A Collaborative Ministry in East Central Ontario Region (ECORC) – by Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Cunningham
I am the minister to the collaborative ministry of five rural United Church congregations in Eastern Ontario called the United Community Ministry (UCM). There were six churches initially, with two churches recently amalgamating. Officially sanctioned by the East Central Ontario Region (ECORC) in the summer of 2018, the UCM held its inaugural worship service on Sept 9, 2018. At this first worship service, in a symbolic action, each church brought a jar of water from their local streams to be blended as one. Each church returned to their sanctuaries and those jars of water are found there today, reminding them of the ‘tie that binds’, where once they were six separate entities, but now, in spirit and ministry, they are one.
The UCM is overseen by a Council made up of two representatives from each member church. There is a Chair of the Council who is in many ways, the ‘champion’ of the project. This person draws up the worship schedule – which is a considerable assignment, given that it involves scheduling in the minister, and a complement of Licensed Lay Worship Leaders to fill out the rotational schedule. On any given Sunday, one person preaches at two churches, another preaches at two churches, and one at one church. There is a part-time paid Team Administrator (12 to 15 hrs/wk) who is responsible for UCM Communications, including a Newsletter, maintenance of the Website (www.ucministry.ca) and Facebook page, and video editing and posting of the weekly worship service offered by the minister.
So why did these churches do all this? Because in 2015, the Kawartha Highlands Presbytery held several ‘chat initiatives,’ inviting clusters of geographically approximate congregations to come together and talk about shared ministry options. The Presbytery was searching for viable ways to encourage congregations to share their resources, knowing that together they can accomplish more. And so, these six churches came together in an act of hope. And, as their called minister, I partner in that hope as I minister to these churches that said yes to change, that said yes to opportunity.
To continue building relationship between the member churches, there are joint worship services held throughout the year, often in sync with church seasons, i.e., Advent, Lent, Worldwide Communion Sunday. The services are hosted in turn by the member churches.
Built into the Minister’s position description is an invaluable 20% designation of time to be put towards observing what is happening in and around the UCM churches, and in their communities. This, I believe, is at the heart of the Call.
Ministering to a collaborative ministry can be an isolating venture. Most of my colleagues are in single point churches and have not had the experience of the complexity of ministering to so many churches. It is essential that there is support in the Region for these ministers, to offer an ear to listen, and to provide support as needed.
Is collaborative ministry a glorified palliative ministry? Do the churches join a collaborative as a last gasp, a ‘do this or die’ resolution? Or do churches join because they are excited to be part of something different but risky, that just might provide an answer to the church that is struggling to find a way forward? Will collaboratives last longer than a few years? How many clergy are out there that find this to be their ‘cup of tea’? Or is it, as someone said, a good way to burn out a good minister?