Theology school’s new president favours adaptability for the church’s future

The Rev. Heather McCance says she hadn’t even been thinking of looking for a new job when the search committee approached her about being the new president of the Atlantic School of Theology—but she interpreted it as an opportunity to follow God’s calling. Photo: Dave Robinson
Published June 1, 2023

The new president of Halifax’s Atlantic School of Theology (AST) says building agile leadership skills and adaptability into the next generation of clergy will be a focus of her work.  

“I think in every faith community, whether it’s a church or a local congregation, whatever that looks like, there are strengths and there are gifts. And I think that the role of the leader is to really hone in on what gifts has God given to this group of people because from that we can discern what God is calling this group of people to do,” says the Rev. Heather McCance, who will assume her new role Aug. 1. 

In a time when what it means to be a church is rapidly changing as congregations shrink and religion’s role in society shifts, she says, clergy will need to be more creative and adaptable than ever. “And for many of us, I think [the pandemic] made us realize, ‘Hey, we can change [our format] radically and still hold on to the gospel, still hold onto the things that matter.” 

AST is an ecumenical school that trains students for ministry in the United, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. 

McCance wasn’t even looking for a change of work when the search company AST had hired approached her about the job of president, she says. She was happy splitting her time between roles as director of pastoral studies at Montreal Diocesan Theological College and director of field education at the Montreal School of Theology. “But when the question was asked [whether] I would consider it, I took some time and I prayed and I talked to my family and thought, well, God might be opening a door here. Let’s walk through and see.” On top of her experience in academic leadership, McCance also has a doctorate in Christian ministry leadership and has worked in and developed parish ministries for more than 20 years in dioceses from Rupert’s Land—a diocese that covers southeastern Manitoba and a swath of western Ontario—to Montreal. 

This experience, along with academic qualifications which include a bachelor of arts and masters degrees in divinity and theology was what drew the search team to McCance, Peter Secord, chair of the school’s board of governors, said in a press release from AST. 

“The Rev. Dr. Heather McCance brings with her an extensive career in the teaching and study of leadership and holds the specific combination of qualifications and experiences AST was looking for. The continued success of our institution is critical to our community and to the students we serve, and Heather’s passion, character, and collaborative spirit will position AST for excellence in the years ahead,” he said in the release. 

Linda Yates, chair of the search committee added that the school needed someone who could help realize a vision of adaptivity, excellence and financial stability in theological education. 

“We sought an individual who will be a visionary leader in various institutions and organizations that AST is a part of, as well as an active participant in, for example, the lobster supper of the small, rural church. AST requires a person of deep faith, and we have found that in the Rev. Dr. Heather McCance,” she said. 

Speaking with the Journal, McCance gave an example of the kind of leadership she believes students will need to learn. When she was working in the diocese of Rupert’s Land, where resources and paid clergy are scarce in some areas, her role was to guide teams of volunteers raised up from the community and find the ministry they were best suited to provide locally. 

“I can tell you the story of a small church—it’s St. Mary’s in Sioux Lookout, Ontario,” she says, where the team included a retired United Church minister and two locally raised priests. The team identified the gifts in their community of preaching, prayer and hospitality. Its needs were centred around a local hospital and high school which flew in patients and students from the surrounding area and a growing number of young families. They harnessed their gifts to serve those needs by creating a visiting prayer ministry at the hospital, a thanksgiving dinner outreach for the high school students and a Messy Church program where young families could gather on Sundays.  

That’s the kind of thinking new clergy will need to be ready for, and the kind she hopes to encourage as president of AST, says McCance. It’s also exactly the kind of collaboration which AST’s ecumenical mix of denominations between its students and staff is suited to encourage, she says. 

“You need leaders who are able to … ask questions, to be able to empower, to make sure people have the skills and the training to do the things that God’s calling them to do and to support them in doing it,” she says, “which I think always will take them past churches where we only show up on Sunday morning for an hour and a half.” 


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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