Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Gretzky taught United Church nominee a lesson
He once faced down Wayne Gretzky, so maybe the Rev. Jeff Cook is ready for the challenges facing the United Church of Canada.
Cook, co-pastor with his wife, Rev. Carol Fletcher, of Transcona Memorial United Church, is one of 16 people from across Canada -- and the only Manitoban -- who have been nominated to succeed Mardi Tindal as moderator of that large denomination.
Cook's encounter with Gretzky occurred in 1975 when Cook, a Brantford, Ont., resident, was an 18-year-old goalie on a local pickup team.
When not enough players showed up for a game one evening, some "little kids" in the arena asked if they could play against the older guys.
At first, Cook and his friends said no -- they were afraid they'd hurt them, especially one smaller kid with blond hair. But the kids insisted, so they relented.
Only later, after that blond-haired kid dominated the game, did Cook realize he was the up-and-coming phenom named Wayne Gretzky.
"I saw him coming at me, then he was gone and I was flat on my back and the puck was in the net," says Cook, still chuckling at the memory. "He did that three times."
The experience taught Cook, 55, a couple of things: Don't judge too quickly and never underestimate the potential of others. Both will come in handy if he is elected moderator of the 87-year-old denomination at its 41st general council, Aug. 11 to 18 in Ottawa.
"I try not to prejudge things," he says. "I want to be open to learning."
He also knows no matter who is elected moderator, the job can't be done alone.
"God works in community," he says. "We have to work at the challenges together."
And there is a lot of work to do. According to the most recent denominational survey, between 1987 and 2007 the number of congregations fell by 20 per cent, from 4,175 to 3,362, and the number of people attending worship fell 48 per cent, from 387,653 to 204,444. Overall, membership in the denomination has declined from just over a million in 1965 to 510,672 in 2009.
That's the bad news. The good news is 95 per cent of survey respondents feel connected to their local church and 64 per cent said church plays a very significant role in their personal faith. Forty-six per cent help with community outreach, while 67 per cent said they had talked about their faith to a non-churchgoer.
Most also said the "renewal of the United Church as a national organization is an important goal for ministry in the 21st century," according to the researchers, with 80 per cent saying: "God has important work for the United Church to do, and the United Church is uniquely equipped to do it."
"Something is happening in our church," he says. "God is stirring something up."
That said, he realizes there are plenty of challenges.
"We all know the situation the church is facing -- a decline in members, a drop in finances, falling attendance at worship services," he says.
He attributes the challenges partly to changing times, something that is affecting many denominations.
"We don't live in the same culture as the 1950s," he says of the time when many Canadians went to church on a regular basis and the United Church, in particular, was a recognized authority in Canadian society.
"Back then, if the United Church moderator said something, it could be front-page news. Those days are gone."
He also thinks the church missed some warning signs of danger back in the 1960s and failed to take corrective action.
"I hesitate to play the what-if game," he says. "But maybe we developed a false sense of where the church was at back then."
As for the current situation, Cook realizes it isn't ideal but also thinks this might be exactly the path God wants the United Church to travel.
"Sometimes God is willing to let people go places they'd prefer not to go in order to learn something new about God," he says. "This time of uncertainty and these challenges may be good for us. We shouldn't try to run from them too quickly."
One thing he thinks the church could do more of is focusing on "spiritual disciplines and practices."
"We are called to be faithful disciples of Christ, to trust God and be a people of prayer," he says, adding "there is no blueprint for change, just a need to trust God and look for ways to connect with the resurrected Christ with honesty, integrity and courage."
Of his nomination, Cook says he was "humbled" to be nominated by the Winnipeg presbytery.
"I think I have some things to offer," he says, adding, "whatever I do, I always want to be grounded in the biblical story and in what God is calling us to do. We need to listen to what God is doing in the world today and hear what God wants us to do as a church."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 j13
(1 of 24 articles for this month)05/25/2013 1:00 AM 0