It’s been a while since St. George, Hastings was full for an Evensong service, but that was the case on Sept. 25 as about 70 people crowded into its pews to celebrate the start of a new regional ministry, one of the first in the diocese.
“It was lovely,” says the Rev. Canon Brad Smith, incumbent of St. John the Evangelist, Peterborough, recalling the service. “It was very energetic and joyful. It was a reflection of what we’re trying to do with regional ministry – to collaborate with other parishes.”
The congregation was made up of representatives from all of the churches taking part in the regional ministry – St. John the Evangelist, Havelock, Christ Church, Norwood, St. Michael, Westwood, St. George, Hastings, St. James, Roseneath, Christ Church, Campbellford and St. John the Evangelist, Peterborough. The churches are located on the eastern side of the diocese.
After the service, there was a dinner where people from the churches got to know each other. “Most of the people sat with others they hadn’t met before and there was a real sense of folks sharing in this together,” says Canon Smith. “The willingness and excitement that people have for doing this – it gives me a lot of hope. It’s a very exciting time.”
The churches started talking about forming a regional ministry in 2019 but the COVID-19 pandemic put those discussions on hold. Dialogue resumed in the spring of 2021 and the vestries voted in favour of it at the beginning of this year, with an official start date of July 1.
Canon Smith describes regional ministry as a partnership between churches, where clergy and laity work as teams to address the ministry needs of whole area, not just their individual parishes. Instead of each church trying to do everything, churches can rely on others for support or provide expertise as they are able.
For churches that are struggling with dwindling attendance, this can be a lifeline, says Canon Smith, who worked in regional ministry in the Diocese of Ontario before coming to the Diocese of Toronto. “Some parishes have 12 people in a church on a Sunday and they’re trying to sustain a cleric and a building, and that’s really hard to do with that number of people. So regionalizing and putting our oars in together means that we may have a renewed lease on life.”
But it’s not just about survival, he adds. “It’s about shifting the focus from how to keep the congregation alive to how can it interact with its community. It takes the focus away from Sunday-type ministry and clergy and says, how do the laity who are left engage with the community?”
The churches in the regional ministry have identified three priorities they’d like to work on together: ministry to families and youth, outreach, and pastoral visiting, particularly to seniors. They’ve already started work on pastoral visiting. St. John the Evangelist, Peterborough has a group of pastoral visitors who hope to recruit and train volunteers in the other churches. The clergy are also working together as a team. In addition to Canon Smith, there is the Rev. Bryce Sangster, incumbent of the Parish of Campbellford, Hastings and Roseneath, and the Rev. Max Dionisio, a newly ordained priest who is serving as the regional ministry’s curate.
Canon Smith says the regional ministry plans to proceed one step at a time and make things work before moving on to the next thing. “It’s very much a learn-as-we-go process. We’re still learning how to work together. But so far, so good. The commitment of the laity is incredible. They want this to work and they’re doing the work to get it off the ground and make it happen.”
Janet Marshall, director of the diocese’s Congregational Development department, says that while regional ministry is relatively new to the Diocese of Toronto, it is common in other parts of Canada and around the world, in all contexts – urban, suburban and rural.
“I think it’s the way of the future – having ministry teams,” she says. “We don’t all have to have the same programs and strengths. We can share that around and participate in each other’s ministries more, and thereby have a much more careful stewardship of the resources entrusted to us.”
She says there are some pragmatic reasons for trying regional ministry as well. “I think it’s a route to building financially sustainable ministries in a time when that is a real concern. We’re coming out of the pandemic and know that there have been losses, and in some cases the decline in church attendance has accelerated. We want to stay in communities, and regionalization is a way of getting imaginative and creative, to really be wise about the stewardship of our resources so that we can afford and sustain ministry in these areas.”
It can be a struggle for churches to find priests, for example, and regionalization provides a solution to that. “With regional ministry, we’re looking at a team of people who can look after more churches together, so it takes some of that burden off every parish needing to afford or find a full-time or part-time priest,” she says. “Regional ministry offers us an alternative way of staffing that can be healthy, creative and affordable.”
It’s also a way of involving the laity in ministry, she adds. “If we do ministry as a region, there could be more volunteers for the programs you want. Each church doesn’t need to find their own volunteers for a program, but rather it can be shared and even expanded. It can stretch our capacity to do ministry.”
She admits that regional ministry could be a major cultural change for the diocese, which is why it is being introduced carefully. “While there are models of regional ministry that we can share, any group of churches considering this needs to do the work for their own context and make it right for themselves, so that they can figure out together, through pray and work and discussion how they can move from the expectations of how churches are supposed to work, to something that can be new.”