This week, we’ll revisit the ways churches can merge successfully, consider the model of marriage for joining disparate congregations and add in a brand-new word that hails back to the Reformation.
Making a merger
Mike Allison is a lay leader at Texas City’s Mem1 Church, which was produced by the merger of First Presbyterian and Memorial Lutheran. He found increasingly common, post-COVID challenges facing his church: too few folks, a graying congregation and a decaying edifice.
“I’m one of the First Presbyterians,” he told Our Faith. “And our facility in the old neighborhood was beginning to crumble; there just weren’t enough of us to keep it up. I found it increasingly difficult to gain outside interest in us as a church. Outreach is really everyone’s job, and again, there were just not enough of us to do that.”
Lifelong member Allison and others here didn’t want to dissolve their fellowship, so they decided to sell their church building and meet elsewhere for a while. But that didn’t turn out as they expected.
“We initially began a nesting relationship with Memorial Lutheran,” Allision said. “We had the Presbyterian service at 9 a.m., and then the Lutheran at 10:15 a.m. when we started. Our plan was to sell the old property, then use those funds to begin a new Presbyterian Church in a faster growing area.”
So, what went ‘wrong’?
“We found that the Lutherans were just too danged likeable, and after a couple of weeks of worshiping together, I began seeing the outreach potential of our combined body,” he said. “It wasn’t long before we got together as Presbies, and decided, ‘Hey, we ain’t going anywhere.’”
So, an encounter of convenience moved into a marriage, renters became spouses — although the elapsed timeline logged some seven years.
Ninety-six years a Lutheran
If anyone were to have objected to the compromises such a marriage required, it might have been the oldest member in either church, Frances Fundling.
“As a member of Memorial Lutheran the hardest thing for me was missing some of the Lutheran liturgy,” she said. “However, I realized that the merger was the only way to save both churches. I am 96 years old and have been a Lutheran my entire life. The first 24 years were at First Lutheran in Galveston and the next 72 years at Memorial in Texas City.”
That’s a long baseline to surrender, even against a promised successful future. But it didn’t take long until she began to consider the blending as a win.
“When we first started worshipping together, I was a little concerned that we might lose our Lutheran identity,” she said. “As the merger progressed, I saw that the Presbyterians brought us a choir director, a Sunday school teacher and more.”
A legal disclaimer
The working details are a bit too complex for this space, Randy Dietel, a lay leader for Memorial, explained. Rather than a simple merger, the legal arrangement is more like a joint operating agreement involving “doing business as” filings and additional paperwork, but to the average church guest, the legal matters will fade away, culminating in a single, new congregation with a unified worship.
Moving from a lifelong tradition to merged set might prove a mountain for many, but leading mixed liturgical traditions is even harder for the pastor or priest. They must become “bilingual” — fluent in the ancient patterns of glorifying God which diverged into separate denominations with different nameplates centuries ago.
The Rev. Chon Pugh leads this combined congregation. She described the process for us.
“I had to learn to be conversational in another language — ‘Presbyterian,’” she said. “I knew some words were close to the same words of my primary language of ‘Lutheran.’ I knew creeds, confession, scripture. But I soon found my definition of creeds, confession and scripture was expanding. I had a choice: I could demand we all do it the Lutheran way lead out of scarcity or I could embrace several new ways and live out of abundance.”
Abundance, she added, won out.
The last word
We’ll give the last word this week to Rev. Pugh, who will offer us a quick lesson in specialized vocabulary.
“There is a word in the liturgical world called ‘adiophera.’ It means something that it is not essential to faith,” she said. “This word has been so valuable in our merger because when you come down to it, God, the Word of God and a relationship with God are what makes a church. It is not a building or a certain order the worship service follows. Faith and belief in God are what are essential.”
Next week in Our Faith: Look on as the Foursquare Church celebrates its first one hundred years.
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