St. Andrew's United Church, Lacombe

Ross Smillie interview | Mervin Gallant - Youth Ministry  | Children's Ministry

In an era when many main-line congregations has been in decline, St. Andrew's United Church in Lacombe has been slowly increasing its adult church attendance and greatly expanding its ministry to youth and children. Lacombe is a short distance north of Red Deer, a community with many young families - a situation closely parallel to that of the small cities surrounding Edmonton. The evidence from statistics in the United Church Year Book is clear. We were interested in the story behind what is happening at St. Andrew's. What follows is an interview with Ross Smillie who who has been their ministry staff since 1995, with Mervin Galant who joined the staff a few years ago with major responsibilities for youth and children's ministry, and a first hand look at "Sonlight City", the name they have given to their Sunday Church School.


Interview with Rev. Ross Smillie

Ross Smillie has been at St. Andrew's United Church in Lacombe for 11 years (since 1995).We have observed Ross identifying opportunities, building on the strengths of people, opening lines of communications and planning seeds as to what the congregation needs to look at next. The result has been a thriving vital congregation. We asked him to share the journey with us. We started by asking him if he had an overall strategy for his congregation.

I don't think I have a strategy or long term goal. It is more that I keep my eyes open for opportunities. I have been aware of things that I wanted to work on, and have gradually worked on over the years.

When I arrived at the church I followed two ministers, one who had been there for 30 years and one for seven. This latter had come in 1988, the year that General Council dealt with sexual orientation. The 30 year minister was still in the community and had difficulty letting go. It was a bit of a rocky time. That was followed by a short term interim ministry for about 8 months, and then I came after that.

The 30 year minister was still in the area. In fact there were two other former ministers present. The first thing I did was meet with them and work out how we would work together. There was a difficulty with the 30 year minister coming in and doing funerals, sometimes without consultation, sometimes without the current minister even knowing that they were going to happen.

After about a year, the 30 year minister was being quite respectful. If someone asked for him to do a funeral during my first year, I said "I don't mind you doing the funeral, but I want to be involved for the first year." We worked together for a year. Then after that I said, "If there is a good reason for you to be involved with this one, then I don't need to be involved any more." It turned out to be a good working relationship.

I suggested to the Board, at that point, that we make him our Minister Emeritus. He agreed to that, and we had a celebration of his ministry. I think it healed a lot of wounds that had been open for a while.

Building Renovations

The next major thing that happened was the building campaign. That came around 1998, 1999. We realized that we had to replace the shingles on the roof. The cedar shingles were about 40 years old and were starting to come off. When I first came here and walked into the sanctuary, I thought we are going to have to renovate the sanctuary, because it was rather crowded. When we started talking about replacing the roof, we identified there were a number of things that needed to happen. If we were going to replace the roof, we needed to look at all the needs of the building and deal with them at the same time as we dealt with the roof.

We started a process a process of looking at what we needed and a feasibility study. We put together a team of people to offer leadership to that. The people we got were really pretty sophisticated in the way they dealt with the congregation. First is was, "Shall we do a feasibility study?" Then when we had the feasibility study and knew what the approximate cost was going to be, it was "Can we afford to do this?" We did a Stewardship Campaign, and the next question was, "Now that we have the pledges, are we going to go ahead and do this thing?" They took it in small steps. We asked the congregation, "In principle, if we had the money, would we go ahead and do this?" It was a very careful, methodical procedure.

Youth Minister

While we were doing the feasibility study, we started looking at whether ours would be a good congregation for training an Intern. In was in 1999 that we got an Intern. He was pretty experienced in Youth Ministry, so one of the things he wanted to work on was to support other people who wanted to do Youth Ministry. He was able to offer more support to that program than I had been able to give. Out of that experience people realized that there was both an interest and a need for that kind of support for the Youth Ministry within the congregation.

People started talking about hiring a permanent person to do that work. So right at the beginning of fund raising for renovations came the question about a youth minister. We said not at that time. But as soon as the Stewardship Campaign was over, we started to hire another person. We went through needs assessment and the search process. We had a person here briefly who turned out to be quite ill and could not continue. Then we got Mervin Gallant. Mervin has been here three and a half years now - coming in 2003.

In terms of my strategy, I just supported movements in the congregation that I thought were worth supporting. I made sure that there was visible pastoral support.

Sexual Orientation

The other thing, when it became legal in Alberta to perform same-sex marriages, we began talking about that issue. It has been on the table now for about three years. We engaged in a fairly wide consultation process, and structured a series of discussions that would make it really clear that this was a topic that was open for conversation in our congregation - that there could be a variety of different opinions on this issue, and there was room for people with different perspectives, but what there was not room for was disrespect for each other or hateful comments. At the other end of the issue we wanted to make it clear that sexual ethics are important, and it is not a matter of anything goes.

