Multi-Congregation Parishes – Part 1

Preface

In the western world, Christianity is facing decline. Our sister church in the USA (Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) is not exempt from this reality, as she also struggles with declining membership, financial strain, and a shortage of pastors. The following article outlines the concept of Multi-Congregation Parishes, which is being implemented by congregations of the LCMS to deal with the present situation.

This article gives us an insight into how our fellow Lutherans are managing their resources and how God is guiding their ministry in these challenging times. Here follows the article, written by Stacey Egger:

Lively Word and Sacrament ministry

Across the country, LCMS congregations are facing declining and aging membership, a shortage of pastors and financial strain. As of 2016, the median age of our adult members was 56, with 30% of our membership older than 65, and 58% older than 50.[1] Further, 57% of our pastors are over the age of 55 (and only 23% are under the age of 45).[2] Rural, small-town and metropolitan congregations all feel this strain. And yet, amid the struggle, none of the congregations in the LCMS is alone. The history of the church includes many eras in which congregations outnumbered pastors. In the time of the apostles, pastors travelled miles to multiple congregations. The history of the LCMS — both national and international — contains many similar stories. Now congregations are embracing such models again.

Of the 5 876 member congregations and new church starts of the Synod, 1 094 (or 18,6%) are already part of a multi-congregation parish (MCP).[3] There are 519 MCPs, made up of two, three or four congregations. They are in every district, and 22 districts have at least 10. And there will be more.

Statistically, such partnerships are succeeding in their purpose. An MCP congregation is significantly less likely to be vacant than a single congregation of the same size.[4]

District presidents, pastors of MCPs and other leaders from across the LCMS believe that MCPs are succeeding in many other ways as well. Over and over again, they point out: These partnerships, if approached rightly, serve not as a tourniquet on a wound but as a positive blessing to the church. They can help congregations thrive in their work, refocus on what it means to be the church and remain in place with a lively presence of Word and Sacrament ministry.

When to start looking at partnership

“God makes us all partners by the Gospel,” said the Rev. Dan Galchutt, assistant to the LCMS Kansas District president for missions and stewardship.[5] “We want to encourage all of our congregations to think about partnerships as early as possible — not just out of necessity.”

Every congregation, said Galchutt, should consider partnering with others to steward resources well and work together as the church. Joint church events or youth groups, a joint secretary or other staff member — such things can bless both congregations and lay the groundwork for further partnership in the future.

Usually, MCPs form when one or more of the congregations is unable to support a full-time pastor. District leadership can help congregations sort through factors such as costs versus income, visitor numbers and new member numbers. Often, the restructuring happens when a pastor takes a call or retires.

Certainly, congregations do not need to wait for such a moment to form an MCP. The guiding question should be: Would our congregation carry out its ministry better in partnership with another?

Types of partnership

The LCMS Kansas District has created resources that lay out models for some of the common types of congregational partnerships (available at kslcms.org/partnerships). These models include:

  • Dual parish: Two (or more) congregations of a similar size partner in ministry.
  • Helping hand: A larger congregation assists a smaller one.
  • Circuit rider: A pastor serves several small churches.
  • Multi-site: Congregations form one entity with multiple ministry sites.

The appropriate model for a congregation may depend more on location and context than on preference. What congregations are around you? What size are they? Are there any that you would work well with?

Here are a few examples:

In Montana, the Rev. John Vallie serves a tri-parish that is a 300-mile round trip. Faith Lutheran in Glasgow, Trinity in Wolf Point and Trinity in Plentywood each have about 15–20 worshipers on a Sunday. Vallie preaches and celebrates the Lord’s Supper at a different congregation each week and livestreams the sermon to the others.

In Iowa, the Rev. Jonathan Conner serves Zion in Manning. Zion, while not a part of a formal dual parish, is in “partnership” with Trinity in Manilla. When Trinity had trouble filling a vacancy, Zion provided financial assistance, allowing Trinity to call her own pastor. In exchange, Zion receives support from Trinity’s pastor and partnership with Trinity. Services, events and programs are held jointly or at non-overlapping time.

In Connecticut, the Rev. Evan Scamman accepted a call five years ago to a dual parish in Greenwich, located two miles apart. After three slow, careful years of discussion, First Lutheran sold its beloved building and joined St. Paul Lutheran.

In northern Minnesota, the Rev. Karl Weber serves St. John’s Lutheran in Ottertail and St. Paul in Richville. They are 11 miles apart and St. John’s (about 100 on Sunday) pays the majority of the expenses, while St. Paul (about 25 on Sunday) pays a smaller portion.

Successful partnerships

While MCPs vary greatly, what makes them successful boils down to three central points:

1. Keep the mission at the center.

As congregations face declining numbers, sometimes lapsing into “survival mode” feels inevitable. For instance, 57% of Montana congregations have fewer than 50 in attendance, according to the Rev. Terry Forke, president of the LCMS Montana District. “It’s easy to slip into survival mode — ‘just keep the doors open until I get buried.’”

But partnerships forged on economic fear are not set up for success or survival.

“The healthy attitude is: We get to cover a lot of ground and maintain the proclamation of the Gospel in varied places and as congregations we want to do that together,” said Forke.

From the beginning, congregations involved in partnership should pray and study the Word of God together. “You will find lots in there about God’s people working together,” said Galchutt.

2. Set clear expectations ahead of time.

MCPs should create a detailed and unified plan in advance, usually in the form of a Multi-Point Parish Agreement. A sample agreement is provided in the LCMS Council of Presidents Manual, which includes:[6]

  • pastoral duties and expectations;
  • congregational expenses;
  • service times; and
  • the structure and organisation of the MCP.

“Pastors can come and go,” said the Rev. Dwayne Lueck, president of the LCMS North Wisconsin District, so it is important to make sure congregational leaders are on board with everything.

3. Communicate clearly.

Partnerships thrive when everything is out in the open.

It is crucial that “there are no hidden agendas,” said the Rev. John Pingel, president of the LCMS Eastern District. “All of the issues should be out on the table. … We must deal honestly with each other.”

The best way of doing this is to foster personal relationships between the congregations, especially their leaders. Regular meetings of congregational leadership are important, and regular fellowship events for the congregations are very helpful.

Communication from the pastor is also crucial. For instance, he can hold regular “office hours” at each congregation and advertise these times in the church bulletin.

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of The Lutheran Witness and was reprinted with permission. Part 2 of this Article will follow in the next edition of the FELSISA WITNESS.

[1] Pew Research, “Which U.S. religious groups are oldest and youngest?” pewresearch.org.

[2] LCMS Rosters and Statistics, “Analysis of Ordained Ministers: Age, Status, Calls, Retention and Placement,” September 2022.

[3] MCPs are often referred to as “dual parishes,” but the official term “multi-congregation parishes” is used in this article, as some include three or four congregations.

[4] LCMS Rosters and Statistics, “LCMS Multi-Congregation Parishes,” Feb. 28, 2023.

[5] Galchutt now serves as executive director of the LCMS Office of National Mission.

[6] This is available online as a part of the LCMS Kansas District’s partnership resources.

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