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Oil Region Episcopalians Begin Collaboration to Serve Their Communities

A picture of the Episcopal Church’s future – and how to get there – may well be seen in a budding collaboration among four congregations in the Oil Region area of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Collaborative Oil Region Episcopal Ministries is in its formative stages, but some things are already clear. First, there is no preconceived idea of how the clergy and members of Christ Church in Oil City, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Franklin, St. James Memorial Episcopal Church in Titusville and Memorial Church of Our Father in Foxburg should collaborate to serve their neighbors and nurture the Episcopal Church in their communities.

“We’re going to try new things and when we find things that work, we will capitalize on them and when we find things that don’t work, we will discard them,” says the Rev. Mark Elliston, vicar of Christ Church.

Bishop Sean Rowe says he wants to continue to foster that attitude because, “we don’t know what the next iteration of the church looks like and it’s going to require experimentation, and experimentation by definition means that sometimes it fails but you look at the failure as the way into something else.” Failure hurts but, he says, most of the time “we’ve been able to grow something new out of it.”

That approach echoes the partnership model that has grown between the Dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York. Northwestern Pennsylvania is “sort of the point of the spear in experimental things in the Episcopal Church,” Elliston says with pride.

Experimentation and collaboration are key to the future everywhere, Rowe says, and the Episcopal Church is well-suited to that future because Episcopalians because “know how to build community and be interdependent.”

To be clear, though, “collaboration” and “interdependence” are not code words for any sort of merger of the congregations. “That is not part of the conversation at all,” says the Rev. Shawn Clerkin, vicar of St. John’s.

The Rev. Martha Ishman, St. James’ vicar, recently told her congregation that the premise is simple. All four congregations, she wrote, will “share both the joys and the challenges of small-town ministry. Through collaboration the joy will be expanded, and the challenges will be shouldered together.”

What it boils down to, says Clerkin, is that “there’s an opportunity for us to do more together than we can do individually.”

The clergy leaders decided that building community and interdependence should begin by cultivating relationships among the members of their congregations and affirming the ones that already existed. The effort began with joining together in worship. A joint Ash Wednesday service and three healing services have been the starting point.

The clergy hope that those relationships will pave the way for what they believe is a common call to explore ways Episcopalians can combine each congregation’s gifts and skills to serve their communities better. The leaders all speak of an “organic” approach in which the needs and responses become evident as the four congregations deepen their ties.

The congregations are already collaborating with other churches in their communities. The Rev. David Betz, St. John’s deacon, recently joined with Clerkin to make pastoral visits to the members of Grace Lutheran Church in Franklin. That congregation is currently without a pastor, and almost half of its members are worshipping at St. John’s while maintaining their own governance and finances. The collaboration honored the arrangement by holding a confession service from the Lutheran Book of Worship on the Tuesday of Holy Week.

The congregations have had social events together and members join in a single coffee hour after the service. They plan a joint vacation Bible school this summer. “It’s working well at the moment,” Betz says.

The Rev. Geoffrey Wild says Lutherans from the recently closed St. Peter’s Church in St. Petersburg have been attending Church of Our Father, where he is the vicar. “What I hope for Foxburg is that they will come to understand they are part of a bigger whole,” Wild says.

Christ Church has welcomed Roman Catholics as the five Catholic parishes that once thrived in the Oil City area have been consolidated to the point where soon only one will remain, Elliston said.

Outreach with other congregations in the collaboration’s communities has also begun. Betz was part of the Venango Ministerium’s founding of Emmaus Haven of Venango to provide temporary housing for homeless men. Episcopalians and Roman Catholics are the main drivers of Emmaus and other outreach efforts in the Oil City area, says Betz, who wants to start a similar shelter in Titusville.

“Homelessness and hunger happen in small town America,” he says. “They just know how to hide it better than the main streets of bigger towns.”

Rowe agrees. He knows the Oil Region well, having been rector of St. John’s for seven years before being elected bishop in 2007. There are some wrong assumptions out there, Rowe says: that everyone is religiously and politically conservative, that there is not a LGBTQI community of any size, that poverty doesn’t exist.

The reality of those attitudes and assumptions means that “there are a lot of people on the margins in these communities that don’t think they have any place to go,” Rowe says. The Episcopal Church can be “a lifeline.”

“What people in those regions are hearing is one strain of the Christian conversation in this country. I think if these churches can cooperate with each other, they can amplify their voices, and I think that will make all the difference in those communities,” Rowe says. “We desperately need an alternative voice.”