Ralph Connor and Rundle Memorial United Church Team Up for Wider Ministry to Bow Valley

New Affirming Church for Canmore & Banff has strong community focused-mission

Effective January 1, 2023, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church in Canmore and Rundle Memorial United Church in Banff will amalgamate to become one church with two campuses under the Ralph Connor name.

The Rundle thrift shop has a significant role in Banff where young service workers come from across Canada and around the world to serve in the tourist industry. These service workers and also young families find affordable household items and other goods at the thrift store.

It’s taken 20 months and a lot of careful work to get to this marriage date but what led the way, says Rev. Greg Wooley, was Rundle’s clarity in approaching Ralph Connor to amalgamate in early 2021. The Rundle Church clearly identified its passion for its outreach ministries of a Thrift Shop, Community Play School and plans for receiving a refugee family but that it had little energy for the tasks involved in governance and Sunday Worship.

Wooley, Ralph Connor’s minister who was also Rundle’s pastoral Charge supervisor says, “Because the approach came from Rundle, that was the key. They identified what they had energy for and that was hands-on ministry.” The two congregations have been worshipping together since Spring 2021.

Collaboration Brings Stronger Community-Focused Mission

John Cranston, a Ralph Connor Trustee, chaired the combined Ralph Connor and Rundle (R&R) committee that carefully worked out the details of amalgamation, ultimately finding that together they have a stronger collaborative ministry to offer the Bow Valley. The committee worked closely with Chinook Winds Community of Faith Strategy Consultant Joel Den Haan.

Ultimately the R&R Committee identified that the new church brings together two affirming congregations with a strong community-focused mission. Rundle has a strong presence in its community with the community play school, thrift shop and manse that provides affordable housing for a refugee family. Ralph Connor has ministries of Right Relations, collaboration with the Canmore Young Adult Network, Bow Valley Refugee project, AA/Al-Anon, community music programming and more. Ralph Connor’s well-attended Sunday and Wednesday night worship services are the primary gathering place and hub to energize mission activities. Rundle’s mission is expressed through hands-on projects such as its Thrift Shop.

“The traditional idea of a church congregation had disappeared in Banff,” said John Cranston. “On a good Sunday, there might have been six people in worship. But the Church was still carrying on with the thrift shop and play school that are very necessary (to the wider community) and financially viable.”

“The use of the church space is busy throughout the week.”

The need to evolve was “inherently obvious,” says Marlo Reid-Gibson, a Banff church trustee. “The use of the church space was busy throughout the week. Worship was not.”

Reid-Gibson became part of the Rundle congregation some 20 years ago after moving from Manitoba. Having previously lived close to her multi-generational family, she found her new location lonely. It was her grandfather who suggested going to church. “I was welcomed into the flock. It was like I found a little bit of home.”

To Reid-Gibson, that community and the significant benefit of the social enterprise to the Bow Valley area is important; Worship, not so much. It’s something that can happen individually, she says. “We’re all out skiing. It’s just hard to keep the butts in chairs to make offering worship worthwhile.”

However, she adds, “A great thing with amalgamation is that when you go to church, there are people there. Canmore still has that strong worship piece.”

Ralph Connor leaders admit to cautiously entering the amalgamation conversations. However, says Cranston, “things that we were worried about turned out to not be a problem.”

For starters, they were concerned about taking on the large and old Rundle Memorial building. The R&R Committee asked the Rundle Church trustees to commission a building audit that provided them with building costs for the next 10 to 20 years. That report meant, said Cranston, “We were able to look at this fairly sensibly so we aren’t sticking our necks out financially.” The committee also discovered that the Rundle Church lease with the National Parks had lapsed and it took several months to get the 42-year lease in place again.

Social Enterprise Model Benefits Wider Community & Church

“The longer we looked at amalgamation, the more we realized maybe we weren’t saving Rundle, maybe we were also saving Ralph Connor.” Ralph Connor’s revenue comes primarily through donations which went down through COVID and are only now going back up. Rundle’s revenue comes primarily through the social enterprise ministries serving the wider community and has remained consistent.

The Rundle thrift shop has a significant role in Banff where young service workers come from across Canada and around the world to serve in the tourist industry. Also, while some young families choose to live in the Bow Valley to be near outdoor recreation, that can also mean holding down three jobs to afford to live in the expensive Alpine communities. They find affordable household and other items at the thrift store.

Now, many Ralph Connor people volunteer at the thrift store. As some Canmore members down-size their homes, they are also donating to the Rundle Thrift Store.

Serving a Distinct Alpine Demographic

Wooley says the fact that the two churches serve similar Alpine tourist communities facilitated amalgamation. Banff and Canmore are extremely busy on weekends, in summer and during the winter skiing season. “The reality of a tourist town is you need to look beyond traditional church weekend programming; otherwise you close out involvement from people in the service industry,” says Wooley. Weekends for people are Monday & Tuesday. That’s why Canmore started offering Evensong on Wednesday evenings in 2001. “We don’t get a lot of young working people but they are a part of it,” says Wooley.

A Newer Wedding Ministry Expands

In taking on two churches, Cranston was concerned about Wooley’s workload and asked the minister, ‘What are you not going to do?’ Wooley quickly responded: Weddings.

Ironically Wooley saying ‘no’ to weddings, opened up the possibility to enhance wedding programs as a ministry in what are in reality two destination wedding locations.

Rev. Shannon Mang, also spouse to Wooley, stepped forward to be the wedding officiant as did Banff’s former accompanist Aurora Borin and Reid-Gibson as wedding host. (The latter jokingly describes her role as JLO (Jennifer Lopez) in the movie, The Wedding Planner).

“You see a bazillion weddings every week in Banff. I used to ask, ‘Why don’t we have more weddings?’ I didn’t understand what it took out of a minister to do a wedding. Ministers see weddings as taking out of their work to build the congregation,” explains Reid-Gibson

As affirming churches, the new wedding ministry is clear that it focuses on offering inclusive and equitable weddings. They are creating a website and connecting with wedding partners and participated in the Bow Valley’s latest Pride Parade.

“I think weddings are an untapped opportunity for us,’ says Reid-Gibson who adds, “I am a hopeless romantic. I haven’t made it through one wedding without a tear.”

The Bow Valley church leaders also recognized the need to grapple with long-term church viability, like many churches, post-COVID. A ‘futures’ group is being formed to envision coming realities and options.

The new church doesn’t yet know how it will celebrate its official amalgamation date. However, Wooley looks forward to opportunities to use the larger Rundle Church for special events and worship services.

Several people served on the R&R Committees during the 20-month process. These included: (From Ralph Connor) John Cranston, R&R Chair; Dave Sommerville; Mona McIntyre; Ian Scofield, Ralph Connor Chair; Karen Fraser, and (From Rundle) Marlo Reid-Gibson; Ian Brownlie; Bill Fisher; Allan Buckingham (council chair at Rundle) as well as Rev. Greg Wooley. From Chinook Winds Region was Joel Den Haan. Kathy Davies, Pacific Mountain Region, provided initial assistance prior to Rundle Memorial returning to Chinook Winds Region.

One Church with two Campuses: Rundle Memorial United Church in Banff and Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore.