This past Pentecost Sunday, the day the church hears anew how the Spirit blew into a gathering of Christians to bless and unify them, Kelly Moore’s brand-new red stole was more than liturgical garb. It served as a sermon illustration.
“I was talking about how excited I was that I got to wear my new red stole,” said Moore, ordained in the Moravian Church in North America and called this spring to serve Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Mocksville, N.C.
You see, Moravian clergy don’t vest for worship, and Moore loves wearing an alb with a colorful stole. “I could not wait to get to church and put it on,” she said.
Appropriate for Pentecost Sunday, Moore explained, the red stole worn by a Moravian pastor in a Lutheran church is a small symbol of Christian unity present on that holy day.
God’s intention for sacred community, harmony and unity is a guiding principle for our denomination’s ecumenical efforts.
“Unity is a gift that we’ve already received in Christ,” said Kathryn Lohre, ELCA assistant to the presiding bishop and executive for ecumenical and inter-religious relations. “Our task as churches is to make that visible and to work toward reconciliation where people have sought to divide what Christ has already united.”
While the ELCA interacts with scores of churches, councils and faith groups across the globe, it has only entered into “full communion” with six denominations. These partnerships recognize strong theological commonalities and establish close relationships that allow for clergy sharing and reciprocal table fellowship (see “Characteristics of full communion,” below). It’s because of the ELCA’s 1999 full-communion relationship with the Moravian Church that Moore can serve the ELCA congregation and see the benefits.
“Unity is a gift that we’ve already received in Christ,. Our task as churches is to make that visible and to work toward reconciliation where people have sought to divide what Christ has already united.”
“Being in full communion and bonding together makes us stronger,” Moore said. “There’s so much more power and people and monetary support and prayer support, and all of that.”
Moore also chairs the Lutheran Moravian Coordinating Committee, which brings together representatives from both denominations for yearly conversation and planning.
“There’s a real sense of achievement and a real sense of relationship building,” said Moore, who received a warm welcome at Holy Cross from parishioners who are curious to learn more. “There’s not a Sunday that I walk through that building that somebody doesn’t say, ‘Pastor Kelly, can you tell me about the Moravians?’ ”
In the 21 years since the ELCA began entering into them, full-communion partnerships have proven invaluable to its work in all sorts of ways. The partnerships have helped launch creative ministries and productive mission projects. Working together, denominational counterparts have not only been able to share information and expertise but have also developed programs and launched or revitalized congregations that blend the best of each tradition.
Full-communion partnerships have been a boon, especially for churches that can’t afford a full-time pastor or have trouble finding a Lutheran pastor to serve them, said Tim Smith, bishop of the North Carolina Synod, where Moore serves. Faced with struggling congregations in isolated rural communities, the synod is increasingly working with full-communion partners who are facing the same dilemma.
“It’s not an afterthought for us anymore,” Smith said. “We all have the same mind that we’ve either got to close these places or work together, and we’re choosing to work together.”
Lutherans in North Carolina have the longest-running relationship with the Moravians, who are strong there, and they have been working extensively with the Episcopal Church.
“So many of the Episcopal congregations and so many of the Lutheran congregations are small and not viable by themselves,” Smith said. “We’re looking at a whole lot of yoking—pairing-parish relationships
In many cases, Lutherans are working with full-communion partners to consolidate churches into a congregation whose identity is both/and—neither fully Lutheran nor the other. That’s the case with Spirit of Faith Lutheran-Methodist Church, Woonsocket, S.D. It formed as a single church after decades of being three struggling independent congregations (one Methodist and two Lutheran) that shared Rhonda Wellsandt-Zell as pastor.
Each of the three congregations was just getting by. In addition to facing the expected 21st-century church challenges, they had a confusing worship schedule that rotated every week and had to shoulder the costs of maintaining three facilities in close proximity.
“All three buildings were in dire need of some pretty significant repairs and renovations,” said Rachel Anderson, treasurer of Spirit of Faith. It was clear that the path was unsustainable and something had to be done.
Understanding this, Wellsandt-Zell recalled the day she challenged members to get serious about their future: “I said to them, ‘We have to decide. Are we going to live or are we going to die?’ ”
The congregations decided to live.
“I said, ‘Well then, let’s get busy and live boldly!” Wellsandt-Zell added.
After a period of study and prayer, one of the Lutheran churches went out on its own and the other two congregations voted to merge in 2016 to form Spirit of Faith.
“Through our visioning process, we began to realize that it wasn’t so much about the buildings, but what we were called to do as the church,” Wellsandt-Zell said. “Once we started doing strong mission focus, looking outside the walls beyond ourselves, everything changed.”
Envisioning a life beyond its walls, Spirit of Faith demolished its Lutheran church building and moved into the larger Methodist facility. But this spring they tore down that building too. As they await this fall’s completion of a new structure suitable for ministry in the 21st century, they are meeting in community places, including a lumber yard, public pool, baseball field, courthouse lawn and nursing home.
“The transformation of the thinking was that we are the church—we the people,” Wellsandt-Zell said. “The building is a tool for us to carry out the mission.”
This transformation also brought them a new identity that isn’t entirely Lutheran and not entirely Methodist, but something bold and new.
“We’ve really felt more and more just like we’re all in this together and we’re all family,” said Anderson, who belonged to the Methodist church before the merger. “We are all there for the same reason: We want to hear the word of God.”
