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New parish has a new name: Milk River Churches

Back in November, 2021, Dr. Loren Shellabarger a retired Presbyterian minister and adjunct seminary professor, conferred with interested members from five churches in Havre, Chinook and Harlem. He and his wife, Becky, shared their experiences in helping various rural churches in Iowa organize into a collaborative parish where several diverse congregations share programming, ministers and resources while still maintaining their own traditions and history.

Encouraged by the Shellabargers' experiences in Iowa, in December 2021 a new group of local church representatives met to explore how their congregations might work together. The churches represented were the Chinook United Methodists, Presbyterians and American Lutherans, along with the yoked parish (Presbyterian and Methodists) in Harlem and the Havre Presbyterian Church. The five churches held a joint Christmas Eve service. That service was well attended and representatives from the five congregations began meeting regularly to explore ways to work together.

One overarching factor when the representatives began meeting to plan the new parish model was the lack of trained ministers to fill local pulpits. At the end of June Rev. Jack Mattingly, who served the Methodist Church in Chinook and the yoked parish in Harlem, was set to retire. Those congregations would lose their pastor. The American Lutheran church in Chinook and Presbyterian Churches in Chinook and Havre were already trying to recruit new ministers for their churches.

Reps with the study group learned there was a shortage of available seminary graduates for all denominations across the country. A zoom conference held in early July between the local folks working on the new parish idea and their three denominational leaders reenforced the lack of available trained ministers and the need for local members to step up to keep their congregations functioning.

Gauging needs and meeting expectations

Through a survey opinion the planners for the new parish organization discovered support for among the members of the five churches for more collaboration. And based on the success of the first joint Christmas Eve service in 2021, they wanted more joint worship services. In the spring the five churches began celebrating "Joint Communion Sunday" on the first Sunday of each month. It's a joint worship service, with communion and a potluck and fellowship following. The Joint Sunday Worship rotates to a different church each month.

The joint services have brought the five congregations closer to their goal of doing more shared ministries. Lay leaders within the churches and visiting retired and lay pastors are filling pulpits on Sundays. And short training programs are being started to help members plan worship services and bring sermons. One member of the parish study group noted, "Maybe this situation is God's way of making us truly work together."

Milk River Churches: Uniting God's People

The leaders working to implement the new parish model are currently seeking a 'coordinating parish pastor.' This seminary-trained and ordained leader would help organize and direct the programs of the five congregations, assisted by possible trained lay preachers and members with special skills in each congregation. Despite the statistics that show finding and hiring such a person is a challenge, the study committee is hopeful there "is someone out there looking for a place like the Hi-line where they can serve."

Most recently the study group chose a name for their new parish-an organization made up of five congregations. After a good deal of study and discussion, the group felt a name needed to highlight the location of the churches as well as the mission. The new name for the five congregations' larger parish is "Milk River Churches: Uniting God's People." One suggestion is to create a logo incorporating an image of a girder bridge, a reference to how bridges in the Milk River Valley have united and connected people over the years. And hopefully the churches will continue to connect and unite.

What's next?

The next step is to create a written agreement as to how the new parish will operate. That will describe how the financial support will be structured, how decisions for the new parish will be made and how joint ministries might work. Each denomination/congregation will maintain its own identity and programs. The Harlem Yoked Parish's agreement (created 50 years ago between the Presbyterian and Methodist churches there) and others used locally and around the country, provide models for how an agreement might be structured.

Dr. Shellabarger, who led the first conference where the new Milk River Churches organization was discussed, will be back in the area on September 1 and has agreed to meet and help the organizing group work through some of the questions they have about the new parish agreement.

The hope is this new way of ministering, in the face of a shortage of available trained leaders, will help continue the role of these churches to minister in Harlem, Chinook and Havre. Congregants of all five churches are hopeful.

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