The Conference celebrates the formation of the new St. Croix United Church, the chosen name of the congregation formed from the merger of People’s Congregational Church in Bayport and St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Stillwater.
The merger comes as the result of a deeply thoughtful, two-year process of discernment, guided by Pastor Daniel Harrell of St. Peter’s and Pastor Clare Gromoll of People’s. Harrell had been serving as interim legacy pastor for the past two years, helping St. Peter’s determine next steps. “We had been declining but weren’t sure how to commit to an end,” said Harrell. “Were we going to close, sell and donate proceeds or land to some kind of social good, or continue to be a church in a different form? One of my first tasks was to reconnect with area churches and pastors, for solidarity and ideas. Clare was one of the pastors who gave me time. The first question we asked was, ‘What could we do to strengthen each church?’”
According to Gromoll, People’s wasn’t looking for a merger but when the opportunity arose, the congregation agreed to discuss it. “We asked ourselves, what courage and skill might it take for all of us to combine these two churches?” says Gromoll.
The congregations each brought together a few people to talk about what it might look like to do something together and last winter formed an official committee to explore a merger. “At the time, People’s was part of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches and had just begun a process toward dual affiliation with the UCC,” says Gromoll. “But we already had an ecumenical approach to worship, doing things in collaboration with a Lutheran church, for example. We also have a real pragmatic backbone. We knew the process would be rigorous and involve grieving people. We also knew what it was like to be in tumult as we had been at the same place as St. Peter’s and knew we could be there again.”
The task force did a lot of work on shared values in the beginning, naming what both congregations held dear. “We encouraged people to be honest and vulnerable, caring and open to the concerns of others,” says Harrell. “Change is often connected to loss, and loss is about grief, and grief is rooted in love.”
Ultimately, the two congregations decided they were better together. Gromoll will serve as the settled pastor for the new St. Croix United Church, at home in the former People’s site. “This is an unfolding journey, united in hope and love at a time when fear and hate are too often tearing the world apart,” she says.
The former St. Peter’s site is now the property of the merged church. An affordable daycare on the site has a lease for two more years and after that the newly formed congregation will decide what to do with that property.
Gromoll and Harrell say the merger increases the capacity to have a just and loving Christian presence in the St. Croix Valley in an intimate setting of a small church. As Harrell reflects on the journey to today, he firmly believes more mergers should be happening. “Why not come together and strengthen your presence rather than just fade out? Why not come together on things that unite us?”
He knows, however, that people’s commitment to faith is deeply rooted in location. “For many of us, theology is more malleable,” says Harrell. “That’s why we say in the UCC that ‘God is still speaking.’ But there is great sadness around departing a building.”
Gromoll says they have asked both congregations to give this merger a chance between now and Easter. “Let’s live into this reality together and trust that we will love again. When people feel commitment, they can be more brave and more flexible than they imagined and then they can build on the energy that is present. I think that’s what going to happen here.”