Like any good story, the one of Karen Hilfman Millson’s journey is laced with themes — hers including compassion for community, living with purpose, and ministry.
The latter is among the most interesting, for a number of reasons. Becoming a minister wasn’t a childhood dream.
“I didn’t have a lot of experiences with the church as a child, and the ones I had are not fond memories,” she said.
Growing up in Toronto, she was in a children’s choir at church. When she was three years old, the kids’ choir was following an adult choir down the aisle. When the last adult member got to the front, the gate was closed, blocking the children from going where the grown-ups were headed.
“That just totally and completely astonished me — that there could be places that some people could go and places that other people couldn’t go, that everybody wasn’t included. At three years old, I was so ticked off,” she recalled.
At another church, Bibles were being handed out to kids during Sunday school, but the teacher said they’d only be given to children who were regular attendees of church.
“I looked around and I knew that meant I was the only kid in the class who wasn’t going to get a Bible. I was again horrified,” Hilfman Millson said. “How can this place that says it’s about community and caring for one another do this to people?”
When her family moved to the Acton area, they were heavily involved in the church, but a “disruption” that led to the minister leaving his post prompted her parents to leave the church.
Hilfman Millson stayed. She became a junior elder and a Sunday school teacher.
She was 15 years old when she had a “sense of call” that her work would eventually involve some sort of teaching, and being with people in times of sorrow and joy.
She had always wanted to be a teacher, but it wasn’t until shortly after she married in 1980 that she learned what that work would entail.
She felt a call to ministry, though she didn’t know anything about how one became a minister.
At the time, she and her husband had a small woodworking business and she was working at a John Deere dealership. They closed their business, and Hilfman Millson went to seminary school, where she earned her second master’s degree. She already had one in theatre, specializing in directing.
Those two passions played a role together in her ministry, including the 17-and-a-half years she spent at St. Paul’s United Church — now commonly referred to as St. Paul’s Centre — in Orillia, where she and musical director Blair Bailey put on a variety of productions.
She became a senior minister at St. Paul’s in January 1996.
“I felt really drawn to Orillia,” she said. “I was standing on the shores of Lake Simcoe and I felt this voice booming toward me that said, ‘I call you to this place.’”
She was driven to focus not only on the congregation, but the community as a whole. That included partnering with groups and individuals to provide programs at St. Paul’s and hosting a weekly “wisdom circle,” which led to the creation of Transition Town Orillia.
“That congregation has had that focus for a long time. I fit them well. It wasn’t like I was coming with a new idea,” Hilfman Millson said.
She wanted to offer people something other than the traditional worship style, so she provided small group ministry focusing on different topics, making it more of a coffeehouse style. It drew people from beyond the congregation.
“The ministry of Jesus was always about reaching out to the community around him. It was never just about the 12 men that have been identified that followed him, along with all the multitude of women,” she explained.
“The ‘kindom’ of God — I don’t call it kingdom — or heaven on earth is what we’re about. It’s not about doing things now so that we get into heaven. It’s about creating a place on earth that takes into consideration the well-being of all, where we build relationships that are healthy, where we encourage and support each other," said Hilfman Millson.
Just as one receives a call to provide ministry at a certain place, there is a call to leave. Hilfman Millson felt that call in 2011, and she left St. Paul’s two years later. She noted it isn’t common in the United Church of Canada for ministers to stay in one spot for as long as she did.
“I continuously felt called to stay there. There was work I was supposed to do and ministry that I was supposed to be engaged in, and I needed to stay,” she said.
As the years went on, her head was telling her it was time to go because of how long she’d been there, so she used prayer for guidance.
“The answer I got was, ‘Stop asking. I will tell you when it’s time to leave,’” she said.
Her final Sunday at the helm of St. Paul’s was April 7, 2013. She had no idea what was next for her.
She ended up becoming a consultant for congregations within the United Church of Canada, teaching people about “circle culture” — largely based on the small group ministry she provided at St. Paul’s — to help them identify their visions and ideas.
“What I discovered is when you can get people into that place of deep, profound connection to who they authentically are and create a safe enough space for them to show up as who they authentically are, then there is an opportunity to tap into great wisdom and great creativity, and you can see the world through a whole different lens,” she said.
Her work was well received, which didn’t necessarily surprise her because “the chance to be in significant and meaningful conversations is a deep longing that we have in our humanity, and people love the chance to be in those circles.”
A common outcome from those with whom she consulted was a desire to reach out to the broader community, and that could be just what churches need.
“That kind of focusing on the community does make it more relevant to people and allows the church to be responsive to people’s needs,” Hilfman Millson said. “I don’t know that it’s going to save the church, but this shift is a life-giving, healthy shift. The church that we’ve known will shift, but the essence of the church will still be here.”
She then joined the staff with a regional council of the United Church of Canada and continued to put her skills and experience with circle culture to work.
Her final four months before retiring at the end of 2021 were spent working on a legacy project — developing a resource for communities of faith to determine their visions, and the circles are a big part of that.
Hilfman Millson’s own philosophies and attitude helped her through a challenging time. On July 23, 2020, she was diagnosed with cancer, but she described a few foreboding experiences.
On May 24 of that year, she had a feeling of “beginning to cross over.”
“I protested,” she said. “My protest was I needed to stay and live the way of love. So, the crossover didn’t happen.”
A month later, she had “a clearer and more profound” experience.
“I was awakened at about two in the morning by the very, very strong cry of a cardinal. I woke up, and what I realized was that it felt like I was disintegrating and that I was heading over again,” she said.
“I had this profound experience of the ones that had been there on May 24 leading me over. I refer to them as the angels and ancestors. I protested and said, ‘I don’t want to go. I want to stay.’ I was told, ‘If you want to stay, you’ve got to go out and play.’”
She didn’t immediately know what that meant.
After the cancer diagnosis, those angels and ancestors gave her the “option to leave,” telling her she didn’t have to go through it.
Thanks, but no thanks.
“I want to go through my pilgrimage with cancer using the principles and practices that I talk about with circle culture that I describe in my book, The Mended Mirror,” she said. “I want to confirm for myself that I can live those principles and practices even when I go through what’s considered to be one of the worst diagnoses you can get.”
She chose to be open about it, too, sharing her story through Facebook updates. She wasn’t willing to keep quiet about it like many did in the past and continue to do.
“There’s a sense of shame connected to having cancer, and shame is such a low-energy way of being in the world. I thought, ‘I’m not buying into that,’” she said.
She received a surprising number of messages from people on Facebook, sharing their stories and asking for help because they weren’t reaching out to anyone else.
“It shocked me how much it was true that people don’t talk about having cancer,” she said.
Hilfman Millson, who will turn 66 in February, is now in remission.
“I feel as though I’m healed. I feel better right now in my life than I have in 10 years,” she said.
And, there are no more crossover feelings in the middle of the night.
Her plans in retirement include continuing to take care of her health and well-being and going on hikes with her grandkids.
She also wants to write a book about her experience with cancer, hold a book launch for The Mended Mirror, which was delayed because of the pandemic and cancer, speak to local groups and continue to provide guidance within the United Church of Canada about circle culture and authentic self-connection.
She will also heed the words of the angels and ancestors who told her, “If you want to stay, you’ve got to go out and play.”
For Hilfman Millson, that means being out in nature.
“I know that I need time alone in nature to recharge,” she said.
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