Lutherans in the Twin Cities

An old question becomes new: ‘Who is our neighbor?’

A longtime congregation takes a look at opportunities to do ministy in its community

The Rev. Deb Stehlin (left), Minneapolis bishop’s associate for the Minneapolis Area Synod, installs the Rev. Jo Bauman as pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church on 36th Avenue in Minneapolis, on October 27, 2013. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

The Rev. Deb Stehlin (left), Minneapolis bishop’s associate for the Minneapolis Area Synod, installs the Rev. Jo Bauman as pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church on 36th Avenue in Minneapolis, on October 27, 2013. Metro Lutheran photos: Bob Hulteen

How do you invite people to come to worship at your church?

Wait, wait, wait. You may be going too fast. “The ‘come to church,’” says the Rev. Jo Bauman, “is later.”

First, says Bauman, her flock at Bethany Lutheran (ELCA) on 36th Avenue in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis merely invites people into the building.

To wit: A Girl Scout leader asked if the girls could use the parking lot to chalk out one of their outdoor urban “adventures.” Of course, Bauman agreed, and followed up with “Would the girls like to meet indoors in the church facility as well?”

Church isn’t exactly the most trusted institution these days. So for those who know God’s big Church and how it can change lives vastly for the better, it is important to be open and engaging at the door and in the neighborhood. “A lot of people feel like churches are not places they want to be in,” says Bauman. “We’re really working on hospitality and welcoming.”

Aren’t we all. Sometimes it flops, to be sure. Bauman planned and promoted an Advent event in 2012 for kids in the neighborhood. Nobody came. Nobody.

Even so, at Bethany on 36th Avenue the welcoming strategy seems to be paying off. These days the church is booked most weekends with events other than worship. The neighborhood has noticed: For a while, it was pretty quiet at this Bethany. Now neighbors notice vehicles in the parking lot. The church is coming to life.

The neighborhood environmental group meets each month. There is a movie night, a pancake night. The church asks sponsoring groups for donations to help cover extra utilities costs.

 

Fifty faithful

 

Bethany Lutheran is burdened with some recent history. It lost a pastor and many members over the ELCA’s 2009 decision to allow gay clergy in committed lifelong relationships. Bethany on 36th Avenue was a deeply divided congregation: It voted to stay with ELCA, just a few votes short of the two-thirds required to leave. The pastor resigned and many members left.

The newly-installed Rev. Jo Bauman presides over the Eucharist at her new congregation, Bethany Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Minneapolis.

The newly-installed Rev. Jo Bauman presides over the Eucharist at her new congregation, Bethany Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Minneapolis.

Now Bethany’s called pastor, Jo Bauman started as an intern with financial support from Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Maple Grove. 

About 50 faithful now worship each week at Bethany, many of them older. Remaining members are trying to renew the congregation. The circumstances are complicated, if not unique. Four other ELCA congregations are within a couple miles — including another Bethany Lutheran on Franklin Avenue.

Making things more tangled still, the Franklin Avenue Bethany is a “reconciling in Christ” congregation; it openly welcomes gays and lesbians. Bethany on 36th Avenue is not formally a “reconciling in Christ” congregation. It merely welcomes all, explains Bauman.

 

Miracle in the making?

 

The Rev. Howie Skulstad, serving as interim at Bethany on 36th Avenue, did what he could to help heal the rump congregation. Eventually, he asked a contact at Luther Seminary if it could provide the kind of pastor he thought the congregation needed — “forward-looking, a mission developer, ambitious.”

Could there be a rostered leader ready for a challenge given the circumstances at Bethany on 36th? The seminary’s response was quick: “impossible,” according to Skulstad.

The next day, however, Skulstad received an email. His contact at Luther Seminary had found just the person: Jo Bauman.

Now Bethany’s called pastor, she started as an intern with financial support from Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Maple Grove, a thriving suburban congregation with 8,500 members. Part of the reason for the support is that Senior Pastor Peter Geisendorfer-Lindgren of Lord of Life is a son of Bethany on 36th.

Was this about honoring the legacy for his home congregation? It was more than that. Money from Maple Grove could have funded an interim “as a chaplain doing funerals until nobody was left,” Geisendorfer-Lindgren told Metro Lutheran, “or you can go for broke. And Bethany decided, ‘let’s give it a shot.’”

The 45-minute drive separating the two congregations precludes frequent in-person cooperation, but Lord of Life sent a bus recently to bring Bethany members to an Older Wiser Lutherans (OWL) event, and Lord of Life youth do some service work in the Bethany neighborhood.

 

Odd path

 

Jo Bauman comes at pastoring by an odd path: She spent 18 years as an architect, then 13 years of sales and marketing to design professionals.

And now she is a minister of the gospel.

When she found herself at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, she was still mystified. “I could not figure out why God wanted me to do this,” she said.

Now, however, Bauman added: “I’m finding out all that I studied is coming together.”

It is? Well, she explains, start with design. Design is an under-appreciated part of, well, everything. The way things are designed from the outset is a way of seeing the world, a means of “defining problems and creative thinking,” says Bauman. “And it’s a side the church needs right now.”

So is Bethany Lutheran on 36th Avenue in Minneapolis a miracle in the making? We will have to wait and see — but don’t be surprised at occasional setbacks.

Creative thinking means seeing failure not as final but as part of a process. That makes Bethany an opportunity. “We have ability to try new things,” says Bauman. “We can fail. We have grace.”

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