Many church congregations today are contemplating closing their doors. Some churches have dealt with changes over time that have affected the size of their church communities.
Circumstances such as COVID-19, aging congregations and fewer young people are among the reasons for a decrease in numbers.
Two local churches see a possible solution to these challenges. A church merger, which combines two parishes into one, offers many viable possibilities to reviving the health and welfare of both parishes.
Such arrangements can be complicated. Their success depends in part on some good chemistry, clear and transparent communication and being open to the Holy Spirit.
St. Paul and St. Anne
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chester and St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Washingtonville have chosen this route — with a twist. In the first stage they are keeping both churches open, while alternating worship services each week between the two locations.
This step is essential in order to create a sense of oneness at the outset among the members of the two parishes.
Both congregations can worship together and develop personal bonds among members before deciding, in stage two, which church building to sell. The funds of that sale can be used to build and fortify the resulting community.
There are reasons why this merger is likely to work. The two communities have a common vision. The leadership of the two congregations is learning from this process the importance of certain shared virtues.
The wisdom to discern between loving and enabling
Lead among them is the virtue of being non-judgmental and the willingness to put more effort into listening to each other than in talking. Good listening takes much more effort, but pays bigger dividends in making things happen.
In addition, a healthy community at a church requires a safe space in which all its members can be heard and appropriately supported. Lovers and supporters are needed, not bystanders; and the wisdom to discern between loving and enabling. Most religious groups adhere to two main principals: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. It sounds so simple and is heard so often, but it is very, very hard to do. Who are their neighbors — do they get to pick and choose the ones that agree with and look like they do?
Does judging cripple their efforts to support their neighbors? What kind of support do they really need?
Do political views sabotage supportive efforts and the commandment to love their neighbors? Listening to another’s point of view and their personal needs in these two Episcopalian congregations can be very constructive and effective in knowing what love requires of them.
Where does the meaning in life come?
The efforts expended in preserving these two parishes allow a place for others to come for spiritual renewal, learning, and healing; to be uplifted by religious music; and to experience a supportive religious community — a community that disregards ethnic backgrounds and the gender of the person one chooses to love in marriage.
It is a space where people can come to confront the ultimate questions such as: from where does the meaning in life come? From where does true security derive?
Is it from social status, or from finances, or from jobs, or exclusive social groups, or from I-phones and digital devices? At a number of junctures in one’s life, one realizes that these are the questions to which answers are needed. All are given the opportunity to come and explore these questions with the church community.
It is important for the church leadership to have the humility to know that no group of humans has a lock on the truth.
Those leaders, including Mother Claire Lofgren, who has been St. Anne’s clergy for the last three years, are ready and willing to go down the road less traveled with those who wish to uncover the true meaning in their lives.
The churches in this new configuration continue to offer weddings, baptisms, Eucharists and funerals.
Welcome and rejoice.
Thomas Vaillancourt is warden at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 101 Main St., Chester. (845) 294-7361.
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church is located at 179 E. Main St., Washingtonville. (845) 496-3961.