Multi-Denomination Congregations in the U.S. and Canada
by Thomas Ryan, CSP
November 19, 2018

Thomas Ryan, CSP
Thomas Ryan, CSP

The annual meeting of the North American Academy of Ecumenists took place September 18-20 in Arlington, VA under the theme of  “Living Unity: Ecumenical Shared Ministries?” 

Sandra Beardsall, Mitzi Budde and William McDonald shared the story behind their new book Daring to Share: Multi-Denominational Congregations in the United States and Canada (Pickwick Publications, 2018).  Each of them visited 12 different multi-denominational combinations around the continent—36 in total.  

In her opening talk on “The Life Cycle of Ecumenical Shared Parishes”, Mitzi Budde, Head Librarian and Professor at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, VA, made it clear that “We’re not talking about a facility-sharing arrangement, nor about non-denominational parishes, but ecumenically shared-ministry parishes. These are congregations with a distinct mission, and have committed to one another through a covenant. There are over 500 such congregations in the U.S. and another 100 in Canada.” 

Many different congregations are involved. In the United States: Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic. And in Canada: Anglican, United Church of Canada, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada, Presbyterian. 

In their visits to 36 of these shared ministry arrangements, their research data flowed from the people interviewed—people of different denominational backgrounds. Usually they were people in favor of the partnership, but not always. A few clergy, they reported, had become resistant, but most were welcoming, frank and open about their experience.

There are different motivations and ways Ecumenical Shared Ministry Parishes come into being. There are a lot of “hospice churches” out there, and merger for survival’s sake is a common theme.

PrintIn denominations that have a full communion agreement, there are 85 Episcopal/Lutheran covenanted shared ministries. The biggest challenges, related Mitzi, are merging their identities, developing a shared mission, addressing governance, and finding a new shared identity out of the identities they have separately had.

And yes, there are power struggles among clergy, parish staffs and councils around issues like handling building and repair issues, as well as questions around worship, such as: Are we going to alternate, or have a blended liturgy? 

“Differences like how confirmation is handled and what’s involved in it is a significant theme in many Episcopal-Lutheran parishes,” Mitzi reported. “Who will do the confirming? Lutheran bishop? Episcopal bishop? Relating to a bishop who is not your own and with whom you don’t have a relationship is always an issue. 

Some parishes downplay denominational affiliation; others don’t.  Some change the name of their parish to reflect the new reality.” 

She related that there has been an Episcopal-Roman Catholic parish, the Church of Holy Apostles, in Virginia Beach, VA, since 1977. And eight years later, on the other side of the country, a community of Roman Catholics and Lutherans was established in Beaverton, Oregon. Finances, education, worship are handled jointly, with members coming together on Sundays for a shared Liturgy of the Word, and then, after exchanging a sign of peace, they go to different altars for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. How all these congregations were formed, how they survive and thrive, how they have the tenacity to continue, and how they deal with changing judicatories is all related in the book Daring to Share. 

“Adolescence” in the merger process is finding financial viability; working out government documents; apportionment payment to the respective judicatories; developing programs and staffing. It can take 5 years, observed Mitzi, to walk the journey of merger and federation.

Worship and Belonging 

Sandra Beardsall, a Professor of Church History and Ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon, Canada and a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, addressed the theme of  “The Unity Inherent in Our Faith: Worship and Belonging in Multi-Denominational Congregations.”

“Shrinking numbers have encouraged local congregations to view their neighbors with new eyes,” said Sandra.  “ ‘What will I have to give up?’ worshippers wonder. But then they find much richness in other traditions as well. The message pastors of these blended congregations receive from their parishioners are along the lines of: ‘Do what you want. We’ll tell you what we like’.”

Accepting each other’s forms of worship can be disorientating, observed Sandra, but  eventually, one becomes bi-liturgical. “We need to learn to speak more than one liturgical language. It can be an enriching experience. It’s never ‘hum drum’, and helps to avoid idolization of one’s own worship form. There is now a blended liturgy in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Book of Alternative Services. 

“For young people growing up in a blended congregation,” said Sandra, “that’s the only kind of church they know. Their feeling is ‘We’re about Christ and not about a denominational shingle.’ Those who have been formed in two or more traditions do see themselves as hybrid, and their feeling often is: ‘We are Christians. Our denominations come second. Why can’t we just be Christians?’ ” 

Space for the Other 

William McDonald, a Professor of Religion at Tennessee Wesleyan University in Athens, TN, an elder in the United Methodist Church and pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Tennessee, addressed the question of what shared ministries might mean ecclesiologically: “The Apostle Paul’s notion of Koinonia was sharing, partnership with Jesus and his followers. It included participation in the Eucharist and sharing together in the Trinitarian life. To be in koinonia is to be together in Word and sacrament, in ministry, and in juridical structures shared in part or in whole. The extent to which such participation and partnership is possible is determined by judicatories or agreed statements.”

In an ecumenical relationship, said McDonald, “two church bodies become permeable to one another. The source of this permeability is the Trinity. The mutual indwelling of the 3 persons is the primal mystery on which ecclesiology rests. Each is reciprocally received and united in communion. Church collegiality then is a pre-disposing of the Body toward one another while remaining nonetheless “other’ in relation to one another. But what must be presupposed is communion with one another.” 

“The myriad forms of koinonia available in all humanity finds its fullest expression in the Church,” observed McDonald. “The gift of unity constitutes this Church. But we need to form a more compelling vision of unity, one that is not monochromatic sameness. Ecumenism requires an ethic in which we don’t homogenize into a lowest common denominator. We must be a community of unlike individuals who affirm being together in community, in unrelenting relation.  The sin of division is among our shortcomings.”

McDonald reflected on how the relationship between wedded congregations reflects the reality of marriage: “Multi denominational congregations create ironic blessings. They exist to make space for the other, and to offer a sign of our call to accommodate one another. Pope John Paul II spoke of church unity as a ‘real but imperfect communion’.”

Want More?

Multi-denominational congregations offer rich soil for new interpretations of what it means to be a church. These parishes have chosen to covenant together for worship, service, ministry, mission and nurturing faith across two or more denominational traditions. Daring to Share tells their stories, investigates their practices, and proposes a fresh vision of church for the 21st century. This book equips ordained and lay leaders for the formation and flourishing of such ministries. It describes five models of partnership, analyzes the parish life cycle, interprets how worship works, addresses constitutional and governance issues, and reflects theologically on the intersection of diversity and unity. To order, click here.