Shared ministry of four denominations ‘a charmed situation’

Published February 6, 2012

My Three Sons: The Rev. Rob Murray, rector of Pinawa Christian Fellowship with Fr. Jose Montepeque of the Roman Catholic parish (far left) and the Rev. Brad Nelson, Pinawa Alliance Church (centre).
Photo: contributed

At a time when many churches are struggling with the costs of maintaining their buildings and ministry, the Rev. Rob Murray counts his blessings.

For 15 years now, Murray has been rector of Manitoba’s Pinawa Christian Fellowship (PCF), which has never owned a church building since it began in 1963. Instead, the congregation has regular Sunday services at the F.W. Gilbert School and, on certain occasions, at personal care homes in the community.

The other blessing that Murray counts? PCF is a unique and vibrant shared ministry of four denominations: Mennonite Church Manitoba, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada.

The PCF began when some staff members of the Chalk River Laboratories moved from Deep River, Ont., to Pinawa, Man., where the Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment of Atomic Energy Canada Limited (later known as Whiteshell Laboratories) was first built. The founders agreed that their church would be one where they would be allowed to keep their denominational connections. (Pinawa is an hour-and-a-half drive from the eastern edge of Winnipeg.)

“It’s a difficult time to be in ministry, and this is really a charmed situation,” says Murray, an ordained Presbyterian minister.

The PCF has 178 people (from 100 households) on the parish roll and about 60 come for regular Sunday worship. Murray need only to walk or bike to visit most of the parishioners (only four households live outside the community), a situation he describes as “a luxury.”

Having four different denominations under one roof can be challenging, but Murray says the church has made sure each denomination gets equal representation in its governance structure. The church has a set of bylaws crafted by its original founders, who were mostly former federal government employees with PhDs. “They put a lot of thought on the balance of power,” says Murray. The same balance of power that exists in the church’s general committee is also reflected in the worship committee, for instance.

The church tries to meld the rites of all the denominations into its worship, he said. “On a typical Sunday, we stand for the gospel and say the responses. We usually follow the lectionary, but we’re not tied to it.” When it comes to baptisms and other rites, “We follow the tradition of the family,” Murray says.

The only other church similar to the PCF that Murray knows of is the United Church of Los Alamos in New Mexico. That church is home to six denominations. Interestingly, it also resides close to a nuclear facility. “There’s something about nuclear research and willingness to work ecumenically,” Murray says with a chuckle.

Each denomination brings its particular gift. Murray cites the six Mennonite members, who have had a “huge impact” in engaging congregants about relief work. One of them conducted a number of service trips to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and came back to talk about the experience and “get people excited,” says Murray.

The impulse to serve has rubbed off on the congregation. In 2009, it approved a plan for the Oak Haven Housing Ministry, which would create housing for single/non-elderly people living with mental illness and who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The plan involves constructing a new apartment building on a lot that the PCF bought in the 1980s. Half of the units in the building will be for people requiring housing support and the rest will be available to the general public. The congregation has drawn up a business plan, which includes identifying funding partners.

Murray has received a lot of support from the Anglican church, represented by the diocese of Keewatin. Even though he is not an Anglican priest, he has been given a licence to minister to Anglicans and he gets invited to clergy conferences. When Gordon Beardy became the first aboriginal diocesan bishop in 1996, PCF’s choir was invited to sing at his consecration. Anglicans number about 30 in the PCF, “but they also have a big influence,” says Murray.

As for the church’s future, Murray has noted a “huge shift” in the makeup of Pinawa, which he said would help ensure its staying power. With its beautiful natural resources, including White Shell Provincial Park, Pinawa has become a retirement resort community. “It’s like we’re on Lake Simcoe or the Muskokas,” says Murray, adding: “We’re cottage country for people in Winnipeg.”

The newest members of the congregation have been people who moved to Pinawa for early retirement. “They’re amazing people; they come with rich experiences. They came here to retire, but they’re not sitting around idly. They’re packing up the camper and going out to build houses,” says Murray.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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