Serving Well

Creating a welcoming space for spiritual experience.

“I think people are looking for a deeper experience of the Spirit moving,” said the Rev. Kristine O’Brien, from her office at Crieff Hills Retreat Centre. “They want to bear fruit, they want to connect. They’re seeking not just a cerebral faith, but an experiential faith.

“So that’s what we do here.” 

O’Brien is executive director at Crieff, a position she’s held for one year. She was ordained in 1997, having previously served in Presbyterian congregations around Ontario. Since Crieff’s previous director had been there for 15 years, O’Brien’s arrival means a fresh set of eyes for a facility in need of revamping and renewal. 

And according to O’Brien, she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be. 

“I used to come here for other things,” she said, “and I had such a loud sense of call that I had to stop coming so much. It was actually unsettling. I had such a deep sense of vision; that it was a good place for me to do good things.” 

Because of this call, she found the application process stressful. “What if it ends up being not for me?” 

She got the job, of course, and immediately started to put her vision into action. 

She always knew she wanted to bring more theology back to the position, as a minister had not run Crieff for quite some time. A Christian sense of hospitality was another big one, as was accessibility. 

Her overarching focus? Providing “spiritual nourishment that isn’t congregational.” 

“Even people who are in churches long for more,” said O’Brien, noting that because people are busy, overly connected online, and stretched for time and energy, they’re looking for meaningful experiences. 

Because of that, Crieff is going to be offering things like silent retreats, restorative yoga, and different ways to get people outside – all things that make sense for Crieff’s 250-acre country property in tiny Puslinch, Ont., about an hour’s drive from Toronto. It was gifted to the Presbyterian Church in Canada by Col. John Bain Maclean, of Maclean’s magazine, in 1950 and was originally used for hosting youth groups. 

Fostering a connection to creation is another important goal. They’re currently looking at ways of making buildings more accessible to the outdoors (like installing screened-in porches), putting in a “quiet garden,” maintaining an outdoor prayer shelter, and encouraging more use of and advertising better the labyrinth found in a beautiful, secluded apart of the property.

“It’s a different way of doing church,” she said. 

In addition to these changes, O’Brien is making sure buildings and outdoor areas are accessible to all. 

“Accessibility is big,” she said. “It’s part of focusing on the Christian sense of hospitality. It’s one of the main reasons we do what we do.” 

She told a story about a late minister who loved coming to Crieff to walk the grounds. When he was diagnosed with ALS, which eventually put him in a wheelchair, he could no longer get around Crieff and had to give up going. O’Brien wants to ensure no one is prevented from enjoying Crieff’s natural beauty. 

Her first order of business after arriving? Access to food. “I believe in an open table for Communion,” she said. “Everyone should have access to the table in a congregational setting; and people who come to be spiritually nourished deserve a place to be at the table.” 

The building where people eat – as well as the office hub – is an 1874 school house. A big reno has been happening over the last few months, widening doors and changing other things to ensure wheelchairs can easily come inside. Working with a designated historic building as well as a tight budget and city codes meant some things aren’t exactly as envisioned, however the end result will still mean that everyone and anyone can come and be fed. 

Welcoming everyone extends to groups that come to use the facilities (which include meeting space, lodging, miles of groomed trails, a day-use study area, library, and more). An historical document from Crieff’s board of directors reads: our purpose is to “make Crieff Hills the retreat centre of choice for Presbyterians.” 

That’s not strictly the case today, according to O’Brien. Presbyterians do indeed use the centre for many things, but so do other denominations, youth groups, creative groups such as knitting, art and yoga, pastors coming for the day to relax and individuals looking to rest, recharge and find spiritual nourishment. Families come. Congregations come. Spiritual direction is also available. 

Serving guests well and treading lightly on the earth involve a focus on creation care. They grow a lot of their own food on-site, raise bees and sell the honey, cook according to the harvest, have plans for a canning and preserving program, and are signing on with the North Carolina-based Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association, which offers a program that helps churches and agencies commit to being kinder to the environment. 

“They have four points that we’ve agreed to, to make our facility more creation-friendly,” said O’Brien. 

Some of their own personal commitments include no longer buying single-use plastics or styrofoam, switching to non-toxic cleaning products like vinegar (though O’Brien noted this needs to be balanced with health and safety requirements), cutting less grass (they’re cultivating meadow space), and growing more of their own food.   

“We want to be a place of rest, renewal, nourishment and welcome,” said O’Brien. “But it’s not a place to run away to, like you’d go to an inn to escape; but a place for prayer, for the practice of spiritual renewal.”

“We hope people will say they came here and were well cared for; that it’s a beautiful place; and that the food is good and healthy.” 

Future goals and dreams include creating services for burnt out pastors, and a gap-year program for high school kids who have graduated but don’t know what to do next. They would live on-site in community and work on the property, while being coached and mentored. 

“The other big one that haunts me is reconciliation,” said O’Brien. “I’m talking with people about how to use the land well, how to redeem it, and how to welcome relationship. We’re working towards it. I don’t know what they need, but I’m having talks about it.” 

I asked O’Brien if there is a Bible passage that guides her work at Crieff. She first noted (as the one she talks about with staff) Jesus’ washing of the feet. “We talk about how it’s an honour to clean toilets. It’s not just about doing people’s laundry; it’s about Christian service, and enabling people the opportunity to grow, and be more deeply rooted.”

“The one for me is Jesus at the table, and how he ate with everybody and everybody was welcome. 

“We have Buddhist groups here and spiritual non-Christian groups. And they’re welcome here. They are welcome to share our space, and it’s the Henri Nouwen idea of we share ourselves with them, and they share with us.” 


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