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Using Ritual to Assist in Change

An article from the York, Pennsylvania Dispatch outlined how two churches used ceremony and ritual to merge. Trinity and Fourth United Methodist churches were set to merge, but instead of a more traditional merging ceremony, the planners opted to bring in a particular ritual common to weddings. From the article,

At 10:30 a.m. Sunday, the congregations will celebrate the merger with a wedding-like ceremony, said Bob Bowman, a 20-year Fourth member who is helping organize the service. A reception will be held after the service.

“It’s a time for us to really celebrate a wonderful thing that has happened for both our congregations,” said Bowman, 49. “Now, we’re celebrating being in support of one another and moving forward in the love of Christ.”

The main portion of Sunday’s service will be a sand ceremony where the two congregations will repeat commitment vows prepared by Galloway. Then a representative from Trinity and from Fourth will each get a container of different color sand to pour — at the same time — into one vessel.

The idea is that the colors cannot be separated, and they’ve become new,” Galloway said. “For me, it’s been a joy to see how the two congregations blended together into one family.”

Using the ritualistic sand ceremony as a visual representation of the blending of the congregation will develop an orienting image — the sand container — from which the congregation can gain inspiration. From the discussion of the cultural frame, this is an attempt by the leaders of this new congregation to create a cultural artifact for the new group, and with it hopefully a new congregational narrative of a united and blended congregation.

Do you think these types of rituals work? Would the creation of a cultural artifact work to overcome the merging of two congregational identities and cultures? How might you investigate the original two congregations to discover whether the churches are more amenable to merger or this sort of overt symbol of merging? What sorts of interview questions would allow a researcher to understand the perceptions of the various congregants? What sorts of events might you suggest a researcher observe before the merger to examine whether the congregational cultures are compatible? What other advice would you give to these two congregations?

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org