Breaking out of survival mode

February 1, 2010 10:43 AM

Three small congregations being served by two retired pastors, six miles apart. No, it’s not a math problem—it was the situation that prompted three congregations to think about the future of their ministries, cooperatively.


When Pastor LeRoy Ness retired, he began serving as a vacancy pastor for Third Lutheran Church, Rhinebeck. A few years later, when Pastor Dennis O’Rourke retired, he was asked to serve as the interim pastor for nearby St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Red Hook and Memorial Lutheran Church in Rock City. In July 2008, council members and leaders from all three churches were invited to come together for a meeting. The idea was to foster general conversation about what was happening in these three declining congregations and where they could rely on one another for help.


"We discovered, not to anyone’s real surprise, that each one of the three congregations had their own personal hurts and difficulties and that there was a similarity in the struggles they were having," said Pr. O’Rourke. "At the same time, we realized that our ministries were overlapping." As a result, the leaders began exploring the possibility of doing ministry cooperatively and working toward the formation of a three-point parish that would strengthen each congregation individually.


That initial gathering set in motion 18 months of dialogue between the three churches. Parish leaders began discussing what a three-point parish would look like. There were many meetings, but the meetings helped people get to know one another. Pastors O’Rourke and Ness met with an Upstate New York Synod pastor just north of them who spoke candidly of the pitfalls and joys of creating a multi-point parish; he later told his story at a well-attended meeting for the group. "We felt we weren’t starting with a blank slate," said Pr. Ness. "It was very helpful."


Leaders formed a steering committee to figure out the next steps and begin cooperative ministry. Four subcommittees were formed in the areas of finance, worship and music, educational ministry, and stewardship and evangelism. In this way, finance leaders from each congregation came together to figure out how the expenses of three joint parishes would be paid. The subcommittee on educational ministry tried to figure out how they could create a common Sunday School. Work was happening on two fronts: the subcommittees helped the congregations figure out how to function together while the steering committee worked on a covenant that would be accepted. It was a grassroots effort that continued to pick up steam as the process moved forward.


"As a result of the subcommittees, we did marvelous things together," said Pr. O’Rourke. "Three declining congregations put together a Lutheran revival, offering the conference and the community opportunities to gather. It was unheard of. We had a joint stewardship program, the first or second one in many years for the congregations. We successfully put together a Wednesday Church School for three churches combined."


In the meantime, a covenant was approved by each council and congregation. Three leaders from each congregation formed the Parish Council, which provides oversight for cooperative ministry and encourages good dialogue between the individual councils. In this way, the congregations are independent but united in their mutual ministry. Each congregation still has its own congregational council, responsibility for its own finances and maintenance. Yet each congregation will contribute toward a joint budget used to pay for pastoral and administrative services.


The Lutheran Parish of Northern Dutchess officially came into existence on January 1. Pr. O’Rourke offers pulpit supply while Pr. Ness acts as the interim, helping the parish get strong enough to call its first full-time pastor. On the first Sunday of 2010, Pr. Ness said, "It looks like nothing has changed but really everything has changed--prior to this, there was no concept of a foreseeable future." Pr. O’Rourke agrees and hopes that now the congregations can break out of survival mode. "These three congregations knew they had to do something new. Now they can be less fearful—nobody’s asking for any doors to close. This opportunity God has given us will allow us to concentrate more on ministry."