May 2012

Called to Common Mission

Twenty-five years ago, two churches – one Episcopal, the other Lutheran – came together united by a common mission. Members include:

  • Hal Vatland who found Lamb of God Lutheran Episcopal Church as he drove around southern Lee County, Florida, looking for a new congregation to join.
  • Bill Monsees who first found Lamb of God when its members were worshiping in rented space in a strip mall next door to a motorcycle shop. Today, he is president of the church’s governing board, which combines the Lutheran council and the Episcopal vestry.
  • Jacke McCurdy who learned about the congregation from a friend about two years ago. “I said ‘I have been looking for that church,’” she said. “I went the next day and I never left.”
  • Jacqueline Means, the first regularly ordained woman in the Episcopal Church, who worships at Lamb of Gob because “I need to get out of the sense of tradition being all we’re here for.”

They’re all members of a faith community that Senior Pastor Walter Fohs, a Lutheran, says has been breaking new ground and evolving since long before its Lutheran and Episcopal members officially joined together in 2004.

Indeed, change is a weekly event at Lamb of God. By weekday the congregation’s building, known as the Vineyard, is a preschool for 190 children. After they leave on Friday afternoon, their equipment gets wheeled to the sides behind screens and the Vineyard becomes the site of the congregation’s 10:00 am main worship service, known as the Catch the Spirit service.

Fohs presides at that service in street clothes and preaches from a stool. The liturgy and announcements are projected on two large video screens above the dais that serves as the sanctuary. Lay people stand in a circle behind him during the Eucharistic prayer and they prepare the chalices and paten for communion. Lay people administer both bread and wine.

Vested in more traditional garb, Fohs presides at the 7:45 am service in the Arbor, the church’s smaller worship space. That service is based on Rite Two in the Book of Common Prayer.

While Fohs is the driving force behind much of the change and Lamb of God’s orientation towards service to the community beyond its doors, it hasn’t been just Fohs alone.

President of Lamb of God’s Governing Board Bill Monsees said, “We have amazing lay ministry in this church. Walter has helped us grow and opened our eyes [to ministry possibilities] but it’s the people who do it.”

The congregation’s 2012 Ministry Opportunities catalogue lists 12 outreach ministries, 20 ways to minister within the congregation, and nine education and hospitality opportunities open to both Lamb of God members and people in the wider community.

A parishioner who is in the day care business started the preschool that occupies a large part of Lamb of God’s buildings during the week. It is run independently and pays the church for the use of the space. The school has given Lamb of God “a reputation for a place that cares about kids.”

The idea for what became Lamb of God Lutheran Episcopal Church grew out of a friendship that formed between Fohs, who began his ministry with the Lutheran Lamb of God congregation in the mid-1990s, and the Very Rev. John Adler, who was then serving as interim vicar at nearby St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church.

St. John’s and Lamb of God Lutheran were at the time in locations that Fohs recalled were “abysmal.” Lamb of God worshipped in a former retail store it owned next to a Burger King in a bend of the northbound side of U.S. 41, also known as Tamiami Trail, a busy commercial road. Meanwhile, St. Joseph’s was at the end of a dead-end road off the southbound side of Tamiami.

Fohs convinced the Lutheran congregation to sell the property and build the first of its two buildings on what was then the growing southern end of Lee County. Lamb of God moved to the rented space in which Monsees first found the congregation and the Lutherans dedicated “The Arbor” in the early fall of 2000.

Meanwhile, St. Joseph’s had been struggling because of conflicts with two previous priests and Fohs said Adler helped the Episcopalians consider their options. They included disbanding and dispersing to one or more other local Episcopal churches or “close your door and because of the agreement, walk down the street and become a part of Lamb of God.”

“They were not too awfully excited about that right away because they were a pretty tight-knit group,” Fohs said.

But on Dec. 31, the last Sunday of 2000, the St. Joseph’s congregation had its final Eucharist at their church and then drove over to Lamb of God, led by the procession cross sticking up through the sunroof of one member’s car.

As they drove up Cypress View Drive to the church, “we made a double line with all of our folks holding flowers and we welcomed them into this building” where the two congregations celebrated Eucharist again, Fohs recalled.

Early the next year the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America entered into a full-communion relationship (known as Called to Common Mission) that opened a door to new possibilities for shared ministry among congregations in each denomination. However, St. Joseph’s and Lamb of God were not formally joined at that point.

Eventually in 2004, the two congregations made it official, becoming a so-called “federated congregation” in which both congregations became members of a new non-profit organization that is subject to the governing provisions of both denominations. It reports to both the ELCA’s Florida-Bahamas Synod and the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida.

At the time of the agreement, three-quarters of the congregation was Lutheran and a quarter Episcopalian, according to the agreement. However, since then the agreement calls for “no distinction in congregational membership based on previous denominational affiliation.”

Monsees, a Lutheran when he joined Lamb of God, said denominational identity is indeed not a question, and Fohs agreed. “We have a non-denominational church here,” he said. “Now, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Fohs says “it’s been nothing but growth” in the years since the two congregations merged. These days between 300 and 400 people attend Sunday services in season and 130-160 during the summer months when the area’s “snowbirds” have gone back to their northern homes.

Called to Common Mission gave the two congregations the “impetus, opportunity and permission” to consider how they might combine forces for ministry, Fohs said. Without what he called the “nationally recognized permission,” Fohs said, “there would not have been the motivation” to do so.

Jon A. Perez, who leads Epiphany Lutheran & Episcopal Church in Marina, California, and is a member of the Lutheran Episcopal Coordinating Committee, calls Lamb of God a “best-case scenario” and “an example of what can be achieved” under the full-communion agreement. By contrast, Perez said his congregation was closer to the worst-case scenario, having developed after a nearby Episcopal parish was dying and down to “the last five survivors” who “did not want to be a joint ministry.”

Even with the full-communion agreement, no more than 50 Episcopal and Lutheran congregations, plus some joint campus ministries, have united under its terms, according to Perez, who maintains a list of those congregations.

Perez cautioned that, too often, it is only congregations facing what he called “failure” that are considered ripe for such combinations. Instead, he suggested, congregations should focus on their assets and what could be achieved by coming together. “People want to see the church working on healing and being one,” he said.

Mary Frances Schjonberg is an Episcopal priest and editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


This article is part of the May 2012 Vestry Papers issue on Governance