Apple Valley congregation is on a roll
Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church has demographics on its side
Now marking its 20th anniversary, Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran in Apple Valley has become one of the fastest growing congregations in the ELCA.
Since 53 persons gathered for the first worship service at an elementary school in Rosemount in 1981, the parish has mushroomed to 6500 baptized members. They now meet in a 540,000-square-foot church building situated on a 15-acre site across Johnny Cake Ridge Road to the east of the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.
The growth of Shepherd of the Valley has been “phenomenal,” says the Rev. Paul Harrington, who has been senior pastor since he organized the congregation as a mission developer two decades ago. He attributes part of the growth to simple demographics: Apple Valley’s population has more than doubled, from 21,000 to 48,000 in the years since the parish was organized.
But Harrington says the growth has also been the result of “intentional” factors — initiatives the congregation has undertaken to make it a vital, attractive place where the gospel is preached and practiced. Some of Shepherd of the Valley’s guiding principles may be helpful to other congregations that are struggling to get off dead center and grow, he believes.
The first of these is “creative scheduling.” The church has recognized that many people today operate on timetables that keep them going at a frantic pace, and it has tried to schedule congregation activities in ways that enable everyone to take part.
In addition to offering five worship times — one on Saturday evening and four on Sunday morning — the parish holds education hours at seven different times during the week. There are slots for classes on Saturday evening, Sunday morning, and Wednesday afternoon and evening; and the congregation is considering adding Thursday evening to the schedule.
Personalized ministry gets heavy emphasis at Shepherd of the Valley. Although the pastoral staff has increased to five full-time people and two who serve part-time in visitation roles, Harrington himself still makes home visits — two or three calls on evenings when he goes out.
Every time the staff meets, it takes the 25 or 30 names on two pages of the church directory, talks about each of these members and prays for each. A card is then sent to these members, telling them that they have been prayed for. And every person in the congregation gets a card on which all pastors sign their names and add a personal note on the occasion of their birthday and anniversaries of all sorts, from weddings to the death of a loved one.
“Does this take time? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely,” declares Harrington.
Worship services emphasize sound biblical preaching and good, singable music, the pastor said. The church has invested a lot of money in assembling a music staff, and they have come up with three different liturgies. The 8 a.m. Sunday service is traditional and uses the Lutheran Book of Worship.
Services at 5 p.m. Saturday and 9 and 10:10 a.m. Sunday are called “celebration worship” and employ elements from leading contemporary Christian musicians.
The 11:20 a.m. “Good News Worship” on Sunday emphasizes prayer and praise and is “almost non-liturgical,” Harrington said.
Shepherd of the Valley places great emphasis on youth programs, said the pastor, explaining that “people today sense they don’t have enough time to spend with their kids, and they deeply appreciate it if the church takes up some of that slack.”
The congregation has some 2,000 children enrolled in its Sunday school and confirmation classes with 250 teachers and aides involved in the education program. Confirmation classes extend over four years, with sixth and seventh graders getting a survey course in the Old and New Testaments, eighth graders receiving catechetical instruction and 9th graders concentrating on application of their faith.
The classes in the first two years are divided between teaching and small-group discussions and employ one adult guide for every six students.
The staff pastors take over all the teaching at the eighth-grade level, and the Rev. Bonnie Wilcox, pastor for youth and social concerns, handles all the instruction, currently involving 185 youths, at the ninth-grade level, with assistance from some older high school students. In addition, one adult from the congregation is assigned to each member of the class in this final year of confirmation to provide one-on-one support.
Confirmation instruction, along with choir rehearsals and other activities, sandwiched around a pizza feed, make Wednesday evenings a big event at Shepherd of the Valley. “Wonderful chaos” is the way Harrington describes it. Wilcox, who also runs a 6:30 a.m. Bible study for high school youths on Friday mornings at a local coffee shop, says that kids tell her it’s “cool” to be connected to a church in Apple Valley, and Wednesday evenings are a time when high school youths throughout the community go to church.
Among the many activities offered for youths at Shepherd of the Valley Church, Harrington singles out the Minneapolis-based Youth-works as “one of the best programs I have ever seen.” Last summer, Shepherd of the Valley sent out eight groups of youths and adult chaperones to work in one of the 40 extremely poor areas of North America identified by the Youthworks office — inner-city neighborhoods, rural areas and Indian reservations.
