Faced with dwindling congregations housed in large, costly buildings, is there another way for parishes to forge new ways of working together that build unity, share resources and present a different image of church to society?
Anglican and Lutheran churches here are living out this challenge in a unique experiment. Faced with church attendances that had dropped roughly in half over the past 20 years, five local churches have come together in a formal agreement of mutual ministry for a two-year period.
The spark for this initiative began in May 2012 when Toronto Area Bishop Linda Nicholls (Trent-Durham) called together the then five Anglican parishes to explore new ways of working together and how parishes could more effectively meet community needs. This process included town hall meetings involving clergy and laity.
A February 2013 letter sent by Nicholls to these parishes notes the anxiety felt by local Anglicans in the face of declining attendance, financial stresses and aging congregations. “Our challenge is not first about money or buildings—our challenge is how we continue to be that witness to Christ in ways that are sustainable, best using the resources we have,” says Nicholls.
Prayers and discussions led to the signing of a covenant in May 2014 in which four local Anglican parishes—All Saints’, St. Barnabas, St. Luke’s and St. John’s—along with Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, pledged to work together. (By 2014, one Anglican parish, St. Alban’s, had merged with another parish, while a Lutheran parish, Christ Lutheran, had joined the covenant.)
A council made up of clergy and parishioners from the five congregations oversees the covenant, but each parish remains distinct, worshipping in their established locations.
A key goal of the Anglican-Lutheran covenant is to encourage new and renewed ministries to serve Peterborough, which has a growing urban centre and rural community. Already a number of examples of co-operation are underway: regular meetings of clergy involving prayer and discussion; a study group on the psalms that rotates from church to church, with shared leadership; joint worship services; and the exploration of a joint refugee family sponsorship. Working groups have been set up to focus on such topics as family ministry, education and training, workshop, health and communications.
Unity is being made real in creative ways through worship. At an Easter Vigil in 2013, a representative from each parish was asked to take home a coal oil lamp that had been lit from the Paschal candle. These were kept alight overnight, producing the distinctive smell of coal oil, then taken to each church for the Easter Day celebration, where each of the four Paschal candles was lit as a symbol of unity.
Despite heavy rain, on Sept. 21 nearly 300 gathered at a special service for members of the five covenant churches. The service opened with an invitation for each person to speak with someone they didn’t know as a way to build community. It included a team of biblical storytellers recounting the core elements of Christian faith in dramatic fashion.
The parishes are also helping each other through administrative efforts. Instead of each parish hiring someone to inspect their buildings, one person has been hired to inspect all of them, which has been cost-effective. A special events choir, Covenant Choir, made up of 28 members from the five congregations, has already assisted at several funerals at three different churches.
Through covenant meetings, lay members have become acquainted with people from other congregations. Friendships have developed as a result.
Perhaps the best result, however, is a change in mindset, says the Rev. Canon Gordon Finney, incumbent of St John’s. When faced by an issue, he says, “Our first impulse now is to co-operate, to ask ourselves, ‘Is this something we can do with other parishes?’ ”
The new model is by no means easy, cautions the Rev. Geoff Howson, incumbent of All Saints’. “It’s hard work. It means trusting each other and letting go of old habits. Another issue is how are we going to work with five big physical plants [church buildings]?”
Despite the challenges, Howson is a keen supporter of the new effort, viewing it as a bold effort by local Anglicans and Lutherans “to move from a maintenance model to a missional model of ministry. We’re in for the long haul to make this thing work.”
Others share his enthusiasm. “We were welcomed into the covenant with open arms and accepted the invitation quickly,” says the Rev. Scott Schellenberger, pastor of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church. “We have shared in worship experiences and scripture study, and the doors are opening to so much more. I am very excited about the way the Spirit is moving us.”
Adds the Rev. Frank Tyrrell, a deacon at St. Barnabas: “I believe that God is calling us to step out in different ways to connect with God’s people. Jesus said, ‘Protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.’ ”
MURRAY MACADAM is a freelance writer who lives in Peterborough, Ont.