Two churches share space at Fort Wayne Baptist church on Fairfield

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Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
The Rev. Betty Sivis, pastor of First Christian Church in Auburn, leads a prayer for her congregation and the congregation of Auburn Baptist Church. Auburn Baptist Church has services inside the other congregation’s facility.

Sharing space in God’s house

Area congregations ‘nest’ in facilities of other worshipers

Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Clara Handshoe, of Auburn Baptist Church, attends a joint Christmas potluck.
Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Fort Wayne Baptist Church shares its space with two congregations of refugees from Myanmar, formerly Burma.

Several months ago, Auburn Baptist Church found it had gotten too big for its building. Having little luck in finding a larger space, the church took out a newspaper ad.

One day, the ad landed in the hands of the Rev. Betty Sivis, 27, pastor of First Christian Church in Auburn, part of the Disciples of Christ.

“I don’t know why, but you should call this number,” Sivis recalls the person who gave her the clipping telling her.

She did, and soon enough, leaders from the two churches were meeting. And by October, both congregations had agreed to share space in First Christian’s building at 910 N. Indiana Ave., while the Baptists continued deliberations on what to do next.

“It’s been a joy to us to be able to help,” she says. “When our congregation was presented with the proposal, they said, ‘Well, of course we should help them.’ ”

The congregations’ arrangement, known as nesting, is becoming more common, experts say, as churches face new realities of demographics and finances.

Brian Witwer, executive director of the Northeast Center for Congregations in Fort Wayne, says such arrangements typically involve an older, established church that owns a building but has an aging or declining congregation and a younger church that’s growing but not financially able to support a facility.

Alternatively, sometimes two congregations with membership or building woes decide to nest.

“For some, it may become a way of having a future,” he says, adding that the arrangements sometimes, but not always, lead to a merger.

In Fort Wayne, nesting has been going on in several churches, often as a reflection of the city’s changing ethnic population.

Fort Wayne Baptist Church, formerly First Baptist Church before a nesting and merger with South Wayne Baptist Church in 2009, has been sharing the facility at 2323 Fairfield Ave. for nearly 10 years, Pastor Wungreiso Valui says.

The building now has two Baptist congregations composed of refugee families from Myanmar, formerly Burma. One speaks Karen and the other Burmese, Valui says. Choirs from all three sang in their native languages on Christmas Eve.

Simpson United Methodist Church, 2501 S. Harrison St., also houses two nested congregations, says the Rev. Susan Keirn Kester, interim pastor.

A small Russian Orthodox congregation with a pastor who travels from Indianapolis meets Sunday afternoons in Simpson’s chapel. Iglesia Cristiana Getsemani, a chartered Hispanic Methodist congregation headed by married pastors Sergio and Janie Reyes, has been at Simpson since 2012.

Simpson’s sanctuary can hold about 450 people, but Sunday attendance was down to 60 to 80, and most members are older than 70, Kester says. Getsemani’s service usually attracts 150 to 200 people.

“We’re like the grandparents or great-grandparents, and Getsemani brings in the young people and the children,” she says. “I have never seen a coming together of two congregations that worked as well as Getsemani and Simpson.”

The congregations plan closer ties in 2014 as Kester takes some time off to tend to her husband, Edward, who is ill. Janie Reyes, who speaks fluent English, will take over some of Kester’s preaching responsibilities.

At Grace-St. John’s United Church of Christ, 4120 Webster St., a nesting arrangement has evolved into the two congregations sharing a minister as well as the building.

Holy Redeemer Catholic Church – which is in the “Old Catholic” tradition and not Roman Catholic – began sharing the building about six years ago. The congregation had less than a dozen members.

But when Grace-St. John’s had two pastors resign in relatively short order, the Rev. Michel Holland, Holy Redeemer’s priest, was pressed into service.

“What began as a more or less renter/tenant relationship has really grown into something kind of deep,” he says. “The UCC didn’t know what to do with an Old Catholic priest pastoring a Protestant congregation, but now that the shock is over, and (denominational officials) sent people to the church to find out what is going on, there are perfectly fine with it,” Holland says.

“One reason this has worked is we have a similar approach to sacramentality, open communion and a commitment to diversity,” Holland adds, noting that UCC congregations have a great deal of autonomy.

Other city congregations with nesting relationships include First Presbyterian, which has a Korean congregation sharing its downtown facilities, and Heartland Church at 1025 Vance Ave., which houses New Life Anglican and Gospel Community and CrossPointe Community churches.

Nesting is growing because it’s becoming increasingly expensive for new churches to build, and church real estate tends to be underutilized, says the Rev. Fred Meuter, director of church relations for the multi-denominational Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County ministries group.

“I also think that, and I’ve heard this from a couple of pastors, that having another congregation worshiping in your space raises awareness that there are other people around whom we haven’t thought about,” he adds. “They may have some differences, but they’re still Christians. They’re still our brothers and sisters.”

In Auburn, Sivis says the two congregations have been quite collegial, even though the Baptists don’t celebrate liturgical seasons such as Advent nor allow women to be ministers.

The two churches worked out a formal two- to three-year covenant to avoid quibbles over details, she says. The Baptists, about 100 strong, still use their building at 500 W. Ensley Ave. as office and meeting space, says Pastor Bill Weaver, but they worship and have Sunday school at First Christian.

On Dec. 22, the two congregations hosted a joint potluck Christmas dinner after separate services.

“We’ve found that what we have in common, our belief in Jesus Christ, is most important,” Sivis says. “And we’ve found one thing both churches are good at is eating. Well, cooking, and then eating.”