In Altared: Renovating the House of God, we explored the changing and often-precipitous state of Ottawa’s downtown, mainstream churches, many of which, such as Dominion-Chalmers United Church on the corner of Cooper and O’Connor, are struggling with shrinking congregations and soaring upkeep costs. Our coverage yielded a strong reader response, including an exuberant reaction from Jim Pot, minister at the venerable, 600-seat Knox Presbyterian Church at the corner of Elgin and Lisgar. A sacred landmark in the core of a secular city, the stone church, built in 1932, helps anchor a corner where motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists pass by in an unending stream. So taken with the lead essay, he waved the magazine from the pulpit, drawing inspiration for his Sunday sermon from the issues presented therein. The essay was, as he explained when we caught up with him recently, especially germane to recent discussions at Knox Presbyterian: his own commitment to make the church thrive through its supporting of the neighbourhood, as well as the church’s place in the broader community.
Our conversation with Pot adds his voice to the chorus of others we surveyed: Rev. Dr. Anthony D. Bailey, Parkdale United Church; The Ven. Christopher Dunn, Ottawa West Anglican Archdeacon, All Saints Westboro; and Rev. Geoffrey Kerslake, Pastoral Services for Catholic Archdiocese of Ottawa.
What’s the current state of Knox Presbyterian?
We have a congregation of about 130 with an average age of 65 to 70. About 100 people attend Sunday morning service. People are very upbeat, very positive. We have a healthy reserve fund, so we’re not quite in the same situation as some other churches.
What’s the biggest challenge your congregation faces?
Even with the reserve fund, we are running a deficit. [We have an] aging demographic … unless we draw in younger people, in 15, 20, maybe 30 years time this church won’t have anyone in it.
Some churches have considered options like selling a portion of their land for condos to bring in revenue. What about Knox Presbyterian?
A while back there was some talk about selling the garden courtyard for some kind of development. I’m glad the idea seems to have been dropped, that the garden is still there, and shows the church as a welcoming presence in the community. There’s something about the beauty of nature that churches with green space celebrate. I’d rather see downtown churches be what they’re supposed to be, instead of [being sold to get] a windfall.
Are you able to attract new congregants?
In the downtown, we don’t have many families to draw on like the suburban churches. But we’re getting an increasing number of university students coming to our church and joining our choir. They’ll probably leave when they graduate and move, but they give us hope that we’re not all grey beards.
What attracts new members?
Word of mouth is probably the best way. The big thing for a church is what happens on Sunday morning, so we pick hymns that are upbeat. In the sermons, I give people something to chew on. It’s not, “Think like this” — I like to help people to think. They have to come up with their own conclusions.
What about community outreach?
We’ve had an Alcoholics Anonymous group for over 30 years. We host a Muslim community for Friday prayers. An Inuit group meets here every month. Our congregation has raised over $40,000 to sponsor a Syrian refugee family. I hope to show people we’re here for the community, not just for us. I don’t think people realize how much of a difference it makes when the spiritual communities are no longer there as they [once] were.
What do older, downtown churches need to do to stay vital?
I think they need a presence that’s incarnational — in the flesh. We’re here to partner with, to walk alongside social agencies and other spiritual missions.
What’s does the future hold for Knox Presbyterian?
The future will largely depend on reaching the Gen X and Millennial generations. We hope we’re planting seeds now for them to have a relationship with the church. It’s not that we don’t have visibility with them, being on that busy corner. People know about the building, but do they know what we do? We want them first to know how we care for the community; then maybe they’ll want to come inside on Sundays.