New ministry serves children, youth

Group of kids holding up paper lantern crafts.
Participants and coordinator Elaine Vanderwerf show off their lantern crafts
 on August 30, 2023

Parishes work together

A group of parishes in the eastern part of Toronto is banding together in an innovative ministry serving its youngest members. Ignite Family Ministry is a joint effort by the parishes of Scarborough deanery to bring all 13 churches together to offer mid-week children’s and youth ministry.

The idea of joining forces was raised during the pandemic, but nobody had the time to devote to a new project. “We started doing some framework and groundwork without being able to put a real skin and bones to it,” says Denise Byard, the lay pastoral associate for missional outreach and discipleship ministry at Holy Trinity, Guildwood.

Meanwhile, Elaine Vanderwerf was leading family ministries at both St. Timothy, Agincourt and St. Timothy, North Toronto. “During the pandemic, I ended up combining both parishes for Sunday School and for youth group and discovered that when I brought people from two parishes together, we had more people and therefore, in a way, we were able to do more stuff,” she says.

But when the pandemic shifted to allow for a return to in-person gatherings, she realized her two parishes were geographically too far apart to sustain joint ministry. “I was back down to two or three people, which just made it difficult.”

Elaine Vanderwerf

Then, at a clericus meeting in November 2022, the idea for some kind of shared family ministry in Scarborough resurfaced. “One of the clerics who has kids said, ‘You know, as a parent I’m more than happy to drive my kids to any number of programs here and there, and we just do that because it’s part of the gig.’ Church doesn’t offer anything like that, because we operate in individual parish silos,” says the Rev. Canon Gregory Carpenter, the regional dean for Scarborough.

Ms. Vanderwerf, who happened to be attending the meeting of clergy in the deanery, recognized the opportunity. “I said this is something I’ve been starting to think about – could this maybe work at the deanery level?” she says.

Canon Carpenter supported the idea and helped to bring the right people and resources together. “There’s a lot of talented people that are in this deanery doing a lot of really great ministry, but this is new and this is different,” he says. “My role is really about letting the people who really know what they’re talking about do what they do well. It’s a lot of cheerleading.”

He sought the expertise of Ms. Byard, who is familiar with many of the avenues and models of funding for innovative ministry in the diocese. Ms. Byard’s own role at Holy Trinity, Guildwood is funded primarily by a Ministry Allocation Fund grant. She’s also a member of the diocese’s Project Enabling and Monitoring Group, which reviews grant proposals for innovative ministry.

“We want to be able to do something that’s creative, something that’s sustainable and something that’s fair for all,” she says. “I see what a sustainable model looks like. It’s very much patterned after my MAF grant funding strategy.”

The small team re-envisioned the project from a simple, one-time $10,000 request to a three-year, $120,000 initiative. Synod Council approved the grant in full at its meeting in April. The hope is that the parishes in Scarborough deanery will be able to start funding the ministry themselves through contributions in their annual budgets.

In March, just four months after planning got underway, Ignite Family Ministry launched. Its program runs on Wednesday and Thursday evenings every week in two churches at a time, so families can choose the day and location that works best for them, and the ministry isn’t undermining parishes’ existing Sunday offerings.

The kids get to enjoy physical movement, crafts and activities, songs, a bible story and a snack. Officially Ignite caters to kids in grades 3-6, but Ms. Vanderwerf has seen participants from kindergarten to Grade 8.

“For the kids and the families that have been coming, it has been really, really wonderful. The kids love it, meeting friends from other parishes, and just having enough people to make these things actually happen,” she says.

Since parents are driving their kids farther than they might otherwise for a church activity, Ignite also includes a parents’ café to let them meet and talk about their common concerns, with at least one cleric on hand to provide support.

“It’s my hope that as that group of parents really starts to gel that we could do workshops, possibly even bring in a guest speaker to help with pertinent parenting issues. Just giving the parents a place to hang out and chat and support each other and be supported by clergy as well,” says Ms. Vanderwerf.

Four parishes have hosted Ignite so far, with plans for more to come on board in the fall. September will also see the launch of Blaze Youth Ministry, running at the same time and place as Ignite. “Originally I’d thought it would maybe take another year of establishing the children’s portion before we got the youth going, but a lot of the ones who are coming already are in what we would have as our youth bracket,” says Ms. Vanderwerf.

A participant in Ignite Family Ministry with a craft celebrating Jesus as the keystone who makes everything hold together.

Youth will have the chance to earn volunteer hours by leading games or crafts for the kids, but they’ll also have time to build their own community. “They can have slightly more grown-up conversations about issues, really getting into more bible study so they really start to understand scripture themselves,” says Ms. Vanderwerf.

None of the organizers have been particularly surprised by the positive reaction to Ignite. “There is a great hunger for the support of children’s ministry. A lot of families need more support and that underpinning that the Church can naturally give,” says Canon Carpenter. “There’s one family that travels on two buses and spends a whole lot of time getting there because of the value of this. Maybe that’s re-emerging from Covid, but there’s a newfound wanting to build connections.”

The hope is that once parishes see their own children and youth participating in Ignite, they’ll be empowered to create new connections with young people in their neighbourhoods who aren’t currently part of a church community.

This isn’t the first initiative that has seen Scarborough parishes joining forces. Most notably, in June the deanery enjoyed its second Scarborough Steeplechase, a scavenger hunt with teams from many of the parishes and stops at 12 churches. A third installment is in the works for 2024.

Canon Carpenter says he’s deliberately tried to foster a spirit of collaboration and conversation during his time as regional dean. “We’re all trying to be successful, we’re all trying to do our best and to make our mark. But at the same time, we’re part of a larger organization that needs to be able to support each other in the work that we do,” he says.

The formal partnership between parishes has already given new life to their individual children’s ministries. After years of running their own summer camps, this year St. Timothy, Agincourt, Holy Trinity, Guildwood and St. Jude, Wexford joined forces to organize their camps under the Ignite banner, sharing resources and volunteers. “I normally run a camp with a skeleton staff, and Elaine runs a camp,” says Ms. Byard. “Now we have more staff than either of us knows what to do with.”

That renewed energy is something they’d all like to see happen in other deaneries across the diocese. “I’d say go for it! Start having conversations and praying that something could happen, because I think this could be the wave of the future,” says Ms. Vanderwerf.

Canon Carpenter echoes that encouragement. “Don’t be afraid. There are a lot of details, but it’s worth it. I don’t want to make light of the amount of work that it’s been to organize,” he says. “But just having the courage jump in. It might not look exactly the same as in Scarborough, and Scarborough may learn something from other areas in how that unfolds for them.”

Ms. Byard emphasizes that this is just one example of the kind of innovation and structural change that needs to happen across the diocese. “If we don’t invest now, if we don’t invest yesterday, we have nothing to develop tomorrow,” she says. “It’s important to be able to create mental space to grow and to be open to new ways of doing things, because our society is hungry for community and spirituality and faith, but they’re not sure if they can trust the Church.”

Alongside their own efforts, Ignite’s organizers also credit the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in inspiring and energizing this new ministry. “I’ve learned that God can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine, as we pray every week. It’s just been amazing,” says Ms. Vanderwerf. “If God’s really in something, nothing stops him. He brings all the pieces together to make a Kingdom dream happen.”


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