December 09, 1996 12:00 PM

A HARD RAIN FALLING ON THE SMALL Missouri town of Salisbury is the least of Diane Rice’s problems. Her 3-year-old foster child, David, has chicken pox and will have to stay home from daycare the next day. Desperate for a babysitter, Rice turns to Mary Lou Kator, her pastor at Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salisbury, and Kator springs into action.

First she asks the 30 Sunday worshippers at Peace Lutheran for volunteers. Then, Kator, 52, climbs into her Oldsmobile, drives 21 miles to hold services at her other ministry, the Episcopalian congregation of St. Barnabas Church in Moberly, Mo., and asks those gathered to help Rice—a fellow Christian, if not a fellow Episcopalian.

Kator found Rice a volunteer—and caught some flack from a St. Barnabas parishioner upset by her cross-congregational plea. “They’ll just have to deal with that,” says Kator. “Diane lives in Moberly, and I thought it would be easier to find a babysitter there.” That flap aside, Kator’s unusual arrangement—she’s one of a handful of pastors who serve two congregations of different faiths—is working out divinely. “This is a very cool thing,” St. Barnabas member Mark Congiardo says of sharing Kator, whose $32,000 annual salary is split by the two churches. “Getting Mary Lou is like participating in a 50 percent-off sale.”

Actually, the impetus for sharing Kator was economic: Neither congregation could afford to hold on to a minister for very long. The 55 Peace Lutheran parishioners had to settle for seminary students, while St. Barnabas’s 88 members limped along with an out-of-town clergyman who said mass every other Sunday. Since the churches have very similar prayers and scriptural readings, officials from both decided to interview candidates for a shared pastor’s post, taking advantage of a burgeoning amity between Episcopalians and Evangelical Lutherans, whose leaders are close to recognizing each other’s traditions.

Kator, who started work in September, has had little trouble handling either the stylized Episcopalian service or the more casual Lutheran proceedings. “I can usually preach the same sermon,” says Kator, who has also been active in her new communities. “My goal,” she says, “is to visit every member of both congregations.”

Her interest in ministering to others dates back to her early years in Indianapolis, where the former Mary Buchman, adopted at 2 by a commercial photographer and his wife, both Roman Catholics, studied at the St. Vincent’s Hospital School of Nursing. After marrying Bill Kator, a computer systems specialist, in 1964, she moved to Chicago, where she worked as a nurse and helped plan worship services for a local Catholic church.

She began taking classes toward a master’s degree in scriptural studies but soon realized that her true calling wasn’t academic. “What I wanted to do was become a priest,” says Kator. “But that’s a big no-no for Catholic women.” A parish adviser suggested she-visit a nearby Episcopalian church and, after an exhaustive examination, that diocese approved Kator for study at a seminary in Evanston. She was formally ordained as an Episcopalian priest in 1995 and began looking for work.

A few months later she applied for the shared clerical spot in Missouri and beat out 56 other applicants. “We were immediately convinced she was the right person for us,” says Kal Cleavinger, the president of St. Barnabas. Some Peace Lutheran parishioners, though, were skeptical. “Many of us thought that if we go with an Episcopal, we won’t be Lutherans anymore,” says Robert Nelson. But the congregation was won over by Kator’s adherence to doctrine (she’s been studying the Lutheran Book of Worship). “Mary Lou,” says Nelson, “is as Lutheran as they come.”

Even Kator had qualms about taking the job—and moving to rural Missouri. At first, “I was concerned with appearing superior because I was from the big city,” she says. Now settled into a two-story house in Moberly with Bill, 53, and their 16-year-old son, Marty (they also have three grown children), Kator sees her Sunday double duty—a 9 a.m. service at Peace followed by 11 a.m. services at St. Barnabas—as a chance to heal rifts between occasionally fractious Christian denominations.

“Maybe we’re not going to have a united Christendom,” she says. “But we need every color in a field of flowers. That’s what makes it beautiful.”

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI

GRANT PICK in Moberly

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