April 12, 2021
How Two Became One
The invitation was simple: “No agenda, just conversation. No pressure, just invitation.”
With these words, the rector and newcomers coordinator at Church of the Holy Communion in Memphis invited the members of St. Elisabeth’s Episcopal Church in nearby Bartlett, Tennessee to a service of Evening Prayer followed by a time of conversation. St. Elisabeth’s was about to close, and Holy Communion was not sure how best to help.
There is plenty of literature about how two congregations can start journeying together, but our story is not grounded in any particular theory. We just listened to each other, and we built a model that worked for us. Other churches in other places could easily do the same.
A little more than two years after that evening of prayer and conversation, Church of the Holy Communion’s congregation includes seventeen households that used to be members of St. Elisabeth’s – among them are some of St. Elisabeth’s most committed lay leaders, 14 former vestry members, and six former wardens.
The interconnection of Holy Communion and the former St. Elisabeth’s goes deeper than membership alone: St. Elisabeth’s last senior warden was recently elected to Holy Communion’s vestry. Our two Daughters of the King chapters have merged. St. Elisabeth’s parishioners have joined both the bell choir and the adult choir at Holy Communion. The two congregations’ lay ministers are serving alongside one another as though the two had always been one.
From the perspective of the former St. Elisabeth’s parishioners, the invitation from Holy Communion was not entirely unique. They had received an email from an Episcopal parish nearer to their Bartlett location extending a warm and sincere invitation to attend. Another parish invited them to come to Christmas services. One or two other messages of invitation were received.
What was different was Holy Communion taking the extra step of inviting St. Elisabeth’s parishioners to a special service, just for them, with a non-intimidating welcome from just two people. That first Evening Prayer service filled Holy Communion’s side chapel. It was the beginning of Advent 2018, and we all hoped that God would begin to reveal something new to us that evening.
As the invitation read, there was no agenda. A single prompt was enough to get the conversation flowing: “How are you?”
The next hour included the sharing of happy memories and the telling of uncomfortable truths. Pointed questions were asked – many relating to Holy Communion’s financial situation in the midst of a major capital reconstruction project – and honest answers were given. St. Elisabeth’s trust in well-intentioned words had been violated in the past; this special service and honest dialogue provided a glimmer of healing.
Over the next few months, St. Elisabeth’s parishioners began visiting Holy Communion and some began transferring their membership. Holy Communion’s parishioners began wearing their nametags more faithfully on Sunday mornings and the newcomers team began facilitating introductions and connections.
St. Elisabeth’s presence stirred something in Holy Communion’s spirit: Synergy emerged among outreach volunteers, lectors, musicians, Eucharistic minsters, flower arrangers, 5K runners, and others. It was not long before Holy Communion’s vestry voiced a desire to have someone from St. Elisabeth’s join its ranks, and not long after that before one was elected.
Many of St. Elisabeth’s parishioners found homes at other congregations. But, a simple gesture of love and hospitality led the largest group to Holy Communion. Indeed, God did begin to reveal something new during our Advent visitation, just as God had done for St. Elisabeth’s namesake.
In a way, we were all newcomers together that year. Holy Communion’s facilities were being renovated when St. Elisabeth’s began visiting.
As parishioners from St. Elisabeth’s were envisioning life without their building, Holy Communion was envisioning life in an unfamiliar building. None of us knew where to park, or where the working restrooms were, or how to get in touch with people at the temporary parish office. When we all moved into a temporary worship space the next summer – a space that was centered around St. Elisabeth’s portable altar – everyone’s “regular” seat was gone and no one knew how to come forward for communion.
The relationship between St. Elisabeth’s and Holy Communion deepened through this shared experience. Disruptions in old patterns offered an opportunity to create new patterns together. For a while, we talked about whether St. Elisabeth’s name should be preserved in a ministry at Holy Communion, but that never felt quite right to the people who used to call St. Elisabeth’s home. Somehow, through all of this transition, the two had truly become one.
We all became newcomers together again when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the new routines we had only just established. Online worship was new for everyone, but the former St. Elisabeth’s parishioners were among the first to embrace our new way of gathering.
St. Elisabeth’s experience had taught them a great deal about navigating loss, and particularly the loss of buildings. By being among the first to say “hello” in our online chats and among the first to extend a greeting at the Peace, the parishioners who had come to Holy Communion from St. Elisabeth’s led by example. They gently modeled their learned understanding that Christian relationships do not need to depend on church buildings.
Amidst the pandemic, excitement mounted about sharing resources with two rural congregations in the next county over and another life-giving partnership emerged. The prayer from the marriage office was answered for St. Elisabeth’s and Holy Communion: “Give them such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others.”
A Replicable Experience
While the process of building connections between St. Elisabeth’s and Holy Communion was hastened by the unique circumstances of disruption and displacement, this way of journeying together could have happened anywhere.
What worked for St. Elisabeth’s and Holy Communion was giving and receiving hospitality that makes fellow pilgrims feel not only invited, but welcomed and wanted.
Hospitality led to relationship, relationship led to shared experiences, and shared experiences led to transformation. That’s how the Holy Spirit once again created new life in a time of loss. That’s how two became one.