Fifteen years after Episcopal and Lutheran congregations first opened their pulpits to each other’s clergy, the Episcopal Church is gearing up for wider clergy exchanges.
To date the practice has been used primarily in rural areas, where congregations often struggle to find qualified leaders from their denominations. But the need for sharing resources, including clergy, is no longer confined to rural dioceses, church officials said.
“It’s taken a long time for people to say, Oh, I think I’ll apply to that parish,” where Lutheran congregants could welcome an Episcopal leader or vice versa, said the Rev. Margaret Rose, the presiding bishop’s deputy for ecumenical and interfaith collaboration.
“We’re really just at the beginning of saying, Oh yeah, why not? We’re on the cusp of those changes.”
Almost since 1999, when “An Agreement of Full Communion: Called to Common Mission” first authorized Lutheran-Episcopal clergy exchanges, an estimated 200 to 250 congregations nationwide have used the practice at any given time. Those figures include Episcopal churches that have an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor at the helm, and vice versa, according to the Rev. Jon Perez, a member of the Lutheran-Episcopal Coordinating Committee that keeps tabs on clergy exchanges.
Clergy exchanges drew fresh attention in November when the Rev. Michael Last, a retired ELCA bishop, accepted a call to serve as interim rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Mason City, Iowa.
While most congregations using the practice are still rural, according to Perez, who serves as vicar of Epiphany Lutheran and Episcopal Church in Marina, California. But it’s increasingly common to see clergy exchange used in cities.
Urban congregations increasingly need ministry specialists, he said, and they’re looking beyond their own denominations. Signs of that burgeoning trend are visible, he said, in New York, Detroit, and San Francisco.
In years ahead, urban congregations are apt to need clergy who bring particular experience in such areas as urban revitalization, community development, and ethnic ministry, Perez said.
“Some people look at this from a scarcity aspect because we can’t find enough Lutheran pastors or Episcopal priests to serve in rural places,” Perez said. “But this is actually kind of an abundance thing. We’ve got the opportunity to find that right person in an urban environment” and not hesitate if the minister is not an Episcopalian.
The practice of clergy exchange might spread more widely, Rose said, if obstacles on the Episcopal side could be lifted. To that end, she’s working this year to make sure more bishops become comfortable with the relevant canons and know how to apply them.
Confusion has cropped up at times, Perez says, such as when installation rites seem to suggest (wrongly) that a minister is being reordained in another tradition. In fact, an Episcopal minister remains an Episcopalian while serving in a Lutheran church and remains accountable to the Episcopal bishop of that diocese.
Such matters are important, Perez said, as judicatories bring varying policies to bear on same-sex marriage. For an Episcopal priest, the diocesan bishop’s policy prevails.
Churches in America lag behind their Canadian counterparts in ecumenism partnership, Perez said. He’ll make an observation trip this year to Canada, where Lutheran and Anglican bishops have held retreats together anda joint catechism is in the works.
TLC Correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an independent journalist and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010).