OLEAN — It was exactly three weeks into the formation of a covenant with a shared pastor between St. Stephen’s Episcopal and Bethany Lutheran churches when the pandemic shut down gatherings at both houses of worship.
The Rev. Kim Rossi, who has served as pastor of both St. Stephen’s congregation and Bethany Lutheran, didn’t miss a beat with the shutdown and has kept the parishes together through online worshiping, emails and community activities.
In recounting how the joining of churches came about, Rossi said the covenant was a comfortable fit as both congregations have similar theologies and worship services.
She noted St. Stephen’s is part of the Anglican Communion, and Bethany Lutheran, is with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which have worked well together in the past.
“We agree on almost everything,” Rossi said. “We have agreement on how we interpret Biblical scripture, we have agreement on the aspect of our spirituality, we have agreement on issues of theology … if you were to close your eyes and walk in and experience one service, and then close your eyes and walk in and experience the other service … you would feel like you were almost in the same church.”
Rossi explained how she was able to step into the role of pastoring both congregations.
“During Holy Week and a few other times we have done services together and collaborative outreach programs in the community,” she recalled. “We always had a relationship going. In the fall of 2019, Bethany Lutheran had been without a pastor for a while and had what was called an interim who just served them on Sundays.”
She said that during a conversation with Rev. Derek Cheek, of Immanuel Lutheran Church, the two spoke of the lack of a full-time pastor at Bethany Lutheran. Rossi began thinking she might be able to help that congregation by forming a covenant. When the idea was pitched to Bethany Lutheran leaders, they liked the idea.
“By forming this covenant, it allows both churches to have a pastor locally,” Rossi continued. “I’m in town and I’m available for any needs both churches may have, and I’m able to help the two churches do things together.”
In addition, sharing the pastor frees up church funds to be used for the pastor’s salary and outreach missions in the community. The collaborative effort may even lead to the growth of both churches, she added.
“Both churches made a decision to use money differently that would help them be a better outreach member of the community,” she stated.
Since the pandemic shutdown of the churches in March, Rossi sends out daily e-newsletters to both congregations and conducts Zoom worships on Sundays.
“Each church is a separate entity, but they’ve formed a partnership and a collaboration … we’ve weaved together who we are,” she observed.
The two congregations have also conducted joint community outreach projects that have included a regular pet food drive at Bethany Lutheran. There are also collaborative efforts for the Olean Food Pantry and the Genesis House homeless shelter.
Congregation leaders who shared thoughts on the covenant are Laurie Hobler, senior warden at St. Stephens and Ray Sprout, council president at Bethany Lutheran.
“My thoughts on the covenant are that it was a leap of faith,” Hobler said. “However, knowing that both Bethany Lutheran and St. Stephens were in alignment with their ideals and commitment to serving our community ... it was an easy decision.
“I would add that we had just begun to try to figure out ways to bring both congregations together when the pandemic hit,” she remarked. “In some ways, I think what Pastor Kim has been doing through the pandemic has helped us move forward getting to know each other.”
She noted the daily e-newsletter highlights birthdays, anniversaries and prayer needs for people of both congregations. In addition, Zoom services have given the congregations opportunities to see each other and put faces and names together.
Sprout said acquiring a full-time pastor “is a big financial commitment and we have a shortage of clergy in our denomination, so the church was trying to ‘think outside the box’ for alternative strategies.”
Sprout noted the plan for the covenant was quickly embraced by the church council and conference leadership.
“The fact that Pastor Kim is so visible in the community and that these two congregations have so much in common … made this seem like a good fit,” he said.
Sprout also praised Rossi’s methods of communication, as well as regular phone calls to members of both congregations.
“We are truly blessed that God orchestrated this new cooperative relationship and are looking forward to an exciting future together,” he concluded.
Rossi said the two congregations are working on plans for eventually reopening the facilities for in-person worship, with two separate Sunday services held at each facility. Members of both congregations, as well as the community, will be welcome at either service.
The covenant is looking at the possibility of offering outside services during the reopening, as well.