Ministry is all downhill

Published March 1, 2004

Rev. Jack Greenhalgh, chaplain at Big White Ski Resort, in British Columbia’s interior, baptizes Spencer David Loyd, son of resort employees James and Brenda Loyd, at the Christmas Eve service ski lodge.

While many Canadian families take advantage of March break to head to warm, sunnier climes, nearly as many hit the ski slopes. But what to do when that cold weather activity takes a family away from their regular church? Surely skiers should not have to choose between schuss and salvation.

One British Columbia ski hill answered the challenge by bringing church to the mountain.

Rev. Jack Greenhalgh, a retired priest in the diocese of Kootenay, drove a hard bargain when he negotiated his terms of (unpaid) employment with Big White Ski Resort, 45 minutes east of Kelowna in B.C.’s interior.

“I said I would do it on two conditions: one, that they give me a ski pass; two, that they don’t give me an office,” said Mr. Greenhalgh. “So, that means I spend most of my time out on the hill.”

The priest performs one 8:30 service in the main lodge each Sunday morning, early and brief (about 40 minutes) enough to get visitors on the slopes with plenty of time to ski. Big White, Canada ‘s third largest ski hill, is an elaborate complex of buildings erected on the side of a mountain; the lodge is halfway up the mountain.

The service, which Mr. Greenhalgh describes as creation-centred, is modeled after a liturgy from Iona, a Christian community off Scotland ‘s coast. “I think it’s one that people who enjoy the outdoors can relate to,” he said.

His congregation ranges anywhere from two or three people to 30 (often including resort staff), depending on the weather and the season. A particularly special time of year for the ministry is their Christmas Eve service which attracts up to 400 people each year. It is followed by a downhill parade on skis and roasting of chestnuts.

Quite apart from the weekly service, though, are Mr. Greenhalgh’s encounters with visitors on the slopes. A typical exchange starts on the chair lift ? a seven to 10-minute ride up the hill with three other skiers.

“Someone usually makes the mistake of asking me who I am,” said Mr. Greenhalgh, laughing; he has considered getting a jacket identifying himself as resort chaplain. “I don’t evangelize, nor do I impose myself on people who don’t want me.”

Mr. Greenhalgh has a theory on why the ski ministry touches a chord with some people.

“When people go away on holiday, they have time to think and reflect,” he said. “Skiing is a very meditative act. People become more conscious of their presence in the world and God in their lives.”

Archbishop David Crawley, who is Mr. Greenhalgh’s bishop and has been skiing since his late 40s, echoed the priest’s assessment.

“You’ve never seen a blue sky until you’ve seen such the incredible cerulean blue skies up there,” said Archbishop Crawley, 66, who is metropolitan (senior bishop) of the province of British Columbia and Yukon. “There’s a great deal of beauty and for some people, they associate beauty and nature with a sense of the divine. It can evoke that sense of wonder.”

Having examined the concept of resort or leisure ministry, or ministry targeting tourists and visitors, Archbishop Crawley is aware that particular care must be taken, particularly in his area where so much of the local economy caters to people at leisure.

“You can’t just say we’ll invite them to church, you have to be prepared to connect with them,” said the archbishop, who (together with his wife, Joan Bubbs, and young daughter, Rachel) participates in two diocesan ski weekends each winter for Anglican youth.

Archbishop Crawley adds that in addition to the visitors, there is also the challenge of ministering to those who work in the tourism industry. In some ski areas in the diocese, like Fernie, B.C., an influx of affluent skiers drove up housing prices, putting accommodation out of reach for many locals and resort employees.

“That’s creating two towns that don’t have much to do with each other,” commented Archbishop Crawley. “Church is where those two can come together.”


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