What you’re about to read is a story of love, friendship and compassion between two longtime Independence churches soon to become one.
One is Trinity Presbyterian – a strong, vibrant church at 1400 W. Sheley Road. The other is Calvary Presbyterian – a church at 2911 Blue Ridge Blvd., with 31 members on the rolls and projected to run out of money soon.
What a far cry from Easter 1954, when the first service in Calvary’s new 250-seat sanctuary was filled to capacity and overflowing at both services.
With a dwindling congregation, every time Calvary lost members it hurt financially, says the Rev. Duane Stephens, former associate pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Independence and Session moderator of Trinity.
“It got to the point that (Calvary) was going to run out of money, even using pulpit supply. Before that, they had part-time pastors,” he says. “But as the money dwindled, they didn’t have enough (finances) to continue.”
While the church was struggling with what to do and how to do it, former members of Westminster Presbyterian Church, which merged with Trinity in 2001, learned of Calvary’s plight and made themselves available to the fading church in a letter drafted by the Session – Trinity’s governing body – and addressed to the Session of Calvary Presbyterian Church.
Dated July 28, 2015, the letter read in part: “We understand from your newsletter that Calvary may be facing some challenging times. We share our story to let you know that you are not alone, and to give you hope for the decisions ahead. Having had such a grace-filled merger experience ourselves, we also want to reach out to let you know that should merger be something you consider, Trinity’s Session would be open to an exploratory conversation.”
At the writing of this letter of love and support, Calvary had not yet made a decision on its future, Duane says, noting Calvary’s Session had finished its “New Beginnings” program, with the following options: continue until the money runs out and then close. Or rent out the building and use the income to help pay for a pastor. Or merge with another church.
After much prayer and study, the Calvary Session voted unanimously to begin a conversation with Trinity to discuss uniting the two congregations.
It wasn’t long after the shared ministry began that the two congregations worshipped together for the first time at Trinity, because Calvary didn’t have a supply pastor. That milestone service was the Sunday following Thanksgiving.
Beginning in January, all shared ministry services will be at Trinity, with the exception of a special service officially closing Calvary Presbyterian on Sunday, Jan. 31. All former members of both congregations are invited to attend.
“That will be the last official worship in that building at that point,” Duane says, noting the last regular service at Calvary was on Dec. 27.
As for the union of Calvary and Trinity, Jack Layman, a member of the Shared Ministry Committee of Trinity and Calvary, says it was a long time in coming.
“I welcome it with open arms, just like we opened our arms to (Calvary) to join us,” says Jack, a longtime Trinity member. “It’s too bad it didn’t happen earlier, because it might not be as emotional as it is with such a small group now. But it will be quite emotional.”
Jan Privitt, a former member of Westminster Presbyterian Church, calls the union “wonderful,” noting she is “so excited” that Calvary and Trinity are now one united body of believers.
Says Jan: “To me, I am so uplifted by worship, and I hope by (Calvary) coming over (to Trinity), they will be uplifted, too.”
What impact will the unification of the two congregations have in a shared ministry?
“It offers Cavalry people pastoral care, a way for both churches to share in the ministry and will bring new traditions to both churches, Duane says, explaining, “There are things Calvary does that Trinity is already interested in doing, so they will do those (traditions.)”
As for the Calvary folks, Duane believes the idea of uniting with Trinity is that their ministerial work doesn’t end with the culmination of the two churches.
“It will continue in many ways in their specific activities, committees and the disposition of the building.”
Before the Calvary structure is appraised and sold, “There will be an understanding among the Shared Ministry Committee about what that money will be used for, Duane says. ... “It hasn’t been settled. It’s just in the discussion stage.”
What excites Duane is how quickly the two churches became one in Christ. It was less than six months.
Say Duane: I would never have guessed we could have gotten it done that fast and smoothly. We had questions, and the questions helped us to focus on what we had to do. But I never sensed any real opposition of what we were tying to do.”
And Gale Boydson, a 54-year member of Calvary, said it best when Calvary voted to begin discussions with Trinity: “It hurt to do that. But it was the right thing to do.”
Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.