Making a Difference

An interview with Linda Levine

Runnymede United Church is an established congregation on the west side of Toronto. There is an atmosphere of energy when you enter the door. A whiteboard invites prayer requests. At one time in serious decline, the church now bustles with musical excellence, faith forming activities, children’s ministry events and choreographed worship. Over 200 people attend worship on an average Sunday.

The Pastoral Team consists of Linda Levine who is full time and Mary Ann Jansen, half time. We asked Linda Levine what she felt were some of the contributing factors to the congregation’s current vibrancy.

At Runnymede, we are trying to build something new, and it is a difficult thing to do when you start with an established congregation.

Eighteen years ago I was employed for eight hours a week to organize the Sunday School. They had 20 kids at the time. There are now close to 200. The secret has been good organization and asking people to "try out" a ministry in the Sunday School. Many people think they can’t do it, but when they are supported with good organization, they find they can.

At that stage 18 years ago we were under the illusion that the future of the Church was our children. We thought they would eventually become our adult congregation. It does not work that way, because children grow up and move away- sometimes geographically, but also their faith journey as a young adult may take them away from the church. Parents move away too. Like all churches we have attracted a number of parents who come to church primarily so their children will have a faith background. We discovered that they attended until their children were around ten or twelve, then stopped coming when their children left Sunday School. We realized if we wanted to build the church today, we needed to transform adults, not put all our hope in the children.

Adult Faith

Theoretically, when you have transformed committed adults, the money needed for God’s work will be there. (We’ve only begun this process; so we’re not yet living proof of this!). As part of fostering this kind of commitment, we are trying to move away from being a "program " church. We used to provide a lot of activities. We found people came as long as there was a program that appealed to them. (And this includes being part of a small group—if what the group is studying is of interest, then people come). Unless you provide a follow-up program, people are off somewhere else. Fostering faith commitment is a challenge, but it’s the key to becoming an effective congregation .

We have found the Alpha course very helpful in our work with adults. People who have done the Alpha course have found their faith renewed and they in turn are doing ministry. A number, about 12 now, have gone on to become trained in Stephen ministry—Christian care-giving to people in crisis (illness, grief, etc)


We had an interim minister for one year, a person strong on justice and social action. In the year he was here he galvanized the outreach side of our church life. The effect has continued. One result has been some 80 people were involved in the "Out of the Cold" program last winter—helping feed homeless persons. Giving people the opportunity to minister, to do meaningful things, makes them feel this is all relevant. We were stunned at the response to the Out of the Cold program. People were just dying to do something.

One of our men is currently in Honduras, helping to build a school. When he comes back, he will be persuading other people to become involved as well. Alternatively we will consider getting involved in "Mission Ventures" in Guatemala.

At home we’re involved in a breakfast program and are planning to expand this to include a homework club. Having the opportunity to do hands-on mission is very important.

Small Group Ministry

We realize that people in the church are used to consuming programs rather than, for example, being committed to meet with each other with a view to caring and sharing and growing and serving together. Those who have been part of the church for years are generally not interested. It is the newcomers who are most interested in small group ministry, since they are looking for spiritual growth and for community.

Our adult faith program begins each session with a video, then has a time for sharing. One of our hopes for the program was that the groups that were formed would want to continue and become the nucleus of a small group ministry. That has not happened to the extent we would like, but some who have come through this program are willing to continue as leaders. We do have a couple of small groups, but are challenged as to how to make them grow and multiply.


Our emphasis on prayer has been very intentional. There have been a couple of people who for a long time prayed for renewal in the congregation. Some years ago I believe there was a subtle shift in the way that they were praying. It seems that they started to steer away from telling God what to do and began to simply lift the congregation and its clergy up to God and invite the Holy Spirit to do whatever God wanted to do with us.

I became particularly committed to offering healing prayer through my involvement with the Order of St. Luke, an ecumenical order devoted to teaching a balanced and wholistic approach to healing through prayer. I had an experience of burnout a couple of years ago. In seeking help, I ended up with the Order of St. Luke. I found being prayed for was a wonderful experience, and wanted others in the congregation to have that experience too.

During communion we have prayer stations where people can go and be prayed for, and there are prayer teams now available every Sunday after church. We have a long way to go still in encouraging people to take advantage and feel comfortable seeking prayer for themselves.

