Ecumenicism: The way forward?

The thought of selling the church was hard for the congregation, “but ultimately, we’re called to minister to people — we’re not called to minister to a building.” –Pastor Peter Olson, Faith Lutheran ELCA, Enid, Okla.

Ecumenicism

Pastor Peter Olson, center, pastor of Faith Lutheran ELCA in Enid, Okla., appears in the Faith Lutheran sanctuary with The Commons community relations director Jeff Jackson, left, and executive director Steven Walkingstick, right, after discussing a collaborative agreement whereby Faith Lutheran will sell its property to the adjacent United Methodist retirement community, but retain rights to worship in the sanctuary. (Bonnie Vculek / Enid News & Eagle)

ENID, Okla. — An Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregation and a United Methodist retirement community are strengthening ties through a plan to sell the church property to the retirement community, but allow the Lutheran congregation to continue using the sanctuary as its church home.

Faith Lutheran, 201 N. Oakwood, has its sanctuary and land adjacent to The Commons, 3706 King, a continuing care retirement community of the United Methodist Church.

Pastor Peter Olson, pastor for Faith Lutheran Church, said the church started as a thriving rural congregation on the outskirts of the city of Enid in the late 1960s.

Over the years Enid has grown around the church, and its congregation has declined, to a current average Sunday attendance of about 15 people, Olson said.

As church membership has declined, Olson said the maintenance and upkeep of the property has drawn the congregation away from its primary mission.

“As the congregation has been dwindling over the years, the maintenance and upkeep of the building has been such an energy drain, we haven’t been able to do as much as we want in ministry,” Olson said. “The hope was that we could let go of the building and do more in ministry.”

The thought of selling the church was hard for the congregation, Olson said, “but ultimately, we’re called to minister to people — we’re not called to minister to a building.”

When the church came up for sale, it reinvigorated an old discussion at The Commons, said The Commons executive director Steven Walkingstick.

“The board had been in conversation years ago about building a chapel, because as a faith-based community we didn’t have a dedicated place of worship,” Walkingstick said.

The topic of a dedicated sanctuary resurfaced, Walkingstick said, when board members saw that Faith Lutheran was up for sale. When they toured the sanctuary, Walkingstick said the concept of acquiring the church became a goal.

“Everyone who has been inside has absolutely fallen in love with the structure,” Walkingstick said.

When The Commons approached Faith Lutheran, Olson said the proximity of the two facilities opened the possibility of a shared-use agreement.

“We were excited about the possibility of doing something together,” Olson said, “and there was the pipe dream in some way of being able to get it to The Commons and still be able to have services here.”

A significant step was taken toward The Commons purchasing the church when an anonymous resident made a $250,000 matching gift toward the purchase price.

Walkingstick said the final sale price for the property isn’t being disclosed, but the initial valuation for the church and its 4.5 acres was $1.4 million.

Purchasing the church and allowing Faith Lutheran to continue worshiping there will build on a longstanding relationship between the two faith-based entities, Walkingstick said.

Faith Lutheran holds Bible study in The Commons on Thursday afternoons, and the church and retirement community have long had a “handshake agreement” to share a parking lot between the two facilities.

“We’ve had an ongoing partnership with the church for some time,” Walkingstick said, “and so it was just natural if they could continue to worship here, that aligns with our mission as a faith-based organization.”

Walkingstick said the land that comes with Faith Lutheran, east of the sanctuary and adjacent to The Commons, would give the retirement community space for future expansion.

“They’re not creating any more land … and if, down the line, the Lord gives us the opportunity to expand, this would allow us to seize on that opportunity,” he said.

Acquisition of the sanctuary and its fellowship hall also will give The Commons more space to host meetings, foster community partnerships and host memorial services for residents on-site, Walkingstick said.

Negotiations still are underway for a lease agreement with a “nominal fee” for Faith Lutheran to continue using the church after the sale, but Olson said he and the congregation are confident of and looking forward to the agreement.

“The congregation is overjoyed at the possibility of still being able to be here,” Olson said. “We’ll still have a place to be based out of, which gives us greater stability without having to worry about mowing the grass and taking care of the maintenance.”

Jeff Jackson, community relations director for The Commons, said the agreement will allow Faith Lutheran members at The Commons to continue worshiping in their home church, and also will open the congregation to new members from the retirement community.

“We have residents in our building who have been long-standing members at Faith Lutheran, and this will allow us to continue to minister to them and their congregation,” Jackson said.

Walkingstick said The Commons’ chaplain, Rev. Gail Edmison, has been involved in talks surrounding the purchase of Faith Lutheran “from the beginning,” and “works well” with Olson.

Since the ELCA and UMC denominations have a full communion agreement, Olson said sharing space will enable him and Edmison to partner on future ministry efforts.

Jackson said there’s no need for competition between Faith Lutheran and The Commons.

“We’re all working toward the same goal, especially when it comes to ministry,” Jackson said. “You have two ministry-based entities that have been here for 50-plus years, and instead of letting one or the other of them to die, we’re coming together to continue that ministry, and I have to imagine that makes God happy … it gives you hope for the future.”

Olson said that spirit of shared ministry, and partnerships like the one planned between Faith Lutheran and The Commons, is the way forward for mainline Protestant churches.

“I think the future will be in ecumenical ties,” Olson said. “I think the more we’re able to work together, the more promise there is for the future, and one of the things I love about the ELCA is our desire to work and partner with other denominations.”

Pastor Olson

Pastor Peter Olson

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