Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Amalgamation of congregations in Edmonton provides more evidence of the continuing decline of the United Church of Canada

Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. II Timothy 3:5

As reported by Gordon Kent in the Edmonton Journal, September 29, 2016 (bold, link in original):

Two United Church buildings are being sold and four congregations have merged in another sign of the challenges Edmonton religious institutions face surviving in mature neighbourhoods.

South Edmonton members of Canada’s largest Protestant denomination say they needed to take steps to deal with aging facilities and shrinking numbers.

“Dwindling congregation members bring in less money. It makes it harder for us to meet all our monthly expenses,” Pleasantview United Church board chairperson Pat Williams says.

“Over the last seven years, things have just progressed to the point where we found it’s no longer viable for us to try to function on our own.”

Pleasantview and Ritchie United Churches closed and started worshipping jointly with colleagues at Avonmore United Church last January following two years’ of discussions.

Knox-Metropolitan United Church joined them in July.

They’re meeting at the Avonmore church, 7909 82 Ave., under the banner of the United on Whyte Pastoral Charge, although Williams says the name could change by the time work to form a single organization out of the four separate legal entities is completed.

Pleasantview’s head count on a typical Sunday had dropped to 25 to 30 people before they closed the building’s doors, she says.

She remembers multiple choirs, golf nights, potluck dinners and other popular social events during the vibrant days when she joined Pleasantview United, 10672 62 Ave., more than 25 years ago.

By the end, the youth group was only composed of a few university students.

“It’s going on throughout churches everywhere,” Williams says.

“We went from a church that had lots of family-oriented things … to where there were just so few people who were interested in that.”

Different religions, same problem

The problems at Pleasantview, opened in 1953, are shared by mainstream churches across Canada. Only 27 per cent of Canadians identified themselves as Protestant in 2011, down from 41 per cent 40 years earlier, and the number of Roman Catholics and Anglicans also declined.

Over the past 15 years, nine of about 45 Catholic parishes in the greater Edmonton area have shut down and merged with their neighbours, says Lorraine Turchansky, communications director for the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton.

There are also two sets of twinned churches, each served by the same office staff and a single pastor.

“In the case of some of the older parishes, it’s not unlike what we see happening with the schools, where the population is aging (and) the parish population is diminishing,” Turchansky says.

“We find that in the newer neighbourhoods it’s the opposite, where the population is much younger and growing.”

Three new Catholic churches have been constructed over the same period, mainly large structures in the suburbs where the congregation is more likely to drive than walk.

For example, Corpus Christi, opened this year in Mill Woods, has pews for 1,500 and cost $16 million to build.

“If you want to call it a catchment area, like you would with a school, people from a wider area would go to those churches now,” Turchansky says.

“It’s fairly expensive to build churches, so we have to keep than in mind as well … There are economies of scale to be considered.”

Although the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton says it’s doing well and isn’t expecting to shut any local churches, it was forced to sell crumbling St. Stephen’s on 96 Street six years ago.

Merging four churches into one is a first in Canada

Amalgamating United Church parishes isn’t unusual — 10 churches were initially part of the discussions about how to remain viable.

But Pleasantview’s Williams says four of the denomination’s congregations have never been combined in Canada before, so the national organization is watching the results.

“It’s an interesting experience to meld first of all three, and then a fourth one, but it’s an exciting experience. We’re burning a path, I guess, for the United Church. We have a lot of eyes on us to see how this works.”

An offer from a developer is pending on the Pleasantview half-acre property, listed for sale at $1.6 million.

Trustees have also accepted a developer’s conditional offer for 73-year-old Knox-Metropolitan church, 8307 109 St., which has an asking price of $4.2 million.

Proceeds from these two deals will be held locally in a special “futures fund” to help others in the city. While details are still being worked out, the fund is intended to continue the legacy of the four congregations, says Susan Bramm, vice-chairperson of the Knox-Metropolitan board.

The Ritchie site, 9624 74 Ave., isn’t being sold. It was transferred to the growing Edmonton Korean United Church, which is moving out of Avonmore, the newest of the four structures.

“There are certainly some uncertainties, particularly those people for whom getting to the location had already posed a challenge,” she says, estimating 80 to 100 members went to weekly services in the 300-seat church before it closed in June.

“This provided an opportunity for them to explore opportunities closer to their home.”

About 100 to 120 people now attend United on Whyte.

Furniture, hymn books, a baptismal font and other precious items from each facility are being taken to Avonmore to maintain links with the past.

This includes five of Knox-Metropolitan’s 29 stained glass windows — others are for sale or already have purchasers, such as the beautiful floral octagon facing 109 Street bought for $7,000 for a St. Albert United Church being constructed in 2018.

While Bramm says there’s grieving, she thinks the move was for the best.

“It’s really about the future … Look at it as a unique opportunity to come together with a common purpose and vision.”

Pleasantview’s Williams agrees there weren’t any options.

“Personally, I’m sad to leave my building, I’m sad to have lost a lot of our church family going in different directions, but I’m finding it really exciting,” she says.

“It’s nice to go where there are children. We haven’t had young children for Sunday school for a long time.”
And as reported by Rachel Ward in the Edmonton Journal, September 13, 2015:

Shrinking congregations and coffers have prompted members of five United churches near Whyte Avenue to consider coming together in one building.

Kevin Gue, treasurer for Knox-Metropolitan United Church on 109th Street, said his congregation will meet Oct. 4 to vote on what to do with its 75-year-old building and its octagonal stained glass windows. It is not a heritage building, he said.

“This is a massive piece of infrastructure that’s aging,” Gue said after Sunday service. “Do you apply more money to an old, aging building or do you apply it to programming and ministry?”

The other churches are Pleasantview United Church on 62nd Avenue, Ritchie United Church on 74th Avenue and Avonmore United Church, which shares a Whyte Avenue building with Edmonton Korean United Church. Knox-Metropolitan representatives spoke Sunday on behalf of the churches through the South Side Churches Joint Planning Council.

This “innovative” idea of all the churches relocating into one building could free up scarce resources, Gue said, and help them focus on further developing faith and social justice.

“As long as we’re fixing the roof, we’re not doing that,” he said.

The church is “making ends meet,” Knox-Metropolitan board co-chairwoman Cathy Martin said, but “it’s probably not going to be sustainable for the long term.”

The church cut a youth worker job and warned in its last annual report the reserve fund would be depleted in four years. In recent years it also paid about $30,000 to re-enforce the gymnasium roof and about $5,000 to repair the outside stucco siding, she said.

They’re starting to plan now while the finances are stable, she said.

“With any change, there’s excitement and anxiety,” Martin said. “But the thing is, we get to decide how we handle that.”

The five churches hope to have a decision by January 2016, a deadline Martin said her congregation fully supports.

“Their legacy is much more than a building,” Martin said of the congregation that dates back to 1892. “Their legacy has been their faith.”
The recent events come as no surprise to this blogger, and are a continuation of a half-century of decline for the United Church of Canada, whose membership peaked in 1965. The United Church began losing members within a couple of years of introducing a new Sunday School Curriculum; see my post 50 years ago: United Church of Canada unveils Sunday School curriculum denying the truth of the Bible (August 1, 2014).

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