By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET – The city’s Roman Catholic parishes aren’t the only denominations struggling to cope with financial challenges these days – the Protestants are, too.
St. James Episcopal Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church have just announced a unique partnership designed to allow them to share resources – including a pastor – to save money and keep both flocks flourishing.
The “Covenant of Cooperation and Partnership” was approved by a vote of the membership of both churches recently, according to Rev. Peter Tierney, their leader.
“This was not a top-down decision,” said Tierney. “The suggestion came from our two bishops, but the decision was made by the members of our two churches together.”
Tierney said the merger of the two churches is similar in some ways to what Roman Catholics in the city have seen happening to their churches for decades, and for similar reasons – declining membership. The main likeness, he said, is having one pastor covering multiple churches, but Tierney said, “What we’re quite explicit in is that we’re not consolidating in terms of closing locations.”
Located at 871 Harris Ave., on the Blackstone, Mass., line, St. Mark is about a mile from St. James Episcopal Church, at 24 Hamlet Ave.
One of the unusual features of the merger is that it involves churches from two different denominations. Still, said Tierney, about 15 years ago, the national leaders of the Lutheran and Episcopal churches agreed that they were similar enough to share ministers, but this is the first time it’s happened in the local area.
Tierney said Lutheran churches were founded by immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia, while the Episcopal church is rooted in England, so they have different histories and traditions. But both were fruits of the The Reformation – the 16th century movement that gave birth to protestants as a branch of Christianity independent of the Roman Catholic Church. Among other things, Lutherans and Episcopalians allow priests to marry – unlike the Catholic church.
While both churches have significantly more members, St. James has an average attendance of about 65 at Sunday Mass, St. Mark about 40, according to Tierney. Those figures have been trending down for some time, though at St. James, anyway, where Tierney has been a full-time pastor since 2015, the figures have been stable for the last several years, he says.
“This is the kind of place that used to pack 200 in back in the ‘80s,” said Tierney. “It’s been a pattern of decline, but we’ve been holding steady for the last four years.”
Until the two churches voted on the cooperation agreement, St. Mark had had a series of part-time or interim pastors for the last several years.
Although the two churches had agreed in principle to begin sharing resources in November, the formalization became urgent after a diocesan grant for his salary at St. James lapsed recently.
“There are financial pressures for both churches,” he said. “Neither church can afford a full-time pastor, really. St. James had been receiving a grant from the Episcopal diocese, but that grant has run its course.”
The membership of St. Marks approved the cooperation agreement on Jan. 27; St. James on Feb. 10.
Now Tierney will say Sunday Mass at St. James at 8 a.m., St. Mark at 9 a.m., and again at St. James at 10:30 a.m.
Both Bishop Hazelwood of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Bishop Knisely of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island are strongly supportive of the initiative.
Leaders from both churches had spent more than a year talking about how to best share resources and ministries while continuing as independent congregations that maintain their own identities, said Tierney.
“The idea is by sharing some expenses and putting the groups in contact with each other we might have some fresh new ideas,” said Tierney. “The churches are excited about the possibilities for partnership.”
The two churches will share more than just Tierney.
The churches worshiped together in July and August, will do so again this summer, and have shifted some individual ministries to joint opportunities. For example, they combined an existing Lutheran Men and Mission bible study with a “Bible and Bagels” men’s ministry from St. James, which enriched and strengthened the experience for participants. They’ve also commingled choirs, started sharing support for outreach ministries such as a food pantry, kitchen ministry and summer camp program, and combined confirmation classes.
The churches will share the costs of clergy compensation and continue to look for additional ways to share resources and ministries, adjusting the covenant as needed.
“We see many potential opportunities,” Tierney said. “That might include — but not be limited to — sharing some administrative duties and increasing our combined purchasing power for needs such as snow removal, lawn care, etc.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo