Centering the community in the church: Oshawa pastor inspires possibilities

By Jan Woltmann

The cataclysmic events of 9-11 marked a watershed moment for church culture in Oshawa, Ont. People literally walked away from church: in droves. According to a Statistics Canada report published in 2003, the city of Oshawa, located 45 km east of Toronto, experienced the largest drop-off rate in Protestant church attendance in Canada following the tragedy.

For Oshawa MB church planter and pastor Dave Fowler, the new reality created the opportunity to think differently about doing church.

“The original vision of the core group I started with some 14 years ago was to plant churches in schools to create a network of churches across the Durham region,” explains the veteran pastor who is partnered with two other denominations: the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec, and the Christian Missionary Alliance in Canada. “After 9-11 we began exploring the notion of church as community centre – a community venue out of which a number of events, services, programs, organizations, and the church could all find a home – creating a true centre for the community.”

Life Point Church Harmony Creek Community Centre

The process of acquiring a piece of property for this purpose proved to be lengthy, rife with seemingly insurmountable setbacks, but prayer and perseverance prevailed.

On Sunday, Oct. 2, Life Point Church (formerly the Durham Church Network) held its first service in its renovated space, a United Church building that they converted into Harmony Creek Community Centre, located at one of the largest and busiest intersections in Oshawa. The service took the form of a breakfast club (an idea borrowed from several Quebec MB churches), featuring football legend, Michael “Pinball” Clemons. An estimated 300 people came to hear the professional athlete who is celebrated for his community involvement and his leadership both on and off the field.

Dave Fowler and Michael Clemons

As part of the opening festivities on Saturday, Oct. 1, Fowler invited community leaders from non-profit and charitable organizations to an all-expenses-paid, day-long leadership training event, sponsored by the Canadian Conference of MB Churches (CCMBC), and facilitated by stewardship representatives Robert Bell and Ben Wohlgemut (certified trainers with CCMBC’s Eagle’s Flight program). In 2009, Fowler and his leadership team experienced the benefits of such a seminar and resolved to offer it to community leaders who may not otherwise have the opportunity.

“The response to the day was overwhelmingly positive,” said Fowler. “I was thrilled to meet with people who are movers and shakers in various organizations, some of whom I’ve been working with for quite some time. It opened up new avenues of conversation for those who came to the breakfast club the next morning – that was our hope.”

For Bell and Wohlgemut, it was the first time they presented the Eagle’s Flight leadership material to a largely non-church group. Of the 26 attendees, more than two-thirds were leaders from the community.

“Life Point wants to reach their constituency for Christ,” said Wohlgemut, “and they’re doing so by providing leadership tools for people who are in secular organizations – they’re serving them by giving them very practical helps. That’s inspiring!”

To be sure, Life Point Church is realizing its dream of becoming the centre of Oshawa community life. The gymnasium, part of the existing structure, is already home to a dance school, a karate group, and several women’s fitness groups, and is converted to a “jumpzone” with inflatable playground units for community use on weekends. Renovations are underway to make room for a large daycare centre chain due to move in next month; a music school will be occupying a revamped balcony area; a professional event planner from the church will ensure that the facility is used for weddings, banquets, and concerts year-round. And more community agencies are expected to have an onsite presence in the future.

God is on the move in Oshawa. People are returning to church: in droves.

Veggie mobile returns: Jon Isaak’s report from the north

A follow up on the news post, CMBS director hits the road in veggie mobile.

By Jon Isaak

We’re back in Winnipeg after our road trip to northern Manitoba. It was a meaningful time of visiting old friends—we lived in Cranberry Portage for three years in the mid 80s—and encouraging fellow believers—Mary Anne led a women’s retreat at Simonhouse Bible Camp and I preached at the Christian Centre in Thompson. I was reminded of the beautiful and rugged spirit of the North, both its geography and its people!

john isaak

On Friday, I visited with an old friend, Bob, who recently lost his wife to cancer. Our conversation ranged widely; we hardly moved from our chairs the whole evening! Twenty-five years ago we taught together at the same high-school in Cranberry Portage. Much had changed, much remained the same. We talked about the mission of the little Mennonite Brethren church in town, we talked about God’s work in the world, generally, we talked about heaven—the pain of loss, the hope of the future, and the grace to carry on.

Then on Saturday, I drove to Thompson to spend the evening with my good friend, Ted, who pastors the Mennonite Brethren church in Thompson. For some reason, my visit with Ted also stretched long into the evening. There was so much to review, tremendous joys and harrowing sorrows. But through the conversation, the theme of God’s provision and faithfulness came through, even through the disappointments.

