By Jill Sumerlin, Paul Dinan, and the Rev. Dorthy Nielsen, St. Alban’s, Tillamook
In a grocery store check-out line, Paul Dinan, senior warden of St. Alban’s, Tillamook overhead the person in front of him ask the cashier where someone in need could get some help. The cashier responded, “The little red church on the corner.” That little red church is St. Alban’s, the hub for the Helping Others Fund, an emergency financial support system run by the Tillamook Ecumenical Community. Paul perked up and encouraged the person to go to St. Alban’s, providing directions and information about the church office hours.
In this small coastal town, it takes teamwork to make an impact. The Tillamook Ecumenical Community is one example of the body of Christ in action, a united, spirit-filled cooperation between five churches: St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Tillamook United Methodist Church, St. John’s United Church of Christ, Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, and St. Peter Lutheran Church. In addition to caring for people in need through the Helping Others Fund, the churches collaborate on Lenten Soup Suppers, Holy Week services, an annual Friendship Tea, and helped lead an Episcopal Church Women Spirituality Day retreat.
Some of the roots of this shared community can be traced to times of their own need. In 2006, St. Alban’s suffered a fire that rendered their building unusable. St. John’s United Church of Christ, which is across the street, offered a temporary home and even moved their own service time to accommodate adding a morning service for St. Alban’s.
That same year, the four Protestant churches started gathering for shared worship, celebrating Fifth Sundays together, hosted on a rotating basis. Sometimes, these services have a special theme, which St. Alban’s parishioner Jill Sumerlin observes makes it easier to be in an unfamiliar setting because it is new to all the worshippers. “We had a joint Fifth Sunday service in celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. It was held at one of the larger churches and celebrated with brats, beer, and fellowship afterward.”
Another need that three of the churches work together addressing is for clergy. As small churches with declining attendance and income, neither St. Alban’s, St. Peter, nor Tillamook UMC could afford their own clergyperson. The three came together to create one full-time position, for which they chose the Rev. Jerry Jeffries, who at that time was the part-time pastor of St. Peter. This unique arrangement was made possible because the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is in full communion with both the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church.
Kirk Caillier from St. Alban’s reflects on the process, “No one thought that this was the initial goal, but it fell together so easily that it seemed to be the hand of God bringing us together. The formalities of our Christian worship and liturgy do not matter, but the solution to the three churches’ need for a pastor was a spiritual work.” Maintaining the individual identities of each tradition happens as each church holds its own weekly services but also allows for learning to happen between the communities. One St. Alban’s parishioner shares that, having been at all three churches, she is solidified in her desire to be Episcopalian.
As Jerry observed in a 2014 article for the Episcopal Church Foundation Vestry Papers*, serving the three congregations was transformational for him:
It has brought to life our shared faith tradition as worshippers of Jesus Christ. Now, every time I study or read Scripture or prepare a sermon, everything screams ‘unity’ and what we share in-common. Think about Pentecost when people of all tongues were able to understand one another. Or, Jesus, praying for his disciples in John 17:10-11:
“All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
When Jerry retired in 2017, St. Alban’s, St. Peter, and Tillamook UMC decided to enter an interim-transition time together and hired the Rev. Dorthy Nielsen, an ELCA pastor, to guide them through the process. She started by studying the Holy Eucharist service with the Rev. Canon Neysa Ellgren Shepley, but now it is the logistical challenge of pastoring three churches that keeps Dorthy on her toes, and she concedes that time management is her biggest struggle. Meetings, reports, and pastoral needs are tripled, but not having full-time access to Dorthy has encouraged the churches to develop committees of laypeople to take on more of their ministry needs and tasks. The three churches also hold joint meetings with Dorthy where they discuss goals and difficulties and plan bonding events. Kirk says, “We can talk easily about what we like and dislike without being disrespectful amongst the three polities. There is an easy flow of give and take amongst the three that is constructive and challenging. We have ministries that are possible because we have joint support.”
Dorthy notes that while the churches recognize their need for each other, there is also the desire for each to have their own priest or pastor. “Whatever the outcome of the interim-transition time will be, I know all three will continue to be in relationship with each other for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” she confidently states, and as they look to the future, the churches of Tillamook know that it is not a clergyperson who binds them together, but their common love of God and commitment to worship.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of In Conversation, the semi-annual magazine from the Diocese of Oregon. Click here to read more stories from In Conversation online.