Denominations combine as memberships decline

Posted by Kendall Harmon

As their congregations dwindle, churches across the country are starting to merge, shoring up their numbers and strength.

In most cases, two churches of the same denomination — Methodist, Episcopal or Lutheran, for example — will come together in one building. That will happen in Simi Valley next month, when two Lutheran churches merge.

Less common is the merger of two different denominations. But that's happening here, too. In Santa Paula, Episcopal and Lutheran congregations have agreed to share a pastor and a building.

"Unfortunately, too often we see each other as competitors instead of partners," said the Rev. Gary Stevenson of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Simi Valley. "But our calling from God, no matter what our denomination, is — or at least should be — the same."

Read it all.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalEpiscopal Church (TEC)* Christian Life / Church LifeParish Ministry* Religion News & CommentaryOther ChurchesLutheranMethodist

Posted January 28, 2008 at 9:46 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. SaintCyprian wrote:

“Less common is the merger of two different denominations. But that’s happening here, too. In Santa Paula, Episcopal and Lutheran congregations have agreed to share a pastor and a building.”

The mentality of seeing different denominations as being akin to “brands” or as by-products of minor cultural distinctions is one of the weirder innovations of modern Christianity. Surely if an Episcopal church and a Lutheran church actually follow the doctrines of their respective denominations then there will be a bit of friction when the two get amalgamated. Of course if the two do believe the same things then there’s no reason not to unify, it’s just depressing to think that the instrument of unification here is bureaucracy and dwindling numbers.

January 28, 11:20 am | [comment link]
2. Grandmother wrote:

Not only that, in this day of the much-touted “polity”, which Bishop will prevail?  Lutherans have them too, and will they be counted on both the “rolls” of the Lutheran and Episcopal churches? 

If of course both churches were “independent’, that’s no problem, but the rest of the nitty gritty seems questionable (at least to me).

January 28, 11:31 am | [comment link]
3. SaintCyprian wrote:

“Not only that, in this day of the much-touted “polity”, which Bishop will prevail?  Lutherans have them too, and will they be counted on both the “rolls” of the Lutheran and Episcopal churches?”

You’ve clearly picked up on something crucial here- if churches can no longer justify existing separately on the parish level, what consequences does this have for higher up the totem pole? If two churches share a pastor, which bishop is the pastor serving? A servant can’t serve two masters, and given that the priest is in place in a parish to serve as a vicarious extension of a bishop’s apostolic ministry, it raises more difficult questions about the legitimacy and authority of either bishop. On the other hand, movements for unity within the Church seem to begin on the parish level, at least here in the UK with organisations like “Churches Together”.

January 28, 11:54 am | [comment link]
4. KevinBabb wrote:

I wonder if there is a real possibility that a significant number of congregations will, after 5-10-20 years of this type of arrangement, will conclude that 1. the denominational distincitions are irrelevant, from a practical point of view, and 2., in light of #1, all of the logistical machinations involved in running concurrent congregations in the same facility are unjustified, and simply decide to merge in fact?

As I read this article, I thought of the ELCA bishop who wrote in 1997 that Called to Common Mission represented two dying patients getting into bed together to keep each other warm as they died.  Eleven years later, does this judgment appear to have been too severe?  Or on target?

January 28, 12:05 pm | [comment link]
5. Nikolaus wrote:

I’ve sort of been wondering the same thing, Mr. Babb.  Lutherans were rather hesitant to accept C2CM.  Since 2003, we don’t seem to have heard much from them.

January 28, 12:10 pm | [comment link]
6. AnglicanFirst wrote:

Throughout the northeast there are many many small churches capable of seating 150 to 200 parishoners that are barely surviving with ASAs of 20 to 50.  Far below the ASAs that justified their construction and maintenance and not enough to support a full time clergyman.

In my diocese, many of these churches are kept open through through the appointment of non-paid vicar deacons, retired priests and supply priests.

The faithful Sunday attenders are mostly over the age of fifty and there are very few new members joining that group.  The “faithful” are worried about the continually decrteasing size of their congregations but seem to have no motivation toward ‘going out’ to bring new people into the church.  Many of them have extended families that live nearby and you’s think that they would do something to bring their own kindred to Christ.  But they don’t.

Apparently the Great Commission is ‘not their job’ and possibly they’ve never heard about it don’t remember having heard it.

Its time for a Christian revival, but who’s going to lead it?  We need someone like J. John, the British evangelist, to make it happen in our diocese. 

No significant evangelism here.  A lot of conversation but no significant growth.