We had a series of very respectful conversations. They were difficult conversations for some people. While we had those conversations, the Board had a special meeting at which we drafted a series of statements that we called "Common Ground", essentially consensus statements. We have not resolved the issue yet, but the consensus statements said things like "We want to be a congregation that is open and welcoming to gay and lesbian people and their families." That was the first one, a statement of grace. The others followed on that.

The Board realized this did not resolve the issue, but got us a little ways along the way. Now what is next? One of the thing that I have been aware of from talking to people is that there are a number of gay and lesbian family members in the congregation - parents, siblings, etc. I have been consulting with them throughout my ministry, asking what they want the congregation to do and taking my direction from them. I felt it was time to get these people together as a group and have some kind of conversation about what kind of leadership they wanted to offer in the congregation.

With the permission of the Board, we did get these people together. One thing that surprised me is that they did not know about each other. I guess that should not have surprised me. I have been working with that group for feedback to the congregation around are we welcoming to gay and lesbian people, and inviting some people to speak within our congregation about gay and lesbian issues. That will be the next step toward whether we as a congregation will perform same-sex marriages. I don't expect that decision to be a unanimous one, but I think it will be made with a minimum amount of disruption and disagreement.

Small Group Ministry

A breakthrough this year has been in the area of Small Group Ministry. It is something I have been talking about in the congregation for quite a while, through sermons, reports, that kind of thing. Basically all the adult ministry in the congregation was being done by two people, myself being one of them along with another lay person.

It all probably arose out of a field placement. One of the people in our congregation is a candidate for Diaconal ministry. She did a field placement here in worship and education. She gathered a group of women to do a women's spirituality group.

I also led a Disciples Bible Study program. At the end there is a time when people identify their gifts. One of the women who was involved in both groups decided she was going to initiate some ongoing groups, and decided to start with The Heart of Christianity¸ Marcus Borg's book. She has done that at least twice in the last two years.

This year we initiated a program called "Feeding the Spirit". People gather for supper on a Thursday night. People take turns cooking supper, then have at least two options to participate in, one of which has been the Disciples program. The same group of 11 people meet every week. Then there have been a series of other programs along the way. We started a program on the Da Vinci Code. We had a program on The Heart of Christianity, then Islam, then " Parenting and Popular Culture" lead by a person in the congregation who teaches sociology at college. Most recently we had one on "The Song of Faith", the most recent statement of faith of the United Church.

People have the option of participating in the supper and then going to one of these programs. We have a group of about 15 people that gather regularly for supper. The study on Islam was the biggest so far, with 18 to 20 people.

The studies are generally five to six weeks. The shortest was "Parenting and Popular Culture" which was only two weeks.

I coordinate the overall program. People seem to really like it. They like eating together. It works best for people who are single or who are retired - the people whose kids have left home.

Relating to the Community

Our congregation sponsors a number of groups in making use of our building. We want to have our building used as much as possible and many of the groups use it on a donation basis. In addition to supporting community groups that we think are worthwhile, it also raises our visibility in the community and many of the people who become a part of the congregation start as participants in those groups.

The ministry of the congregation in the community is really important. United Church people are often very strong community members and offer leadership in many different ways. As the minister, I am one of those people, but only one. I have served on the Youth Justice Committee for a number of years and recently joined the Rotary Club. My evenings are taken up with church work and it is hard to find time to be active in community organizations that meet in the evening. I think the most important thing I do as a minister is to support the people who do community leadership and to find ways to make their ministries visible in the congregation as an expression of Christian discipleship.

Closing Advice

The best advice I can give is "Follow the energy." Where is the energy in your congregation? What do people care about? What are the issues that they want to pursue? Then build on that energy. That is basically what I have been doing. A way of putting it theologically is "Follow the Spirit." It is more about where the Spirit is leading the congregation and less about what you want to do.

Changing with Our Youth

Centre Staff talk with Mervin Gallant

If you want to meet someone excited about their work, talk to Mervin Gallant. "A ministry with youth has been life-giving. While I get tired," he confesses, "I have not regretted it for a minute."

Mervin's career for the 18 years up to this point had mainly been as the minister in various congregations. With two opportunities before him, he chose the role of youth minister working as part of a team with Ross Smillie at St. Andrew's Church, Lacombe.

A visit one Sunday last year told us St. Andrew's had a thriving contingent of children and teenage youth as part of the congregation. In a time when so many congregations have few children and almost no teenagers, we wanted to find out what made St. Andrew's thrive.

