Changing Church: Ann Landaas Smith, Co-Founder and Director, Circle Connections

Ann Landaas Smith

       God is Not a Single Parent

         Father God, Creator of us all. How long will we see you as a single parent?
Send your loving wisdom to fill our hearts and minds with new words of inclusivity.
Open our eyes to see images that nurture and heal our brokenness. Grant us courage
       and your freedom to try new words that restore balance in our relationships.
                 And like baby swans being guarded and cared for by both parents,
                                   let the wholeness of you be illuminated in us. 
                                        Mother, Father, Creator of us all.  Amen

This is one of the prayers by Ann Smith in Women’s Uncommon Prayers: Our Lives Revealed, Nurtured, Celebrated. When she was director of Women in Mission and Ministry for the Episcopal Church USA, Ann wrote this collection of prayers with other Episcopal women.

Ann was raised in the Episcopal church; her vocational life has also included work with ecumenical and interfaith groups. As director of Global Education Associates for many years, she worked with Catholic sisters and the Religious Orders partnership with over 150 orders of nuns.

Currently Ann Smith is director of Circle Connections, whose stated mission is “to bring the gift of women’s sacred circles and Circle Leadership worldwide; caring for ourselves, one another and Mother Earth.” She has co-authored Stories from the Circle and Women Prints; created the United Nations Women Circles Campaign; co-produced and co-hosted Circle Connections radio show; co-facilitated the Indigenous Women’s Pathways program in Alaska, where Native Alaskan women have gone from victims to leaders; served on the board of Interfaith Action, working on behalf of farmworkers; and served as a board member of Happehatchee Center, an eco-spirituality place in Florida. As a mentor, educator, consultant, professional speaker, creator of circle leadership programs, and trainer, Ann also hosts and facilitates circle events and gives presentations on such topics as “The Magnificence of Circle: Experiencing the Power of the Circle Model,” “Circle Leadership: All are Leaders,” “Co-Creating Sustainable Communities,” and “Divine Feminine: The Greatest Power for Bringing Balance.”

Ann’s previous leadership of the Episcopal Women in Mission and Ministry helped form her belief in the power of the Divine Feminine. In this position she met feminist Christians influenced by Mary Daly’s work on God as Mother and by many other expansive theologians. Ann comments: “Before, I had worked in the secular world for several feminist organizations on behalf of women’s empowerment and equality, but this position as director of women’s ministries gave me an international and a national position to call together women leaders. It also connected me to the worldwide ecumenical women’s movement. We created and facilitated Episcopal women’s experiential leadership programs that included feminist theology and inclusive language. The Women of Vision leadership program trained presenters around the world. The more She, the Divine Feminine, was evoked, the greater the feelings of believing in ourselves as women leaders. We saw ourselves as whole and powerful.”

Thus, Ann led the Episcopal Women in Mission and Ministry to include the Divine Feminine in all programs, publications, and activities. “We illuminated and celebrated the Divine Feminine in everything we presented: leadership programs; international, national, and local gatherings; the Journal of Women’s Ministries magazine; the women’s round calendar; the highly successful book Women’s Uncommon Prayers: Our Lives Revealed, Nurtured and Celebrated; and as a strong presence in our national church and international Anglican Communion,” Ann recounts. “We were the first UN NGO (United Nations non-governmental organization) delegation of the Anglican Communion to attend a UN conference made up of US and Kenyan women to the UN 3rd World Conference on Women. We illuminated the Divine Feminine in everything we did locally and globally through words, symbols, art, creative enactments, and spiritual activism.  We partnered with our ecumenical sisters through the World Council of Churches and the United Nations.”

For seventeen years in her position as director of Women in Mission and Ministry for the Episcopal Church, Ann continued this expansive, progressive work. “Fortunately, the conservative men—bishops and powerful laymen—paid little attention to what we, the women of the church, were doing,” Ann recalls. “We were celebrating the Divine Feminine, creating sacred circles, circle leadership, and coming together in a sacred sisterhood as both liberal and conservative women. We were undermining the patriarchy as we co-created new ways to be with one another. We became a powerful force that when realized, I was fired.”

During the devastating time after she was fired from her position with the Episcopal Church, Ann found strength in relationships and through taking part in the Millionth Circle Initiative. “When I was fired, I went into shock and felt as though I lost my baby,” she recalls. “It was a terrible time of despair similar in feeling to when my infant son died. It was my dear friend The Rev. Ginny Doctor, a Mohawk leader in the church, who helped me the most by including me in her life and work with Native American and Alaskan women’s leadership programs. This was my salvation, as well as keeping my steadfast belief in circle which led me to Jean Shinoda Bolen and the beginning of the Millionth Circle Initiative.”

With Jean Shinoda Bolen and other women, Ann Smith co-founded the Millionth Circle Initiative. The name “Millionth Circle” refers to the circle whose formation tips the scales and shifts world consciousness by bringing “values of relationship, nurturing, and interdependency into a global culture in which hierarchy, conflict and competition, power over others and exploitation of the earth’s resources are dominant values.” The phrase comes from Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book The Millionth Circle: How to Change Ourselves and The World. One of the stated goals of the Millionth Circle is “to seed and nurture circles, wherever possible, in order to cultivate equality, sustainable livelihoods, preservation of the earth and peace for all.”

