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This article was published 3/10/2016 (627 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The United Church congregations in Domain, Sanford and Starbuck are seeking a minister to lead services and offer pastoral care in their churches, which together form the Meridian Pastoral Care Charge.
"We pool our resources and employ a minister full-time," said Jamie Scharf, who chairs the Sanford Church board and also the Meridian Charge search committee.
Scharf said that because the three communities are located fairly close to Winnipeg, it’s possible for a minister to live in the city yet serve the rural congregations. At one time, the Sanford Church owned a manse used as a residence for the local minister, but that was sold.
Shannon McCarthy, executive secretary of the United Church Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario said the United Church of Canada specifies the education required for its ministers and oversees their ordination. But she said it’s up to the search committee to decide what qualities they are seeking in a minister.
"They can prioritize what they want," she said.
"We’ve placed in our job assessment description things that are unique to our pastoral care charge," Scharf said.
One of these is the need for a minister willing to drive to each community throughout the year — a task that might seem daunting to someone used to city driving.
McCarthy said the current pool of ministerial candidates isn’t too large.
She said the search for a new minister can take from six months to a year as congregation members want to find a person they consider to be a good match.
Avonlea Church member Linda Manson, who is also on the Meridian Charge search committee, is optimistic that a suitable candidate will be found.
"There’s lots of competition out there for a minister. But I think the right minister is out there for us."
In the meantime, the three churches are now served by relief ministers from Winnipeg, who are often retired ministers.
For more information on the Meridian Pastoral Care Charge, see www.meridian-pastoral-charge.ca
What is the Meridian Pastoral Care Charge
Sanford United has long history
The current United Church building at 4 Main St. was built about 60 years ago, but the church’s roots go back to the Presbyterian Church members who first settled in the area a century ago.
Sharf said some members of the congregation are third and fourth- generation church members, while others like him joined the church in recent years.
"We have a big mixture. Some are third, fourth and fifth generation members but the majority have come to the area for work or the rural life," he said.
For Sharf and his wife Onnolee, who was raised attending the United Church in the Carman area, part of the reason they decided to move to Sanford was so they could attend the United Church with their children.
"It’s partly why we chose this town," Scharf said.
About 30 people usually attend the Sunday morning service, Scharf said. Sunday school is offered in the brightly-lit and newly-painted church basement.
The basement space, that contains a fully-equipped kitchen, is also used for Macdonald-Headingley Recreation District programs and rented out for other community events.
Scharf said the church also hosts the community’s annual Remembrance Day service. Framed photos and rolls of honour containing the names of local residents who served in the First and Second World Wars are hung on a church wall.
"Our church is well-supported by the community," he said, adding that it’s the only church in Sanford.
Starbuck United members adapt after fire
After the Starbuck United Church was destroyed by fire on May 16, 2014, Scharf said there was discussion on whether or not the Starbuck members should join in attending the Sanford church, but decided against it. However, some joint worship services are held during the summer months.
Margaret Porter, Starbuck United Church board chair, said she and the other approximately two dozen other regular members were faced with a decision of whether or not to rebuild after their 110-year-old church burned after a burning leaf pile led to the fire that rapidly consumed the old wooden building.
"We were under-insured. It would have been difficult to rebuild," Porter said, adding that a bigger blow to the congregation came later in the year when long-time organist Joanne Schrof died of cancer.
On Sept. 25, two memorial benches placed on the former church site in Starbuck were dedicated to honour Schrof and the church that stood for more a century.
Porter said, following the fire she was cheered by the community support and offers of worship space made by the local Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches. The United Church members accepted by Trinity Lutheran Church offer, and have shared space there since.
"Things have looked up again," Porter said, adding that the two congregations now share a choir practice and sometimes perform together.
The lack of a permanent full-time minister isn’t much of a hardship, according to Porter, as she said she enjoys having different ministers lead the services.
"You get diverse people, and it’s interesting," she said.
Avonlea United Church member Linda Manson agrees with Porter, saying, "I like the variety of different ministers."
