Episcopal church finds unlikely clerical partnership

St. Christopher's hires Presbyterian pastor as part-time staffer

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

St. Christopher Episcopal Church at 545 S. East Ave. in Oak Park has been experiencing a challenge most churches pray for. In the last four years their membership has grown by 60 percent.

The Rev. Eric Biddy, St. Christopher's rector, acknowledged that the growth has been a blessing.

"It's fun to come here on Sunday," he said. "Following the 9:30 a.m. Wiggle Worship, you will see 45 children running around the parish hall. What you experience is a vivacious faith."

But, Biddy said the growth has also been a challenge.

"We began realizing relatively quickly that our habits and customs which have worked for a long time were no longer working as well," he said. "We needed to find better ways of caring for the new people and integrating them into the congregation."

The church council, known in the Episcopal church as the vestry, figured out that what the congregation needed was another person -- one with theological training and a skill set that would enable them to help the congregation adjust its culture to the new reality. 

The problem was money. New members tend to bring enthusiasm and energy to a church, but they don't start giving in substantial amounts until they have been members of the congregation for several years.

What the vestry decided to do was to put the word out through the usual channels in the Episcopal church that St. Christopher's was looking for a half-time clergy person, 

The Rev. Abbi Heimach-Snipes, a Presbyterian pastor, found out about the job post through an acquaintance, and it sounded interesting enough for her to apply. She realized that crossing denominational boundaries would present some additional challenges, but working half time fit her need, as a new mom, to devote more time to her infant daughter. 

In addition, she got excited when she went online and saw the kinds of ministries the congregation was doing.

One of those programs was the previously mentioned Wiggle Worship, the second of three services at St. Christopher's on a typical Sunday morning. Started by Rev. Paris Coffey, who preceded Biddy as rector, the congregation's website describes Wiggle Worship as a family service the blends music and a child-friendly Eucharist with stories both accessible to children and meaningful for adults.

Another thing about St. Christopher's personality that intrigued Heimach-Snipes was the that the church provided sanctuary in 2018 to Donal Eduardo Valiente Marroquin, a.k.a. Lalo, an immigrant without documentation who was applying for asylum.

Heimach-Snipes, had studied women's gender and sexuality issues while an exchange student in South Africa during her college years. She also was exposed to students from all over the world while a student at McCormick Seminary in Hyde Park, and has always been passionate about the church promoting social justice.

Biddy smiled when recollecting how the vestry reacted to the 31-year-old Presbyterian pastor on their first interview.

"She blew us away," Biddy repeated several times. 

He said that the almost instant bonding was partly due to what the search committee saw as her ability to organize information and strategize how to use that information effectively in the process of changing the congregation's culture. 

What sold the committee on her, however, was her enthusiasm for what the congregation was already doing

After about half a year together, neither party in this relationship seems to be disappointed in how the creative arrangement is working out. 

Heimach-Snipes said that not being allowed to preside at the Eucharist or Holy Communion because the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches are not in "full communion," might prove to be a problem if she remains at St. Christopher's a long time, but for now the shared ministry is more than enough to keep her motivated.

"We're responding in creative and innovative ways to 21st century church needs," Heimach-Snipes said. "Our national churches haven't been able to tackle how to work closely together, and yet the local church is ready and eager. 

"We're excited, we're experimenting and with all the division and harm extending in this world -- let alone shrinking churches -- it's time to find ways to work together. I find this incredibly hopeful, especially in light of our churches' violent histories."


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