The answer according to Mervin Gallant: "The congregation had a vision. They knew Lacombe was growing. They were not afraid to do what it took to grow along with the community." When he was called, the congregation had just finished renovating the building. The bills were only half paid when they made the decision to hire a second full time person. Rev. Ross Smillie's leadership influenced the willingness to do what was needed to make that happen. Now Mervin spends at least 80% of his time working with children and youth.

The congregation was also willing to put the financial resources behind its youth program. Making a connection with youth not only takes time but also costs money. The church yearly budget now includes $500 for leadership training, both for youth themselves and leadership of youth. There is $700 budgeted for youth programming and $300 for youth pastoral care, taking youth out for lunch or out after school. "Having a relationship with the kids is the big thing," Mervin attests. The results are there. They were up to 40 last year in their Jr. High group, with members bringing friends because of what was happening.

Mervin finds that youth are just as busy as their parents. The upper end of Jr. High and certainly High School students are into dance, skating, piano lessons, not to mention part time jobs. Trying to fit something at the church into their busy schedule is a challenge.

The church's Halloween dance was one indicator. Last year there were 30, but this year quite a few less. The problem ? busy schedules. The answer, schedule more events so that kids can fit the church into their schedule rather than the other way around. This year the Halloween dance was on Friday, the kids were taken to Riverbend on Saturday night, then to a Linea Good concert in Red Deer on Sunday. In total, 20 teenagers were involved, but spread over three nights. That kind of programming takes staff time, and a willingness to work together with other churches in the area. "I can't do all the programming," says Mervin, "but I can help them connect with events elsewhere."

Senior High programming is more of a challenge. The Sr. High group can drop to three or four, but then along comes a new batch of Jr. High graduates and the group goes up to 15. Youth from the congregation participated in Alberta and Northwest Conference and in Red Deer Presbytery events. "At first it was hard to convince the youth," says Mervin. "Now they get quite excited."

Part of Confirmation is done in co-operation with another congregation. Between two study weekends at the church, they do six activities in the broader community. Events included walking a labyrinth and a wilderness experience to echo Jesus' time alone in the wilderness after his baptism. The youth spent a morning at the Bissell Centre in Edmonton, then went on a walking tour of the inner city in the afternoon. Visits included a mosque in Red Deer and a Pentecostal Church in Lacombe. "Now the younger kids have come to expect that, and are looking forward to it. They are getting more and more used to going outside for events and experiences."

Workshop Rotation Children's Ministry

St. Andrew's is becoming well known for its Workshop Rotation Church School. They call it "Son-light City." It features a theatre room with real theatre seats, a computer lab, a drama room, a music room, and an exploration room, among other features.

How is it going? "Workshop Rotation is, in some ways good. The challenge is always finding enough leadership." At St. Andrew's they do six week rotation periods. The first two weeks concentrate on telling the story. Weeks 4, 5, and 6 ask what the story means to you, to the community, and to the world. "Every six weeks we try to find another set of leaders," Mervin confessed, "16 leaders every six weeks." The program is great, with the kids really enjoying it. They come out knowing the stories, because they spend six weeks with each story. For Mervin and Sharon (the Sunday school coordinator), however, it is often several weeks into a rotation before they have a full compliment of volunteer staff.

Youth and Sunday Worship

There is a team of three adults who work with the Sr. Highs on Sunday morning, and another team with the Jr. Highs, with a commitment to be there for the full year. That way, one leader can be away and the other two provide continuity.

The young people want to have their own group every week, and are working at playing a major role in the congregation's worship service once a month. What is coming up is a drama based on a true story that happened to a girl in a nearby town. The girl told her story to the group, and one of the kids wrote it up as a play. It is about a girl walking the lonely road of teenage life who gets into a crowd using crystal meth. Her friends don't know how to help her, and walk on by. Her parents don't want to know anything bad is happening to their little girl, so they walk on by. It is a youth group that gives her the support she needs. The play closes with the young people joining hands with the people in the front row of pews, calling on the whole community for their support.

It was a shocking realization to discover how big the drug problem was in the area. They brought in ADAC to do a general drug-alcohol awareness session. Next they brought in a person who had run a drug house at one point. She had been off drugs for two years, and had been spending her energy telling youth, "Don't do it." Next they heard from a family who were dealing with FAS, foetal alcohol syndrome. What young people do, not only has consequences for them, but for the next generation as well.

Your Best Advice

What would Mervin's advice be to a congregation that wants to thrive. "Don't be afraid to invest in your youth. Some churches may have strong volunteers who can do it, who have the energy for a youth program. But the reality is that volunteers have their own lives." There is no replacement for a staff person who is there full time for the congregation's young people. "Without that time, you can't build the relationships that make the program work. And you need the relationships."