On Sunday, after church I drove back toward Flin Flon to pick up Mary Anne. We met at the home of our good friends, Ingi and Cindy, who run a hunting and fishing lodge. When I showed them my VW diesel Rabbit, with four jugs of Kanola oil tucked under the hatchback, by now mostly empty, they laughed. They said my car would be great bear bait! They get used oil from KFC, too, but use it to attract bears for the hunters that fly into their lodge. Good thing I would not be driving in those remote areas!

I continue to marvel at the spirit of the people living in these northern communities. There is an independent streak that runs deep in many of these kind and generous people There is no patience for pretence or show; just straight-up genuine hospitality. We prayed for one another and were transparent about the ways we saw God working and the ways that made no sense to us, at least not yet. I am grateful for my association with these dear friends. We were mutual encouragement to each other, as I think it should be.

Now as I think more about the weekend, I am reminded how Scripture speaks of the “oil of gladness” (Isa 61:3), as that which brings joy to the soul and to the pallet. Our conversations were that way for me this weekend—and my wife reports that the women’s retreat was especially encouraging, too! Oil fuels our bodies, our relationships, and even an old VW Rabbit!

By the way, the road trip totalled 2098km. I used all of 95 litres of Kanola I brought, but had to supplement it with 32 litres of diesel at the end, as I had miscalculated the distance and how much oil I would need. Still, I was pleased with the fuel consumption ratio (6L/100km) and I hope to get a few more ministry trips out of my” veggie” mobile, before I put it away for the winter. For those interested in how the two-tank system works and how the oil is preheated before use in the engine, there is a good website at

Anything but Ordinary

By Jan Woltmann

It is anything but “Ordinary Time” – these 23 weeks between Pentecost and Advent that my calendar titles “Season After Pentecost.”

We are in the ninth week on this August day and the plates in my world have cataclysmically shifted. A shocking diagnosis reveals that our beautiful, healthy, 21-year-old son has a tumour. An earthquake of words erupts in my mind as information unfolds: brainstem, inoperable, marble-size, non-aggressive. Shockwaves of emotion course through my body as panic, confusion, fear and despair threaten to overwhelm me. In a moment, our lives are overturned and we sit amidst the rubble. It is anything but ordinary.

But “ordinary” time, as it is often referred to in the Christian calendar, does not mean “mundane” or “commonplace.” Rather, the term is used to offset “extraordinary” time – the seasons in the story that mark the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The purpose of extraordinary time, says Robert Webber, is “to celebrate the specific historic, supernatural acts of God in history that result in the salvation of creatures and creation.” Ordinary time, by contrast gives us a collective moment to catch our breath, or as Joan Chittister writes, “to pause awhile, take it all in, and contemplate the intersection between the life of Jesus and our own.”

I AM THE ONE WHO ALWAYS IS illumination of text from Exodus, chapter 3

That is why the liturgical color for this season is a deep green, symbolizing a deep maturing in the faith that we are called to now.

Such a shade paints my soul these days as I struggle to make sense of my story and to surrender it to the One who was and is and is to come. It is difficult and often painful work, this holy relinquishment. But I’m not alone in the task. When suffering threatens to suffocate hope, a fierce grace wraps its arms around me and gently pulls me forward. It is a mystery that knows no words but arrives daily. It is anything but ordinary.

The deep green of this season also symbolizes hope. And interestingly, hope lands at the edge of our pool shortly after our son’s diagnosis…in the form of a monarch butterfly.

A few days before his biopsy surgery, my son and his dad float hand in hand on pool chairs, contemplating the difficult moments ahead. They speak of the shelter of God’s wings and His protection in times of trouble. The rare appearance of the monarch captures their attention.

With a faint whistle, my husband beckons the butterfly saying, “Come here and join our conversation.” To their astonishment, the monarch takes flight and settles on their hands. Minutes pass and the creature just sits there, fixing its gaze on our son. All the while, its wings gracefully rise and fall to the rhythm of its divine choreographer. In that moment, hope brightens our broken hearts, transformation becomes a palpable promise, and a young man’s strength is renewed. It is anything but ordinary.

Gary Burke: why Ministry Advantage matters

By Jan Woltmann

It’s a perennial question pastors and church leaders ask themselves: What would happen to this ministry or this church if I got hit by a bus? It’s not intended to be a morbid question; rather it’s a hypothetical one that teases priorities into sharp focus. At least one Canadian MB pastor in rural Alberta can answer with confidence: “I can get hit by a bus tomorrow, and I’m convinced this church is rooted enough to continue in a solid direction.”

Gary Burke is the lead pastor of Linden (Alta.) MB Church, a faith community of 220 people located an hour’s drive northeast of Calgary. Burke has pastored the 82-year-old church for four years. This fall, he and four other pastors from across the country will be the first Canadian MB coaches for Ministry Advantage (MA) – a customized coaching program offered by the Canadian conference that equips pastors to lead more effectively.