Ann’s work with the Millionth Circle, the “mother circle” organization, led to her co-founding of Circle Connections to teach circle principles and provide consultation on creating circle groups. “I co-founded Circle Connections to promote and help others start and connect circles with the dream that circle structures will replace hierarchies in organizations and the millionth circle will bring about a tipping point of peace and justice for all creation,” Ann says. “I call myself a circle evangelist.” When working as the executive director of a global think tank, Ann brought circle-based resources to such initiatives as Earth Child Project that is now a UN NGO, Native American women’s leadership programs, and the AFRUS-AIDS coalition of global religious and secular women’s organizations working together to stop the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

These circle groups symbolize the Divine Feminine, according to Ann: “Sacred circles are the Divine Feminine, the holy vessel, the womb, the sacred container that births and nurtures our growth, empowerment, collaborative work, worship, celebrations, deep listening, wisdom, and spiritual activism.”

Ann points out how vital female divine symbols are for our world: “They help us as a people, as a global society, learn equality between male and female and that all creation is sacred. When enough people worship the Divine Feminine—as sacred, as God—the rape of women, sex trafficking, and all forms of violence against women and girls and the land will end. The majority of us on Mother Earth have grown up and lived with the ‘old story’ that defined God as male and women less than men in knowing the Divine. The ‘old story’ separated us, ranking white over people of color, men over women, straight over gay, people over nature. People and the environment continue to be exploited with this perceived worldview of having less value, a commodity to be used by those with the power over others. Hierarchies maintain this means of power over. This ‘old story’ is destroying our planet.”

Including the Divine Feminine along with the Divine Masculine, Ann believes, creates a “new story” of equality and care for all creation. “We are co-creating a ‘new story’ that balances the Divine Masculine with the Divine Feminine. This is happening all over the world. This is the good news that seldom is heard in the media. Paul Hawken in his book Blessed Unrest documents how this new story is being lived out and is the largest movement in the history of the world. It is grassroots; it is small circles co-creating a better world from the bottom up.”

In order to create this better world, Ann stays in the church to change it. She believes that bringing the Divine Feminine to the church will change the wider culture because of the profound influence of religion on the culture. “Religion dictates how we define and worship God and because this belief has been engrained in all of us, it has the greatest influence on the wider culture. With the belief that God is only male, the old story that justifies the domination and exploitation of women and all of creation continues.”

To illustrate her relationship with the church, Ann cites Defecting in Place: Women Taking Responsibility for Their Own Spiritual Lives, by Miriam Therese Winter, a Roman Catholic sister; Adair Lummis, an Episcopal laywoman; and Allison Stokes, a United Church of Christ pastor. Ann identifies with the women in the book who stay in the church by forming spirituality circles to celebrate the Divine Feminine. “Women’s spirituality movement is growing exponentially circle by circle. This is for women who have left the church and for others, such as myself, the place we find most welcoming. When in circle the women, both conservative and liberal, feel free to express ourselves using God the Mother, Sophia, and She in worship and all interactions.”

Ann says she also finds inspiration and strength through her involvement in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross (SCHC), a national Episcopal women’s organization. “Our local chapter is a women’s sacred circle made up of clergy and laywomen. This past spring, we hosted the SCHC conference, a three-day retreat held in a sacred circle. It was inspiring and meaningful to all who attended.”

Although Ann celebrates the many women now in leadership positions in the Episcopal Church, she laments the exclusively male language for God in worship services. “In the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion we have women bishops, and we have a woman who is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA,” Ann states. “However, most churches still use God the Father in liturgical services, prayers, and hymns. There still is not a balance of the Divine Feminine and Masculine, so much work is still needed to make this happen.”

This work continues also through a new program, a social entrepreneurial collaborative, that Ann is creating in partnership with Laurie McCammon and Cheryl Gould. This program will illuminate and celebrate the Divine Feminine in all creation, balancing the Divine Feminine and Masculine to bring equality, reverence and justice for all. The program will offer leadership training, collaboration opportunities, tools and facilitation to groups and individuals to catalyze the shift from a “never enough” culture to that of an “enough” culture. “Our intention is to bring about a change at the source level—in the cultural norms that reinforce violence, overconsumption, and exploitation,” Ann states. “We will do this by fostering a culture of ‘enough’ which cultivates peace, unity and respect for nature and all people. We will offer circle training, inspiring films, tools for self- realization, communication and group process skills, and a number of optional entrepreneurial and fundraising tools to make any cause, organization, or group more financially sustainable. We believe in a world of Enough, that should be easy and joyful to create when we work together with the highest integrity and purest intention. This program will be for those inside the church, those who have left the church, the women’s religious, spiritual, and secular movements, and will serve to unite movements. A book and website are forthcoming for early in 2013, and a global rally for Mothers Day 2013.”

Change will come and is coming to church and society, Ann believes. She articulates her hopeful vision for the future. “By each one working within and outside the church we will bring about the new story: the Divine Feminine and Masculine worshiped and lived out in everything we do. This is happening, so all we need to do is keep on believing and acting that we are already bringing about real change, find a circle of like-minded people, and co-create the new.”

To learn more about Ann Smith’s creative, prophetic work see:

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