Nathan Howe has been serving as pastor of Washington Street United Methodist Church for nearly two years. As of Thursday, he extended his pastorship to the neighboring St. Paul United Methodist Church on Main Street. A meet-and-greet potluck is in the works for July 11 to introduce Howe and his wife, Megan.
"The congregations officially are not merging. They're simply sharing a pastor, but it is a step in the right direction of more shared ministries and shared resources," Howe said.
Since 1939, the two churches have been part of the same Methodist denomination. Howe said the buildings had been founded separately, with Washington Street as a Methodist Protestant church and St. Paul as Methodist Episcopal. Now, both are considered just Methodist churches. The membership of both congregations has dropped in recent decades, so it made sense to downsize in some respects, Howe said.
Both churches had scheduled Sunday worship services at 10 a.m., so changes had to be made. Howe will be doing a 9 a.m. service at Washington Street and an 11 a.m. service at St. Paul, with Sunday school meeting in between. The contemporary service at Washington Street was dropped last November.
A native of Ashtabula County, Howe said he spent three seminary years in Washington, D.C., before being appointed for a three-year term as pastor at Washington Street in 2008. After discussions with his bishop, he agreed to take on the second church. Howe said St. Paul has lost its last two pastors to retirement.
"Hopefully, this will be able to add some stability for them, and it's an exciting opportunity for me and for the membership of both congregations ... to look at responsibly using resources and dedicate them more toward the work of ministry and less toward the maintenance of buildings, which I think is a really positive step," Howe said.
With the addition of St. Paul, Howe will have the Sharing Kitchen as part of his responsibilities. He called it a "wonderful outreach ministry" and a tradition that needs to continue. Howe said each church has its own Pastor Parish Relations Committee, and they have begun occasionally meeting together.
A church member for more than 20 years, Dave Davies is chairman of the Pastor Parish Relations Committee at Washington Street. He said his congregation is reacting favorably to "sharing Nathan." The two downtown churches have been working together for several years on events such as sunrise services, concerts and youth activities. Sometimes, they alternate in hosting events.
"We just celebrated our 10th year of combined vacation Bible school in 2009," Davies said. "I think we're at the right stage in both our churches to bring this about."
Davies said the two congregations will need to be flexible in scheduling activities. He said they probably will continue with some individual events and ministries, but the financial savings of sharing a pastor is expected to make more funds available for growth and service. Davies' main concern is the extra strain on Howe with more people to visit, and maintenance and finances to supervise for two buildings.
"We want him to let us know when he is overloaded," Davies said.
Shirley Smith, chairwoman of St. Paul's Administrative Council, also considers the shared pastor a financial win-win. Although some St. Paul members wonder whether the new pastor will be available for all the needs that may arise, Smith said council members have been exploring ways to hire non-clergy to assist Howe, such as a youth minister or someone to visit shut-ins. The new worship time may take some adjustment, as well.
"Change is always difficult. People become very attached to their buildings, but we are encouraging people to go to the other service if the new time does not work for them," Smith said. "Our faith isn't in a building."
Besides sharing parsonage costs, Smith said it makes sense to share ministries with a congregation a mere block away.
St. Paul and Washington Street also have been collaborating more with Ebenezer United Methodist Church on North Sandusky Street. Smith envisions a "Methodist team" working together to impact the community. About three months ago, the churches also formed a shared ministry team that convenes monthly to brainstorm activities that could involve all three congregations. The first event was late last summer.
"We had a Children's Discovery Series for kids K-6. ... It was three consecutive Mondays. I think that was the first ministry that we had all three congregations together," Howe said. "Then, for the Heritage Festival last September, we had free games for families and children here on the lawn of Washington Street. That was an effort of all three congregations."
More recently, 11 people from Ebenezer and Washington Street made a mission trip to Henderson Settlement in southeast Kentucky, financed by contributions from all three churches. Howe said Ebenezer members had been going there for a number of years, but this year, they also opened participation to members of St. Paul and Washington Street UMCs.
Howe said the United Methodist Mission Center at Henderson Settlement has been operating since the 1920s. It has dormitories and a kitchen to house and feed volunteers. Howe said the Tiffinites stayed at a satellite camp just across the state line in Tennessee. A crew from Ada also was staying there while working at a different site.
The centers serve three counties with a high poverty level, Howe explained. Methodist groups spend a week in the area doing repair work on the homes of needy families. With supervision from trip organizer, Greg Glover of Ebenezer UMC, the Tiffin team built a 12-by-18 addition on the back of a house.
The Rev. Donna Van Trees, pastor at Ebenezer United Methodist, also took part in the mission. She expressed excitement about "expanding opportunities and resources" among the three parishes. She sees the changes as energizing for all involved.
"For too many years, United Methodist churches in the same towns have seen themselves more in competition with each other," Van Trees said. "We are three distinctively different congregations, and we are beginning to model what it means to be in ministry together to the world beyond our walls, each contributing our talents and resources without compromising our identity to make a difference in our world. What a joy to work together for God's kingdom."
The collaboration among the Methodists is to continue this year. Vacation Bible school is set for July 19-23. After that, the 2010 Discovery Series is slated for July 26 and Aug. 2, 9 and 16. The trio of churches also plans to continue and even expand the family activities in conjunction with the Heritage Festival. For more information, call Howe at (419) 447-2371.