Opportunities for in-depth Bible studies are important at Shepherd of the Valley. Three of the five staff pastors teach ongoing classes at five different times during the week, employing the Crossways and Beth Moore Bible-study programs.
Providing service opportunities for members of all ages rates high on the congregation’s agenda. The Habitat for Humanity program has been a favorite over many years, and parishioners worked on five different projects last summer. When the disastrous floods hit the Grand Forks area several years ago, 17 busloads of church members traveled there over a period of two or three months to lend a hand. Close to home, members of the 15 “Caring Christian Communities” into which the congregation is divided serve meals at Mount Calvary Lutheran in Eagan to low-income people .
“People don’t care about the business of the church,” Har-rington asserts. “They want to do the mission of the church.” He adds: “People want to make a difference in the world. If you give them the opportunity, the sky’s the limit.”
On the administrative side, Harrington de-scribes Shepherd of the Valley as a “staff-driven church.” It has 66 people on its payroll, evenly divided into those who work full-time, three-quarters time, half-time and quarter-time.
The council is freed to look at the big picture, charged with oversight, evaluation and some planning responsibilities and, most importantly, interpreting to the membership the vision, purpose and future of the congregation, Harrington said.
The council makes only three big decisions each year: they approve the budget, oversee the ballot for the annual meeting and involve themselves in major financial choices.
“It’s a different understanding of leadership in the church, but I think it’s also very healthy,” the pastor said.
Finally, Harrington said, the congregation encourages intergenerational activities. He cited the involvement of adults and older youths in the confirmation program and use of elderly persons as adoptive grandparents in its eight-year-old Celebrating Children Preschool as examples.
Harrington is keenly aware that every demographic factor is working in favor of his church and all of northern Dakota County. High-density housing construction continues to boom, bringing in large numbers of new residents while few current ones leave. He says his congregation has a nice balance of age groups and includes some two- and three-generation families. Still, it is evident that Shepherd of the Valley is home to many young families; it had 155 baptisms last year while the number of funerals averages six to eight per year.
Further, in the pastor’s words, “the wealth in this community is pretty substan-tial.”The median family income in the latest available figures for Apple Valley — the 1990 census — stood at over $53,000, far above that in the rest of the state and nation.
Harrington figures the gross annual income in his congregation is about $90 million. The church’s operating budget this year is $2.7 million, with giving to benevolences easily exceeding $200,000.
It has added two new, larger sanctuaries to its complex since the first one was built in 1984, finding new uses in the expanded building for the outgrown ones; and it completed a large educational wing in 1998. The value of its physical plant is now $5.5 million, and the congregation is currently looking at ways to expand the 1,000 seating capacity of its main worship space.
“I never ever worry about preaching a stewardship sermon because I know the potential is there,” Harrington says.
But despite the rosy picture of a fast-growing congregation in an area of skyrocketing population and substantial wealth, the pastor sees a dark side that concerns him. ”Part of our growth is that we have done quality ministry,” he said. “Sadly, some of it is that we have grown at the expense of other churches and that’s not how you want to grow.”
Harrington says there are probably 70,000 Lutherans in northern Dakota County, but while there are a handful of thriving churches — like Prince of Peace in Burnsville, Easter in Eagan and Hosanna! in Lakeville — others are struggling along with 100-400 members and several have even closed because of internal problems.
In an “incredible time for ministry,” he says, the ELCA is “missing the boat.” In response to pleas from the area’s megachurches to start a new congregation in Rosemount, where Harrington says half of the 14,000 people are Lutherans, the national church has replied that there isn’t enough available money.
As a result, Shepherd of the Valley is keeping $50,000 of the $75,000 it ordinarily would donate to the parent church body and joining the other big area congregations to start a Rosemount mission on their own.
As he looks at the growth of his own congregation at a time when the ELCA is experiencing a slight decline in membership, Harrington makes a stern analysis. In the pre-1988 American Lutheran Church, he says, the national church office saw itself as a servant of the congregation; the congregation was the front line and that’s where ministry took place. In the ELCA, he maintains, that has somehow gotten turned around so that ministry takes place in Chicago and churches are seen as existing to support the Chicago organization.
“It’s been very harmful,” Harrington claims. “We have to get back to supporting congregations with an intensity we’ve never before experienced.”