Shared ministry revitalizes union church
Written by Rob Blezard
(Above) Church members Larry Rodenbach and Betty Frey light candles for worship. Jerusalem Western Salisbury pastors, the Revs. Peter Muhr (left) and Gary Piatt (right), greet worshippers following worship service. Brian Mather photos.
When the pastor visits hospitalized members of Jerusalem Western Salisbury United Church of Christ, Allentown, Pa., nowadays the minister just might be a Lutheran.
That's because Jerusalem Western Salisbury shares not only a church building with Lutherans, but also pastoral talent, committee leadership, choir members—and just about everything else under a shared ministry model adopted five years ago. And like nuclear fusion that combines two atoms into one, the arrangement released waves of energy that freed resources for mission and at the same time revitalized both congregations.
"It brings you together as a church family," says Joane DeLong, a 30-year member. She remembers that only a decade or so ago the Lutherans and the UCC members barely spoke to one another, though the congregations have been joined from their founding in 1741.
Tensions had grown to the point in 1991 that, while simultaneously celebrating 250 years as a union church, the two congregations were studying whether to remain a union church. A joint committee recommended they split, but then members voted it down.
"It left them with an unanswered question," says the Rev. Gary Piatt, who came to the church in 1994, a year after the vote. "What do they want to be as a union church?"
Inspired by a shared ministry model of "union church guru" the late Rev. Horace Sills, Piatt and Lutheran pastor Carl Schmoyer embraced the concept. The churches merged committees and groups. They blended services and the pastors shared duties.
"The thing that really excites us is the congregations could remain distinct as Lutheran and UCC churches but find ways to unite the two," says Piatt. "It brought life and vitality to this place."
The arrangement is all the more unusual because it was not dictated by necessity. The UCC congregation boasts 638 members and the Lutherans, 678. New members choose to affiliate with just one congregation, though everyone worships together.
Church services come in three flavors: Lutheran, UCC and "Union," combining elements of both traditions. The worship calendar juggles the three types of services among the two Sunday morning slots, so someone who attends just the early or just the later service will be exposed to all three in the course of a month.
Worshiping and walking together in faith has replaced acrimony with harmony.
"It's just been such a loving, caring relationship," says Betty Frey, a member of Jerusalem Western Salisbury Lutheran Church (ELCA) since 1958. "It's amazing."
Schmoyer, now pastor emeritus, is pleased. "It's taken the word of God and made it very visible in the lives of the people," he says.
Ecumenism tells us that, despite our differences, we are united through Christ. At Jerusalem Western Salisbury the principle is real.
"It's not just abstract," says the Rev. Peter Muhr, Schmoyer's interim successor. "It's a respect that's lived out in parish life."
The success shows what Christians can do when they focus on what they have in common instead of what divides them. That was the idea behind the 1997 Formula of Agreement that brought ELCA Lutherans in full communion with several churches of the Reformed tradition [the UCC, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Reformed Church in America].
"We were doing this before the denominations embraced it," says Piatt. "It was very healthy for us."
Rob Blezard, formerly an editor with "The Lutheran," is a free-lance writer based in Gettysburg, Pa.