Greater Than The Sum of its Parts: Collaborative Ministry Sparks New Life
Just a few years ago, neither Christ Church, Wayside, nor Christ Church, La Plata, was in very good shape. Each of the two historic Episcopal churches, located 13 miles apart in Charles County, was struggling with finances and membership. Wayside had been without a full or part-time priest for three years, and when La Plata’s rector retired in 2013, the congregation realized it didn’t have the resources to call a full-time successor.
With the dedication of lay leadership and guidance from diocesan staff, the two churches spent more than a year researching and exploring the possibility of creating a collaborative ministry and sharing a rector. Then, as Christ Church, La Plata, member Carol Gentry puts it, “in walked a miracle.”
That miracle, she says, is the Rev. Tim Johnson, who in August 2014 was installed as the rector of both churches. The two parishes—both more than 300 years old—have maintained their autonomy, keeping their separate cultures, services and vestries. But they have gained a new sense of energy and creativity, and the recognition that there is strength in standing together.
The evidence is in the pews and in the offering plate.
“Our pledges are coming in higher than we planned,” Johnson says. “Our plate offering already has exceeded what we had projected for our yearly goal. I attribute that to a renewed sense of energy. They can see a future; they are planning for the future.”
Gentry, a vestry member and sacristan at Christ Church, La Plata, where she’s been a member since 2003, says, “This place is alive again; this places just buzzes. We’re really, really, really happy.”
So is Christ Church, Wayside, where Beverlie Ludy, a member for 25 years and parish administrator for the past four, says, “I’m really pleased with the way it’s worked out.”
Johnson says the two parishes have focused on community-building within and between the parishes, including joint services and potlucks.
“Sometimes, I’ve done worship in the form of potluck,” he says. “Rather than gathering in the church, we do worship and Bible study while we’re eating….and you don’t do anything in southern Maryland without ham being involved!”
The two congregations also share expertise, Johnson says, such as Wayside sharing its skills in coordinating parish events, and, when needed, La Plata sharing its church musician.
Perhaps one of the most important by-products of the collaboration is that “it gives us a critical mass,” Johnson says, “which is much more attractive to a newcomer. It sends a message that there is life out here. And that is super important.”
Danielle Webber of Christ Church, La Plata, puts it this way: “I think people were excited about the idea of there being more than three people at Bible study. Now we have an evening Bible study at La Plata and a daytime Bible study at Wayside.”
At the End of the Rope…a New Beginning
What started out as a relationship born of necessity, Johnson says, has become a relationship bearing rich fruit.
“Unintentionally, what has grown out of this is a real sense of pride among the parishioners. When I first got here there was a sense that both parishes were in decline, at the end of our rope, hanging on. Southern Maryland is dotted with small Episcopal churches. Now, because of the success of our partnership, other parishes are looking to us for advice. It has given the leaders of our churches a sense of pride that we can be an example for the region.”
It was that sense of being at the end of the rope that made the partnership possible.
Due to Wayside’s financial situation, Ludy says, “we were going to have to [hire] a retired priest who would have to work part-time and would not need pension and benefits. Then we started thinking of pooling our resources.” Christ Church, La Plata, faced similar financial concerns.
The Wayside church was without a priest at the time and was just about to start advertising for a part-time rector when the Rev. Joseph Trigg, rector at La Plata, announced his pending retirement. A year earlier, Trigg had started discussions with his congregation about the future possibility of pursuing a collaborative ministry with another parish. In the meantime, he and La Plata’s deacon, the Rev. Eric Shoemaker, began helping out with weddings and funerals at Christ Church, Wayside, which was being served by supply priests. When Trigg announced his retirement, the pieces for a collaborative ministry began to fall into place.
“As soon as we knew Joseph was retiring officially, our vestry started talking about a collaboration,” says Webber, a Christ Church, La Plata, member for 11 years and a vestry member for most of that time. “At that point our congregation was declining. We are really lucky that it worked out the way it did.”
She says it was an easy sell to the congregations “I think because we knew from the get-go that it would be two separate churches, two separate vestries. I think if we had talked about merging two churches, it would have been totally different.”
