Zion’s Stone Church: One Body in Christ
(article from “Partners in the Spirit” – the online newsletter of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – written in the Spring of 2005)
In what does the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ consist? Once upon a time German immigrants came to the new world and settled in Northeastern Pennsylvania in a lovely little valley just north of what we have come to call the Blue Mountain (West Penn Township). They came to America with the faith of the Reformation â some of the Lutheran tradition, others of the Reformed tradition. Frugal in heart and mind, one church building was constructed and the two congregations shared their one church. The Lutherans would gather for Sunday worship this week while the Reformed congregation would gather next Sunday.
In the late 1700’s the Lutheran congregation would have been a part of the Ministerium of Pennsylvania while the Reformed congregation was originally under the jurisdiction of the Reformed Church of Holland, finally becoming part of the newly formed Synod of the German Reformed Church. Over two hundred years of American Church history the desire for unity in the Church of Jesus Christ had dramatic effect. Over the centuries the Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania and Adjacent States became part of the United Lutheran Church in America (1918); which became part of the Lutheran Church in America (1962); which became part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1987). Over that same period of history the Synod of the German Reformed Church became part of the General Synod of the Reformed Church (1863), which entered into a merger that resulted in the formation of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (1934), which itself entered into a further merger that formed the United Church of Christ (1957).
In 1846, the year in which the current stone church was built, a proclamation was adopted naming this church and its congregations Zion’s High German Reformed and German Evangelical Lutheran Church in West Penn. Over the years both of the congregation at Zion’s found themselves participants in four-point parish arrangements. One Lutheran pastor and one Reformed pastor served the four local congregations of the Mahoning Parish (Zion’s; St. Peter’s, Mantzville; St. John’s, Mahoning; and Ben Salem, Andreas). Worship alternated weekly between Lutheran and Reformed in each church with each pastor leading worship and preaching in two of the four. In 1966 the Mahoning Lutheran Parish was dissolved and Zion’s became part of the West Penn Parish with St. Peter’s, Mantzville.
The 1997 Formula of Agreement, which declared full communion among the ELCA, the UCC, the Reformed Church of America, and the Presbyterian Church â USA, made it possible for the sharing of ordained ministers between full communion partner congregations. Under the provisions of the Formula the two congregations at Zion’s entered into “shared ministry” in which one ordained pastor was called to be the pastor of both the Lutheran and the UCC congrega- tions. Under the shared ministry agreement the two congregations began holding joint worship services each Sunday and a Joint Board made up of six Lutheran Council members and six UCC Consistory members began overseeing the life and ministry of the church. Following two years of interim pastoral ministry (Pastor Robert Bohm 1998-99 and Pastor George Kinney 1999-2000), the Rev. Michael Frost became the first fully called pastor of Zion’s shared ministry, beginning in July of 2000.
Consideration of yet one more step toward organic unity for Zion’s Stone Church began within a brainstorming session by Zion’s Long Range Planning Committee in January of 2002. The goal for the committee’s work and for the life and ministry of the church was “to grow as one church in the ministry of Christ.” The committee passed on recommendations to the Church Board in the fall of 2003 that investigation should begin on the possibility of creating one new congregation that would be affiliated with both the UCC and the ELCA. The board and Pastor Frost began explorations into this possibility, which included conversations with Bishop David Strobel of the Northeastern Penn Synod of the ELCA and Conference Minister, the Rev. Alan Miller of the Penn Northeast Conference of the UCC and members of their staffs. In December of 2003 the congregations were asked for their input and feelings on such a possibility. Overwhelming support from the members encouraged the board and in early 2004 the board gave the Long Range Planning Committee the task of drawing up a draft constitution for the new congregation. Early drafts were circulated in the congregation and both the Synod and the Conference. Feedback from all sides was considered and a final draft was approved in October of 2004. Congregational meetings were scheduled for Reformation Day, October 31st, 2004 following worship for a vote on the adoption of the new constitution and approval of the process that would lead to the formation of a newly incorporated congregation, the transfer of all assets to that new congregation, and the ultimate dissolving of the two former congregations. Once again the votes in favor of the proposal were overwhelming. A charter document was designed containing the preamble to the new constitution and it was made available for members’ signatures beginning on Sunday, November 7th, 2004. Well over 200 signatures had been collected on the charter by Christmas Eve.
The legal process of getting state approval of the new corporation finally bore fruit and we received notification on Monday, March 14th, 2005 that Zion’s Stone Church of West Penn Township, Inc. was a corporate reality. Announcement was made to the congregation on Palm Sunday, March 20th. Plans are in the works for a massive celebration of this gift of God’s grace on Pentecost Sunday, May 15th, 2005.
In what does the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ consist? In John 17 we hear Jesus pray to the Father that all who follow him might be one. From a long history as a Union Church, through seven years of shared ministry, and now into the bright future God has for us as one “federated” church affiliated with both the ELCA and the UCC, God has blessed his people here in Zion’s Stone Church, West Penn Township, Schuylkill County with unity of spirit and purpose, with a common life and ministry, and the confident understanding that there is far more that unites us in Christ than those things over which we may differ.
THANKS BE TO GOD!
Zion’s Stone Church of West Penn Twp.
Not long after Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the Wittenberg church door, serious doctrinal divisions emerged among Protestants, especially in Germany. At the center of those differences was the Eucharist, and reconciliation between the Reformed churches and the Lutheran churches on the meaning of the sacrament proved impossible.
When German Protestants migrated to Pennsylvania in the 18th century, however, people of the Lutheran and Reformed persuasions grew closer together-physically if not theologically. More than anything else, a shortage of clergy and cash led to the formation of the “union churches,” in which Calvinists and Lutherans worshiped on alternate Sundays under the same roof.
Now there is a movement among some union churches to graduate from shared space to some form of shared ministry and mission. No local church has moved closer to the organic merger of its two congregations than Zion’s Stone Church of West Penn Township in New Ringgold, PA. When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the United Church of Christ entered into “full communion” ten years ago, the agreement helped Zion’s members to start down their own road toward unity. In 1998, the two congregations began to worship as one, creating a new liturgy that was neither UCC nor ELCA, and acquiring new worship resources to go with it. In 2000 they called one pastor and, four years later, adopted a new constitution, formed a new corporation, and transferred their property and resources to this new entity.
Anyone familiar with the history of the Reformation might well wonder how UCC and Lutheran congregations could ever get together. Rev. Michael Frost recognizes that Zion’s Stone Church “blazed a trail.” But he also points out the factors that united the congregations from the start: their common Reformation heritage and German background; the long experience of living, if not worshiping, together in the same church; and the knowledge that other union churches were exploring their own forms of shared ministry and mission. And what about the Eucharist–the issue that divided their forebears in the first place? Both congregations already celebrated communion on the first Sunday of the month according to their separate traditions. Now, as one church, they celebrate the sacrament together.
On this Reformation-Reconciliation Sunday, we thank God for the unity now enjoyed by these two Protestant congregations that have traveled together in life and ministry since 1790.