When Peter Chynoweth gives his last sermon on Oct. 28, the Yellowknife United Church minister admits he will be fighting back tears, but will also celebrate more than a decade of church leadership in the North.
Chynoweth is set to leave his position and retire in Yellowknife with support of his wife Sharon, a senior administrative coordinator at the GNWT Department of Justice and musician with the church. With 13 years and one month of service, he is the longest serving United Church minister of any that have served in Yellowknife, he said..
“I feel pretty good,” he said. “We are leaving pretty content and we plan on staying here in Yellowknife for at least a couple of more years. The North has captured us.”
Chynoweth first came to Yellowknife in 2005 after stints as a minister with Bonneyville and Jasper. At the time, he replaced former minister Liz Richards. Like many churches, Chynoweth says his congregation is suffering dwindling numbers, as he typically prints 50 bulletins a service. According to the Yellowknife United Church 2018 Minister Search Facebook page, 140 people make up the congregation, with about half of those over the age of 40.
But his role as a spiritual voice in the community has brought him to the forefront of the most important cultural fights of the modern era, including his support for all-gendered weddings, climate change justice, and the battle against fracking in the Sahtu.
“One of the most important things that happened during my time here is that we became officially an affirming congregation (in 2013), which means that we are openly welcoming of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities and so on,” he said.
Chynoweth was hired not long after same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada and it was an issue he championed from the outset. This was in part because the church has taken a progressive stance on the issue, including with the United Church of Canada allowing gay and lesbian clergy in 1988.
“I would say because we became known as affirming congregation, the profile of our congregation changed,” he said. “People of gay and lesbian sexual orientation became part of the congregation in more of a prominent way.”
He was never able to preside over a gay and lesbian marriage, but has had a baptism for a baby of two same gender parents.
Chynoweth has also not shied away from political activism where he has felt it necessary and has been supported by the congregation. Climate change and environmental justice have been among the issues he has taken strong stances on.
The biggest effects (of climate change) are felt among those least able to deal with them like people in poverty or people living in marginal areas,” he said. “Another issue that I’ve been involved in has been the fracking discussion in Sahtu and I ended up in a meeting with then minister David Ramsay.”
The church has also aimed over the years to be an integral part of the community Chynoweth said as a tenant of Northern United Place (NUP). Built in 1976 after plans were developed by the United Church minister and congregation of the time, the building has continued to offer numerous sorts of cultural, educational and community gatherings. This has allowed the church to develop valuable relationships that reach beyond devoted Unitarians, Chynoweth said.
“NUP is a really important symbol in the community,” he said. “People have told us that even though they are not church-goers, they do see Yellowknife United Church as their church because they come here to do stuff around social justice and because of the openness that we offer.”
The congregation has been involved in searching for a replacement for Chynoweth for a number of months which has included assessing how the demographics of the church have changed, how the city has changed, and what the priorities of the church are. Members of the congregation put together a “Joint Needs Assessment” which documents information like how the demographics of the church have changed Chynoweth’s tenure, how has the city changed, and what priorities are within the church. The document is then sent for approval to the Northern Lights Presbytery of the Alberta and Northwest Conference of the United Church of Canada. It is then that the church can begin searching for a replacement.
Chynoweth said he intends to take a step back from the congregation so to allow the new minister to get used to the functions of the church and transition into the role.