The Church That Turned Itself Into An Innovation Lab

The United Church of Canada is preparing for the future, with social innovation as its focus

Why It Matters

Faith-based institutions have a rich history of community-building. Given this history and their presence, United Church properties have the potential to become the first cross-Canada grassroots network of community-based social innovation centres.

Many faith communities are property rich but cash poor because of shrinking congregations.

The United Church predicts that 1,000 of its 3,000 congregations across Canada will need to repurpose their properties over the next decade.

EDGE, a ministry responsible for preparing the United Church for the future, is showing faith leaders options to convert under-utilized places of worship into innovation hubs.

For one church, it meant turning part of its structure into an incubator.

Innovation within the United Church of Canada
In 2016, when Reverend Katherine Selby of St. Andrew’s United Church in Markham, Ontario was approached with the idea, she had never heard of social enterprise.

“I had no idea what any of this was,” she admits. “I just said: sure, let’s try it! Sounds like a great idea.”

Now, the church, which has been part of the community for more than 180 years, doubles as the Markham Community Innovation Hub.

Since 2017, it has acted as an incubator, providing support including business coaching, mentorship, workshops, and office access.

A dozen members, each with their own socially responsible company or nonprofit, have key access to the church so they can work virtually anytime during the six-month incubation phase.

It’s a sweet deal with an even sweeter price tag, given that it’s completely free.

One of the hub’s members is a makeup artist who provides free services for cancer patients, one started a company that makes eco-friendly cleaning products, and another “hubster” started an organization that supports families of people who are incarcerated.

It’s essential to note that the church’s entrepreneurial programs are not spiritually based and are open to everyone.

Social innovation gives people permission to walk into a church.”

Selby also notes that this has been helpful in reaching a new demographic.

“It’s a way for people to try us out and see the church as a place that is non-threatening and supportive and there’s no strings attached.”