Like other Lutherans attending St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Big Sky, Mont., Ruby Delzer felt at home in the warm and welcoming congregation.
Even so, Ruby missed the Lutheran liturgy, hymns and other traditions she had grown to love throughout her 82 years.
She and her husband, Ralph, had retired to the small resort community in 1988 from her native Minnesota. Since 1996, St. Christopher’s had offered the Delzers and other ELCA Lutherans with the only mainline Protestant worship option in Big Sky.
As the small congregation grew, Ruby began to notice that nearly half of the worshipers in attendance on any given Sunday were also Lutherans.
Leslie Piercy, an Episcopalian member of the congregation, had made the same observation. She thought it was time to give a voice to Lutherans like Ruby, who were faithfully attending and financially supporting St. Christopher’s.
Together they inspired the congregation to embark on a journey toward a new understanding of how ELCA Lutherans and Episcopalians might fully share ministry together.
A vision for a new ecumenical partnership
In December 2007, St. Christopher’s became All Saints in Big Sky, a union congregation of the Episcopal Church and the ELCA.
The Episcopal Church and the ELCA have been full communion partners since the Episcopal Church took its final action on the recommendation in 2000.
A full communion partnership is not a merger. Rather, it’s a relationship between two churches based on a common understanding of the Christian faith and a mutual recognition of baptism and sharing of the Lord’s Supper. The two denominations may jointly worship and may exchange or share clergy, as with All Saints in Big Sky.
As a union congregation, All Saints includes an incorporated All Saints ELCA Lutheran congregation and an incorporated All Saints Episcopal congregation. The union congregation model has a different legal structure than a federated model, which simply delves two denominations into one incorporated congregation.
“We agreed on the union model because it preserves the Episcopal congregation that was here in the beginning as an entity,” explains Patrick Miller, congregation council president and member of the Big Sky Chapel board of directors.
Through the arrangement, All Saints continues to have an Episcopal vestry and council and a joint council oversees both groups. The congregation’s confirmation program uses both ELCA and Episcopal resources, and worship services alternate between the denominations’ two liturgies.
“People here just love the fact that we are working together,” says Darius Larsen, an ELCA pastor who was called to All Saints as its first pastor-priest in 2008.
“Most don’t care if we do an Episcopal liturgy or an ELCA liturgy. They are just glad that we are doing something together.
“We basically believe — and we are modeling it — that we are stronger together than apart,” Darius adds.
All Saints is also a welcoming place for Methodists, Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants vacationing in the resort community, known for seasonal sports and its gorgeous expanse of sky atop towering mountain peaks.
As attendance and ministry continue to grow at the congregation, so does financial support, with pledged giving increasing by 83 percent in 2007, according to Miller.
“Suddenly we had a pastor and programs and other ministries we wanted to do,” he says. “So people have stepped up.”
An affordable model for new congregations
All Saints shares a beautifully rustic worship space called Big Sky Chapel with a Roman Catholic parish and an evangelical Christian fellowship.
Prior to the construction of Big Sky Chapel, there was no permanent place of worship in the community. Worship services took place in resort conference rooms and other meeting places in the community.
Through an intensive fund-raising campaign and a generous gift of land donated by a local ski resort, Big Sky Chapel was dedicated, debt-free, on Mother’s Day in 1999.
The Chapel is a separate corporation, not under joint ownership of the three congregations, and is managed by a board of directors. An endowment fund pays for maintenance on the building and land; the board raises additional revenue by renting the Chapel out for weddings and other functions.
Big Sky Chapel provides a great economical model for new-start congregations, Darius says, as each congregation pays a nominal rental fee to use it.
“It makes sense, first and foremost, to get a coalition of churches to build something together,” he observes.
Today, Ruby continues to stay active at the congregation now called All Saints. She serves coffee on Sundays, reads scripture during worship and sings in the choir.
“I feel so blessed by everything that has happened,” she says. “Now with the Episcopalians and Lutherans doing everything together, I feel very happy and satisfied.”
And Leslie feels “extremely proud” of what she and her fellow parishioners — Episcopalian and Lutheran — have accomplished together.
“I knew it was going to be wonderful and it is,” she says.