Merging two long-established congregations into one can pose myriad challenges, but celebrating the Eucharist at a brewery helps. That insight comes from the experience of six-month-old Grace Church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The church, which sings God’s praises in rented space at Barrington Brewery’s reception hall, aims in part to quench the spiritual thirst of people from two recently closed congregations: 250-year-old St. James in Great Barrington and 155-year-old St. George’s in Lee.
What makes the arrangement bear fruit is not the proximity to hops, but that neither community remains attached to its old building. Both sold their buildings within the past three years as declining numbers and deteriorating structures made it necessary to pursue something entirely new and different.
“Sometimes when churches merge, there’s a big church that says, ‘This little church can come be with us.’ That’s where you get that stuff about one being an underdog or a second-class congregation,” said the Rev. Frances Ann Hills, rector of Grace Church.
“Those questions about ‘Your church is bigger than my church’ or ‘We’re using their this or our that’ — none of that is a question for us,” she said.
On an average Sunday, Grace Church draws about 100 people — 80 or so from St. James, 20 from St. George’s — to a service that takes shape as Tupperware containers, storing everything from chalices to table coverings, are unpacked. What’s remarkable is how steady attendance numbers have remained since parishioners began worshiping together a couple of years ago. Consolidated churches often struggle to keep all their former members coming.
In addition to the advantage of utilizing neutral space, Grace Church has also benefited from a vibrant outreach ministry that has kept members focused on service during their transitions. A two-acre community garden powers a range of projects, from teaching children about growing food to producing fresh produce for a local camp and a soup kitchen.
“The spirit of that garden has truly kept us focused on life, on caring about people beyond ourselves and building relationships with people in the community,” Hills said. “It’s been literally going out and seeing what God is up to there and trying to join God’s mission in the world.”
Though Hills plans to retire at year’s end, she’s sure the congregation will continue to thrive. Both predecessor congregations gained funds by selling their properties, she said. Some in the congregation hope to buy a property for a church home someday. Others, though, see no reason why the current arrangement, with all its advantages, could not continue indefinitely.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald