Monday, June 25, 2012

"Coming Together in Faith" - a parish merger story

Post contributed by Rev. Thea Keith-Lucas

"Coming Together in Faith" is the name of the parish's blog for communications about the merger,

Coming Together in Faith and Calvary Episcopal Church also have Facebook pages.

I serve Calvary Episcopal Church in Danvers, Massachusetts. We first started to talk about merger over a year ago, when we gathered as a parish in late March of 2011 to have a frank discussion of our financial challenges. We had been running deficits and spending down our limited endowment, and we knew something would have to change within the next few years. I presented a list of options for our future, and after we talked about each one, I asked each member to raise a card of colored paper. Green meant “Yes, let’s explore it,” yellow meant “Maybe,” and red meant “No way.” Cutting staff and clergy time got a lot of yellow cards, and worshiping in a rented space produced a sea of red. I explained that Grace Church in Salem and Saint Paul’s in Peabody were facing similar difficulties and wanted to talk to us about working together. Hands with green and yellow cards went up, and a new chapter in our parish’s life began.

We have learned a lot this year. We began by worshiping together, moving from church to church over the summer of 2011. Our members jumped into the planning: advertising the schedule, making sure we had nametags to wear, volunteering as greeters and offering rides to those who might need one. We had a great turnout from Calvary at both Saint Paul’s and Grace, and our members enthusiastically welcomed our new friends during the weeks of worship at Calvary.

Then, in the fall, we began meeting with our partner churches to discuss ways to work together. Guided by our facilitator Phil Whitbeck, we learned about each other’s ministries and got to know members as individuals. We hosted an All Hallow’s Eve service with the choir from Grace Church. Our crafters invited folks from Grace and Saint Paul’s to have tables at our Fair. I met often to talk and pray with my two sister Rectors, Debbie Phillips of Grace Church and Joyce Caggiano of Saint Paul’s, and gained powerful support and inspiration from them. Step by step, relationship by relationship, we became more comfortable sharing our struggles and our hopes.

On February 12, 2012, the Rev. Canon Libby Berman, Canon for Congregations at the diocese, came to join our meeting. She encouraged all three parishes to think carefully about what we wanted to get out of our new relationships. Did we want to collaborate on a few projects? Or were we ready to seriously consider merging? After careful thought about where God is leading each of our parishes, Grace Church chose to focus on its distinctive ministry to its local community and not enter into a merger. Saint Paul’s and Calvary decided to talk about what it would mean for our two parishes to merge and carry out our ministry together.

Joyce Caggiano and I planned a meeting on March 24, 2012 where we would discuss all the questions we could think of that might be on people’s minds.  It was quite a list. Are we able to form one cohesive fellowship?? Would we have a balanced budget? How would we choose a priest? Which of the two buildings would we use for worship – knowing that the other one would be sold? A parishioner read the list before the meeting and said, “A lot of these questions are sad.” But then when we got into the meeting and started talking, they weren’t sad at all. They were opportunities to find common ground. The room was buzzing with energy and hope. Our closing Eucharist brought us into one circle, perhaps the beginning of being truly one family.

The conversation shifted from “Do we belong together?” to “How can we become one community?” People readily volunteered to start the work of planning a merger: meeting with financial consultants, arranging building audits, communicating with our members, bringing the vestries together for fellowship. We also shared two lovely and meaningful Holy Week services, a Maundy Thursday agape meal in Danvers and a Good Friday way of the cross in Peabody. Together we celebrated Christ’s love for us, his presence with us in the hard times, and his promise that beyond every death we will find new life.

Lay leaders from the merged parish Church of the Holy Spirit in Fall River came on May 6, 2012 to share with us their road map for a successful merger. They lit our hearts with their enthusiasm for coming together and their pride in their new, vital, growing parish.

Calvary’s Vestry met on Sunday, May 20, 2012 to talk about how far we’d come and what we thought needed to happen next. I was expecting the decision process to continue into the fall, but our leaders were very clear: they wanted to take a vote on the merger at their next meeting, and then bring the question before the whole parish. Everything came together quickly.  On June 3, our diocesan bishop, the Rt. Rev. M. Thomas Shaw, met with members from both parishes to hear our plans and share with us his hopes and prayers for our future. On June 10, 2012 the Vestry voted to recommend a merger. Then on June 17, 2012 a meeting of over 50 members of the parish voted unanimously to merge with Saint Paul’s.

We’re currently forming an Inter-Parish Council with five members from Calvary and five from Saint Paul’s. The vestries have granted this council the authority to make to make the countless decisions required to turn this idea into a reality, including the choice of buildings, the staffing, and the name of this new parish. We hope to be worshiping together as one parish sometime this fall.
This work has taken a lot of time. We’ve had some bumps along the way, with the rumors and misunderstandings, anxieties and losses that can come up in any community decision, especially a change as large and lasting as a merger. But we’ve stuck together and kept communicating, and the positive energy has just grown and grown.

The new parish will need to choose the right clergy person to lead them on the next part of their journey. I can’t say it’s been easy to give up my job security, but I wouldn’t trade it for everything I’ve learned from this process. I’ve been able to grow in new ways as a leader, and I’ve had an incredible opportunity to witness the honesty, creativity, faithfulness and compassion of our two parishes as they’ve worked to become one.  It has been energizing, spirit-filled work, and it gives me great hope for the future of our church.

Author Notes: Rev. Thea Keith-Lucas is a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School. She was ordained in the Diocese of Massachusetts in 2005 and called as Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Danvers, Massachusetts in September 2007.

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