His last word was about self care. "I do a retreat every January or February. This year I'm going to Naramata to focus on soul tending for youth ministry."

Reprinted from the Congregational Life Newsletter November 2005 Vol. 11 No. 1


St. Andrew's Lacombe - Sonlight City

by Centre Staff

It was a real treat, walking into a church that was full for worship. The fact that on an ordinary Sunday there were 50 children that came forward for children's time was the first indication that something significant was happening. You looked around and there were 15 or 20 teenagers with their parents. Then you knew something was up.

It is called Sonlight City, and it is bringing children out in record numbers. We followed children and teenagers alike as they left for what we used to call Sunday School. "We avoid the word 'school' they told us. This is different." And it was.

What had been a series of Sunday School rooms have been transformed. The halls are lined with murals featuring larger than life animals. First stop was Noah's Petting Zoo. That's the play area for small children ages 2 and 3. Right next door in a room decorated with more wild life, the 4 and 5 year olds were roaring like lions, squealing like mice, and walking tall like giraffes. They were having fun.

When they reach six years of age, they enter the area dedicated to the workshop rotation method. Our first stop was a traditional classroom transformed with real theatre seats and a sloping floor into "the Holyword" theatre. A large television set provided the picture. The "movie" this Sunday was McGee and Me. "The kids were alone. A tornado came, but they knew what to do," one of the children assured us. The "theatre" shows videos from the Vegi-Tales series among others. The kids were munching real pop corn and sipping on a drink. Pop corn is a standard feature we were told by the leader Holly, who likes it because "the kids love it."

We asked Holly's daughter Bronwyn what activity was her favourite "I like the crafts best," she told us. That room was just down the hall. A group of children were sitting on the floor. The centre of the circle was filled with wool, paper, all kinds of interesting material to work with. The excitement level was high. The craft leader Cindy told us, "This is a thousand times better than the old traditional way. It is neat. One thing is that when they come to church they don't always know what they will be doing." Never underestimate the surprise factor was the message.

A group of youngsters occupied the "story telling and puppets" room. It was a story telling day. In the music room the children were learning about the instruments that make up a symphony orchestra-and being their own orchestra with triangles, drums, and tambourines. The drama room featured a stage, backdrop and boxes of costumes. The task on this day was to create a diorama that depicted the current theme of Sonlight City, "God's Peaceful World."

The program uses a theme for four weeks in a row, with the children in a different area each week. This is the second year that St. Andrew's has been using the workshop rotation method, sometimes called WORM for short. The first year they had a five week rotation, but find four weeks is better for recruiting leaders and involving more people in the program. Each grade has a shepherd who stays with that group as they move to a different area each week. The theme leader stays in his or her theme room as groups rotate through. Two people, Sherryn St. Thomas and Joanne Ward, make up the schedules and recruit leaders.

It happened to be a great fall day in Lacombe, warm with lots of sun. We got to the science and games room just as the group was leaving for a games time outside on the lawn. The game was to say your name and another person's name, then throw the ball to them. It was obviously fun, and a great way for children to get to know each other.

Under a nearby tree, senior high students were immersed in a study of Genesis. I tried my one Genesis joke - it being the baseball book because it started with the words "in the big inning." They were a great group and laughed politely. The Junior Highs were having a bread-making day in the kitchen. They generated an extra element of excitement during coffee hour as a little too much smoke issuing from the baking ovens set off the church fire alarm. The evacuation went well, and an "all clear" signal brought everyone back in to finish their coffee and muffins.

One of the ministers, Ross Smillie, told us a lot of the strength in the youth program goes back to the '60s. The church school superintendent Dave Rodger led a boy's class. A lot of young men for whom he was a role model are playing a leading role in the church today. The church takes young people seriously. Ross's newly arrived partner in team ministry, Mervin Gallant, has youth ministry as a key area.

The sign outside the computer room says "" The room is equipped with nine computers. They are not yet on line, but will soon become operational and part of the workshop rotation process.

Sonlight City is only part of the story at St. Andrew's in Lacombe. The Sunday announcements reveal a broad range of groups. A Healing Touch ministry meets regularly. Couples gather monthly for Marriage Enrichment. Three UCW units cater to different ages and interests. Hymns are video projected on a large screen at the front of the sanctuary. The singing, accompanied by a lively piano, is great. Video projection was installed when the whole front of the sanctuary was expanded and updated with a lower platform and blue carpeting.

The next plan is to develop an intentional small group ministry. There are new people moving to the growing town of Lacombe, population 9,900 and an easy 20 minutes from Red Deer. It takes new groups to welcome and integrate new people. St. Andrew's United plans to grow with the town.



Reprinted from the Congregational Life Newsletter Vol. 10 No. 1 October 2003

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