Gary Burke

So, why can Burke make such a bold declaration – one that reflects both strength and sustainability? Because MA is helping him develop a church that is increasingly “anchored in a purpose – not a personality or a program.”

That purpose was solidified for the Linden church in 2006, when they engaged in ReFocusing, a Canadian conference revitalization process aimed at promoting church health. The endeavour helped clarify God’s call for the congregation. It built trust, says Burke, and a sense of shared purpose and ownership that “paved the way for the effectiveness of Ministry Advantage.” With the help of MA in 2009/2010, Burke recognized that his primary task was to help the church take next steps to fulfill its discovered purpose and stay focused on its calling.

While this may sound simple and straightforward, it is anything but for most pastors, Burke says.

“I need to be pushed,” he explains, “I don’t naturally think about how to take strategic steps to move the church forward; rather, I’m thinking about this Sunday’s message or the couple I’m counselling this week.”

One of the biggest challenges pastors face, says Burke is prioritizing leadership development:

“we say our mandate is to equip the saints for ministry, but when we get into day-to-day life, we run around doing a lot of ministry and not equipping for ministry. Our job is to lead in a way that can handle growth – not just growth measured by numbers, but growth defined as movement toward the mission.”

What kept Burke on track when faced with these all too familiar and formidable obstacles was a weekly call from his MA coach. In his estimation, this regular connecting point was and is the key to success. It proved to be a very practical, positive way to “keep the big picture stuff on the radar,” he says, and to keep him accountable to systematically move in that direction with the adaptable tools MA provides.

The homework required for his weekly coaching call became the work he presented to his leadership team, and is becoming the framework for training ministry teams. And though some weeks he understood the value of the “homework,” other weeks he was less inspired. During these times, encouragement from his coach reminded him “this work mattered because it was building a culture that was becoming more intentional about following where God leads.”

Which is why Burke opted to be an MA coach this year: it will keep him actively thinking about what he’s learned and applied in his context, instead of putting it on the proverbial back burner. He looks forward to the mutual growth and development that will take place with his future mentee, but most of all, he hopes MA will be a tool that leads pastors where God is calling them to go.

MB resource meets wonderful world of Disney

By Jan Woltmann

Once upon a time, not long ago, a Kelowna woman at a national financial firm found herself preparing an entry level budgeting workshop for a young adult staff at Club Penguin – one of the largest, most successful children’s websites belonging to the Walt Disney Company. In her search for inspiration and help, she turned to a trusty little treasure called Getting a Grip from Stewardship ministries at the Canadian Conference of MB Churches (CCMBC).

“I looked for resources that I could use for a Power Point presentation, but I couldn’t find anything nearly as good as Getting a Grip, says Cindy Schellenberg of the “how to” booklet brimming with practical tools designed to put Christian stewardship principles into practice.

Cindy Schellenberg

As it turned out, Schellenberg incorporated several of the booklet’s most popular pages into her presentation and offered it as a take-home gift to participants.

“I have a great financial resource from MB Stewardship Ministries available free of charge,” she said to her young audience, “just be aware that it comes from a faith-based perspective.” To her astonishment, almost all were eager to check it out: 70 percent of workshop attendees took a copy.  Incidentally, the three founders of Club Penguin are local Christian businessmen with a very generous corporate culture of giving.

But this is only part of the story. Schellenberg, a member at Willow Park Church in Kelowna, B.C. has been a long-time fan of Getting a Grip, ever since a pastor introduced her to the resource more than ten years ago. Since that time, she’s used it to teach her teens about Godly money management, and more recently, she distributed it among her fellow marriage mentors at the church. “They found it to be a very useful guide for discussing money with their mentee couples,” says Schellenberg.

And she’s not the only one to give the stewardship booklet an enthusiastic “thumbs up.” Close to 7,000 copies of Getting a Grip have been distributed within the Canadian conference to date, and plans for a French translation are underway, thanks to the efforts of Jean Raymond Theoret, former pastor at Ste-Rose church in Montreal. “We hope to complete the translation by end of summer,” says Theoret.

What’s more, the Canadian conference offers the resource free of charge to MB constituents, and has five stewardship representatives across the country that provide financial presentations and seminars to MB churches as a complimentary service. It’s all part of their commitment to encourage the MB community to experience joy in giving, and to grow generosity within the denomination.

“The brilliance of the booklet,” says Lloyd Reimer, B.C. stewardship representative at CCMBC “is that it’s compact.” While many books on the subject can be tedious and laborious, “this workbook can be used in a variety of settings, such as at our financial seminars, in a care group, or as personal study material.”

“We’re delighted with what this resource has accomplished,” says John Wiebe, CCMBC’s chief financial officer. While the content, a collaborative effort by stewardship staff, is due for a refresh to make it even more accessible, “the principles are timeless,” says Wiebe.