MIDDLETOWN (01/06/2016) -- Some churches share a pastor. Some share a building. In Middletown, the pastors of First Church of Christ and South Congregational Church are sharing keys. In the recent installation service of the Rev. Thea Racelis of South Congregational, Racelis and the Rev. Julia Hendrickson Burkey, pastor of First Church, added an unusual ceremonial exchanging of keys to the regular practices of installing a new pastor.
The exchange was a symbol of a long-standing connectedness between First and South. Burkey, who came to Middletown about two years ago, says she "inherited a spirit of collaboration" between the two churches. The congregations were already worshipping together on Good Friday and during the summer months. During her first year as pastor, Burkey attended a meeting with representatives from both churches to discuss re-visioning the life of the church, and she learned that the two churches had discussed working together for decades. Long ago, former pastors had even conspired to make the churches different in certain ways that would let them compete in a healthy way.
"My goal was to deepen that collaboration," says Burkey. "But I wanted to dissolve any sense of competition."
Since that meeting, the two churches have been in conversations about collaboration and begun to make changes. Last summer, they held a joint fellowship activity - a camping trip to Rocky Neck State Park in Niantic. They are also discussing how they can create a shared worship experience, rather than exchanging worship spaces, and a shared Lenten experience. Perhaps the most powerful result of their conversation is the potential impact on social ministry in Middletown. Both Burkey and Racelis are passionate about justice issues. They both want to develop a racial justice ministry in Middletown and make the community more open and welcoming. As a result, the two churches are working side-by-side to welcome three refugee families into Middletown.
"The collaboration between South Church and First Church is one that has taken on a truly joyful tone!" says Racelis, but she also gives warning to take it slow when planning new things in the church. "Change can be stressful for churches, but deepening our collaboration this past summer didn't lead to anxiety- it led to reconnecting relationships, establishing new ones, trying new things with a spirit of inquiry, and celebrating the love of God in each other."
Burkey also had a cautionary warning for churches starting to hold conversations of a collaborative nature. "Avoid talking about the buildings. This is the third rail of any conversation [on collaboration]." She explains that church leaders need to recognize that all parties love their buildings and to agree that buildings will not be a part of the conversation. Instead, the focus must be on what Jesus is calling them to do.
In Middletown, this means a calling to be connected, to share talents and resources, and to worship and work together to make the community an open and welcome space for all.
Drew Page is the Associate Editor for the Connecticut Conference.