The prayer teams came out of a course we did here based on James Wagner’s book, An Adventure in Healing. In it Wagner expands the concept of healing from just the physical to include the spiritual, mental, emotional and relational. After the course, I asked the people what they would like next. Some asked for regular healing services. Others asked for healing prayer on Sundays. That's how it was introduced.

The Alpha course is good for encouraging people to pray aloud. We have had prayer teams come out of that. Getting people to pray out loud is hard in the United Church, but words spoken in prayer can be so comforting for the one prayed for.

People sense that God is real when they come here. God is real, and we behave as though God is real.


Staffing has been a journey for this congregation, and for me. I initially was hired for 8 hours a week. I was also doing a part time job in the east-end. At that time my son was a year old and I really needed a full time job. The congregation did their homework, asked for an increase in pledges, and asked me to come full time. We now have 1 staff.

I feel preaching is very important, but it has been my choice not to preach every week. If one preaches every week, it limits the time and attention you can give to organizing and providing adult growth opportunities during the week. (Besides, I don’t like the pressure of a weekly deadline!) My colleague does some preaching. We have also had a graduate student in homiletics preach once a month.

I see myself in relation to the congregation as a team leader. Everyone in the congregation is called to a ministry, and organization is a real key that enables people to engage in ministry and to grow. A leader gets discouraged if the equipment is not there or the schedule has not been worked out right. Part of my ministry is to make it easy for other people to do ministry.

Our motto is "Faith and Community: Making a Difference." When people started talking about cutting back ministerial hours some years ago, we put the focus on growth. One of the things we did was invite Bill Easum to work with us. The slogan we developed was "Growing in faith and community." We knew we had to do both. It got shortened to simply "Faith and Community." We added the phrase "Making a Difference" a little later when we got involved in social action and really focused on adult spiritual growth.

If we are rigid in our roles (e.g. of ordained person, job descriptions, etc), and our structures (the massive conglomeration of committees), and if we are heavy on accountability rather than empowerment, there's not much chance of being sensitive and responding to what the Spirit is doing.

One of the things that has happened at Runnymede, for better or for worse—I think better—is that our committee structures have almost completely broken down. I'm not sure exactly how this happened. People were simply no longer willing to serve on committees. They are very willing to be involved in time limited actions, tasks or events, but do not want to sit in meetings and make decisions. My guess is that life is just too busy and too short to do anything that is not clearly life giving. Whatever the reason, almost all our committees have either disintegrated or trimmed down to a few people who meet only when necessary.

The result is that new rather loose planning groups have emerged. For example, our trained small group leaders who offer spiritual growth opportunities meet together to plan what they're going to do in the coming session. As such they are loosely accountable to one another, but not to any higher body. Really they support one another.

Then there is the ministerial role. I've struggled for more than twenty years to feel remotely comfortable in the role of "ordained" person. I've come to experience the authority given to me as empowering, but I do not fit easily and naturally into the role of pastor. (Being introverted and unchatty). People in my congregation would probably describe me as somewhat eccentric. Who knows what grace has empowered their acceptance of my odd desire to work from home rather than the church. I don't believe that I have the traditional gifts of clergy people. I'm very poor at explaining where I'm coming from, though I've tried really hard in recent years to learn to do this. Although I have a "vision" I'm still hoping for some "Aaron" to come along and cast that vision in a dynamic way before the congregation. I say this as a way of indicating that much of what has happened at Runnymede is in spite of me; and only in some small way because of me. I know that I do bring two gifts-strong organizational skills and the ability to encourage people to do their ministry.


Try to encourage people to minister to one another. A lot of people, particularly those a bit older, feel that faith is a private thing for each person. They come to church expecting to be fed and to have "the minister" minister to them. Small groups are places where even older folk can be comfortable sharing memories or talking about grief. I encourage people to pray out loud, to try new things.

The profile your congregation has in the community is very important. It is no good being a wonderful church if people don't know about you. Word of mouth is great, but United Church people tend to be rather private about their faith and are not very good at telling others. We use flyers, and new people sometimes mention flyers that they received a year ago.

Our challenge as a congregation is to discern what God is doing. and to join the Holy Spirit in doing these things. Areas of success are an indication of activities that God is blessing. If there is a secret, it is to start with what gifts you have and build on that.


From Newsletter 6.1

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