[Episcopal News Service] Call them Lutheran-Episcopal digital collaborators.
Episcopalian Dr. Elizabeth Drescher and Lutheran Pastor Keith Anderson co-authored “Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible” and closed out the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity with a Jan. 25 “CommFest 2014” workshop about church communication and social media at Trinity Lutheran Church in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Theirs is among a growing number of creative ministries and mission-minded expressions of the 12-year-old Called to Common Mission unifying agreement between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church.
Other evidences of deepening collaborative relationships include: the November joint statement from the presiding bishops of both churches, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori and her Lutheran counterpart, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, regarding the Dec. 1 observance of World AIDS Day. There is also the recently announced agreement with their Canadian counterparts to coordinate responses to natural disasters and other events that may transcend their borders.
Additionally, the Episcopal Church and the ELCA share an Office of Government Relations staff position of legislative representative for international issues, and there is a joint ministry and training among the federal chaplaincies.
The Rev. Jon Perez, a member of the Lutheran Episcopal Coordinating Committee (LECC), estimated that about 50 “formal and informal” joint Lutheran and Episcopal ministries approved by governing bodies of both churches exist around the country, including his own congregation, Epiphany Lutheran and Episcopal Church, in Marina, California.
“We’ve passed the ten year mark with Call to Common Mission (CCM) and in this next ten years we want to focus on how to make this more intentionally missional work … and to see how we both can better use this relationship to reach the unchurched and those who have left the church and do it in a bold way,” he said.
Despite concerns about CCM, “we didn’t lose our identity,” Perez added. “Twelve years into it, the ELCA is still the ELCA and the Episcopal Church is still the Episcopal Church and now it’s time to see how we can function more effectively as a missional tool together.”
Iowa Bishop Alan Scarfe, a LECC co-chair, agreed. “The work has changed over time. Initially, it was about monitoring where we were and where we might have differences, like was everybody rightly represented at all the ordinations.
“But, we’ve moved on, to a place where we regularly set goals, have a five-year plan,” Scarfe said. “The idea of focusing on mission is to focus on how much there is to do in God’s name and the fact that we can all come together to do this across our denominations, that’s what ecumenism really is.”
Digital Collaborators, ‘match.com colleagues’
Drescher’s and Anderson’s collaboration happened “in an organic way in the digital world … a match.com colleague relationship” and embodies the ecumenical relationships enjoyed by the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, she said.
“We connected on Facebook. I enjoyed his blog. We stayed in touch” and when Drescher, an author and academic who teaches in the religious studies and pastoral ministries department at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, was considering a follow-up to her book “Tweet If You ♥ Jesus”, she invited Anderson’s input.
They collaborated on “Click 2 Save: the Digital Ministry Bible” but didn’t actually meet until the book was in the final stages, according to Anderson, a pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church near Philadelphia, during a recent telephone interview with ENS. “We did everything by email, Twitter, Google hangouts, Skyping; our weekly writing meetings were on Google plus.”
It led to joint speaking engagements, like the recent CommFest 2014 where the duo offered a basic message that while the CCM is really important, “a lot of things happen organically on the ground and especially even more so with social media,” said Anderson, 40.
“It allows people to connect beyond denominational networks, and share interests, concerns and passions, person to person and that’s certainly what we experienced,” he said. “Through social media, we were able to serendipitously become connected, grow deeper, and make contributions for the life of the church.
“Through our story we are helping people to think about how social media can enable people to connect, to contribute to the larger church,” he said. “In some ways we’re just living into what the Call to Common Mission means.”
Drescher agreed. “Our collaboration has brought the conversation to both of our denominational communities and that’s allowed us again to model a way of being in relationship,” she said during a recent telephone interview. “It tends to happen that I get invited to Episcopal things and Keith gets invited to Lutheran things and we bring each other along to the extent we can. It’s great to color outside the lines with him.”
At CommFest 2014 the pair discussed the spirituality of the “nones” — those who check the ‘none’ box on forms asking for religious affiliation — “but who remain interested in questions of meaning and value and the spirit.”
About 70 percent of “nones” come from Christian backgrounds and about 50 percent of those raised in the Episcopal Church will not be Episcopalians as adults (40 percent for Lutherans), Drescher said. Yet, they remain interested in “the very kind of questions that are our stock and trade in churches; we need to be thinking about more creative ways to be in conversation with them,” she said.
Ecumenical advocacy, shared strategies
In issuing a joint statement about World AIDS Day last November, the presiding bishops of both churches called upon Episcopalians and Lutherans to explore ways the common mission agreement might facilitate collaborative advocacy and shared strategies.
“Our churches’ full-communion relationship is more than ten years old, and local communities are now collaborating in varied and exciting ways,” according to the statement. “Can shared strategy toward AIDS-free communities be a part of this? Could congregations challenge themselves to see the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS – observed annually beginning the first Sunday in March – as an opportunity to begin?”
Sarah Dreier, who until December 2013 served as the ELCA and Episcopal Church legislative representative for international issues, said that collaborative role “helps to magnify our voice” on such global issues as combating HIV/AIDS and reforming federal food aid policies “that would help reach many more people … and substantially address the needs of poor and hungry people around the world.”
“It was a policy that both the Episcopal Church and the ELCA are deeply committed to,” said Dreier, 31, the daughter of Lutheran pastors, who left her position to pursue a doctorate in global peacemaking and economic justice at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We were able to do a very substantial amount of advocacy work, reaching out to key members of Congress who would have the potential of helping to move this issue from across the aisle.”
