Detroit area 'Lutherpalians' blend faiths

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

West Bloomfield Township

On a recent evening, Andrew Seng dressed up in a suit to officially become a Lutheran and an Episcopalian.

The 16-year-old was raised in the township's Advent Episcopal Church, which lost its building and in 2012 started holding services at nearby Sylvan Lake Lutheran. The congregations soon bonded and, in an unusual twist, eventually blended their worship.

After adding another Lutheran flock, parishioners in April voted unanimously to formally combine into a single assembly with full membership in two denominations.

So, the same ceremony at which Seng celebrated his confirmation also toasted the birth of a relative rarity in Metro Detroit: a Lutheran-Episcopal community now called Spirit of Grace Church with about 140 members — one of only four such mixes in the region and about 50 nationwide, church officials said.

"It just shows that people can come together and work toward something that is huge," the teen said.

At a time when denominations may be wary of each other and even slight variations in approaches or beliefs can divide members, supporters say the joint communities highlight a unity underscored in the Bible as well as Christian values. One congregation coined a new term for their blended bunch: "Lutherpalians."

When to kneel, who leads the congregation and how to maintain unique identities and oversee finances are just some of the issues that can befuddle a flock. Yet their similarities — both are Protestant, sharing emphasis on liturgical and sacramental worship — make the new Spirit of Grace click.

"The relationship, the trust, respect and affection and regard I think really is a model for the church," said Bishop Donald Kreiss from the Southeast Michigan Synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. "What we have together is far greater than any piece that would separate us."

What drives people to join churches varies, but often the union involves sharing resources, such as a building, as well as needing "another dynamic in order to fulfill their mission," said the Rev. Jon Perez, a member of the national Lutheran-Episcopal Coordinating Committee, which tracks the groupings.

That's what happened with Advent Episcopal Church in West Bloomfield, whose members were unable to keep their building after a company that handled bonds for an expansion was charged in an alleged Ponzi scheme, Pastor Manisha Dostert said. Showing "immense hospitality," she said, Sylvan Lake Lutheran members invited them to share their space less than two miles away.

At first, to accommodate each other, both churches shared a sanctuary holding separate services hours apart. Still, bonds blossomed so quickly during fellowship between activities, she said, that "after a while, the members kept saying: 'Can we worship together?' "

In 2013, Dostert and Mary Duerksen, Sylvan Lake's pastor, experimented with coordinating a single worship service that included elements of each denomination.

Though initially Duerksen harbored concerns about leaning toward one branch or another, while some worshipers wondered whether they should kneel at some points in the services when others didn't, the effort worked smoothly and members wanted more, she said. "They pretty much said to me: 'We want to be one church. You figure out to how to make it happen.' "

Combined Lutheran/Episcopalian congregations have evolved from a longstanding relationship between the denominations, said Daniel Ramirez, an assistant professor of North American religious history at the University of Michigan. "Now it's made possible because they've had this long theological dialogue."

According to the Episcopal Church website, "official ecumenical conversations between Lutherans and Anglicans date back to the nineteenth century." Nationally, decades of dialogue between Episcopalians and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America culminated with "Called to Common Mission."

Finalized by 2001, the agreement allows both churches to be in "full communion"; each can "retain their autonomy and structures but agree to work together for joint mission and witness in the world."

Other Lutheran and Episcopalian congregations in the area have successfully united.

Officially federated in 2006, Detroit's Spirit of Hope emerged from members with the Faith Memorial Lutheran and Trinity Episcopal churches, which were about three blocks apart and worked to boost their neighborhoods as a nearby housing project closed, said the Rev. Matthew Bode of Detroit Cooperative Parish.

Renee Gardner, who has been active there for years, remembers some members on both sides feared "losing their identity" in a combined congregation and stopped attending. Still, expanding community service efforts have defined the years since then and drawn more volunteers, she said, adding there's now a mini-farm and garden for regular church giveaways.

Holy Faith Church in Saline, which combined by 2005 though the Episcopal and Lutheran congregations, had shared a site for years, gained enough new members to launch a garden as well as a "paper pantry" and grocery distribution for low-income residents, said Ian Reed Twiss, the former pastor.

The denominations worked so well together, he said, members printed T-shirts with a message: "Homo sapiens by birth. Lutherpalians by choice."

Combined congregations can be a blueprint, Twiss said. "I hope more Episcopalians and Lutherans think about it and embrace it as a way to grow."

Still, the process can be lengthy and complex. Both sides must agree on everything from finances to leadership roles while ensuring goals align, said Jim Gettel, canon for congregational life at the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan. "It's a real collaborative enterprise, which is one of the reasons why people don't do it. ... There's a lot of work."

Duerksen said the process was "more complicated than we realized" at Spirit of Grace, but "every time I thought we were going to approach a stumbling block, it just kind of wasn't there."

In that spirit, more than 200 guests celebrated Spirit of Grace's official formation during a service this month.

As spring sunlight streamed past stained glass windows, dozens of worshipers in pastel blouses, floral print dresses and button-down shirts packed the pews. A gold banner bearing the violet-lettered words "He is Risen" hung from the sanctuary ceiling. Three bells rang in succession, signifying the churches combining.

"This was such a key thing for our community," Duerksen said, standing in her white robes afterward. "We could still be here worshiping separately, but they didn't want that. It's normal now to them."

The festivities so impressed Chaz Russell, a musician who lives nearby and has performed during events there with his wife, he could "hardly sit still."

"This is quietly explosive," he said. "I wish we could duplicate this around the world."

(313) 222-2117