Note #9211 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
06173 March 20, 2006
One plus one equals one
2 Seattle churches join, conceive ecclesiastical life with 'entirely new DNA'
by Eleanor SessionsRepringted5 Reprinted from The Spirit Seattle Presbytery
SEATTLE - Two Seattle churches that knew what they wanted: to listen closely to the nuanced whispers of the Spirit, to be welcoming, to be giving, to let go.
And what they didn't want: to be pushy, to force the issues, to control the outcomes.
All in all, a remarkable match.
Early in 2005, the Rev. Matt Owen, the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church, met with the Rev. James Kearny, head of staff at the Church at the Center. Each one felt that God was at work in his congregation. Each one thought greater things were ahead for his church. And each one had a problem.
For Owen, it was place. Although Westminster was a healthy congregation, it was experiencing what many once-large urban churches experience. The numbers were small, the building was big. How were they to be good stewards of the beautiful place they occupied?
For Kearny, the problem also was place. Leading a thriving new-church development meant changing locations as the congregation grew. For years, Church at the Center had met in a movie theater; more recently, it had gathered in an expensive office building. They were growing, but where would God lead them next?
They shared their visions for Gods growth in Seattle, for nurturing their churches as vibrant witnesses of Christ's kingdom. Although neither Owen nor Kearny came into the conversation with an agenda, it seemed clear to both that God was at work.
What if? they wondered. What if we merged?
Over the next few months, they prayed, and they talked to their sessions and congregations.
Then, in Scotland last summer, Kearny talked with the Rev. Stan Wood, a professor of congregational leadership and evangelism at San Francisco Theological Seminary, and asked him to help with their merger.
"When I heard what these churches were doing, I was thrilled," Wood says. "Church mergers can be messy, but these two had already laid healthy groundwork. Neither church wanted to own the process. Both wanted to be good stewards of Gods gifts."
Still, Wood knew the merger wouldn't be easy. "Merging churches can be like couples wanting to marry," he says. "They may be right for each other, but if they try to move too quickly, they can be overwhelmed by the strains placed on their relationship. For two to become one takes time, talk, prayer, and lots of planning."
What makes this merger different is largely a matter of focus. Instead of what Glenn McDonald calls a merger focused on "buildings, bucks and buns" (place, budget, and people), the two churches agreed from the outset to create together a new church that neither could create alone.
And they agreed to develop a shared vision of mission to the Capitol Hill area, a neighborhood of urban professionals, college students, and an exciting and challenging mix of multicultural people.
"They wanted an entirely new DNA to infuse their respective visions," Wood says. "This wouldn't be a case of a big church taking control or a small church losing identity; both churches wanted to grow toward greatness. From the outset, both have looked outward to reach the community, and they have seen their new church as a vehicle for fulfilling God's mission of healing."
Of course, there are the usual details - legal issues, combined lay leadership groups that must learn to lead together, decisions to be made about money and ownership. Each church has contributed to decisions without giving in, giving up or taking over. They're continuing to learn to work together, and the process is paying off.
"These churches are now on one big boat, and they want to cross the Pacific," says Wood. "They've never made the crossing before, and they called me because I've made the crossing many times. What I can give them is information on different sailing routes and what they're likely to encounter. I can tell them of shipwrecks I've seen in the past. I can tell them when to trim their sails and where the winds are strongest."
From all indications, the new combined church is launching into calm seas.
It has taken a new name - Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church - and received the endorsement of Seattle Presbytery.
In a move that is surely God's perfect providence, each church will have its final, separate service this Palm Sunday, then formally close. Then, on Easter Sunday, Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, already some 400 members strong, will celebrate its resurrection.
The voyage will continue without one of its captains. While he was in complete agreement with the direction of the new church, Owen discerned that God was not calling him to pastoral leadership there.
This came as a surprise to Owen, who reflected: "Having spent six years looking toward the future (at Westminster PC) and a couple of years working on this possibility cum reality (almost) it would seem natural that I'd live into this." But one day last fall he "woke up one day and dared to contemplate that God wasn't calling me to be a pastor of this new body, but rather my work was complete."
Owen's last official Sunday at Westminster was Jan. 15.
"The way they've gone about this is incredible," Wood says. "By their integrity and intention, they are already a witness to the grace of Christ on Capitol Hill. Apart, they could never have achieved this.
"Their energy and excitement are irresistible, infectious. God's grace is bringing them together, and is multiplying the ministry of each. Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place."
(Eleanor Sessions is a freelance writer and editor and the spouse of the Rev. Stan Wood of San Francisco.)
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