Toby's Place to provide LGBTQ youth with 'safe space' in Scarborough

May 25, 2017 by Andrew Palamarchuk  Scarborough Mirror

Darryl James (left) and Rev. Christine Smaller    T- Justin Greaves/Metroland

Youth in Scarborough’s LGBTQ community will soon have a “safe space” to hang out, do homework and have dinner. The space, which will be called Toby’s Place, has been more than a year in the making.

Rev. Christine Smaller, minister of Birchcliff Bluffs United Church, said her congregation was looking for ways to serve the community when congregant Darryl James, a young gay man, mentioned there are no services for LGBTQ youth in the area.

“To be honest, I found that hard to believe because I come from downtown Toronto,” said Smaller, who joined the church about a year-and-a-half ago. “Then in just happenstance, I ran into a friend (who) … told me about how Planned Parenthood had just conducted this extensive research study.”  See more



Possibilities, not problems

Building on strengths rather than dwelling on negatives has brought healthy change to many secular organizations. The approach can work for churches, too.

By Julie McGonegal        FAITH  January 2018


Rev. Christine Smaller, Birchcliff Bluffs United Church

When Rev. Christine Smaller first took on a supply position at Birchcliff Bluffs United in 2015, she was warned that it was in its final death throes. The small but active congregation in Scarborough, Ont., had been given a couple of years to live.“They were exhausted and approaching despair,” Smaller recalls. “Despite enormous gifts and profound faith, they felt as if they were simply spinning their wheels.” Smaller was given a nine-month mandate to conduct a congregational inquiry. That process changed everything. 

Smaller credits the growth and transformation of the congregation to members’ willingness to fully engage with Appreciative Inquiry (AI), an approach to organizational change that has stoked the passion and faith of a handful of United Church congregations across the country. While many churchgoers will roll their eyes at the prospect of another organizational theory that makes big promises, Smaller insists that AI is different. “What it suggests, in theological terms, is that God has given us everything we need to answer God’s call in our time and place,” she says.

AI isn’t a theological approach or even a new approach. In fact, in the decades after its inception in the 1980s, it mainly gained traction within corporations and post-secondary educational institutions. It’s only now popping up in pockets of the United Church.

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At Birchcliff Bluffs United, the introduction of AI into every facet of church life, including workshops, preaching, prayers and pastoral care, has radically changed the culture of the congregation. “Behaviour on the board changed as we started to identify what was going right in the congregation,” recalls Smaller. “Meetings became more energized and hopeful as we learned to adopt a much more co-operative stance.” Smaller has stayed on as full-time minister at Birchcliff Bluffs, and her congregation has long outlived its terminal diagnosis.

Last year, the congregation opened the doors of Toby’s Place, an LGBTQ safe space for youth. According to Smaller, this initiative can be directly attributed to the AI process. “Because of a shift in culture, we had the courage and confidence to launch this,” she explains. 

Smaller strongly disagrees with those who dismiss AI as rose-tinted optimism. “When used properly, AI produces realistic and concrete goals, as well as a shift in organizational culture that makes realizing those goals possible,” she insists.

Julie McGonegal is a writer and editor in Barrie, Ont.

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