The United Church of Canada is shrinking rapidly, but its national office is rolling out an ambitious new plan in hopes of charting a different course.
Approved by the General Council Executive on Nov. 18, the strategic operational plan promises to create 100 new communities of faith — with a special focus on migrant churches.
“We’re going to lead with a growth perspective,” Rev. Michael Blair, the United Church’s general secretary, told Broadview.
In addition to building migrant communities of faith — and through calibrating demographic information and community needs — the plan will target other key sectors of the population, including francophones, young adults, people with disabilities and intercultural communities. The national office also intends to work with the Indigenous Church to invest in growth animators, with an eye to launching church plants and online ministries. Strategies of experimentation and collaborative outreach with communities will be front and centre.
The strategic operational plan aims to guide the denomination’s work for the next three years. Blair said that the plan also pledges to renew existing communities of faith and to strengthen the institutional church’s invitation to the public.
Along the way, it will be guided by other tenets, like climate change, leadership and the common good, but growth is the overarching goal.
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The hope is to turn around a trend of steep decline. According to data released on Oct. 26, the latest census shows that United Church affiliation, at 3.3 percent of the Canadian population in 2021, has dropped sharply in the last decade, down from 6.2 percent in 2011. That means that 1.2 million people claimed United Church affiliation last year, compared to roughly two million people in 2011.
“We’ve never seen it as stark as these numbers have put it,” Blair said. But he also insisted that the numbers “aren’t surprising,” stating that there has always been a gulf between active members and those claiming affiliation. The United Church had just under 400,000 members on the books in 2019.
The figures relating to affiliation are likely “more realistic now,” he added, noting that many of the people who claim affiliation may not have attended a United church in many years. He also said he thinks that some don’t want to claim affiliation with the United Church after findings of unmarked graves were announced in June 2021 and that deaths from COVID-19 may have affected the numbers.
The strategic operational plan — to be put in effect between 2023 and 2025 — was in the cards well before the census data was out. In 2021, General Council staff set a “call and vision,” followed by strategic objectives.
The plan’s progress will be monitored monthly, with set benchmarks and quarterly key results.
On Nov. 19, the General Council Executive approved a recommended deficit operating budget for 2023 to the tune of up to $4 million — with up to $1.5 million per year being invested in the plan.
Blair is planning to direct some of those funds to sharing the news of the church beyond its own dwindling membership. The United Church needs to invite those who have left the denomination to reconsider it as an option, he said, adding that it’s more relevant today than it was in the past.
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A recent communications audit of the General Council office revealed that “90-plus percentage of our communication is to ourselves,” he shared. He wants the church to focus on telling its stories to a broader public that is often wholly unaware of what the denomination is about.
Some of the early initiatives emerging out of the strategic plan will also focus on responding to a perceived immigrant need for community. The United Church of Canada is building connections to the United Zimbabwean Methodist Church, for example, and looking to support a new church plant underway in Yellowknife, says Emo Yango, identity and mission network coordinator for the General Council office.
Other cross-country initiatives are also in the works, with plans to roll out the welcome mat for Hong Kong and francophone African immigrants, among others, on the lookout for a church home.
Éric Daly-Hebert, General Council’s head of French ministries, cites La Mission Protestante Francophone de Toronto in the north end of Toronto as modelling what the strategic plan is hoping to achieve elsewhere in the country. “It’s not the shortest name in the world, but it captures the essence of what is necessary to be a landing place for a lot of francophone African migrants,” he said. “And that’s because it’s a soft landing place. It’s a safe, linguistically and culturally relevant place when they’re surrounded by what’s foreign to them.” The community of faith didn’t exist five years ago, he adds, but it’s now seeing between 80 and 100 people on a Sunday morning.
Blair is hedging the success of the plan on the continued growth of Canada’s immigrant populations. While the recent census didn’t parse the data on religious affiliation according to race or ethnicity, it reported growth among all racialized groups in Canada — with South Asian, Black and Chinese people representing roughly 16 percent of the country’s population in 2021.
“You have this influx of people from other parts of the world who faith still means something to them,” Blair said, adding that the plan will be “inviting them to consider the United Church in new ways. There’s some creative thinking we’re doing around that.”
Rather than view the precipitous decline in affiliation as sounding a death knell for the church, Blair is treating it as an opportunity.
“Being church requires lots more flexibility, lots more trying to figure things out rather than we know what’s happening,” he says, “And so I think in some ways, the decline is a wake-up call to the church to reimagine what it means to be church,” Blair says.
With files from Emma Prestwich
Julie McGonegal is an associate editor at Broadview.
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