Pierre Trudeau was Canadian prime minister for the first time. Jimmy Carter was president of the United States and Leonid Brezhnev of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Gasoline sold for under 50 cents a litre and the Canadian Constitution had not been repatriated when Don and Dorothy Friesen moved to Ottawa so he could begin pastoring the Ottawa Mennonite Church (OMC). Friesen retired in June this year after 34 years.
Friesen was a young minister coming from a four-year associate pastorate at Bethel Mennonite Church in Winnipeg. He had grown up in Langham Saskatchewan, going to high school in Saskatoon and had a background in engineering and political science. For 19 years after it was founded in 1959, OMC had had several short pastorates—Bill Dick, Frank Epp, Bill Janzen and Adolph Enns in co-ministry for several years, and Alma Coffman from Virginia. Friesen was offered a three-year contract at three-quarter-time (Dorothy worked as a teacher); he notes that only toward the end did he get five year contracts. He didn’t finish the last contract at retirement, mostly due to health reasons.
Friesen and the congregational leaders note that the church has been very mobile. Many people come to Ottawa to work for the federal government or in the tech industries and are posted elsewhere or move on. Friesen has joked that during his time there he has pastored at least three congregations.
The congregation has many leaders and he felt they were seeking a pastor who wouldn’t tell the congregants what to do. He gives the longstanding refugee ministry which he instigated in 1979 as an example. “I consulted with congregation, and had a congregational meeting. They took on the work; and in the memory of the congregation the work emerged out of the congregation.” His low key leadership got it going, others took leadership and he was comfortable in a facilitating role. Similar leadership led the congregation to begin annual sales with Ten Thousand Villages that eventually resulted in two retail outlets in Ottawa.
The congregation averaged 85 in 1978 and now has around 250 in average attendance. Friesen also saw the congregation through two building projects in his 34 years.
Listening and coming alongside, he thinks, are key aspects to his ministry and his longevity as pastor. His first funeral in 1986 was that of a young boy. Friesen felt the support in the congregation for the family and for him. Friesens had a young son with medical problems as well. The congregation supported him with regular sabbaticals and helpful reviews with strong support each time. As the years have flowed on, he became more vulnerable to the congregation, more willing to show his weaknesses.
According to Friesen, OMC is a very diverse congregation with people all over the political spectrum and with diverse theologies. Some of the refugees from Africa and Latin America sponsored by OMC have continued to attend the congregation.
Leaders Monica Scheifele (congregational chair) and Jennifer Driediger (chair of ministerial committee which includes the deacons) warmly remember Friesen’s preaching as connecting with the congregants through humour and strong biblical content. Driediger in particular remembers his connection with the children during and outside of worship. She also felt he was especially strong in the crisis situations of funerals and weddings. Scheifele notes that Friesen is already missed as he carries so much of the congregational memory, and so much of the unwritten structure of things that need to be done.
Friesen and his wife are retiring to Winnipeg, home to one of their three children (the other two are in Calgary and Ottawa) and many friends from different times in their lives. He’s planning to take a year to ‘unwind’ and then may just keep on unwinding. OMC has hired an intentional interim to help the congregation to transition to a new pastor in 2013.