Clark makes history as first-ever WOW President
Former Blyth and Brussels United Churches Minister Gary Clark is making history as the first elected President of the Western Ontario Waterways Regional Council, a new body in a wholly new governance model for the United Church of Canada.
Clark, who was a long-time minister at Blyth United Church, as well as Brussels United Church later in his career, moved to Kitchener in 2017 to be the minister at Forest Hill United Church.
The United Church of Canada has had the same governance model since 1925, Clark explained, which was set up with different circles of responsibility.
“The local congregation was the base – the first line – and then there were circles of responsibilities and oversight above that,” he said. “The next circle was the Presbytery, which usually had 20 or so pastoral charges, and four or five Presbyteries were in a Conference. There were 12 Conferences that made up the United Church of Canada and that final level was called the General Council.”
He said other church organizations operate in much the same way, with parishioners at the base with several tiers above that. The new method of governance for the United Church of Canada, however, has sought to streamline that process.
Now, there are regions which are made up of 145 pastoral charges and 13 regions make up the whole church. Western Ontario Waterways is one of those regions and the highest tier is now called the denominational council.
“Instead of four circles, we now have three,” Clark said.
The change was implemented earlier this year and Clark was elected and installed to the president’s position over the weekend.
He said that the pastoral charges are going to be similar, but larger, noting that previously his new church of Forest Hill United and Blyth and Brussels United Churches were in different groupings, but they are now part of the same body he now leads.
Clark will still preach at Forest Hill United Church, however his new position will have him taking time from that pastoral charge to help with the health of many charges now under his care. He said it will be different, but all ministers are asked to spend time every week tending to the larger structure of the United Church of Canada. That responsibility, he explained, is suggested to help make sure the United Church of Canada thrives.
“It’s like anything else, where if you want to be part of something safe and healthy, you have to consider what you’re doing,” he said. “If you want to be safe in your own town, the question is, what are you doing to make your town safe. It’s not about the police, or someone else. If you want a safe town, you have to be a part of making it safe.”
Clark said he hopes to foster that attitude of social responsibility in all the churches he now oversees.
“There was a time when people had a clear sense of social responsibility,” he said. “Now, that’s waning. It’s harder to find people to sit on boards or be in organizations, and those are the very things that make our society and our communities beautiful, friendly and safe. I see it as an honour to help our church and our community be strong.”
He said the question in front of him now is how he can encourage local congregations to work with each other. He pointed to his decade of experience in Blyth and Brussels as examples that those kinds of joint-fellowships can work.
“In the case of Blyth and Brussels, it’s a concrete example,” he said. “Blyth and Brussels could not afford a full-time minister on their own, so they have to work together and that’s a good thing.”
He went on to say that these kinds of changes should be made before congregations have their backs to the wall.
Clark also pointed to the churches in Blyth that previously hosted summer day camps together. By pooling resources, the Blyth Christian Reformed Church, Trinity Anglican Church, the now defunct Living Water Christian Fellowship and the United Church were able to offer a summer camp experience that likely wouldn’t have been matched if any one church tried to do it on its own.
Clark will be president of Western Ontario Waterways for two years, and, after that, a one-year term will be implemented where presidents will spend one year as president-elect before leading the organization.
This isn’t Clark’s first brush with leadership in the church as, under the old governance model, he was nominated to be the Moderator of the General Council, which was the senior-most elected official in the United Church of Canada.
Story by Denny Scott