Lamb of God Church in Fort Myers, Fla., recently became the first federated Lutheran-Episcopal congregation in Florida and the second in the nation, with joint membership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church USA. “I see this as an incredible sign of hope” for the future of the church, said Bishop John Lipscomb of the Diocese of Southwest Florida. “This is a step in a dream I’ve had since I was 17.”
The congregation, which the diocese officially received at convention last fall, will be recognized in May at the Lutheran synod assembly of the Florida-Bahamas.
“I’m excited that we’re living into the relationship we have” with the Episcopal Church, said Bishop Edward Benoway of the Florida-Bahamas Synod. “We’re blessed to have partners who can think in a creative way on how to do ministry and good stewardship, and not compromise who we are as people of God, but find ways to do mission.”
Path to communion
Simply put, a federated congregation is a single congregation operating under the rules of two denominations that consider themselves in full communion with each other. The Lamb of God merger was made possible by the joint communion agreement between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, titled Called to Common Mission, which was approved by General Convention in 2000 and the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA in 2001.
Lamb of God formed from two congregations that have worshiped together since Dec. 31, 2000, when Episcopalians from the now-closed St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church were invited to worship several blocks away at Lamb of God Lutheran Church.
At that time, St. Joseph’s had been struggling to stay afloat. The idea of a merger came from some friendly conversations between ELCA Pastor Walter Fohs and the Rev. John Adler, then interim vicar of St. Joseph’s.
“It just made sense,” Fohs said. “Why build two congregations that are a block or two away from each other? Why replicate buildings and staff when we could do the same thing in the same place. It makes all the sense in the world.”
“It’s been a very long, gradual process that did not happen overnight,” said Fohs. He applauded the congregation for the work it has done, but added, “It’s also the result of a lot of other people buying into the vision.”
Since the federation papers were signed, denominational lines have all but disappeared, said Rob Patterson, a Lutheran member of the congregation’s board of trustees. “The interesting thing to me is, I really don’t know who’s who … I think that’s what is exciting to people, because it doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “I think people are recognizing that, regardless of our denominational orientation, we’re just really one people under God.”
ELCA bylaws provide the structure of the merger. In practice, a federated congregation enjoys “dual citizenship.” Lamb of God will send voting delegates to Lutheran synod assemblies meetings and Episcopal diocesan conventions and will participate fully in the life of both denominations, including giving monetary support to both.
Fohs and an Episcopal priest, the Rev. Becky Robbins-Penniman, now serve the 600-member congregation. Both denominations must approve future clergy called to serve the church. Both styles of worship will be made available each Sunday.
For parochial reporting, Episcopalians initially will count 25 percent of the congregation, with the Lutheran Church claiming 75 percent. But that will gradually shift; by 2009, each denomination will count 50 percent of the congregation to determine apportionments and membership data.
The same goes for a worst-case scenario, in which the federation would dissolve. According to a sliding scale, the Lutherans would be entitled to most of the assets in the event of a split; by 2028, assets would be divided 50-50.
The future, said Benoway, is exciting.
“I think it’s also a challenge to us as we look at our theologies coming together, to see what is really important and what really isn’t,” he said. “You know you have to let some things go in this kind of situation, while holding tight to that which is most important to us in our faith. In one way it helps bring to the top that which is really important in theology and practice.”
Noted Lipscomb, “What we are doing is saying very clearly that all parishioners have a common mission.”
“The two churches bring in an enormous history on parallel tracks,” he said. “It points to the fact that no one church or one denomination has a corner of the conversation, and as long as we sit at the table together, we will ultimately discover God’s purpose for the church.”
Trustee David Washburn noted a few things an Episcopalian would have to get used to at Lamb of God, such as the absence of kneelers and an altar rail. “I’m a cradle Episcopalian; I missed that at first,” he said. But after more than three years at Lamb of God, “it’s a moot point.”
The committee usually receives positive feedback from newcomers, he said “We’ve had a lot of people come, having read about us in the paper. And some of them have stayed [on]. They like it.”
Lamb of God can be an example to Lutherans, Fohs said. “In a time when Called to Common Mission is still not accepted in a lot of Lutheran communities, I think what we’re doing proves to be a working example to say that we have not sold out; we have not lost our soul.”
The new relationship is very exciting, Patterson said. “I really feel very strongly that where we need to focus on is unity and being together as one family, guided by the Holy Spirit.”
Concluded Robbins-Penniman, “We can live into what we say, when we talk about Christians doing things together. We will be doing things in a way that makes it possible for people to remember they are Christians first.”
-- Jim deLa is communications officer for the Diocese of Southwest Florida.
Thomas Weitzel is communications officer for the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.