How Two Local Churches Are Combatting Shrinking Congregations

Christ Church Ithan’s Jacqui North. // Photo By Tessa Marie Images.

Christ Church Ithan and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church are partnering to strengthen their rectories and charitable programs.

Churches are in trouble. Upwards of 50 Episcopalian churches close each week in the United States, and other religions are similarly suffering. It’s little wonder given how many places of worship exist.There are six Episcopalian churches in just a five-mile stretch on the Main Line. As a result, congregations are constricting, and ministries are getting creative.

Amid this uncertain environment, Christ Church Ithan is partnering with St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, calling on one priest to serve both churches. It’s a proactive measure—neither church says it’s at risk of closing or in financial duress. Instead, they’re betting on the old adage that two can be stronger than one, especially since these two were once actually one.

The rector for each church left at the end of last year—CCI’s retired, and St. Martin’s moved to New York. Combining their efforts was a grassroots idea first instilled by the departed rectors. “Both are reliable entities,” says Sandy Reinhardt, rector’s warden at St. Martin’s in Radnor. “Our programs are so similar that there must be ways to enhance each other’s programs. We’re cautiously favorable.”

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“It’s just the right thing to do, and it also gives us space in our budgets, creative energy, and more money for community service,” adds Jacqui North, the rector’s warden at Christ Church Ithan, located in Villanova.

Over the past few years, the churches have partnered on a number of initiatives. Theres the Upper Room, a lively, relevant twice-monthly open community conversation held at Radnor Memorial Library. Reading with the Radnor Police is a summertime youth project designed to foster mutually respectful, educational, fun interactions. And Unity in the Community is held annually in the Highland Avenue neighborhood to support and develop community ties. Bible study and evening lectures have also crossed over.

One of their biggest combined efforts is Good Works, a program that coordinates with local social services, police departments and elder-care facilities to offer help to those in need. It also draws on the support of local non-church members, garnering a reputation as a valuable resource, with members of the Radnor Police and the Wayne Senior Center referring those in need before protective services intervene. “It’s not really a church thing,” says North. “Our social outreach is viewed as an extension of our religious purpose and mission—to do good for others. The challenge is figuring out what needs to be done, how to do it, and what needs exist in the area. That’s the role for a smaller church—we want to feel like we’re making a difference.”

As they continue to navigate the new relationship, both North and Reinhardt are looking for creative ways to find the right priest for the job. “It’ll take a fair amount of time to work things out, but each congregation has the will to keep going in the relationship,” says Reinhardt.

That includes a national job search, made easier to navigate thanks to North’s corporate background. “If we want a new creative and energetic approach, we needed to put an unusual opportunity in front of [applicants]. We wanted to attract a strong candidate,” says North.

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Size might’ve been a factor for both churches. CCI’s mass draws as many as 50, and St. Martin’s about 40­—and even less for both earlier in the day. Churchgoers are anxious, but North is convinced that the partnership is the right move.

In the interim, two supply priests have alternated between the churches while they vet the dozen applicants for the shared rector’s position. “I do think this is something we’ll see more of,” says North of pooling resources.

And while it may address one concern, they’ll still have to be creative about attracting a larger congregation. “Right now, though, no one is solving the dwindling numbers problem in the country,” North says. “It’s pervasive.”

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