LAKE TOWNSHIP: The Rev. Patricia Hanen was full of doubt when she learned of the merger between St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Akron’s Firestone Park and St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church in Lake Township.
“I said, ‘Oh, no! Mergers never work,’ ” said Hanen, who worked in congregational development for the Ohio Episcopal Diocese at the time. “I asked the bishop, ‘What are you trying to do to these people? All the research shows that mergers don’t work.’ ”
That was 10 years ago.
Today, Hanen, who serves as pastor of that merged parish — New Life Episcopal Church, at 13118 Church Ave. NW — is a believer.
“I think God put me here to show me that mergers can be successful,” said Hanen, who became pastor of the church in June 2009. “I think it has worked so well because from the get go the parishioners listened to each other and cared for each other. They weren’t only concerned with the finances. They took time to care for the spiritual and emotional needs of the people.”
Jan Szwast, a former member of St. Michael’s and All Angels who grew up at St. Peter’s, was one of those people. Since the merger, Szwast has served six years on the church vestry (akin to a church board or parish council), including five years as senior warden (the most significant elected official in the local church).
Szwast recalls coming to the small, quaint St. Michael’s and All Angels’ frame building from the more majestic St. Peter’s in the late 1980s.
“It was a shock. St. Peter’s was a big, beautiful church. I walked in here and said, ‘Is this it’? But the people were very friendly and very welcoming,” said Szwast, who lives in the Portage Lakes area. “Just like it took me time to adjust to my new surroundings, the merger between St. Michael’s and All Angels and St. Peter’s wasn’t an overnight success. People went through a grieving process. They missed their old church.”
In the beginning, Sunday worship services alternated between the two church buildings. Every effort was made to have equal representation from the two parishes on each committee.
Bill Miller, a former vestry member at St. Peter’s and the current treasurer at New Life, said leadership was open to listening to the concerns of every parishioner and committed to making decisions that were best for the new parish.
After much discussion and careful discernment, the decision was made to call the Lake Township church home — primarily because operation expenses were considerably less. The money from the sale of the larger church, St. Peter’s, was used to create an endowment fund to help sustain the parish and its missions.
“It was like two different cultures coming together. Although each parish may have had different ways of doing things, we wanted to make sure nobody felt left out,” said Miller, of Green. “As the years went on, people began to let go of their past parish and we started growing into a completely new parish.”
After about three years, New Life’s congregational makeup was one-third from St. Peter’s, one-third from St. Michael’s and All Angels and one-third new parishioners. Currently, the congregation is about evenly split between parishioners from the former two parishes and new parishioners.
When Marla Jeane Maling came to New Life in early 2005, she had no idea the parish was the result of a merger.
“I thought it had always been New Life because everyone was like one big family. There was nothing to indicate any division between people who had come from different churches,” said Maling, of Green. “The only way I knew that there had been a merger was after someone was telling me about the history of New Life.”
Last Sunday, the congregation celebrated its 10-year anniversary and the completion of a $150,000 building repair and renovation project that included replacing the roof; installing a new sign; updating the kitchen and food storage area; renovating and remodeling the sanctuary, entryway, parlor and offices; repairing bathrooms; and upgrading technology throughout the building.
The church sits on the site of the area’s first German Lutheran church. It has been remodeled six times since 1881. It was rebuilt after a fire gutted the building, and became home to St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church, which was established as a church plant of the former St. Peter’s in Firestone Park.
New Life, which attracts an average of 75 people to its 10 a.m. Sunday worship service, is home to members from 12 communities in Stark, Summit, Portage and Medina counties. The church also offers a study group and Eucharist service at 10:30 a.m. Wednesdays.
Its outreach includes a food pantry and ministries that focus on the homeless, the needy and military families. The congregation also offers tutoring for children and youth; special ministries for children, youth and women; and fellowship and spiritual growth ministries. It also supports global efforts for disaster relief and to end poverty.
New Life represents the first and only merger in the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio.
Hanen credits the Rev. Stephanie Pace for much of the merger’s success. Pace was pastor of the parish when the merger took place and for the first five years of the new parish’s life. She now serves as rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Brecksville.
“It’s not easy for congregations to make the changes that may be necessary due to changing demographics or economic conditions,” Hanen said, “New Life is proof that merging two churches into one new one is a viable alternative to simply closing churches and having members join other parishes.
“Church culture and relationships, and even beloved physical assets, can be preserved and incorporated into a new organization when people work together well for the good of all,” Hanen added.” New Life was ahead of the curve when it was formed 10 years ago and remains a shining example of a successful merger with longevity.”
More information about New Life can be found at www.cometonewlife.org.
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or firstname.lastname@example.org.