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United Church embraces startups as it updates its social mission to engage millennials

Katherine Selby, a minister at St. Andrew's United Church in Markham, welcomes the United Church's shift to supporting startups and social innovation.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

With prime real estate in cities across the country going increasingly unused, the United Church of Canada is testing out the idea of opening sacred space up for incubation.

Under the guidance of 35-year-old minister Katherine Selby and entrepreneur coach Peter Miller, St. Andrew's United Church in Markham, Ont., has opened its doors to 12 small business owners and social entrepreneurs. The "hubsters," as they're affectionately known, have 24/7 access to church space to work, meet clients and attend workshops on everything from branding to cybersecurity.

"If you think of a monastery in the Middle Ages, it would have a worshipping community, but it would also have a brewery, it would have medicine, it would have educational resources for the community. So there was a variety of services and contribution to the local economy," said Rob Dalgleish, who runs EDGE, the United Church's innovation team.

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The Markham Community Innovation Hub, which can host up to 20 entrepreneurs, is only a small part of a broader shift in the United Church. In an attempt to engage millennials and reimagine its role in communities across the country, the church is turning to the language and techniques of startup culture.

Two years ago, EDGE ran its first Social Innovation Challenge in Toronto, inviting entrepreneurs and social activists, both church and non-church members, to pitch ideas that would be considered for small amounts of seed funding, ranging from $500 to $1,500. Successful applicants had to show that their ideas were not only financially viable, but also beneficial to the community.

They've since run challenges in cities across the country and established an online network to connect over 170 initiatives with business mentors.

"A lot of them are social workers or psychologists and their understanding of business is not strong… What we're trying to do is give them the tools," said Mr. Miller, who's mentoring Markham hubsters as well as other entrepreneurs in the church's online network.

The United Church has even allocated 10 per cent of its mission budget – which typically goes to things like summer camps and soup kitchens – to support social enterprise. "Social enterprise is the religion of millennials, it's where they find meaning," explained Mr. Dalgleish.

It's a key psychological insight for Carla Leon, manager of New Initiatives with EDGE, and the mastermind behind the Markham hub. Baby boomers are willing to donate money to charities and churches, but millennials want to be actively engaged and see themselves as agents of change, she said.

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"If that dynamic is happening, of course we want everyone to be involved in it, but how do you make it financially sustainable?" asked Ms. Leon.

Individualism amongst millennials creates problems of scale when it comes to funding churches and charities, but also opportunity for more smaller-scale experiments. In that sense, what's happening in church and charity spheres mirrors the proliferation of entrepreneurs seeking autonomy through small-scale commerce online.

"Faith organizations actually want to help the world become a better place... and neighbourhoods specifically. So if we're helping other people live that out, regardless if they come to church on Sunday, that's beautiful, that's a great thing," said Ms. Leon.

There are also more practical real estate concerns behind ideas like the Markham hub.

"We are aware that maybe 1,000 United Church properties will be redeveloped, sold or somehow realigned, renovated in the short term. That's largely driven by financial stress. The current model does not sustain that kind of infrastructure," said Mr. Dalgleish.

The Markham hubsters aren't paying anything to use the space for the first six months. But going forward, this kind of initiative could provide the Church with another source of revenue. Mr. Miller is creating a startup manual, and expects the idea to be adopted by other churches in the coming months and years.

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So far the response to the Markham project, within the Church's congregation, has been mixed.

"There's people who are quite excited and there's people who are eyeing it suspiciously to see what that newfangled thing is about, " said Ms. Selby, the minister. "But definitely there are enough people in the congregation and enough people who are volunteering and championing it to make it happen."

The hubsters' businesses don't necessarily have to do with the Church, but church-members often benefit, said Ms. Selby. For instance, one hubster runs a yoga class for seniors that is well-attended by congregation members. Another focuses on community gardening.

"We're quite different from a business innovation centre in that our bottom line is not to generate revenue and increase profit margins. Our bottom line is just to make the world a better place, one person at a time," said Ms. Selby. "I think it's what the church wants to be, but we're so busy doing other things that we can't spend all of our energy doing this. So to partner and champion these sorts of things is a very efficient way to arrive at the same goals."

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