Essentials asked Mark Durie how they went about combining three parishes into a team and how it worked out.

1. Which parishes did you combine and why?

St Catharine's South Caulfield, St Clement's Elsternwick, and St Mary's Caulfield partnered together for three years from 2012-2014. The three parishes are located next to each other in the inner southeast region of Melbourne. We partnered together in order to help launch a new young adult congregation at St Clement's and renew the parish of St Catharine's.

2. Can you give us a simple overview of the process that led to the parishes agreeing to combine?

At the start of the partnership the three churches, although next to each other, were in very different situations.

St Mary's had previously declined through the 1970's and 80's, and for a time its future had been in doubt. However the launch of a contemporary service in the early 1990's led to the development of a thriving congregation which today totals around 160 people, including many young families. For the past decade this community has been growing steadily.

St Catharine's was a small suburban church with a good site and a strong community with a wide variety of ages, but its congregation was small and for decades it had been a struggle to keep the church open.

St Clement's site is well located on a busy main road, but during a long incumbency it had gradually declined to a congregation of around a dozen mostly elderly regulars. Like St Catharine's, St Clement's was being sustained financially by a property lease, but its human resources had reached the point where it was unable to renew itself.
The Diocese, through our local Archdeacon, Brad Billings, invited three neighbouring parishes to consider partnering with St Clement's to assist it to find a new direction. St Mary's proposal was to plant a young adult congregation in the evening at St Clement's: the church site is in a prominent position at the end of a busy shopping strip which attracts many young adults. St Mary's proposal was received favourably by our regional Bishop, Paul White, who invited us to include St Catharine's in the relationship.

It so happened that the incumbencies of St Catharine's and St Clement's were vacant at the same time. The outcome of all this was that the three churches came together to partner for a three year period.

3. What does the new entity look like?

The partnership was created by two mechanisms, as laid out in a memorandum of understanding.

One was the appointment of a common incumbent. I was already serving as the incumbent of St Mary's, and was appointed as Priest-in-Charge of St Clement's and St Catharine's.

The other mechanism was a shared clergy team of four people who worked together across the three sites. I and RF, who were at St Mary's before the partnership joined up with Adam and Heather Cetrangolo, who came in from outside to focus on the church renewal and planting projects. The clergy took on evolving roles across the three churches as circumstances changed during the three years.
To simplify administration the clergy were paid through St Mary's, and the other two churches made contributions for staff costs according to the services they received. The three churches were in other respects formally distinct, each with their own vestry and wardens. Each church functioned separately, while sharing a staff team. However the congregations of the three churches came together for special events a few times a year, such as a Maundy Thursday passover meal.

4. What team (paid and volunteer) do you have and what do they do?

Each church's story is different. At St Catharine's the goal was congregational renewal. A small enthusiastic lay team led by a capable group of wardens welcomed change. Heather Cetrangolo took responsibility for worship, pastoral care, discipleship and developing a new vision - in short everything needed to grow the congregation - while I as priest-in-charge worked in the background with the wardens, looking after governance, budgeting, and property. There was much work to be done, changing service styles, discontinuing the organist's appointment - which the parish could no longer afford - and launching a new vision. Evangelism and discipleship programs led some on the fringes to come to faith and become committed members. A band emerged to support the launch of a new contemporary service. Exciting new programs such as a monthly community dinner proved a great success and helped bring new people into the church.

At St Clement's RF took on the task of assisting the existing congregation to grow in acceptance and support for the partnership. Under his experienced care they warmly embraced change, and the existing evening service was discontinued to make way for a new service. At the same time, while working at St Mary's for a year, Adam Cetrangolo was gathering a team of young adults to plant the new service at St Clement's. The new SALT service was launched in the middle of the second year of the partnership, and has drawn local young adults into the church. With a contemporary feel the SALT community has had the freedom to connect with young adults using forms of worship and discipling which appeal to its focus generation.

St Mary's community has continued to grow during the partnership. There are paid staff and a large team of volunteers involved in family programs such as Sunday School and playgroup. For the first two years Heather Cetrangolo, in addition to her duties at St Catharine's, also led a combined youth group based at St Mary's which drew young people from both St Mary's and St Catharine's. After a year of growth this work was taken over by a dedicated youth worker.

An unexpected parallel development during the partnership was the launch of a thriving Iranian congregation under the auspices of St Mary's. This arose from the work of an evangelist who became connected with St Mary's, and my interest in outreach to Muslims.

5. In what ways has it turned out to be a good idea? Has it been successful in stimulating evangelism and growth?

At this point the partnership is about to conclude.

From 1 October St Mary's and St Clement's are merging to form one parish, and St Catharine's will be standing on its own two feet with Adam Cetrangolo as the interim locum, while it continues its program of renewal, reaching out to unchurched people in its neighbourhood. The three church partnership gave St Catharine's new hope, and helped establish a base for the future. A good deal of enthusiasm exists in the parish to continue their efforts to grow the community.

A new service – SALT – has been established at St Clements, which is reading out to the young adults in our very secular and unchurched environment. An older dying congregation at St Clement's has been renewed in hope for the future as they have warmly embraced the emergence of SALT. Meanwhile St Mary's community has continued to grow and thrive, and has been blessed and enriched by a diverse staff team, with its varying and complementary talents.

St Mary's and St Clement's have merged into a multi-site parish in order to minister to all ages from the base of their complementary sites.

The partnership has been a fruitful training environment for two younger clergy, and enabled us to pool the gifts and experience of a team to achieve things which we would not have been able to do if we were working independently.

The final proof of what we have done will be apparent in the years ahead, as the many initiatives begun over the past three years continue to grow and bear fruit.

Dr Mark Durie, the Senior Pastor, and Pastor for the 10.30 am service at St Mary's, is a theologian, human rights activist,  and Adjunct Research Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at Melbourne School of Theology.