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Photo Essay: The Hillhurst effect

Inside a United Church success story

By Lyle Aspinall

In his recent book Fishing Tips: How Curiosity Transformed a Community of Faith, Rev. John Pentland recalls arriving at Hillhurst United to take up pastoral ministry duties in 2004. The church, located in the northwest part of Calgary’s inner city, was in serious decline, like hundreds of others elsewhere. The congregation, which once boasted more than 300 children in Sunday school alone, was down to a core of fewer than 100 worshippers, most of them elderly. It was barely scraping by financially. The surrounding community, which had once embraced Hillhurst as a focal point, seemed to have almost forgotten it existed. Nostalgia, writes Pentland, mingled with despair inside the walls of the handsome brick building on Kensington Close. “It was clear they didn’t know what to do next, save seeking new leadership.”

Fast-forward to 2015. On a typical Sunday at Hillhurst, upwards of 400 people fill the pews in two services. A lot of them are genuinely young, not just “young” by current United Church standards. About 100 kids file out to Sunday school each week. Monthly offerings have increased almost tenfold. The annual church budget has soared from $120,000 in 2004 to $857,000 today. Offering a rich smorgasbord of outreach programs, Hillhurst is once again a hub in the life of the Kensington community, and proud of it.

Hillhurst has become a poster child for congregational renewal in The United Church of Canada. The obvious question for countless other congregations is, how did they do it? The answer is far too complicated to get into here; Pentland takes care of that in his book. But suffice to say, it all began with a core of United Church people and leaders who felt called to do something great and who believed in their own capacity to make it happen. We offer the images on the following pages not to glorify one congregation but to inspire many.

—David Wilson

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