By Melodie Woerman
The two congregations of the Northern Miami Valley Episcopal Cluster–Church of Epiphany, Urbana and the Church of Our Saviour, Mechanicsburg—are doing what many small churches find it hard to do. They are growing.
The cluster missioner, the Rev. Derrick Fetz, says the two congregations are still small, with an average Sunday attendance in Urbana in the low 20s and in Mechanicsburg in the upper 30s. But each one recently added members by baptism and confirmation, and at Our Saviour about half those attending worship are newer members.
Fetz himself is new to the cluster as their priest, although as an Urbana native he attended Epiphany after finding the Episcopal Church in high school. He and his family arrived in Ohio in September 2021, after leaving his ministry as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, N.Y. Fetz returned to the area to help his in-laws and to be part of the family business his great-grandfather started, where his parents also work.
In each congregation Fetz has emphasized ministry with children, including their full participation in Sunday liturgies. He greets them in their Sunday school rooms and offers a prayer, then they join the opening liturgical procession. “They carry crosses and candles and noisemakers and streamers and you name it, in what we call the worship parade,” he said.
Fetz offers a children’s message along with the sermon, and after some time for child-specific lessons in their classrooms, they return for communion. “They help me set the altar and distribute communion, and then lead the worship parade out of the church at the conclusion of worship,” he said.
Making Sunday worship more accessible to all ages has been a key factor in growth in both churches. New members at Our Saviour include a couple and their five children who learned about the Episcopal Church from Fetz at one of his many civic activities. They had been attending an evangelical church, Fetz said, because they thought it had the best programming for children. After experiencing the multigenerational way their kids were integrated into the church at Our Saviour, the couple told Fetz that their children were learning more about the Christian faith and life than they ever had before.
When Bishop Provisional Wayne Smith visited a joint service in Mechanicsburg on May 1, he confirmed the father of this family (one of seven confirmations and a reception that day), and on Pentecost, Fetz baptized three of the five children.
Other new members have come from the local Roman Catholic church, attracted by the two cluster congregations’ affirmation of the LGBTQ community and by the Episcopal Church’s willingness to talk about issues of race and racism. “A lot of churches don’t talk about that, and I say, well the Episcopal Church is talking about it, and we are trying to come to terms with some parts of our history as a denomination,” Fetz said.
Fetz said he is passionate about being involved in the civic life of both towns, including the local ministerial alliance, and he has opened the buildings of both churches for local functions. At last December’s Christmas in the Village festivities in Mechanicsburg, Our Saviour had someone dressed as St. Nicholas at the church door to welcome people inside for activities focused on the life of the 4th century saint, along with refreshments. Epiphany hosted Urbana High School’s baccalaureate service for the first time this spring, and the church was a sponsor of the city’s Black Heritage Festival, one of the few predominantly white churches to do so. On May 21, the church also hosted a blessing of the city’s Community Garden.
As the pandemic has worn on, each church has resumed its popular monthly community meal, but Fetz wants to do more. “What we are trying to do is see how we can become a community partner” in both towns, he said.
Fetz wants more people to know what the Episcopal Church is and what it stands for. He considers the two cluster parishes the most progressive churches in a county with many evangelical churches, as well as some mainline churches that are struggling. Over the winter he taught a three-session course entitled “Another Way, an introduction to the Episcopal Church,” and one person who participated online will be attending worship in person.
Fetz is finding that traditional forms of worship are attracting people. “We’re talking about the fact that we are rooted in an ancient expression of Christianity, and we’re finding that people like ritual, and they like having a sermon each week that isn’t only about what happens to you when you die,” he said. “So, we’re talking about some historic things in Anglican theology, but just making it a little more fresh and relevant.”
While other area churches may be quietly affirming of the LGBTQ community, Fetz wants the churches of the Northern Miami Valley Episcopal Cluster to be “gutsy” by being honest and open about their beliefs. “We respect the dignity of every human being, and that’s why we are talking about social justice issues,” he said. “That’s why we are open and affirming. We are trying to say that this is a loving form of Christianity, and we try to reflect the love of God as much as we can.”
–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and the former director of commutations for the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.