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Hugh Wesley

The R word

Regionalized churches may be the way of the future. So why does the idea make everyone squeamish?

By Chantal Braganza

There’s no rumour yet of an empty tomb,” Rev. Bruce Ervin says to me over lunch at a Tim Hortons. Though the minister of Knox Agincourt United in Scarborough, Ont., is an eloquent speaker, his answer is more than cryptic — it’s downright confusing. All I’d asked was what he thought about church regionalization. Then again, the concept itself isn’t that simple, either.

According to some, regionalization is the future of the United Church — and lies tucked away in the meeting notes and annual reports of two Presbyteries in suburban Toronto. By now the idea is more than five years old, and no one really talks about it. Not that it’s secret. The concept of regionalization — consolidating churches and resources over large areas — has popped up in Presbyteries across Canada as a possible solution to declining membership and dwindling finances. Though it sounds like amalgamation, regionalization is a little broader, and could mean sharing staff, combining outreach programs or joining an entire region of congregations together. Some say it’s the United Church’s only option for survival. Others think it’s a one-way track to congregational confusion. And Ervin, one of the few willing to talk about it, shrouds his opinion in Bible references.

Ervin first arrived at Knox Agincourt United in 2002. At the time, the Presbytery (then called Scarborough, now Toronto South East) was involved in Spirit Work, a program designed by Scarborough Presbytery to rethink congregational development. One of the phrases that came up repeatedly was “transformative change.”

“That’s nice to put down on paper,” says Ervin over his chili lunch, “but what would that look like?” Some participants of the ongoing program started toying with the idea of physical restructure, he says.

“We’re not really 20 separate congregations in this Presbytery,” he says. “We are The United Church of Canada in Scarborough, engaged in ministry at 20 different sites.” Maybe, a few Spirit Work members thought, some things could be consolidated: deploy more staff to fewer sites; synchronize programming; close some churches and build bigger ones.

Eventually, Spirit Work participants took their idea to the Toronto United Church Council (TUCC), a development organization for United churches in the Toronto area. Executive director Rev. Vince Alfano had already been thinking about it. “If you’re in a congregation with 20 people,” says Alfano, “and you want to study Scripture or do Meals on Wheels or whatever, where do you get the people to do it?” He was intrigued by a possible solution in Melbourne, Australia, that seemed to be working. Called the Northern Community Church of Christ, this regionalization project of the Uniting Church of Australia also refers to itself as the “one church with many congregations.” The church building now accommodates eight independent congregations and multiple outreach programs in one facility. Alfano immediately saw the advantage. TUCC and Spirit Work established a task force in the spring of 2005, which Ervin chaired, and a kind of travelling road show was set up.

For almost 50 years, United churches in the urban and suburban pockets of Canada had a pretty straightforward life. From the 1930s onward, churches were built for neighbourhoods; their members worked, shopped and worshipped locally. But in recent decades, once-dense United Church populations have dispersed throughout cities and their suburbs. Individual neighbourhoods no longer have the United Church member concentrations to support a church, or any single faith community for that matter. “Once you undergo the kind of demographic shift that Scarborough went through, there’s such a cultural mix,” says Ervin.  

 A TUCC report, “The Regional Church,” suggests that though regional churches would be bigger, featuring more worship space, more programs, more staff and more parking, they wouldn’t necessarily be more generic. Alfano also notes that unlike amalgamation, individual congregations wouldn’t necessarily have to disband in the face of regionalization: as in Australia, they could continue to meet, worship and work together — just under a shared roof.

As the travelling road show made its way through Scarborough, Ervin says congregations seemed to be buying in: members smiled and nodded at some of the different regional models proposed. Among them was a large church with one congregation, a condo-style church with multiple congregations (like in Melbourne), a central church with satellite stations or multiple churches sharing one staff.

“People could see the practicality of the idea,” he says. “And taking words at face value, it seemed like some were willing to entertain the notion of letting go of their buildings and moving into this regional concept. But then we talked to the Presbytery.” That’s where, according to Ervin, things went off the rails — both in the autumn of 2005 and again in early 2006. Scarborough Presbytery compiled a list of congregational objections to the project — 26 items long — that had been voiced at Presbytery meetings. Among the issues (including job losses, a perceived lack of financial resources and inadequate clergy training) was one overwhelming concern: fear of losing identity. The results were enough to put the regionalization effort in a permanent state of limbo.

In fairness, Ervin admits that the regionalization task force may have come up short: “Maybe folks thought it was all about building a mega-church,” something like those evangelical behemoths of the United States and South Korea.

“In a sense, it would have been a theologically liberal megachurch,” says Ervin, “but focused on offering programs that would meet the spiritual and social needs of the community. Not an emphasis on empire building or a multimillion-dollar sound system.”

In the four years since Toronto Conference dropped the project, talk of regionalization has sort of faded away. But the issues facing the United Church that brought this plan about certainly haven’t. York Presbytery (covering another suburb of Toronto) and the TUCC worked on a similar plan in 2005, but to no avail. A plot of land was even purchased in Markham, Ont., which at 20 acres would have been the largest denominational property in the conference. It has since been sold to housing developers.

Last fall, Fraser Valley Presbytery in southern British Columbia hired a consultant to draw up a report on the performance of its churches over the past 15 years. The results, though somewhat expected, were discouraging: declining membership, increasing debt. The only steadfast number? Their 27 church buildings, which almost doubled that of any other Christian denomination in the area. The report suggested a regionalization plan very similar to those proposed in Scarborough and Markham — and met with a very similar response: “Great idea, but it’s not for us.”

Should the R word be brought back to the forefront? Despite everything, Alfano hopes that regionalization will see the light of day. “Frankly,” he says, “I think it’s the only option we have. In certain communities we are over-churched with inadequate facilities.”

And then there’s Ervin’s cryptic answer: “Regionalization has been long in the grave, and there’s no rumour yet of an empty tomb.” On my way home from that Tim Hortons, it takes me a while to understand what he means. Sure, congregations may not be ready right now to resurrect an idea that might mean the closing of their church. But when they are, if they are, it may also mean hope for new life.

Author's photo
Chantal Braganza is a writer and editor in Toronto. Her blog posts will appear every second Friday of the month.
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