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For four parishes, a time to embrace – and collaborate

Kirk Petersen

Journalists have been known to turn an old saying on its head by declaring: “Good news is no news.” So perhaps it is not surprising that the coverage of Christ Church in Belleville accentuated the negative.

“After surviving British rule and a fire that destroyed its building, a 263-yearold Belleville church … facing declining contributions … is planning to merge its congregation on Washington Avenue with a Clifton church,” St. Peter’s, the Star-Ledger reported in late September. A third-generation parishioner was quoted saying, “This is a traumatic thing for all of us.” One month later, the Belleville Times reported that Christ Church had closed its doors.

Half an hour to the north, apparently unwatched by the media, two other Episcopal parishes were involved in a transition that had been progressing at a more deliberative pace. In November, following a discernment process that began well over a year earlier, the diocesan Standing Committee approved an agreement to “unify” Epiphany, Allendale, and Good Shepherd, Midland Park. “We have parties ahead of us” in celebration, said Joan Zanotti, a Good Shepherd warden.

The unified church will worship in Epiphany’s sanctuary with Epiphany’s rector, the Rev. Michael Allen, but incorporate as a new parish under a new name: Trinity Episcopal Church.

The two situations – Belleville/Clifton and Allendale/Midland Park – have both striking similarities and striking differences. Together they tell a story of how faith, fellowship and finances can shape the spiritual development of a community of worship.

Financial pressures

While churches do not exist primarily for financial reasons, economic realities can wield a kind of veto power. In both cases, financial shortfall prompted the initial discussions.

In Midland Park, existing financial concerns escalated when the Rev. Charles Arlin announced plans to retire and lay leaders realized it was unlikely they could attract and afford a full-time rector. In Belleville, Christ Church was deeply in debt and so strapped for income that the church had to discontinue paying the vicar’s salary in the spring of 2009.

Good Shepherd’s discussions about long-term alternatives had started in late 2007, as the parish began developing its 2008 budget. “We realized that we no longer had a critical mass,” said Salim Dallal, a vestry member and former warden. “We were covering costs,” but membership was slowly dwindling.

Following Arlin’s announcement, an Options Committee began informal discussions with other Episcopal parishes in District 10. By several accounts, when the committee sat down with leaders of Epiphany in Allendale, a church of roughly equal size located three miles away, it was clear immediately that the two congregations had very similar values and interests.

“There was a high level of comfort,” said Bernie Milano, an Epiphany warden. “It was apparent to everyone that this was a wonderful blending.”

The Options Committee became the Feasibility Committee, and a network of other committees formed to discuss critical aspects of parish life, including worship, stewardship, outreach and Christian education. The Rev. Stuart Smith, rector at nearby St. Clement’s in Hawthorne, facilitated the discussions, and the parishes worked in consultation with diocesan Canon to the Ordinary Greg Jacobs.

At one key meeting, Milano brought a list of eight principles that he proposed as the basis for a potential agreement between the two parishes. Quite independently, Dallal had written his own 10-item list. The two documents were virtually identical.

“We really feel like the Holy Spirit was apparent in a lot of this,” Allen said.

Dallal’s list, with a few tweaks, became the one-page Articles of Agreement that both parishes ratified in May. Among other things, it provides that the combined parish will be governed for the first two years, under Allen’s pastoral leadership, by a new vestry with equal membership from the two parishes and that the Good Shepherd sanctuary and parish hall will be retained for at least two years for outreach and rental income.

Working from the agreement, various joint committees developed the 14-page plan the Standing Committee approved. If Diocesan Convention approves the plan Jan. 30, Bishop Mark Beckwith plans to install the new Trinity vestry at a ceremony the following day. Allen, who started at Epiphany in September 2007, would become the spiritual leader of a parish that had roughly doubled in size, to around 100 families.

A faster transition

The new relationship between Christ Church and St. Peter’s came together much more quickly but has not progressed as far. The last service in Belleville was Oct. 25, and car-pooling is now provided each Sunday from Christ Church to St. Peter’s, eight miles north.

Christ Church had fallen on hard times, with a congregation of about 40 responsible for a budget that included building maintenance bills of $90,000 annually, said the rector, Paul Walker, who since has been called to a parish in the Diocese of Bethlehem.

Compared to the methodical process followed by Epiphany and Good Shepherd, “We’re doing it kind of backwards,” said Rev. Peter DeFranco, priest-in-charge at St. Peter’s, which was approximately twice as large as Christ Church. The formal relationship between the two parishes has not been resolved – for now they simply worship together. Christ Church is negotiating to rent its sanctuary to a congregation from another denomination.

For the lay leadership of Christ Church, the key objective has been to maintain the outreach ministry in the Belleville building, which includes a thrift shop and a “Care Closet” that provides personal and household cleaning products to people on food stamps, which cannot be used for those products. A soup kitchen there feeds 70 to 75 people three days a week, said Gladys Hughes, a warden at Christ Church.

Unlike Good Shepherd, Christ Church did not consider other possible partners, Hughes said, because “it was a good fit” with St. Peter’s. “There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that this is the right place to be.” Despite the difference in parish size, the discussions leading to the new arrangement were “a very mutual process,” she said.

Finances and formal governance of the two parishes are separate for now, but DeFranco and the St. Peter’s parishioners are working hard to welcome their brethren from Christ Church. A chapel in the St. Peter’s building has been renamed Christ Chapel, and historic items from Christ Church are used in each Eucharist.“ Both churches’ sacred vessels are used simultaneously,” DeFranco said.

On Nov. 1, the first combined service at St. Peter’s, every worshiper received a yellow rose at the conclusion of the service. At the reception that followed, parishioners from both churches were encouraged to exchange roses with someone they did not know and to begin developing a relationship. “People were crying – it was just such a moving thing,” DeFranco said.

The infusion of people from Christ Church has been “energizing” for St. Peter’s, which in turn will provide a larger pool of volunteers for the Belleville outreach ministries, DeFranco said. “They were a slightly ‘higher’ church than we were,” so the celebration of Christ the King on Nov. 22 was planned in a high-church style.

The discussions between Epiphany/Good Shepherd and Christ/St. Peter’s were driven firmly by the parishes themselves, said Jacobs, the diocesan point person for both arrangements. They represent two of many ways in which churches can collaborate.

Jacobs said he hoped all of the diocese’s 109 congregations continually would look for ways to work with other churches, both inside and outside the denomination. Collaboration shouldn’t be thought of as a stopgap financial measure, he said, but rather as a way to realize “vital and vibrant ministries” that “offer abundance and refuse to operate out of a theology of scarcity.”

Kirk Petersen attends St. George’s, Maplewood.

Editor's note: At the 37th Annual Episcopal Communicators Conference in March 2010, this article received a Polly Bond Award of Excellence in the category "News Writing for Print or Internet."