Back in 2000, when the Rev. Patricia Hanen was asked to oversee the possible merger of two Episcopal parishes, she was dubious
Back in 2000, when the Rev. Patricia Hanen was asked to oversee the possible merger of two Episcopal parishes, she was dubious.
“I didn’t believe mergers worked,” she said. “We never had one in Ohio that worked, where people forgot where they came from. There was nothing I read, where anyone else had a handle on mergers, either.”
But New Life Episcopal Church has been an exception to that rule. At 3 p.m. Sunday, the church at 13118 Church Ave. NW will celebrate its 10th anniversary as a merged parish, as well as its recent completion of a $150,000 upgrade project. Bishop Mark Hollingsworth Jr., head of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, will attend.
New Life was born of St. Peter’s parish in Akron, and St. Michael & All Angels parish located in the edifice now occupied by New Life.
Hanen said talk about a merger arose while she was director of congregational development for the diocese.
“I’d been talking to St. Peter’s for years about shared ministry,” she said.
She recalled that the Rev. Stephanie Pace, then-rector at St. Michael’s, asked her to broach St. Peter’s about possible merger after the latter lost its rector in 2001. But Pace didn’t want to oversee a “shared ministry,” which consists of one pastor serving two separate congregations.
Following much discussion and prayer, the merger became official on the first Sunday of Advent in 2002.
GRIEF TO FRIENDSHIP
Jan Szwast, a New Life vestry (board) member who once attended both churches, said the decision was made to sell St. Peter’s because it was larger and more costly to maintain. The plan was to use the proceeds to build a new church in Green.
Prior to the merger, both parishes were in the same predicament: Dwindling attendance and rising maintenance costs.
Even so, some people were hesitant.
“There were people in the congregation and leadership who had feelings of anger and grief that that church would disappear if we move someplace else, among strangers,” said Bill Miller, New Life treasurer and former member of the vestry at St. Peter’s. “There were questions of ‘Why didn’t the diocese help us?’ We went through a grieving process.”
But Miller said Pace went out of her way to make St. Peter’s members feel welcome.
“Her personality persuaded the leadership,” he said. “There was a lot of sensitivity to make sure people from St. Peter’s felt welcome, and that people at St. Michael’s didn’t feel overwhelmed.”
“The merger, the first and only of its kind in the diocese, went as well as it did in great part because of Stephanie’s work,” Hanen said. “She has a gift for helping people work collaboratively to develop a vision and achieve it.”
Page 2 of 3 - Leadership consisted of members from both parishes.
“Which made our meetings very large,” Szwast said with a laugh.
“But it worked out,” Miller said. “There was a tremendous amount of good will; we just hit it off. Everybody became friends.”
WORTH THE DRIVE
“I was here quite a while before I knew there was a merger,” said Marla Jeane “MJ” Maling, who joined New Life eight years ago. “The friendliness of the people welcoming you here was just insane.”
Today, New Life draws members from four counties.
“They feel we’re completely worth the drive,” Maling said.
Asked for advice for a successful merger, Szwast recommends a slow approach.
“You have to take people’s feelings into consideration,” she said. “If you don’t, you can kill it right away. Listen to their differences and be open to their individual perspectives. The angle we took ... was understanding that the people from St. Peter’s gave up a lot to come here. There were certain things, near and dear to them, that they couldn’t take with them because we didn’t have the space. It didn’t happen overnight.”
“We don’t consider ourselves experts, we’re just an example of one that worked,” Miller said. “If someone can learn from that, we’ll be happy.”
“They were open to change and also were willing to take care of each other during the change; that’s critical,” Hanen said. “If I disappeared tomorrow, this congregation would not fall apart.”
“THEY MADE IT WORK”
Hanen cited the members’ decision to remain at the present site, rather than go into debt to build a new church, as an example of their willingness to be flexible. Embracing a new name also helped ensure success. Hanen said when merged churches try to combine their old names, “it tends to preserve the idea of two churches.”
“New Life was a perfect name,” Szwast said. “We started a new life together.”
Like mainline churches, Episcopalians are struggling to maintain footing amidst the rise of nondenominational churches, as well as the burgeoning Anglican Church, its more-conservative counterpart.
“I think the Episcopal Church is doing what God has called it to do,” Hanen said. “Saying to people that God loves them, that whoever they are, they’re welcome to Christ’s church, as long as they’re being true and loving examples of what it means to be a Christian.”
Hanen said she’s deeply proud of new Life’s commitment to outreach. Members are active in a number of regional food, housing and clothing programs.
“The members expressed three goals,” she said. “To turn the focus from inside to outside; to take more risks for the faith; and they wanted their spirituality to be more intentional without being less individual.”
Page 3 of 3 - “We have very faithful people at this church,” Maling said. “The Holy Spirit has been pretty darn busy, here.”
Hanen said she never dreamed she would become New Life’s rector, a post she’s held since 2009. Prior to that, the parish didn’t have a full-time pastor for two years.
Hanen said her bishop initially discouraged her from applying. She did anyway.
“When I came to think that God wanted me to do parish ministry again, I thought there were only three or four parishes I’d like to serve,” she said.
Hanen said that if churches really don’t want to merge, no pastor can force them.
“It can come apart ugly,” she said. “The people here make this place extraordinary. They made the merger work.”