what I learned about the desert, by sitting in it and observing it, and then reading about it, is that a desert is something in the process of disappearing – it’s land that’s being eroded and blown away. And it is beautiful. And it gives such a gift, and it hosts a lot of life. Back to the notion of kenosis, disappearing beautifully was something that I learned a lot about. So, in a culture that is so often neurotically oriented towards achievement and building things up, and constructing things, and marking success, success, success, I find it a big relief, just to get out of it, and to go to a desert and see the beauty in the opposite of that, which is in disappearance. And I think of the spiritualities of the desert: the desert mothers and fathers of early Christianity, or monks who go into the desert in places like St. Catherine’s monastery today, or the spirituality of Indigenous people who have lived in the desert. It really has a lot of harmony with that.

Question: What are your thoughts on having a daily spiritual practice?

Answer: For me, it’s got to be daily, but not for everybody. For some people it’s like doing Sabbath every month, taking three or four days. For some people, it’s weekly. It’s important for each person to find her or his or their rhythm and to honour that. Don’t think that your practice has to be as shaped or disciplined in the same way as mine.

For those who want a daily practice, I find it helpful to make a covenant with yourself for a season. And to just say, “I’m going to commit to this for Lent or for 100 days” or whatever. And just say “that’s it, I’m going to I’m going to do that” because it’s a lot easier to keep committing if you know that there’s a get out of jail free card down the road. And then afterwards, you can reassess and say “hey, did that work for me?”.

Also, ironically, I think that one thing that can be quite helpful is caffeine. I tend to get irritable or nervous or jumpy if I caffeinate when I don’t either exercise or do spiritual practice. If I’ve worked late and I haven’t had a good night’s sleep, but I really want to get up and meditate, I get up and I make coffee and I make that part of the ritual. I take time to smell the coffee. I take time to enjoy it. tasted it, I take time to feel it going into my body, and then I go into the practice. And then the energy of the caffeine of the coffee or the tea often becomes part of the practice itself. So, it becomes part of the breathing deeply and working with our bodies, as opposed to what caffeine often does to us, when we take it unconsciously, which is shorten our breath, and make us a little bit edgy. That may not work for everybody, but for me, spiritual practice is physical, even if it’s just sitting and meditating, or if it’s reading. And so, if you think “what do I need to do to my body – 20 push ups or a nice, slow walk, a cold shower, a strong cup of coffee, to get my body ready to practice”. That can be really helpful. And then if you don’t practice daily – guilt is useless here. You reset, and you’re off the hook.

Question: Have you gotten to explore Toronto?

Answer: Well, I’ve been exploring Toronto for 30, some years, intermittently. When I was a minister in rural churches, I was very strategic about getting appointed to national committees because it would bring me to a cosmopolitan area, and I get to hang with other young ministers. So, for a three-day meeting I’d come for five or six days, and I would stay with friends, and I would explore Toronto, so I’ve walked many parts of it. But since we got here two weeks ago, I’ve walked hundreds of kilometers, partially because I’m a little reticent to be on the TTC when it’s busy. But I just love walking the city. Today at lunchtime I had a little extra time, so I walked down to the St. Lawrence Market to have lunch. And I’m looking forward to exploring a little bit further afield. One Saturday I got to tour Toronto Island with the grandkids and the family. I look forward to exploring more, and the ravines are spectacular.

Question: Are you looking for any recommendations (restaurants, shops)?

Answer: I’m happy to have recommendations for everything. Restaurants are a disaster for me because I’m allergic to dairy, gluten, soy, and egg yolk. When I was overseas personnel for the United Church in Fiji, I got a parasite that it took two years to diagnose, and by that time it had done a lot of damage to my small intestine inside. There’s a lot of stuff I’m not able to digest so if people know of restaurants that are good at managing allergies, I’d love to hear about that. Also, any recommendations for little pockets of nature to be found within GTA that I might visit and enjoy.

Question: Do you have anything else you want to add?

Answer: Well, it’s such a weird time to start up a pastoral relationship, you know, with COVID. I don’t really know how to do this. I’ve never started a pastoral relationship within a pandemic before, and I haven’t started a pastoral relationship in 16 years, so please be patient with me. But also, please give feedback. I need constructive feedback. Positive feedback is great because it inspires confidence. I’m happy to receive that. But I’m also keen to get feedback about things that I might be able to do better or more helpfully, especially if that can be offered a little bit gently. It’s a lot better to, if I’m making a mistake, or I’m doing something that’s troublesome to people, to hear it earlier and gently, rather than after I’ve made that mistake so many times that somebody is thinking about going somewhere else. My email is [email protected]. I’m also really happy to go out for coffee with people, and I’d like to meet as many people as I can in person. Don’t be afraid to be in touch!

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