Editor’s Note: On Jan. 6, 2001, after 30 years of dialogue, the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, while maintaining their autonomy, agreed to come together to work for joint mission in the world and to allow clergy to move freely between the two churches. This week, ENS is running a “Called to Common Mission” series celebrating 15 years of Episcopal-Lutheran full communion.
[Episcopal News Service] In the winter months, Holy Comforter Lutheran Church in Baltimore, Maryland, faced $4,000 gas and electric bills – essentially every person in the pew would need to give $100 just to pay the balance. That didn’t take into consideration the need for a new roof and boiler, payroll, maintenance and other expenses. The building was in bad shape, and the congregation, though vibrant, was dwindling in numbers.
“We had to make a decision,” said Jeff Valentine, a member of the Lutheran congregation since 1972. He and his wife raised their family in the church—their three children were born, baptized and confirmed at Holy Comforter. The roots were deep and strong.
“What was important to us as a congregation? In the ideal world, we would have loved to stay in the building. But what was more important was that we stay together as a church family.”
One option was to open a storefront church or meet in borrowed space. Another was to see if there was a congregation with which they could partner. Valentine and other leaders acted as scouts, visiting area congregations to determine a possible match. There was no shortage of nearby churches: other Lutheran congregations, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, United Methodist. And then, on a snowy Sunday – Feb. 1, 2015 – Valentine attended Nativity Episcopal Church.
In less than a year, the two congregations formed a partnership and became one of the newest expressions of the Episcopal-Lutheran Called to Common Mission initiative. On Nov. 1 of this year, the Baltimore congregation celebrated its first year together and changed the name from the plural – The Churches of the Nativity and Holy Comforter – to the singular The Church of the Nativity and Holy Comforter. It’s a drop of just two letters but a huge symbol of the progress and success of the partnership, and the continued commitment to working together as self-described “Lutherpalians.”
That doesn’t mean the union of the two churches was easy. Both groups had to make compromises, letting go of a sense of ownership and being willing to experiment and learn from each other.
The Rev. Stewart Lucas, the Episcopal priest who began serving Nativity in 2013, jokes that the biggest hurdle was sorting out who ran the kitchen.
“The kitchen czars had to come together,” Lucas said. They had to figure out that “when we move the knives, we’ll decide together where they go.” After some initial discomfort, Lucas said that those relationships forged in the kitchen are some of the tightest in the church. Shared mission and responsibility, he said, builds community.
Nativity’s building was in better shape, so the two groups of leaders decided to sell Holy Comforter. But then the challenge arose: The congregations had to decide how to merge 100-plus years of furniture and liturgical accoutrements. Whose organ would they use? Altar? Linen cloths? Communion ware? Pews, chairs, tables, wall hangings?
As Lucas said, “How many purificators does one place need?”
It can be hard in a single congregation where moving a beloved picture from one wall to another can incite passion. Imagine the patience and compromise it takes to incorporate two churches’ full of stuff.
It was harder for the Lutherans, of course. They were giving up their building and moving into someone else’s space. But the organ came with them. So did a set of seasonal banners created by a talented seamstress from Holy Comforter. The Lutheran altar has been re-stained to match the Episcopal woodwork and likely will be installed in early 2017.
The two congregations also had to work through intricacies of church polity. They are two separate legal entities with two different budgets – although that may change in the coming years. They are working on how to govern the congregation, building from the model of a vestry and a council. The two clergy leaders—an Episcopal priest and a Lutheran pastor—also had to figure out how to work together. The Episcopal diocese paid for a coach to meet with the two leaders, similar to a marriage counselor, so they could talk about their union, the opportunities and the challenges.
The two congregations have had to figure out differences in worship and liturgical styles. Holy Comforter broke bread for Holy Eucharist; Nativity had the tradition of wafers. They had to learn how to navigate two hymnals, a problem solved with using red letters on the hymn board to signal the Lutheran book.
Overall, the worship styles were similar, Lucas said. Working with the Lutheran pastor, the Rev. David Eisenhuth, the two have crafted a fully blended worship service.
“Neither congregation was so tied to liturgy and music. We weren’t destination music-and-liturgy churches. Our focus was more about mission and outreach,” Lucas said. “That enabled us to look more broadly at what we do on Sunday morning and figure things out. Not holding on so tightly to one way of worship enabled us to open our eyes and arms to some other plan.”
And, he said, “To be honest, this worship together is better than what we were doing separately.”
Longtime Episcopalian Rob Sohlberg said the differences between the two congregations were far less important than their similarities. The demographics of the two congregations mirrored one another. Both had a mix of white and black, some expatriates from England, the Caribbean, and Bermuda, and a sizable population of Liberian immigrants. The congregations attracted blue-collar and professional folks, liberal and conservative, young and old.
Bringing the two congregations together has meant 100 or more on Sundays, instead of 40 or 50 in each. The singing is more robust, more volunteers have stepped up and more people come to coffee hour to connect with others and share ideas.
“We were a pretty energetic congregation already,” said Sohlberg. “But this has injected a whole bunch of new life into our congregation.” The Episcopalians joined the Lutherans in their longtime project of putting together Christmas stockings for the Salvation Army. And the Lutherans joined the Episcopalians in their ministry to seafarers and in working on a Habitat for Humanity build.
“We’re not really two congregations anymore,” said Sohlberg. “It’s two legal entities but in terms of everything else, we are just one big mash-up. You would not be able to walk in on any given Sunday and know who was Episcopalian and who was Lutheran. We’re all there, participating in the liturgy, coming to coffee hour, washing the dishes in the kitchen and sending our kids to Sunday School. It’s everybody doing things together.”
Sure, said Valentine, the process had some niggling challenges at the beginning. But “when people ask me now how it’s going, on a scale of 1 to 10, I rate it a 12. I believe it’s a model that other congregations ought to look at.”
Just a year after the union, God is doing a new thing with this combined congregation, said Lucas. When a property became available next to Nativity, the church leaders decided to purchase it. They are still figuring out what God wants them to do with the building. But they have an inkling already.
Recently Lucas was planting some bushes in front of the building and a rabbi stopped by. He asked about possibly renting some space for his congregation. Lucas and the other church leaders don’t know yet whether that proposal will come to pass, but they believe that they are called to be a living example of life lived in shared community.
Said Lucas, “We can’t solve all the problems ourselves, but we can be a model of how … different groups can come together and be fruitful.”
– Richelle Thompson is deputy director and managing editor of Forward Movement.