Wanda Swenson, who came to Spirit of Faith from one of the Lutheran churches, agreed: “The Lutheran and Methodist thing doesn’t really matter. We’ve had a common purpose and goal and mission, and that has united us. It just instills in us the energy to go out into the community and do things for others.”
When new people join Spirit of Faith, they are given three options to identify themselves—as a Methodist, a Lutheran or simply Spirit of Faith. It has helped the congregation reach people who are unchurched or ambivalent about denominations.
“The Lutheran and Methodist thing doesn’t really matter. We’ve had a common purpose and goal and mission, and that has united us. It just instills in us the energy to go out into the community and do things for others.”
That’s also the case at Camino de Vida (The Way of Life) in Albuquerque, N.M., a robust Latino mission organized by the ELCA and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), said Ruben Duran, ELCA director for congregational vitality. “The people who come, they know that there are two denominations behind it, and they’re not saying I want this or the other,” he said. “They say, ‘I want to worship God.’ ”
This illustrates the point that today’s people are looking more for a strong and vibrant community of faith than they are a church of a specific denomination. As a result, the old way that we measure the vitality of a church—finance and attendance—is out the window.
“You should be asking, ‘What is God doing in people’s lives? How are we impacting the neighborhood? What’s happening to people’s priorities? And how are the people who are in poverty connected to this ministry?’ ” Duran said.
This understanding has totally changed how the ELCA goes about starting churches.
“In the past, you’d go to a new city, find all the Lutherans and plan a building there, and the people would find you. No more,” Duran said. “In the case of these postmodern thinkers, all the resources and materials we have don’t apply very well, so we’ve got to create from nothing.”
To learn how to better reach people in a changing religious landscape, the ELCA is working with its full-communion partners on the denominational level. Duran’s counterparts in mission development and church planting have culled information, together hosted workshops and trainings, and share experience and expertise.
In addition to requiring more effort and creativity, today’s new congregations also take a lot more time to get established—up to 10 years, Duran said. For this reason, church planting today demands painstaking study and lots of resources. Working together, denominations can share information about specific mission neighborhoods and strategies for gathering faith communities. Most importantly, they can commit enough resources to see the projects to completion.
“That’s why it’s important to have these ecumenical partners,” Duran said. “Together we can carry the weight, the mission, for a longer time and give our developers a chance to succeed.”
In the 21 years since the ELCA approved the first full-communion partnership, the experience has been positive and rewarding as the denominations have continued to grow and cultivate new and creative ministry possibilities. Here are some of the ministries that full-communion partnerships have made possible:
- In the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, Grace Village, a Lutheran-Episcopal campus ministry at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., recently moved into the space of First Presbyterian Church.
- In North Carolina, Moravian and Lutheran women rostered ministers hold an annual retreat.
- United Church of the San Juans in Ridgway, Colo., formed as a federated congregation of four full-communion partners—the ELCA, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
- “Called to Beloved Community” is an effort by Episcopalian and Lutheran bishops in Indiana to address racism.
- At the Rocky Mountain Synod’s New Beginnings Worshiping Community in the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, partnership with Episcopalians enables them to offer worship in Spanish.
- In the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod, ELCA pastor Tom Scornavacchi leads three Common Ground Recovery Communities, including one at St. Gabriel Episcopal Church in Douglassville, Pa.
While there are no additional full-communion partnerships in the immediate future, the ELCA continues to be in conversation and relationship with religious groups around the world. This has been part of the ELCA from its beginning. Just several years after the ELCA’s founding, the 1991 Churchwide Assembly approved the policy statement “A Declaration of Ecumenical Commitment,” which provides the vision for vigorous engagement with other members of God’s family.
“These ecumenical partnerships, whether it’s full communion or a dialogue or discourse, or even through councils of churches, have really shaped our self-understanding,” Lohre said.
As a leader in ecumenism, the ELCA will continue to reach out to partners in hopes that the results will be as fruitful as they have been so far.
“Full-communion partnerships enable us to grow in our understanding and experience of other members of the body of Christ, and in appreciation for the gifts they bring,” said Steve Meysing, assistant to the bishop of the Nebraska Synod. “They give us the opportunity to refresh our understanding of what ELCA Christians believe and contribute to the body of Christ, and invite us to turn outward and consider the needs of our sisters and brothers in faith, their congregations and ministries.”
From what she sees, Moore, the Moravian pastor who serves an ELCA congregation in North Carolina, finds full communion a blessing: “It strengthens us. It strengthens our souls; it strengthens our bodies; it strengthens our churches.”
Characteristics of full communion
For the ELCA, the characteristics of full communion are theological and missiological (study of the mission of the church) implications of the gospel that allow variety and flexibility. These characteristics stress that the church acts ecumenically for the sake of the world, not for itself alone. They include at least the following, some of which exist at earlier stages:
- Common confessing of the Christian faith.
- Mutual recognition of baptism and a sharing of the Lord’s Supper, allowing for joint worship and an exchangeability of members.
- Mutual recognition and availability of ordained ministers to the service of all, subject to the disciplinary regulations of other denominations.
- Common commitment to evangelism, witness and service.
- Means of common decision-making on critical common issues of faith and life.
- Mutual lifting of any condemnations that exist between denominations.
Full communion partners
1997: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
1997: Reformed Church in America
1997: United Church of Christ
1999: The Episcopal Church
1999: The Moravian Church
2009: The United Methodist Church
Source: ELCA Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations