Ecumenical Shared Ministries: an idea whose time has come?

 — Mar. 27, 200927 mars 2009

by Rev. Dr. Jan Bigland-Pritchard
(Executive Director, Prairie Centre for Ecumenism & Coordinator, Shared Ministries Bureau)

In Winnipeg, a Catholic parish and an Anglican parish share a large building on a busy city street. In Shell Lake Saskatchewan, Anglican, Lutheran and United Church Christians have joined buildings and hearts together to form one worshipping community with joint staff and programming. In Montreal, downtown clergy of two denominations start talks about sharing a worship space: one has a big church with a small congregation, while the other has a congregation with no suitable place to meet. In Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, three existing congregations are about to break ground for a new church facility which will serve them as one congregation and help them serve the needs of their town. In Biggar, Saskatchewan, the Anglican and Lutheran pastors run a ‘Monday School’ kids club for the children of the whole town. What are all these Christians doing? They are exploring ecumenical shared ministry.

An Ecumenical Shared Ministry (ESM) exists where Christians of more than one denomination worship and serve God in a united way while still maintaining their denominational identities and connections. ESMs take many forms, from sharing a building, to sharing programs, staff and worship. There are an estimated 80-150 ESMs in Canada. Some are found in tiny rural communities. Some are in major cities. Most ESMs are located in Western Canada and the Maritimes, and new ones are forming all the time.

Ecumenical Shared Ministries are showing themselves to be part of the solution to the problem our churches face in the rural areas, and in new urban areas. In places where numbers are diminishing due to rural depopulation, ESMs offer a way for rural Christians of several denominations to work together in ministry to their communities without losing their denominational allegiances. In the new city suburbs in Western Canada, denominations are stretched to finance the planting of new churches, and some are creating new urban ESMs, like the Living Spirit Centre in Regina. These ESMs not only maximize limited financial resources, but also give ‘flesh’ to Christians’ spiritual commitment to seek Christian unity and reconciliation.

ESMs are not just a Canadian phenomenon. The United Kingdom has a well-developed network of ESMs, called Local Ecumenical Partnerships (LEPs) In the English setting, with greater population densities, greater church wealth and relatively small travelling distances, LEPs operate within a coherent and relatively well-funded national structure overseen by Churches Together in England. In Canada, with its smaller population, vast travelling distances and less wealth in the churches, there is no corresponding umbrella organization: ESMs develop and dissolve here on a more local and ad hoc basis. The lack of structured support and accessible expertise often leaves an ESM very much on its own.

The lack of coordination for Canadian ESMs has been felt by many. In 2005 the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism merged its annual Summer Ecumenical Institute with a network of people involved in ESMs to produce a well-attended Collaborative Ministry Conference, held in Saskatoon. At that gathering, church leaders asked the PCE to become a repository for documents and information concerning shared ministries in Canada. Grant funding for the initial phase of the work was obtained from the Churches Council for Theological Education, and in 2007 the Shared Ministries Bureau was born.

At about the same time, the Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Evangelical Lutheran Churches at national level began seeking to provide a more coherent framework for Canadian ESMs, so that local judicatories who wish to explore establishing an ESM do not need to ‘reinvent the wheel.’ The National Ecumenical Shared Ministries Taskforce has been meeting since 2006 to develop common policies, and to publish a Shared Ministries Handbook. A draft version of the Handbook is available on our website, and the final version is expected in June, 2009. In February of 2008 the Taskforce endorsed the PCE’s Shared Ministries Bureau and invited it to become a permanent Taskforce member. It has asked the PCE to continue its database development and document gathering, but also to undertake practical training work for clergy and others involved in ESMs.

The Shared Ministries Bureau is pleased to make its existing database of ESMs available on the PCE website. Further histories and access to sample constitutions, and ESM covenants will follow.

Forthcoming ESM training events

At the Summer Ecumenical Institute (2-5 June, 2009) Rev. Dr. Sandra Beardsall will offer a workshop on Ecumenical Shared Ministries, Thursday 4 June at 3.30 pm. Sandra is the United Church professor of Church History and Ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College, Saskatoon and consultant to the Shared Ministries Bureau. She has pastored an ecumenical shared ministry, and now shares with theological students her vision for their potential.

In January 2010 Sandra, assisted by the staff of the Shared Ministries Bureau, will offer a week-long intensive Ecumenical Shared Ministries Course at St. Andrews College, Saskatoon. Prof. Beardsall writes:

“This course will explore the dynamics particular to developing and sustaining ecumenical ministry initiatives in congregational settings. It will introduce participants to the structures, theologies, and ethos of the major denominations involved, and consider issues that are unique to ecumenical congregational relationships. It will involve engagement with documents of the ecumenical movement, with practical issues like the production of covenants and constitutions, and with the pastoral challenges that affect all congregations, such as conflict and change, but with attention to the nuances for ecumenical ministries. Finally, the course will involve engagement with questions of our personal struggles and delights in confronting Christian identity and otherness. Participants will identify and strengthen their gifts for ecumenical ministries, in the context of these many aspects of faith, theology, and leadership.”

The course may be audited or taken for credit in the Saskatoon Theological Union, and will form part of the requirements for certification as an Ecumenical Shared Ministries Trainer.

For further information on Ecumenical Shared Ministries contact the Shared Ministries Bureau at the PCE.

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