Three Bristol County Episcopal churches are merging into one and will celebrate their first service together as the Bristol Trinity Episcopal Church on June 15.
The three churches, St. John’s in Taunton, St. John the Evangelist in Mansfield and St. Mark’s in North Easton, have been in a “cluster” relationship since the early 1990s, sharing one full-time and two part-time priests. Since 2010, the cluster has been gathering together for services during the summer months. With small congregations and aging buildings, the churches of the Bristol cluster voted in September 2013 to begin the merger process.
The churches have been worshiping together since October of this year, rotating among the three church buildings for weekly services and other activities. Average Sunday attendance for the combined congregation is around 70.
“At first this conversation was motivated by finances, and resources,” said the Rev. Jan Walden, area missioner for the Bristol Cluster. “But we’re going to be able to serve God’s people in new ways, and more ways, and with more energy. For many people it feels like lifting off a burden—we’re just not going to be stretched so thin.”
None of the existing church buildings were ideally suited to house the newly merged congregation as its ministry evolves, so all three will be closed and put up for sale. The new congregation will be moving to space leased from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, at 143 Lincoln Street in North Easton. The decision to sell the church buildings and move to a shared space was not made easily.
“It’s a grief process,” said Betsey Anderson, a congregational consultant for the Diocese of Massachusetts. “It’s hard to leave those buildings, no matter what.”
Anderson has been supporting the cluster during this time of transition. She has been assisting with finances and other business concerns, as well as serving as a companion to the community by attending cluster council and committee meetings and helping to ease some of the tension inherent to the process.
The merger was not only prompted by the challenges presented by the properties. It was also motivated by a desire to build a larger congregation that can support more outreach and sustain a strong community.
“The buildings have their issues, but these are small congregations and they don’t always have the people to do the outreach and other things that they want to do,” Anderson added. “I think they’re going to do well as a larger group. They’ll have more people to do outreach, more ushers, more people to serve on the altar, more children.”
“In some ways it’s a relief, because now we know where we’re going to be for the foreseeable future,” said Tammi Branco, President of the Bristol Cluster Episcopal Ministry. “And there’s sadness because you know ‘my kid won’t be baptized here, my kids can’t get married in the church where I was married.’ But we’ll still be here, and we’ll still be part of the church.”
Each church building will be honored with two Sunday services in the weeks leading up to the first service at the Lutheran church.
“It’s a time of great anticipation mixed with sadness,” said Walden.
“Merger processes like the one the Bristol Cluster of parishes is going through are always complicated, both practically and emotionally,” said the Rev. Canon Libby Berman, Canon for Congregations in the Diocese of Massachusetts. “They have had to be open with one another about their finances and property, and they have had to act on their belief that the one, merged church will be stronger than the three smaller ones.”
Although leaving the church buildings will be emotional, sharing space with the Lutheran church will offer freedom and flexibility, said Walden. The church will no longer have to contend with three sets of utility bills, or maintain three buildings.
“[Leasing space] will allow them to focus on building the congregation, on doing outreach, without constantly worrying about maintenance,” said Anderson.
“We’re excited that we can now focus our resources on mission,” said Branco. “[The merger] brings wonderful opportunities to share resources, talents and treasures.”
Although they will be worshiping in North Easton, the merged church will continue to be a presence in the towns in which the member churches were located and in the surrounding communities, along with St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in Taunton. Branco noted that cluster churches have been involved with projects such as providing backpacks to school children, maintaining a food pantry, providing holiday baskets to families in need and sending care packages to American troops. She said that she hopes all of this work will continue, with the renewed energy of the merged church.
As they say goodbye to the church buildings and transition to the new space, the members of the Bristol Trinity Episcopal Church are looking forward to the future in collaboration, care for one another and prayer. (At the beginning of the merger process, the cluster established a special prayer ministry for the journey. The ministry prays for every member by name every week.) There is hope and enthusiasm alongside the sadness.
“It’s an exciting time to be an Episcopalian in Bristol County, and seeing what is blossoming from this,” Branco said. “There are so many possibilities, and we can’t wait to start.”
In the coming months, Branco said that the church will be spending time building relationships with one another, as well as dedicating themselves to the wider community.
“It’s a journey, and it’s been long, but people are excited and helpful, and it’s been very clear in many ways that Christ has been among us on this journey,” Walden said.
“The process has not been easy, but it has been fruitful,” said Berman. “And everyone we meet, though affected by the sacrifices this merging process has required, is ready to move ahead now, to see just what Bristol Trinity Episcopal Church will do and be.”