Merging congregations involves combining each groups sets of congregational identities, histories, narratives, and symbols. A recent article from The Greenfield Massachusetts Recorder examines one way a recently-merged Catholic congregation attempted to create a shared identity.
St. Anne, Sacred Heart and St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic churches in Turners Falls, MA, merged nine years ago into Lady of Peace. When forming the new congregation, the leaders worked to compile and honor the religious art from each original church, which eventually also included St. John’s church in neighboring Millers Falls when it closed. They had shared a hodgepodge of shared art from a variety of the local churches, but nothing was unique to the newly merged united church. Until now.
When looking at a congregation’s culture, it’s important to examine three different types of culture unique to groups: their activities, accounts, and artifacts. There’s a lot written about this elsewhere on Studying Congregations. When examining a congregation — especially important when looking at issues of merging and uniting together — it’s vital to examine what keeps the group together, what the group values. One of those keys is artifacts — the things the congregation makes and honors together.
In the case of Lady of Peace, their prized artifacts — the religious art throughout their congregation — were vestiges of their previous separate churches. They wanted a new piece of religious art that would indicate their status as a merged church. Rev. Stanley Aksamit describes it this way,
It’s a full 72-inch statue of Mary holding Jesus as a baby in her arms, and around the base of the statue you have children representing the various races and cultures of the world… We do work at being welcoming, trying to be inclusive, try to promote unity, brotherhood, sisterhood, respect for different races and cultures, bring people together in community and trying to help those who are marginalized or vulnerable.
The statue then works as a uniting symbol of their combined church, highlighting their focus on inclusion and unity. The statue was unveiled this past Sunday at the 10am Mass.
What sorts of iconic symbols do your congregation rally behind? Or perhaps your congregation’s culture is more shaped by common narratives or regular activities?