Now, after years of preparation and effort, the two point parish of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Morrisburg and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Williamsburg has merged to become one congregation, with a new name, the South Dundas Lutheran Community Church. It officially took effect January 1, 2014.
When a church performs five funerals in a year, and only one baptism, that figure very bluntly depicts the difficult trend churches everywhere are facing.
In these times when the population is aging while people have smaller families, fewer people are finding the time for worship in their busy lives.
Churches everywhere are facing the need for renewal through different processes. Locally, the Lutheran Churches in Morrisburg and Williamsburg are the latest to undergo renewal by way of a merger.
Always being a progressive congregation, in fact, the first Lutheran congregation in Canada to admit a female pastor in 1975, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Morrisburg conversationally and through various informal meetings initiated discussions about the future of the church in 2010.
Those discussions led to similar discussions and informal meetings with their sister parish, St. Peter’s in Williamsburg, as the two points of the two point parish considered how to move forward to sustain a Lutheran presence in the community into the future.
The people in the pews felt strongly that they needed to take action and do something to maintain control over their church’s future. The alternative would have been to sit and watch the trend unfold, to the point that they would lose everything, including control over their assets, just trying to keep the doors open.
St. Paul’s first attempted to pass a motion to merge with St. Peter’s and close St. Paul’s, if necessary. It was defeated in early 2011.
Later that year, in October, St. Paul’s successfully passed a motion to merge with St. Peter’s. This time, the closure of the church, which like the closure of any church is a touchy subject, was omitted from the motion and received approval.
St. Peter’s passed a similar resolution approving the partnership in early 2013. The Bishop’s approval followed later that year.
A partnership committee was formed and that committee, since its formation two years ago, has been working towards a mutually beneficial merger.
“It was the will of the congregation to initiate this process,” said Volker Gruetzner, chair of St. Paul’s church council.
The partnership committee intentionally worked diligently and methodically to lessen the impact of the changes on their fellow parishioners.
“We both gave up our names, so we are both on equal footing,” said Russel Garlough, chair of the St. Peter’s church council.
The new name was also selected, to leave the possibility open for other South Dundas Lutheran churches in Riverside Heights and Dunbar, to join them, if they wish. “We want them to join us,” said Gruetzner, adding that goodwill between churches already exists, and is more and more necessary for survival.
The Lutheran Church has a bottom-up approach to congregational changes like this one. Meaning that these discussions and meetings were all initiated at the level of the people in the pews, and not the clergy. The pastor attended meetings, but did not have a vote.
The process was guided by the formation of an eight person partnership committee with equal representation from both St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s.
This bottom up approach is also evident in how the pastor is paid. In this church, the people of the church pay for the pastor, and not the wider church organization as is the case in many other denominations.
The merger is largely about financial details and governance. The new entity has one bank account and is in the process of forming a joint council.
Once that joint council is formed, it will still be up to the people of the congregation to continue to ensure that the Lutheran denomination maintains a presence here, into the future.
“This area is the hub of Lutheranism. It is important for us to maintain a presence here,” said Pastor Norine Gullons. “This church (St. Paul’s) was built in 1875, and St. Peter’s in 1865. We are hoping to maintain this history, while moving forward. This process of renewal is so important in the ministry of the congregation.”
Outside of geographical South Dundas, the nearest Lutheran churches are in Brockville, Ottawa and Montreal. (Cornwall does has a Lutheran Church, but it is not part of the Eastern Synod.)
The South Dundas Lutheran Community Church holds worship in both the Morrisburg and Williamsburg churches, and maintains one parsonage in Williamsburg. The Morrisburg parsonage was sold in 2007.
They hold one service each Sunday at 10:30 a.m. The location switches monthly between Morrisburg and Williamsburg. This month, the services take place in Morrisburg at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. In February, they will take place in Williamsburg at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church.
Whether the South Dundas Lutheran Community Church continues to operate the two church buildings and parsonage into the future will be up to the congregation and the new council.
“We thank Pastor Norine Gullons and our Synod Office, under Bishop Michael Pryse for their guidance, encouragement and prayer throughout the process,” added Gruetzner.
“It was a good process,” said Lois Rosenquist, coordinator of the partnership committee. “I’m glad we were able to meet our goal of becoming one congregation by the end of 2013. We were guided by a timeline we set up in the early meetings. Everyone in the group participated and discussions were lively. It was time consuming, but rewarding. Our congregations have accomplished something special with this renewal.”