January 28, 12:30 pm | [comment link]
7. Bob from Boone wrote:

There is an Episcopal-Lutheran congregation in Newland, NC, not far from where I live, that has been in existence for some time. Its clergy and members participate in our diocesan convention.

This development will continue as the landscape of American Christianity changes, sociologists of religion are saying, and will become a feature of mainline Protestant Christianity. I agree with Kenvin’s thoughts on this matter. I also think that in a decade the question of bishops will become moot as all will have participated in consecration of each others’ bishops.

January 28, 12:30 pm | [comment link]
8. TomRightmyer wrote:

The Episcopal Church and the ELCA have a national coordinating committee to help deal with issues that arise when clergy of one church serve in the other and when one congregation is related to both an Episcopal diocese and an ELCA Synod. Generally clergy remain under the discipline of the church in which they were ordained and pension fund payments are made to that church. Clergy are licensed to officiate by the bishop of the other church. That license may be withdrawn by the bishop who issued it, and the member of the clergy may be disciplined by the bishop of the diocese or synod according to the canons and regulations of the church in whoch s/he is either canonically resident (Episcopal) or rostered (ELCA). We have two joint congregations in Western NC - Newland, mentioned above, and Robbinsville. In each case members of the congregation are listed as either Episcopal or ELCA and the members of each elect the delegates to diocesan convention or to synod. The minister attends both.

January 28, 1:10 pm | [comment link]
9. SaintCyprian wrote:

“I also think that in a decade the question of bishops will become moot as all will have participated in consecration of each others’ bishops.”

I’m not so sure. The role of the bishop is one that is confined to a specific geographical area, you can’t really have two completely legitimate bishops in the same area. It defies the unity and universality to which the Church is compelled to adhere.

January 28, 1:18 pm | [comment link]
10. James G wrote:

As a Catholic this whole thing seems strange to me.  I honestly don’t know how Protestant congregations can maintain so many buildings with so few members.  I know that Catholics are notorious for low tithing but still, how can you afford it?  The typical parish around here has over a thousand people attending a weekend and we pay our priests less than half what a typical Protestant pastor makes.  When you talk of churches with seating capacities of 150-200 I cannot believe how tiny that would be.

I wonder if one of the problems is the sheer number of buildings that are trying to be maintained.  That different congregations of the same denomination are combining makes sense to me because I always thought y’all had too many small churches anyway.  I guess the big story is different denominations merging but I don’t know what to say about that.

Final comment: I couldn’t believe the comment in the article that “the logistics would get a little crazy on Sunday morning when there were three services…” about the church that three different congregations and a synagogue shared.  I mean, my parish has 3 Sunday morning services with over 500 people attending each and it doesn’t seem that logistically crazy, even with only a half-hour between each service.  Maybe it was because they all wanted the cushy 10:00 spot?

January 28, 1:19 pm | [comment link]
11. SaintCyprian wrote:

“In each case members of the congregation are listed as either Episcopal or ELCA and the members of each elect the delegates to diocesan convention or to synod.”

That’s interesting, are all members of the congregation members of one or the other? What if new members want to be added to the role, do they need to choose one or the other?

January 28, 1:20 pm | [comment link]
12. Undergroundpewster wrote:

But what abut the musical friction from such mergers? Will the 4 part harmonies of the Episcopal Hymnal prevail over the strong Lutheran drum beat?

January 28, 1:31 pm | [comment link]
13. Jim the Puritan wrote:

#10James G:  I think a number of these churches survive because they have perpetual endowments funded by long-dead Christians that keep the churches going, even if there are no worshippers any more.  I think of my own former parish, in a magnificent neo-Gothic building, that can still afford a paid professional choir despite having lost 60% of its members since 2000 (they need a professional choir because there are not enough attenders who can or will spend the time to sing).  But they are burning the candle at both ends, running a huge deficit I understand, and I am curious when the money will run out, knowing that much of it comes from my great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ generation, when this church was thriving and established several mission churches in other areas of the city.  My mother also still dutifully sends in her pledge every year, although she probably hasn’t attended services there for 20 years.  It gives me a strange feeling to walk through that church and see stained glass windows and pillars dedicated to the memory of my ancestors in the 1800s, knowing that they would be revolted by what is going on today.  And it makes me sad when I hear the change-ringers practicing on Saturday afternoons when I’m working in my office, which is only a couple of blocks away from the church.  Sort of the echoes of a dying religious tradition, the symbols being there but the substance having long ago left.

January 28, 3:42 pm | [comment link]
14. Brian of Maryland wrote:

Many of these congregations, particularly in California, are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of unchurched people. Better they should sell their buildings to Christians who still understand the mission of the church.


January 28, 5:13 pm | [comment link]
15. libraryjim wrote:

They will simply switch to overhead screens and praise bands playing insipid “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs.  wink

January 28, 5:55 pm | [comment link]
16. KevinBabb wrote:

James G: That’s exactly the issue. Everyone wants 10:00 a.m,.,  “prime time.”  Another problem, even more pressing, arises on High Holy Days/Days of Obligation, if you have distinct congregations, both of whom observe those days and need space in which to do so.  It is a lot easier to have 9:00 am and 11:00 am Sunday services than to have one Ash Wednesday service at 7:00 pm and another at 9:00 pm. I suppose this is where joint services could be of help, if that is liturgically and theologically feasible. As a clergy friend of mine said after spending two years renting space from an RC congregation:  “On Maundy Thursday, you can only strip the same altar so many times.”

January 28, 6:35 pm | [comment link]
17. Corie wrote:

As an Episcopalian-in-exile at an ELCA church, I can tell you that for the most part, the ELCA and TEC observe identical calendars. I say “for the most part,” because there are a few differences. For example, this Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday in the ELCA (they don’t observe the Transfiguration on August 6). But basically, the greater differences concern optional minor feast days, and there is still a lot in common there if you compare the BCP with the calendar in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

January 28, 8:17 pm | [comment link]
18. Brian of Maryland wrote:


What we in the ELCA and TEC have a great deal in common ... is declining, aging membership…


January 28, 9:20 pm | [comment link]
19. nochurchhome wrote:

#10 Many of the dioceses have large endowment funds to cover expenses.  Also in my diocese the church made a decision years ago to focus on “mission” meaning social agenda rather than on education and hospitals.  It closed down its school and sold their hospital to a wealthy politician and his family.  It earned millions of dollars by selling their hospital.  This is why today we have parishes with small #s and are able to survive just fine by receiving money from the diocese. 

In the church I just left we had 12 people turn in pledges last year.  On a normal Sunday maybe 60-70 people would attend.  We are a mission church and have been so for about 30 years and it doesn’t appear that the church will be self-sufficient any time soon.  Recently they made the priest full time and our diocese didn’t even blink an eye to throw an $80,000 plus benefits package to our priest, (who doesn’t even prewrite her sermons or is worth her salt).

Another thing to consider with logistics by offering various services, would be the structure of a protestant Sunday morning.  I think in most Catholic churches they have their service and go home.  Other things are offered at later times.  Protestants tend to linger at church on Sunday mornings.  They have Sunday school classes for children and adults, coffee hour which sometimes extends to 2.  One Sunday of the month may be brunch or covered dishes etc.  For a church building to accommodate 150-200 it will be a logistical challenge to offer services while people aren’t leaving if they are hanging around for social time and or classes. How would the church provide classes, services, coffe hour to all on one Sunday morning?

Also the comment about “prime time” is another factor.

January 29, 12:19 pm | [comment link]
20. Clueless wrote:

19. The way our (Catholic) churches deals with the various services is as follows:  Services are both Saturday (5pm) and Sunday (9am and 12pm)

We have donuts and coffee after the 9am service, with folks either staying after the service or coming early for the Sunday service for Bible study and religious education (age 4-10).

We have brunch instead of coffee once a month (same time)

This is because we are the smallest parish in the city, with only about a 1000 people. 

In a previous (very much bigger) church we managed 5-6 services.  There was the “geezer mass” (with incense and choir and organ music with folks dressed up) at 5pm Saturday, sometimes with dinner and a speaker afterwards. 

There was the golfers mass at 7am Sunday for folks who wanted to grab communion and have fun for the rest of the day. 

There was the family mass for folks with young families at 9am, with “good old fashioned hymns”, children’s choir, baby sitting for infants (if desired - they were certainly welcome to stay) and young children were led out after the Gospel to have a little talk about the day’s lessons, followed by some quiet activity, instead of having to listen to the sermon or sit through Communion.  This mass was usually followed by religious ed for the older kids, bible study for the adults and coffee and donuts for everybody.

There was the Spanish Mass at 12 noon (followed by religious ed in Spanish).  (The hispanic community did not want their children taken out for the sermon).

There was the Youth Mass (complete with praise band, rap-type sermon, general dancing to the hymns and high volume music at 5pm).  This was followed by Youth group/pizza.