Avonlea United offers a friendly welcome
Avonlea United is located in Domain and its history stretches back to the late 1800s when the land was first settled by farmers. Avonlea congregation members honour their past every year with a special heritage service at the Union Point church which stands between the two lanes of Highway 75 north of Morris.
The churches’ eight stained glass windows, two of which were created by renowned Winnipeg artist Leo Mol, are dedicated in memory of family members who attended Avonlea United.
Manson said she married into a United Church family, while member Connie Arran, who serves as treasurer, said she and her husband joined after moving from Calgary to La Salle. Rather than driving into Winnipeg to worship, Arran said she was attracted by the rural nature of Avonlea as it is like that of the church she attended as a child in Snowflake, Man.
"What kept us here was the people," Arran said.
With greeters assigned at each Sunday service and a post-service fellowship get-together for coffee and cookies held in the basement, any new worshippers are acknowledged and made to feel at home.
"It’s a sad day when we have to eat store-bought cookies," Arran joked.
"We’re very inclusive. Everybody knows everybody," Manson said. "People come for that sense of community."
The women said the church’s numbers are stable with about 45 usually attending. A large number of young children help to keep the services informal and lively. Sunday school is offered in the basement.
The church has a choir and recently held a book exchange. Its major annual fundraiser is a spring tea that is given a different theme each year, such as Around the World, with tables decorated to reflect the theme.
"It’s a long-standing tradition in the community," Arran said.
Money raised from the tea was used to purchase and install two chair lifts that will allow easy access to the upper church and lower basement areas.
While printed church bulletins were once handed out, the Avonlea members stay in touch via a closed group Facebook page and mass email messages. "That way, if there’s a snowstorm and the service is cancelled, we can let people know," Manson said.
With residential development increasing in La Salle, Avonlea United might gain some new members, although Arran said people who move out from Winnipeg tend to keep driving into the city to attend their current church. But for anyone who does travel the 10 kilometres south to Domain, the church doors will be open and a warm welcome awaits.
Aging buildings, shrinking congregations force change
t’s either join together or stop attending community services for some rural Manitoba church-goers.
United Church Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario executive secretary Shannon McCarthy said United Church congregations in some neighbouring small Manitoba towns have decided to closed their church and join worshippers at another nearby church.
The decision to join forces is usually based on aging church buildings that are too costly to repair and the decreasing number of church members.
She estimates that three or four churches are closed each year.
"The people go and worship in other communities. There aren’t the numbers to keep the doors open."
"Rural depopulation is affecting churches in the same way it’s affecting everything else," McCarthy said. "For us, part of it is aging buildings that aren’t accessible."
"The reality is that everyone does drive in rural communities," she said, adding that members who are merging congregations can then select the best-kept church building in which to keep worshipping.
Another solution to the problem is forming a pastoral care charge such as the Meridian Charge that allows United churches in Domain, Sanford and Starbuck to share the expense of a minister. Right now, the three churches have organized a search committee and are advertising for a new minister.
McCarthy said, forming a pastoral care charge can ease the financial burden carried by each church and generate energy and positive feelings. She believes this is the case with the three churches in the Meridian Pastoral Care Charge.
Rather than closing their doors or leaving their community to worship, United Church members in some communities are sharing services with other denominations such as Anglican and Lutheran. McCarthy said the United Church congregation in Morris, Man. recently joined with the Lutheran Church members.
"All the churches in rural communities are facing the same issues so must work together," she said. "They have to be creative. You can’t minimize the dedication of the people in these smaller communities."
McCarthy said the local churches often play a large role in their communities as they are used for social events such as teas and celebrations. "Often we’re one of the only community buildings left standing."
Despite their history within a community, some church buildings have been sold for $1.
McCarthy said the challenges facing the rural United Church members are similar to those of urban churches as the numbers attending in the cities are also falling.
Community journalist — The Headliner
Andrea Geary is the community journalist for The Headliner. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org Call her at 204-697-7124