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Risking change: the road to amalgamation.

On the first Sunday of the 2013 new ye ar, Rev. Bill Elliott and a few members locked the door of Glebe Presbyterian, Toronto, for the last time. Carrying items that were important to the congregation and its ministry--the communion chalice and silver baptismal bowl, the lectern Bible, the musical instruments the children played and the Christ candle that was lit during the service every Sunday--they walked to the home of their newly amalgamated congregation in Leaside.

They arrived mud-splattered and, as the united congregation sang "We Are Marching in the Light of God," they processed down the aisle to lay the pieces from their old church on the communion table in their new one.

Days later, the developer that bought the Glebe property levelled the church to build a condo.

"Our last service at Glebe was very powerful," said Jo Ayers, Glebe's clerk of session. "It was, in the sense of the best of funerals, a celebration of a life lived, and a promise of a life to come. We recognized all the detsils of a beloved space, acknowledged its past and present, and prayed for blessings for those who will come to live there in the future. One of our ladies announced at the end of the service that she'd cried so much that she thought she must have lost weight."

It was a time of joy and sorrow, the end of one long process and the beginning of anew road.

Ayers admitted she didn't mourn the loss of the building as some others did, because as someone who "functioned, from time to time, as the church handyperson, with varying degrees of success" she said she "had such a strong sense of trying to hold a crumbling structure together with chewing gum and bailing wire."

The church building was nearly 100 years old, and the small congregation was weary. The same handful of elders had been trading jobs back and forth for years. The sole Sunday school teacher longed to hear a sermon instead of heading downstairs with her children each week. And much of the church's financial support came from a small group of generous souls. The congregation knew the time had come for change.

Rev. Dr. Nick Athanasiadis, senior minister of nearby Leaside Presbyterian, urged the two congregations to consider amalgamation. The neighbourhoods of Leaside and Davisville overlapped, they were in the same city ward, and the two churches shared some common mission concerns. They also shared a past; Leaside had been founded 70 years before by mission-minded elders from Glebe.

"The main, core challenge most often comes down to this: who is prepared to move?" Athanasiadis said. "Only the congregation itself can look inward as they look outward and say: are we prepared to let go of our sacred space?"

The Glebe congregation considered a few ideas as they worked through a process of discernment. But in the end, they chose amalgamation.

Each congregation formed a steering committee and the presbytery appointed Rev. Dr. Charlotte Stuart, who had experience with another amalgamation, to act as an advisor. Together they hammered out a detailed amalgamation agreement and a long series of schedules, which outlined how the new congregation would do everything from ministry and Christian education to mission and financial management.

And it wasn't easy.

"There were times, in my low moments, when I felt, what have I gotten my congregation into? Can we deliver?" Athanasiadis said. "There were moments when I thought this was not going to happen. And I felt very responsible because I was the initiator of this. And I was feeling it heavy on my shoulders."

"What made it possible was huge amounts of work, patience and tolerance," said Ayers, who also served as a member of her congregation's steering committee. "We dealt with fear, resistance, great sorrow and the usual churchly indecisiveness. Charlotte Stuart, our facilitator, tore her hair at times, but continued to chivvy us along and remind us that we could do this."

At each step of the journey, the steering committees made presentations to their congregations and ensured information was also available online or in hardcopy, with the phone numbers of people to call with questions, concerns or comments.

"This is what I would really recommend to anyone to prepare to go into this [amalgamation process]: lots and lots of transparent and open process, that people know exactly what the process is at every stage, that adjustments are made especially as you hear back from people who say we really think this should happen or this should not, and respond to that," said Athanasiadis.

They agreed elders from both congregations would be elders in the new one. The two ministers at Leaside and one at Glebe would become a team. The building in Leaside would be the home of the new congregation, and the money from the sale of the Glebe property (which turned out to be $2.5 million) would provide funds to support staff and missions in the community Bidding farewell to a church building is a difficult and emotional thing to do. It requires a time of mourning. Throughout Advent, Elliott walked with his congregation through their time of loss, seeking to honour the 100 years of worship and witness that took place in that church.

Amalgamation can seem less daunting for members of a congregation that will not have to move to anew building. So at Leaside, the ministers worked to help members understand that their own congregation was also coming to an end and a new congregation was being born.

"Both parties here are risking something," Athanasiadis said. "We will no longer be Leaside congregation. We will no longer be who we were. We will be a different entity because different people will be making up this congregation and making decisions and visioning and deciding how our money will be spent and who we're going to be. And we're ready. We're ready to do this and ready to offer ourselves up and be changed."

Leaside and Glebe had different worship styles, and since amalgamating, the new church has been trying to create a new flavour by blending the two.

"I don't think anyone will come to Leaside and have a traditional service of what they used to have six months ago," said Rev. Angela Cluney, associate minister of Christian education. "Or to go to Glebe; it wouldn't be the same thing if we were in the Glebe building. It would be completely different again."

The plan. also called for pieces of the Glebe building to be incorporated into Leaside. Stained glass windows have been restored and mounted in the sanctuary and around the church. Important items will be incorporated into a display area in the church hail. And the portraits of Leaside's past ministers were removed from the walls--part of the congregation's fresh start.

Although the amalgamated congregations planned to choose a new name for their new church, in the end the ses-sion--which is now composed of elders from both churches--decided to stick with Leaside Presbyterian. The church hall has been renamed for Glebe.

"[Amalgamation] was the right thing to do," said LII Anthony, a longtime elder from Glebe. "I see our old Glebe friends attending worship, singing in the choir and taking up the offering. The children seem so happy to have made new friends. The Leaside congregation have welcomed us with open arms, and I look forward to worshipping there every Sunday."

"I think for the Glebe people, they feel it's a new chance," said Cluney. "And I think for the Leaside people a new door has opened, which is really exciting. Because I think we both needed each other and we found each other."

Connie Wardle is the Record's senior writer and web editor.
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Title Annotation:COMMUNITY
Author:Wardle, Connie
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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