Northlea United Church – Discerning what church looks like in 2017 and beyond

The Rev. Lee-Ann Ahlstrom and Marnie Phoenix at Northlea United Church – helping to discern what the church will look like in the future.
The Rev. Lee-Ann Ahlstrom and Marnie Phoenix at Northlea United Church – helping to discern what the church will look like in the future.

The post-war period of the late 1940s and ’50s was a time of great optimism and rapid expansion in many areas of Canadian life. Churches were no exception.

North Leaside, which had been developed more recently than the older neighbourhood south of Eglinton Ave., was poised and ready to participate in the boom. As we said in our November issue, St. Cuthbert’s Anglican Church began a “mission” in Northlea School in 1949 that soon became the separate parish of St. Augustine. The United Church of Canada followed a parallel course at almost exactly the same time. According to Jane Pitfield’s book, “Leaside,” a preliminary meeting was held in a private home in December 1948 and services began at Northlea School in September 1949.

The numbers are almost unbelievable today: within a year the Sunday school included 350 children and young people, and the church’s membership roll numbered 517 members.

The new congregation purchased the home at 647 Broadway as a manse in 1950 and began fundraising to build the church in 1951. Construction of the sanctuary began in 1953 and completed in 1954. A Christian education wing was added in 1959.

Of course, those heady days for Canadian churches are gone and not expected to return anytime soon. These days Northlea United has some 245 members on the roll, and about 60 in attendance on an average Sunday. “There are about 120 families who consider Northlea to be their church home,” says member Marnie Phoenix, who remembers the packed church and Sunday school of the ’50s and ’60s. “Today there are eight or 10 kids in the Sunday school, and they’re not all there every week. Many families are away at cottages on the weekends in the summer and skiing in the winter.”

Churches face much more competition for things to do on Sunday mornings and families that may have attended services three or four Sundays a month only a generation or two ago now might attend only once a month. “And people are less willing to make a long-term commitment to serve on boards or committees,” says Phoenix, “We’ve had to adapt.”

One thing that’s had to change is the church’s governance. “We’ve done away with the board of directors in favour of a church council with only a one-year commitment. And we have “circles” or “task groups” for specific purposes that allow for more input and quicker decision-making.”

Another change relates to what the Rev. Lee-Ann Ahlstrom calls “discernment”. Ahlstrom has been in ministry for two decades, mostly working with children and youth, but just became the minister at Northlea this past summer. This is her first experience leading a church on her own. “Churches in the past always tried to maintain a permanence in their ministry and programs,” says Ahlstrom. “The goal now is more discernment: discerning what the core mission and values of the church community are; discerning the resources – physical, human and financial – and trying to align these with the mission and values. But the goal isn’t necessarily permanence.” Northlea’s mission statement, for the record, is “Love God, connect with others, nurture the spirit, serve the world.”

“At Northlea, we’re very open to becoming something new and more relevant,” Ahlstrom continues, “and we’ve let go of things that aren’t relevant, such as traditional governance.” She adds that the United Church of Canada centrally is going through the same process. “It’s a very top-heavy organization, and responsible stewardship of our resources means some downsizing will be needed.”

Ahlstrom and Phoenix agree that ‘giving back’ is an important theme at Northlea. “People here feel that life has been very generous to them – they want to give back to their community, and Northlea is a vehicle for them to do that,” says Ahlstrom.

The two outline an impressive list of outreach programs the congregation has supported just in recent weeks. They have sponsored and settled a refugee family and are now assisting other recent arrivals through Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office. They’ve collected clothing for the Christian Resource Centre, donated new pyjamas to four different agencies, winter hats and mittens to the Massey Centre, and food to TNO’s foodbank. And the congregation’s youth are joining with kids from Pawsitively Pets’ after-school program to form a youth choir that will perform in area seniors’ homes in the new year.

One thing that hasn’t changed much over the years is the sense of Northlea as a community hub for a wide range of activities beyond the church. For example, a Montessori School has operated in the church continuously since 1975. Currently there are 125 students from age 18 months to 12 years. “This church is very family-centred and so is Montessori,” says Principal Jim Brand. “It’s a perfect combination for us.”

And beginning in 1971, Northlea served as home for the community-based continuing therapy programs of the Donwood Institute. “We needed more room, so we leased space from Northlea,” says Linda Bell, who was administrator at Donwood at the time. “We used the top floor of the Sunday school wing; by that time the community was very supportive, and many were members at Northlea as well.” These programs continued long after the Bells left Donwood in the mid-’80s, and were run by Dr. George Birtch, who was not only a childhood friend of Dr. Gordon Bell, but was also a United Church minister. The Rev. Bob Thompson, minister at Northlea in the ’80s and ’90s, recalls that “Birtch was able to talk about spirituality in such a way that was non-threatening to the recovering addicts – these were people who had seen a lot of pain, often having been ostracized by the community, including the church, for their drinking.” He adds that many of the volunteers trained by Birtch were Northlea members and became the church’s pastoral care team in the 1990s and beyond.

Today, Ahlstrom says, “There’s lots of spirit for the church to continue, but we have to be a church in a different way. We’re working through that.” And there are opportunities ahead, not just challenges. “We’ve had another church open the conversation about whether they may want to merge with us,” she confides. “We’ll work through that too.”

About Allan Williams 37 Articles
Allan Williams is a regular contributor to Leaside Life.