Called to Common Mission: 15 years of Episcopal-Lutheran partnership

December 11, 2016

Editor’s Note: On Jan. 6, 2001, after 30 years of dialogue, the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, while maintaining their autonomy, agreed to come together to work for joint mission in the world and to allow clergy to move freely between the two churches. This week, ENS is running a “Called to Common Mission” series celebrating 15 years of Episcopal-Lutheran full communion.

[Episcopal News Service] Most of the time, the Rev. Miriam Schmidt doesn’t think about the differences in her union congregation of Episcopalians and Lutherans. Members of both denominations – and others in the small community of Big Sky, Montana – work together for common cause, sharing worship, meals and ministries.

But there are some challenges, Schmidt concedes. Among them: picking out beloved hymns – and with the same text and tune – for both constituents.

All Saints is among about 65 worshiping communities across the country engaged in Episcopal-Lutheran partnerships. These congregations and campus ministries are living into Called to Common Mission, an agreement between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to be in full communion, able to share clergy leadership and operate as blended congregations.

Nearly all of the more than 20 people interviewed for a series of stories commemorating this year’s 15th anniversary of Called to Common Mission lauded the benefits of working together – from sharing resources, especially in small places, to being a model for unity and collaboration. Merging congregations in Baltimore has created a dynamic, vibrant ministry of “Lutherpalians” intent on serving the neighborhood. A college chaplaincy program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a place of sanctuary and community for students. And in Alaska, a union congregation (they call themselves Lutepiscs) is the only mainline Protestant presence for more than 200 miles.

All Saints in Big Sky is growing in numbers, said longtime member Laura T. Sacchi, and more importantly the people are growing spiritually as they learn about different traditions.

They had to work together to figure out how to compromise and sacrifice, “how to make everybody feel welcomed and included.” Those good habits have carried over and shaped a church committed to hospitality and to welcoming the stranger and neighbor alike.

This sense of welcome is echoed at Epiphany Lutheran-Episcopal Church in Alaska, where they don’t lock the doors. They want the building to be open to any one, a stranger in need, another denomination in search of a worship space, a visitor looking for a faith home.

“We’ve always been known as the church in town where everyone was welcome to come and worship,” said the Rev. Christian Mauntel, a Lutheran pastor at Epiphany. Her church was ahead of the curve, coming together as a joint ministry in the late 1970s. Called to Common Mission confirmed what the congregants have believed all along: that they are better together.

“What was ‘we-have-to’ has now become a point of pride,” said Mauntel. She believes the small congregation is a living example of what many churches will look like in the future: strong lay leaders and collaborative ministry with other traditions.

“We try to make people feel the love of God when they come in the door. We don’t ask who they know or how long they’ve been here or which denomination they are. We treat everyone who comes here as beloved children of God.”

In the history of Christendom and the rise of denominations, sometimes people and churches lost sight of what binds them, says the Rev. Margaret Rose, deputy for ecumenical and interreligious relations for the Episcopal Church.

“Our divisions – not our differences – are part of the polarizing nature of today’s culture. They prevent us from working together for a better world,” said Rose. “I’m very clear that our differences are part of the unique richness that allows us to understand ‘the other’ and ourselves.”

Our work as Christians, said Rose, is “to reveal the unity of the church that is already there.” This requires forging relationships with people who have different faith traditions, “getting to know one another at the deepest levels of who we are and to be transformed by that.”

On a practical level, this commitment to unity takes shape in the form of sharing space, worship, ministry and mission. “It’s a big, chaotic and wonderful mess,” said Rose.

Local iterations of partnerships between Lutherans and Episcopalians take all forms: from union congregations and merged ones to two separate legal entities committed to working as one. Some congregations have vestries and councils and are under the jurisdiction of both an Episcopal bishop and a Lutheran one. Others fall under the episcopal authority of one denomination but work closely with the other.

On a church-wide level, Called to Common Mission has prompted increased collaboration and discussion. The ecumenical officers often work together to find common interests and ways to amplify each other’s ministry. For instance, Rose’s office will soon be sending out to dioceses “Discover Islam,” a set of DVDs and curriculum developed by the ELCA and the Islamic Society of North America. The Episcopal Church and ELCA share one full-time employee in the Office of Government Relations. That office also developed and produced, with their counterparts in Canada, a free Advent devotional this year.

The two denominations collaborate and coordinate on social issues, said Kathyrn Johnson, director for ecumenical and inter-religious relations for the ELCA.

Lutheran Immigration Services is working with the Episcopal Church, she said. And the ELCA is “grateful for the Episcopal Church’s longer attention to some of the questions of justice for Native people. We have really appreciated the leadership from the Episcopal Church in Standing Rock (the controversial proposal to build a pipeline through sacred land).”

Even with the progress of the past 15 years, there is still tremendous work to be done. Some is structural. The ministries in Alaska, Montana, Maryland and Massachusetts all talked about challenges in governance. Epiphany in Alaska still doesn’t have a constitution and bylaws because of conflicting demands by the denominational structures. In Maryland, they are trying to navigate insurance: One denomination won’t extend insurance coverage to the other’s leadership group. Programming provided by a diocese or synod has to be adapted for a multi-denominational audience at MIT. And in Montana, Schmidt is always weighing how to promote church-wide activities.

“Do I advocate for Lutheran Relief or Episcopal Relief & Development? How do I choose?” she asked. “I want to retain our denominational ties, but there’s also only so much energy a congregation has for mission and outreach.”

Johnson said that she hopes more work can be done in formation, particularly with seminaries. “We should be teaching about one another’s traditions,” she said. “In this time of great challenge for the viability of seminary institutions, we haven’t looked at this issue with as much intention as I wish we had.”

The Rev. Tom Ferguson, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sandwich, Massachusetts, recalls the early days of the agreement. He joined the staff of the Episcopal Church just a few months after Called to Common Mission officially came into effect on Jan. 1, 2001. There were two challenges in the early years: the practical one of figuring out policy and the more ambiguous one of healing rifts and finding ways to bring everyone onboard, even those who had vigorously opposed the agreement.

Today, most people agree in theory about the importance of common mission, but many of the structural changes are unresolved, Ferguson said.

Now that the agreement has been in place for 15 years, it’s probably time to reevaluate and reinvent it, he said. The church has changed from what it was then. As both denominations continue to decline in numbers – as have most mainline traditions – it’s apparent that churchwide structures need to change, he said.

“Maybe the purpose of the agreement was to get us where we need to be in the coming years,” Ferguson said. “Now is the time to live into the incredible vision and freedom that the original agreement gave. We should be asking the questions: What other ecumenical partnerships can we pursue? What do we need to be doing our work together?”

Jesus came to establish the kingdom of heaven, not denominations, Ferguson said. “I’ve served in a Lutheran congregation, and I’ve served in an Episcopal church, and I’ve preached the same gospel in both places. I’m way more interested in the way to be a Christian and to find our common ground.”

– Richelle Thompson is deputy director and managing editor of Forward Movement.