For the second consecutive Easter, two Rock Rapids churches will be worshipping together. It’s not just Easter when they worship together, though. As a matter of fact, the two congregations have been worshipping together since November 2015.
Both churches — Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Congregational United Church of Christ — had seen their congregations shrink to less than 30 people in recent years. And when Dean Shelly retired as pastor at Congregational United, the church searched for another pastor but couldn’t land anyone on a permanent basis.
“We had a lot of different people come in to preach on Sundays,” said Pat Jackson, a member of Congregational United Church of Christ for more than 50 years. Jackson said they had guest or rotating ministers, including people from Larchwood and people that were suggested by the Iowa Conference of the UCC.
But then they discovered that Christian Church (Disciples) was also struggling a bit due to a small congregation size, and the two congregations decided to start worshipping together and see how things go.
“It’s a gradual thing and it’ll continue to be that way but it’s really been working out nicely,” said Jackie Telford, a longtime member of Christian Church (Disciples) who also serves as the church’s organist and clerk.
Telford noted that the women’s groups from each church have combined to form one large group, but other things are still separate. “We each have our own treasury yet, for example. But I think as we gradually get to know each other better it’ll be easier to merge everything. We’re simply not putting a timeline on that.”
Jackson said that so far the transition has been interesting, but in a good way. “It’s been interesting especially because we don’t really know each other, even with as small as Rock Rapids is. I feel like I know Jackie well because we’ve been neighbors and friends for years and our kids grew up here, and that makes a difference.”
Both women are still getting to know members of the other congregation. “With the size of our congregation together, we’re neat. Separate we’re meager,” said Jackson.
“We’re both small congregations and it’s so nice to have more people in the worship service,” added Telford.
Telford said that Carolyn Salberg, pastor at Christian Church (Disciples), embraced the idea and the challenge of merging the two congregations together. “And she does a beautiful job,” said Jackson of the combined congregation’s pastor.
Salberg commutes to Rock Rapids from Hawarden, which both Jackson and Telford are truly grateful for. “She also has a job at Hope Haven,” said Telford of Salberg. “She’s usually here one day during the week and then on Sunday for preaching. We don’t have a lot of pastoral support but when the need comes, she dives right in.”
However, one thing both women lamented is that, even with the combined congregation, they still don’t have things like Sunday school or choir. “We only have one little girl in the congregation,” said Telford. “You see, we don’t have young people. That’s what happens when the church is so small and if you don’t have young people in your congregation, you can’t gain others. They want to go where the crowd is.”
Nevertheless, the two women are grateful their congregations have been able to continue. They explained they alternate buildings each month and “double up” months in the summer so that neither building will host worship the same month every year.
Two of the biggest reasons the congregations have been able to come together rather seamlessly are because their offices are already combined at the national level, and because they were willing to compromise at the local level. “I don’t remember exactly when it was, but the fact that we combined nationally made it easier for our congregations to come together,” said Jackson.
The two churches are quite similar from a denominational standpoint, but there were a couple of theological differences they’ve had to overcome. “Our congregation was used to communion every Sunday. That’s what the Disciples do,” explained Telford. “They didn’t do communion every Sunday, but they were very gracious and said, ‘serve it’ and if we want to take it we can, and if not we don’t have to,” adding that they have a saying they recite before every communion. “We say it because we never want communion to be just a ritual that doesn’t mean anything.”
Another difference is that Christian Church (Disciples) practices baptism by immersion, but Telford said that hasn’t really been an issue as they haven’t had a baptism in years.
Both women said that while their churches here in town have always been a part of a larger denomination, they’ve both always been pretty independent as well. Together, the two congregations have taken on the name “United Christian Church” and they hope to continue the partnership long into the future.