Alex Baumgarten, director of government relations for the Episcopal Church, said the two churches initiated the joint position in 2011 in part because of “financial stewardship in the area of declining budgets, but even more by a sense that the two churches shared very similar witnesses – with the chief distinctions often being the cultural and geographic perspectives that informed those witnesses – and that each of those two similar witnesses would be strengthened by more intentional collaboration with the other.”
Shared resources were another factor, as “the ELCA has global Lutheran partners in some places where the Anglican Communion is not widely represented, and vice versa,” he added. “We have found over the past nearly three years of sharing this work that our witness as churches has been magnified and enriched substantially as a consequence of partnership with the other.”
Now, bishops from both denominations are considering shared advocacy on domestic, state and local public policy initiatives. “The gift of sharing one particular missional staff position with the ELCA has allowed The Episcopal Church, I believe, to challenge our thinking in much wider ways about what unity and common mission mean,” Baumgarten said.
“While financial scarcity initially led us to consider sharing this work, it has now become apparent that this scarcity was, in fact, an invitation into a place of far greater abundance than was possible when we maintained separate staff positions in this area.”
Becoming missional tools: ‘do it in a bold way’
Often collaborative partnerships have developed from necessity but have blossomed into new initiatives. One such is the Komo Kulshan Cluster in Washington’s Skagit Valley about 60 miles south of the Canadian border where four Episcopal churches and a Lutheran church exercise a joint ministry.
With average Sunday attendances ranging anywhere from a few people in some congregations to as many as 40 in others, the cluster of five churches — Celebration Lutheran and Christ Episcopal in Anacortes, Resurreccion Episcopal and St. Paul’s Episcopal in Mt. Vernon, and St. James Episcopal in Sedro-Woolley — have shared clergy, staff and resources like Godly Play classes and jointly hosted a summer day camp for immigrant children.
“We are doing vastly more than any one congregation alone could do,” according to the Rev. Helen McPeak, an Episcopal priest.
As a result last year, 110 children received summer tutoring and fall school supplies. On Jan. 30 the churches will jointly take on the state legislature at an Interfaith Advocacy Day, according to the Rev. Heidi Fish, a cluster ELCA pastor.
“Each congregation would probably only be able to produce one or two folks to go, but with the energy of the leadership and … highlighting the needs, we’re expecting to bring 15 folks,” she said. “One of the issues being discussed is immigration reform and the Dream Act,” which affects some members of the community.
In San Francisco, a nearly two-year collaboration began when First United Lutheran (FUL) recognized “we were property-rich and cash poor” and sold their building, according to the Rev. Susan Strouse. They were looking for a place to rent and St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church had an appealing space and community center.
St. Cyprian’s, a historically black congregation, was facing drastically changing demographics “but there was a real openness to be part of the community,” recalled Jarie Bolander, a member. Now, he says, the two congregations are “friends with benefits” and recently–with the support of their local and church-wide governing bodies, hired a full-time mission developer to reach out to the “nones,” the spiritual but not religious in the community.
“We envision two congregations who are going to maintain their own identities … but we also expect there will be something else that will grow and emerge and we don’t know what that will be,” Strouse said. “We’re trying to make a space for something new and wonderful to happen and we don’t want to put a definite vision on what that’s going to look like. We want it to come from the ground up.”
But, she added: “there’s no template, no guidelines …and even though we’ve got this Call to Common Mission, the two denominations are different—our worship styles, our polity. We knew it was going to be messy but you don’t know what are the minefields until you step into them. But, we’re learning.”
The Rev. Canon Stefani Schatz, canon to the ordinary for the Diocese of California, said this first Lutheran-Episcopal collaboration of its kind “is part of a much larger vision that Bishop Marc Andrus has had for the diocese. We understand the whole of our diocese to be an emerging church; we understand all of our diocese to be a mission enterprise zone.”
Schatz agreed that “there’s no playbook for it. It’s part of us really looking forward into what I’m calling 21st century church … and we’re trying our hardest to be open within the structures of both churches’ judicatories. It’s been amazing how supportive the Lutherans have been in working with us.”
As the mission developer for the two congregations as well as the Sierra Pacific ELCA Synod and the Diocese of California, the Rev. Anders Peterson, 30, a newly ordained ELCA pastor, said he hopes to help add a spiritual component to the center’s existing ARC, or arts, resilience and community, identity.
“There’s a hope we can engage spirituality in a communal sense; where we can gather together and ask ourselves what it means to be supporting and helping each other in hopes and hurts, vulnerability, passion, our quest to find ways to connect with what is more than ourselves, with what is luring us to be whole and loving and compassionate people. My role is to direct that initiative” and to serve as a kind of community chaplain, he said.
While Cyprian’s Center provides daily activities, serving as many as a thousand people weekly, average Sunday attendance at the church ranges about 20, Peterson said. In addition to alternately sharing the facility for worship — First United at 5 p.m. and St. Cyprian’s at 10 a.m. on Sunday — they sometimes host joint services and community events.
But he added that “the mission is not to just mush the two together; the mission is to let these congregations flourish in abundance by responding to the needs of their local community. Their local communities are often made up of folks who are unfamiliar with or who have departed from faith life so what does it mean to open up your doors radically and say welcome here, we welcome you just as you are. We welcome you to be in partnership with us and let’s begin with common ground?”
He said the congregations are striving to answer the questions of what it means to be “a 21st century spiritual community.
“People here [in San Francisco] don’t go to church on Sunday,” he said. “If that’s the case, then how do we be church? How do we be spiritual community? That’s a great challenge.”
–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.