Cooperation between denominations is kind of like Sasquatch. Folks says it exists, but few have seen it firsthand. You can blame theological differences and tribalism — or impugn Martin Luther for triggering the original Church Split. But if you know what’s good for you in ministry, you’d better accept one immutable law of nature: different denominations mix like oil and water.
Strangely, however, the parishioners at Trinity Ecumenical Parish of Moneta, Virginia never learned that lesson. 22 years ago, they decided not just to tolerate different denominations in their new church — they wrote three of them into the church’s formative documents. As a result, Trinity Ecumenical Parish has been impacting its community for almost a quarter-century.
In the Beginning
Trinity’s story began not long after a new dam created Smith Mountain Lake in central Virginia. The nearby rural farming community, about forty minutes east of Roanoke, began to grow as it attracted retirees, then young families.
Unfortunately, there was a dearth of churches for Moneta’s new inhabitants. “The closest Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Episcopalian congregations were a minimum of half an hour away,” said Dr. Gary Scheidt, Trinity’s pastor. So in the mid-1980s, a Bible study populated by these newcomers began meeting in laypeople’s homes.
Yet there weren’t nearly enough members of any one denomination to plant a church. They could have taken the tried-and-true route of starting a nondenominational group. But Moneta’s Christians valued the liturgies and histories of their individual traditions. So they chose to attempt a daring endeavor: With the support of each denomination’s leadership, they created three churches — Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Lutheran. Parishioners could join any of the denominations, but they would all worship together on Sundays as one body.
Trinity Ecumenical Parish held its first formal worship services in 1991. Two years later, the congregation called Dr. Gary Scheidt (ordained in the PCUSA) to be their first permanent pastor. His flock has since grown from a handful of living-room worshippers to an intergenerational congregation that’s 800 strong.
Trinity affirms the fundamentals of the Christian faith: God is triune, Jesus is Lord, Scripture is authoritative. “From the very beginning, the byword has been that the things we have in common are so strong and powerful that we won’t let the differences get in our way,” said Scheidt.
But the church’s members represent a wide range of perspectives on “hot-button issues,” from denominational distinctives to gay marriage, and those concerns have sometimes caused friction. Scheidt recalls a schism over biblical inerrancy about a decade ago, when a faction wanted the church to accept their hermeneutic as the only acceptable one.
Still, Scheidt insists that serious conflicts are rare. “[The church’s founders] intended this to be a very diverse and pluralistic group,” he said, citing the former Baptists, Catholics, and Quakers in his flock. “The rule of the road is, ‘Don’t expect us all to be at the same place. Do expect us to respect one another, and not condemn those who aren’t at the same place we are.’”
Trinity uses a different liturgy every month, so that each of the three denominations is represented once per quarter. (April was “Lutheran Month.”) The main focus of the congregation isn’t on their form of worship, however, but on a shared mission: Impacting the world around them with the Gospel.
That shared mission is what keeps Trinity Ecumenical Parish going strong. “We have all kinds of ministries that reach out into the community,” said Scheidt. Trinity joins other churches in supporting Lake Christian Ministries, which helps local residents with food, clothes, and funds. Recently, they’ve begun a support group called “Parents Again,” designed for grandparents raising their grandkids. Trinity also allows outside groups to use its facilities – Scheidt calls the building “a community center as well as a worship center.” Globally, the church partners with a ministry in Tanzania to provide scholarships for students in need, and has helped build two new schools.
Now and then, other churches approach Trinity about their unique model for worship and ministry. Does Scheidt think an “ecumenical parish” can work elsewhere?
“We don’t hold any patent or copyright on this thing,” he said. “Our hope would be that this model could be used in other places.” But he does believe two key factors made it work in Moneta: One, the church was built this way from the ground up. And two, the congregation is intensely focused on ministering to the community.
Scheidt recently turned 65, and he expects to retire soon. He believes Trinity Ecumenical Parish will continue to thrive after his departure. But that doesn’t mean it will stay the same. “We are a work in progress and we plan to remain a work in progress,” he said. “As the needs around [the church] change, the ministries will change.”
In fact, Scheidt says, there’s only one change in the parish that would disappoint him: “If they become inwardly-focused.” So long as Trinity Ecumenical Parish continues to proclaim and practice the Gospel in their community and beyond, his flock will do just fine.
Copyright © 2013 George Halitzka. All rights reserved. This article was first published in the Summer 2013 issue of Mosaic Magazine.