When the Rev. John Ohmer was named rector of the Falls Church Episcopal in September 2012, he faced the challenge of rebuilding a historic church that had lost most of its membership in a split with conservatives, primarily over the issue of ordaining openly gay clergy.
In late 2006 and early 2007, more than 90 percent of the 2,200 members of the church — which dates to Colonial times — voted to leave the Episcopal church and form the Falls Church Anglican.
After the split, the Episcopal congregation met at a nearby Presbyterian church for nearly five years, until a legal dispute with the Falls Church Anglican over ownership of the property was resolved. A 2012 decision by the Virginia Supreme Court allowed the Episcopal congregation to return to the historic property.
Ohmer’s arrival coincided with the return to the property. Since then, weekly attendance at worship services has grown from 80 to about 220, he said.
We recently met with Ohmer, 54, to discuss the rebuilding of the historic church. The following are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Considering everything the church had been through, did you have any qualms taking on this challenge?
The huge challenge is exactly, ironically, what was so appealing about it. I like putting myself in situations where I can’t figure it out on my own, but I know that I have to practice what I preach, which is to depend upon God to get you through this.
How do you rebuild a church?
You focus on what you have in common and not what divides you. Because people are hungry for God. If people are getting a strong sense of Christian community, if they’re being fed in word, if they’re being fed in sacrament, they’ll beat a path to your door.
Especially inside the Beltway — we live in such a culture of division and name-calling and acrimony — I think people are hungry for something that’s unifying, something they can believe in, something that’s lasting. So what we try to focus on [are] the things that we have in common: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, outreach, Christian education, becoming a better disciple of Jesus.
How can a small congregation support such a large facility?
We got the property back in 2012, but the court case wasn’t settled until 2014, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. So, not only was the property tied up during that time, but when the split first happened, the financial resources of all those departing congregations were frozen as well.
One of the consequences of the court case being settled was that the financial resources that the church had at the time of the split were now returned to the church. So that’s been helping us get through these years where our size is not yet to the size it needs to be to pay for the facilities.
Have any people who left the church decided to come back?
The vast majority of our growth has been people who have discovered us, new people. The doors are wide open to absolutely everyone. We really do try to practice what we preach by saying that the Episcopal Church welcomes you, and there’s no asterisk after the “you” saying, “unless of course you’re gay, or straight, or conservative, or Republican, or liberal, or Democrat, or rich, or poor, or young, or divorced or an atheist.”
Is there anything you’re emphasizing as you rebuild the church?
Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s as simple as that. We tend to overcomplicate the faith, and Jesus made it very simple.
Barnes is a freelance writer.