As we enter into a new year, Elmira’s Trinity United Church finds itself in the final year of its refocusing process. In 2012, the United Church of Canada launched a comprehensive review task group to examine from 2012 to 2015 how United Churches across the country could best serve their congregations and communities.
Reverend Dave Jagger says that five years from now the Elmira church could look a whole lot like it does today. But, they’re also considering alternatives to how the church building and its services can be of use.
“It seems that about every five years we need to pause and refocus ourselves. Who are we, what are we about, how do we engage the community around us? We’re in one of those five-year periods right now,” Jagger said.
Trinity United Church as we know it on Arthur Street has existed since the 1960s. Before that there was Wesley United Church on First Street and Arthur. That has since changed to Emmanuel Evangelical Missionary Church. Prior to that, Wesley United Church was approximately where Liquidation King is now.
“Where we are right now, this property belongs to Zion EUB (Evangelical United Brethren) and in 1968 the whole EUB denomination in Canada joined with the United Church of Canada,” Jagger said. “So for three years there were two United Churches in Elmira, Wesley and Zion. And in 1971 they amalgamated.”
The refocusing of United Churches involves looking at their missions and how they can live those out to their best ability. It also examines how the physical space of their churches may be used for opportunities other than just providing church services.
“We haven’t made any decisions around this but one of the things that is a possibility is this could be seniors housing,” Jagger said. “We talked about some kind of affordable housing with church space within that.”
He noted they’re learning their church is not just their building. By being less attached to the building as it is, that opens up new ministry possibilities for the future.
“If we’re able to develop the property that it is a greater asset to the community while at the same time providing the space we need as a congregation, everybody wins. It’s not just about us.”
Jagger’s been the church’s minister for 13 years. He said when he first looked at Trinity United Church he saw a congregation that was vibrant, with a lot of potential, and that’s turned out to be the case.
“There were other places I could have gone, but this is where I needed to be,” Jagger said. “Elmira’s a great town. When my family came here we had younger children and we came from a little rural village.”
The church has seen changes in technology since he started there, including a projector and screen for the Sunday morning worship, along with more paid part-time staff. A noticeable shift they’ve seen, similar across many churches, is the congregation’s size and demographic.
They average 100 to 110 members on any given Sunday, and it depends on the time of year.
“The numbers here grew for awhile and then they shrank and now they’re slowly starting to grow again,” Jagger said. “Our replacement rate has probably not kept up with our funeral rate. Overall the congregation is smaller than it would have been 13 years ago.”
He said in its heyday, they’d have 120 to 130 on a Sunday morning. Like all denominations with the culture shift that’s going on, the congregation is getting a little smaller and older.
Board chair Peter Kupfer says the congregation’s mixture has changed, percentage wise. Despite the increasingly senior dominated membership, they have a regular group of around 20 children.
“The community focus has changed a lot,” Kupfer said. “Elmira’s starting to become much more of a bedroom community to Kitchener-Waterloo and around. But it still maintains its unique cultures. I’m surprised how Elmira has become very varied in nationalities, which is good.”
Understandably, there’s a real challenge to attract members younger than 60. How to do this, is something Jagger says he often discusses with his colleagues.
“If you want to bring in more people and get more people involved, you have to go to those people on their terms,” Jagger said. “You need to be relevant and you need to have a message that’s going to make a difference in their lives.”
He said all churches are learning they have to stop being so isolationist. They need to work in partnership, not just with each other as Christian churches, but also with all the other organizations in town.
“At the same time as that requires change, there’s a group of people that are already part of the church who like it the way it is,” Jagger said. “Trying to keep some balance there between how you don’t lose the people you already have, but at the same time try to attract new folks who have different needs and are looking for different things out of a church experience.”