‘Time to retire’ after 38 years of service

Rev. Joan McMurtry stands outside of First United Church in White Rock, where she has served for more than a decade. McMurtry retired from her post on Sunday. - Sarah Massah photo
Rev. Joan McMurtry stands outside of First United Church in White Rock, where she has served for more than a decade. McMurtry retired from her post on Sunday.
— image credit: Sarah Massah photo

It’s hard to imagine the average 23-year-old woman deciding to devote her life to her faith and her God.

But anyone who knows Rev. Joan McMurtry would likely admit that she is far from average.

And, after 38 years of service as a minister – including more than a decade at First United Church in White Rock – McMurtry retired her post on March 30, with Rev. Bruce McAndless-Davis to take her place.

“I sort of feel finished with this part of my life,” she said last week as she prepared for her successor to take over April 1. “I’ve been happy here, I feel I’ve been productive. I’ve felt very alive in my ministry. And it’s time to retire.”

McMurtry’s intuition was what first brought her into the church. After growing up with a minister as a father, the then-college student in Saskatchewan decided in 1976 to follow in his footsteps.

“I always had planned on being a high-school teacher, but I got a bit disillusioned with that when I was in high school,” the 62-year-old laughed.

“I didn’t really know any women ministers (growing up) so it wasn’t really big on my horizon. But I think it was when I was in university, a number of things came together – both my faith, my sense of calling by God, my interest in people and community and some of my leadership skills – and it just began to make sense.

“When I entered theology school I was the only female in my class.”

Being one of few women ministers at the time, McMurtry was a pioneer of a more progressive and welcoming take on Christianity.

She noted that her experience fighting discrimination as a female minister helped shape the way she connected with her congregations, whether it was in rural Saskatchewan or here in White Rock, when she took over in 2002.

“I was looking for a congregation that was looking to connect more with the community and was looking for someone with a more open and progressive approach to Christianity,” she said. “Even today, 90 per cent of the Christian community wouldn’t call me a minister because of my gender. So 38 years later, I’m still representing a new way and understanding of being Christian. One that takes the Bible seriously, but not literally.”

That progressive approach, she noted, includes an open policy to the gay community.

“We’ve done weddings, baptisms and that – combined with our commitment to people on lower-income – makes us a very vital and rich congregation,” she said.

Since taking over the post, McMurtry’s dedication to those who are “living on the edge” of the poverty line – and those who are below it – has been an integral part of her work.

“We’ve really become a place here where that compassion and justice is lived out. It’s been costly to the congregation to do some of the programming that we’ve done, we’ve put significant energy into that,” she said.

Two of the many programs and services the church has offered have been the weekly community dinners, which are open to all, and the cold-weather shelter program, McMurtry said.

And like many of the programs she started, now the minister is able to take a back seat, thanks to the dedication of members of her congregation.

“A lot of the programs going on now are not run by me, they are run by individuals and groups of people who caught the passion,” she said. “They are pretty self-sufficient. They don’t rely on me but I was able to support and nurture their ideas and programs.”

McMurtry added that her latest project – a divisive proposal to redevelop the church property and potentially include four storeys of affordable housing – is still in the early stages. She noted that after she is retired, she will be on the sidelines.

“I’ll still live in the community and will stay in the community and stay involved, but I’m not sure in what capacity,” she said. “It’s been my life pattern to be connected with the community and community organizations. That passion is really strong in me.”


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