2013 24 March

Do You Take This Congregation to Be Your Wedded Partner?

Posted in Steinbach United


Do You Take This Congregation to Be Your Wedded Partner?

by Gary Paterson

I’ve been on the road for a while: up to Thunder Bay (Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario); over to Sault Ste. Marie, including Bruce Mines (London Conference); and then on to Chapleau, Timmins, and Matheson (Manitou Conference); back to Toronto for a day to do laundry and check in at the office; then off to Napanee, Kingston, Carleton Place, and Smiths Falls (Bay of Quinte Conference).

Let me tell you, Ontario towns are well-churched! Frequently each city or sizable town has two big churches, almost cathedral size, often only a couple of blocks apart, reflecting pre-1925 times and our Methodist and Presbyterian history. Then there’s a scattering of smaller churches, spread out around town, built in the 50s and 60s, when we were dedicating buildings almost every week.

But now times have changed and we have too many church buildings—an overdone strength, where faithful people struggle to keep the roof repaired, the heat on, and the doors open with a warm welcome.

Don’t get me wrong—I love church buildings, filled with beauty, warm wood, classic stone, stained glass, and above all, memories, where prayers and worship, tears and laughter have created a holy space.

Nevertheless, in times like these, it makes sense to live into our name: the UNITED church. Surely this is the time to have conversations about co-operation with neighbouring congregations, combining our efforts, pooling resources, even talking about the “A” word—amalgamation—though I would prefer to talk about congregational romancing, leading to extended engagement, and then marriage, followed by a thoughtful discussion about whose house it makes more sense to move into, or whether it would be better to sell both houses and build a new one…together.

In my travels I have been raising questions about amalgamation. Oh my, such painful stories of long, fruitless conversations that too often end in acrimony; of journeys that almost lead two congregations to the altar, only to have a no-show partner on the wedding day.

When I was in Timmins I was asked what I would do if I were a bishop (remember, papal smoke was still wafting through the world of church). I replied, “Moderators have little power; as The Manual says, my task is ‘to quicken the heart of the church.’ But sometimes I fantasize….”

Cheryl-Ann Stadelbauer-Sampa, Executive Secretary of London Conference, told me about the response of the new Catholic bishop in London when his diocese was faced with the reality of too many parishes. He visited each congregation and asked four questions:

  • Do a sufficient number of people gather here for a joyous celebration of the mass each Sunday?
    (Worship is central to what it means to be a church. But there is no “right” number of people; it could be 10 or 100. What is important is the joy in coming together to worship God.)
  • What is the vision or mission of this parish?
    (Does it have a sense of purpose? What is central to the identity and activity of this congregation?)
  • How sound is the physical structure?
    (Is the roof about to cave in? How much money will be needed in the near future to maintain the building?)
  • Is this parish financially sustainable?

If the answer to any one of these questions was “No!” or “Don’t know!” then the congregation had some work to do and had further conversations with the bishop. Well, the end result was that about half the buildings were closed, sold, or torn down—and new congregations were created. I gather there was a lot of complaining, and the bishop is not popular, methinks. But there is no turning back—a little like having crossed the Red Sea and having to face the challenge of the wilderness. It remains to be seen how much new life springs forth.

I’m not a bishop—you’re probably relieved (I know I am!). I don’t believe that forced marriages are the best answer to the problems we face, but I do like the bishop’s questions, the emphasis on worship and mission, only then followed by practical questions about buildings and money. And I find myself wondering how United Church congregations would respond?

When I was visiting in Bay of Quinte Conference I was well shepherded by Conference Executive Secretary Bill Smith, and as we drove hither and yon, there was lots of time for good conversation. Bill did his doctoral work on—guess what?! congregational amalgamations—very helpful in times like these! Out of his research he identified a three-stage process that began with the premise that amalgamation is not a dirty word. It’s not about failure, but can be a creative and life-giving process of transformation.

The first step is for congregations to be clear about their mission. Only when that work has been done is it helpful to look for possible partners to join forces with. If two congregations are going to dance together, they need to be listening to the same music and agree on the basic steps. There needs to be a congruence of purpose, a sense that the Spirit is calling them into similar visions for ministry.

Then, when it looks like two congregations or more feel there is a possibility of a partnership based in mission, they need to work on building trust and community. This will take time: gatherings, circles, meetings, intentional conversations; mutual respect offered and received; honest discussion of fears, differences, and dreams. The process can take two years from beginning to end.

Finally, the third step—which centres on practical matters like buildings and finances. Too often congregations are tempted to start with these issues, usually based on proximity, geography, size, prosperity, the departure of ministry staff, etc. But if the previous two steps haven’t been worked on, this is a recipe for disaster. That’s when break-ups occur, generating years of distrust and hard feelings. Or the marriage occurs, but there’s no excitement—money from the sale of buildings sits unused in a trust fund, and no new ministry emerges. It’s just the same old same old, and the real crisis has simply been delayed.

But, says Bill, it can work. He has seen it work. So…think about it. Maybe the future of your congregation might include finding a partner, where together you will dance with the Spirit, and the marriage will be a blessing for you, for the church, and for the world.