The Episcopal Diocese   
of Western Massachusetts

21st Century Congregations -- 
November 2015
The Rev. Canon Pamela Mott
Musing on Partnerships and Mergers of Churches
Recently, I was asked to reflect on Partnerships and Mergers. What makes them "work?" Like any skill - playing the piano, knitting, playing baseball, cooking - it requires practice. Here's the top ten practices that I believe form the essence of a good partnership, and of a life that seeks to follow Christ. These are not "technical" skills but, rather, faith skills and the willingness to begin to see things through God's eyes and not our own.
Practice Prayer. Not the kind of prayer that tells God what God ought to do but, rather, the kind of prayer where we listen deeply for the Word spoken in new ways among us. Pray for ways to welcome and embrace that transformation that God is working in our communities.
Practice walking into the unknown. The prevailing narrative in Scripture is the willingness to journey into the unknown, trusting in God. Think: Abram and Sarai, Moses, the journey to the cross... It may be that we must take one step into a new partnership, and then the next, not knowing the whole path. Make a careful agreement but be willing to understand that such a plan is often inadequate to account for the movement of the Spirit. Be open to the movement of the Spirit. That, ultimately, is what it is all about. Ultimately, the journey is not to figure out how two parishes can co-exist; it is about how we can be, together, the people of God with all our variety of gifts and skills.
Practice Partnership. This may seem obvious, but we often want to do things by ourselves - we see the independence of our parish as a good thing and then do not enter into or explore partnerships until we "have to". Invite a neighboring parish (Episcopal or ecumenical) to explore what a partnership might look like - a feeding program? Tag sale? Pastoral care coverage? Try something small and definable, at first. Seek out partnerships, even - especially - if your church is doing well. It is in these partnerships that we can go from strength to strength and continue to learn to see Christ in all people.
Practice respecting the dignity of every human being. Be respectful of each parish's differences. In fact, celebrate them as something that will make both parishes, or a merged parish stronger. It is often said that the Episcopal Church is not an "either/or" church but, rather, a "both/and" church. That means we can embrace a wide variety of practices well within the Episcopal tradition and it also means that, sometimes, this causes some discomfort and conflict as we explore new forms of leadership, worship and service.
Practice the willingness to let go. Be willing to give up some things and both parishes will find new gifts. If one parish is moving to another, that parish gives up its own independence and must find its way into a new community. The people in the welcoming parish may have to give up "my pew". A small parish that merges with a larger parish will be giving up the sense that everyone will know everyone else. Be willing to greet these changes as adventures on the journey.
Practice hospitality: We are called to love our neighbor and welcome the stranger. We will all be changed by "the other"; if we are not changed by each other, and challenged to become more and more the body of Christ in these relationships, we haven't been listening!
Practice "us". The prevailing attitude of both churches must be: "how can we be of service in Christ's name to one another?" It must not be: "What's in it for us?" Ultimately, we are all "us."
Practice Good Friday. Embrace the grief of Good Friday in order to make room for Resurrection. Saying good-bye to the building where I was baptized or married, saying good-bye to the craft fair the parish did with all the people I loved, saying good bye to the "way we always did things" (even if we didn't, actually, always do things that way); these good-byes can be hard, and feel like death. They can, however, make room for new life, new avenues in our lives in Christ to be explored. What must die for us to greet Easter morning?
Practice Resurrection: The disciples were filled with fear since they did not understand what happened on Good Friday. Be willing to walk with the women to the tomb and see that it is empty. Be willing to allow the stone to be rolled away. Be willing to understand your narrative, and the story of your church in a new and enlivening way. Be willing to greet the risen Christ in the garden, on the road to Emmaus, at breakfast, on the beach, in your church, in your work place, in the faces of those with whom you enter into partnership.
Practice your identity as a person of God. Pray, love, be joyful. Seek out ways to serve within a newly emerging partnership, and in the community.