There was also a Vietnamese mass that was late on Saturday, but only once a month, because that was the only time a Vietamese priest was available.

We had no problem providing classes, babysitting, coffee, pizza or whatever (all of which are done by volunteers) .  The priest’s job was to preside at Mass, and that was plenty.

I think we had 10,000 in that church

January 29, 9:01 pm | [comment link]
21. Clueless wrote:

Oh I forgot to mention, the reason that religious ed is age 4-10 only is because the older kids and the Youth group meet on Wednesday, as do the various adult, non Bible study evangelical group (RCIA and “Why Catholic”).

It is not difficult accomodating everybody if there is a desire to do so.

January 29, 9:04 pm | [comment link]
22. nochurchhome wrote:

Well looking from the perspective of my old church, it was built for about 100 people.  I don’t think it could handle more than 50-60 cars in the parking lot.  Aren’t most Catholic churches built to hold more people?  Half of my relatives are Catholic the other half Episcopal, the Catholic churches I’ve been in were built to accommodate larger crowds and had ample parking.

I did chuckle at the last comment….“It is not difficult to accomodate everybody if there is a desire to do so.”

When we left our Episcopal church I called my local Catholic church as we were beginning to decide whether or not we wanted to convert.  I knew my spouse and I would not be able to take communion but I was calling to see what they had available for my 4 year old in the way of Sunday school or any other activities.  I was told quite briskly that there would be nothing for her since we were not registered.  I explained that we wanted to visit the church and at the present time were not members and weren’t registered because we are in the process of discernment and just left the Episcopal church.  We explained we would like to attend services and RCIA classes in the meantime.  However when it was explained to me that they could not accommodate my child and she would not be able to participate with the other children, well then, that was the deal breaker for us. It is one thing for us not to receive communion but if my child can not participate with the other children in class then that wasn’t going to be an option for us.  Apparently it was too crowded and since our daughter was not registered we could just go sit in the corner, I mean the cry room, and observe.  LOL

So, I’m sure you can understand why I was put off because like you I had the belief that the church could and should accomodate everyone who wanted to seek Jesus but in our searching we have found this to not be true of many different denominations.

January 29, 9:20 pm | [comment link]
23. Clueless wrote:

Actually, I do understand, because I too went through RCIA.  However unlike the Episcopal church the Catholic church does not focus on “seekers”. They focus on disciples. 

Seekers go through RCIA.  Their children go through a one on one equivalent.  As with you, my RCIA director did not wish my daugher (then about 9) in with her peers, because she had not been catechized.  (They did allow my two year old in, but then she could barely talk).  After my kid had been catechized, and we had gone through RCIA, they let her join her regular group.

So yes, I do understand that you think the church should accomodate everybody who wishes to “seek Jesus”.  However the Catholic church takes its mission to “chase away false doctrine” fairly seriously.  Suppose you and I had not been Anglicans wishing to become Catholic who had relatively young children, but Muslims wishing to become Catholic.  Don’t you think an uncatechized 12 year old Islamic might be a bit of a problem in Sunday school?  How about an uncatechized and mildly obnoxious 8 year old Hindu?  Since the number of Roman Catholic converts in the United States alone is greater than the next largest non-Catholic religious denomination, this is a problem that comes up fairly frequently.  And this is why the Catholic church has these rules in place.  When you have lots of converts, there can be problems with converts.  Therefore, one has rules in place to socialize them, before bringing them into the fold.

January 29, 9:48 pm | [comment link]
24. nochurchhome wrote:

I appreciate your response, although the protestant in me has a hard time with this concept.

I hope I didn’t come off sounding rude and didn’t mean to pick on the Catholic church by posting our experience.

We are still very angry and bitter towards the Epsicopal Church and don’t see ourselves ever stepping foot into one again and my posts often reflect that.  Strangely and surprisingly to me, I find I get upset and defensive when I hear or read any criticism about it from people from other denominations.  I’m not sure why, maybe its because we haven’t settled on a new path yet and until that time it is what I have always been, a cradle Epsicopalian.

We live in Mormon country and I love my Mormon friends and I have often griped to them about my church but it bristles me if they have anything negative to say about it especially because I don’t know of one denomination out there that has a perfect record and can’t be criticized.  If there is one….let me know because we are searching for the right church/denomination.  If it wasn’t for my daughter and wanting to raise her in the christian faith and teach her the discipline of attending church regularly, I would be done with all organized religion.

January 29, 10:10 pm | [comment link]
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