Gentry, of La Plata, says, “We had to accept that we had to do something, and that we had to come up with the money. The only way we could do that was to combine resources. We really didn’t have a lot of choice but to get creative. Then a small miracle walked into our back door, and that was Father Tim. Those at the church here—there were several of us—we had gotten on our knees praying for a priest who could get this church back on its feet.”
Throughout the process, Bishop Mariann Budde and Joey Rick, canon for congregational vitality, provided support and “were very excited about the idea and encouraged us,” Ludy says.
Because it is the smaller of the two parishes, Ludy said Wayside entered the partnership with La Plata with “some trepidation.”
“We were a little cautious,” she says. “We actually have a history of being yoked with other churches in our long history, and it had never worked out well because we felt like the poor country cousin.”
That hasn’t been the case this time, she says, because there’s a sense of equality between the two parishes. And they both recognize the tremendous upside of the collaboration.
“The best thing is that we have a pastor we love, which we could not have afforded if we had not come together,” says Webber. “There’s no way we would have Tim without this collaboration. With Tim, both congregations are growing. Before Tim got here, my family was the youngest in the congregation, and my children were 20 and 16 at the time. Now we have babies in the pews and kids running around. There’s lots of life in the church again. That’s because of Tim.”
Johnson was serving as a chaplain at the Washington Episcopal School in Bethesda, Maryland, when he first heard from Christ Church, La Plata. At the time they were looking for a supply priest and had not embarked on the collaborative ministry with Wayside.
“I had been a school teacher for many years, and when I was ordained in 2013, I became chaplain at Washington Episcopal School,” he says. “I loved my work as a school chaplain but missed the sacramental piece, which is not as big in a school as in a parish.”
Johnson committed to going to La Plata two Sundays a month. Around the beginning of 2014, the position was posted for a rector to serve both Christ Church La Plata and Wayside, and Johnson was called.
He’s learned a lot since his installation as rector in August 2014. With twice as many meetings, including two vestry meetings a month, “the time management piece was something I had to learn very quickly,” Johnson says.
Wayside is the smaller of the two congregations, with an average Sunday attendance in the upper 30s, he says, while La Plata averages in the upper 60s.
“It is interesting because they are two very different parishes,” Johnson says. “Wayside is down in an area called Cobb Neck; it’s a little peninsula with a mix of farming and watermen. It is an area seeing growth, but it is primarily D.C. folks coming down on weekends to have homes on the water. It’s hard to talk about attendance because in Wayside, summer is our high time.”
La Plata, he says, is also a community experiencing rapid growth. Charles County is one of the rapidly changing communities because it is becoming a bedroom community of D.C.
“We’re seeing more and more families moving out of D.C. and into the area because it is affordable,” Johnson says, “whereas in Wayside, our demographic is more ministering to the retirees and weekend folks.”
Johnson is careful to honor and respect those differences.
“I work to maintain the dignity of each individual parish,” he says. “I have to recognize that each parish has its own history and own culture.”
Ludy says the biggest issue for each parish was that “we had to change our service times, but we survived that. Tim does the 9 o’clock service here and then drives 15 minutes to La Plata and does the 11 am service there.”
Has there been any downside to sharing a rector? Only one was mentioned.
“I just don’t dwell on it because this is the only way we can survive, but we want him for ourselves,” says Gentry. “It kind of reminds me of when a young couple falls in love and you realize you have to meld two families; there’s an upside and a downside, but over time, it becomes all up. The biggest thing is that we’d both like to have him all the time, but you can’t split the baby. We try to go to each other’s events and help as we can. We’re always going to keep our separate identities, and that’s what we want. We’ve shared a lot and we’ve learned a lot from each other. I’d recommend it to other churches in southern Maryland who don’t have a full-time priest.”
As an example of how closely tied the two parishes have come, Gentry recalls a tornado that earlier this year ripped through the cemetery at Christ Church, Wayside.
“The cemetery had been filled with all these ancient trees,” Gentry says. “When Tim announced it in our church, there were a lot of tears. This is how much we’ve started caring for each other. We’re beginning to think of ourselves as one family.”