Five Lutheran parishes combine, form two new area ministries
Parishes in NE Minneapolis, south suburbs have consolidated their work
When it comes time to take a hard look at the future of a congregation, members are faced with emotionally-charged choices. What do you hold on to? What do you let go?
Navigating the waters toward a successful consolidation of two or three congregations can be hazardous.
“There have been people [who] were baptized and married in a church, and they wanted to be buried through that church too,” the Rev. Craig Pederson told Metro Lutheran. Pederson is the new co-pastor, along with the Rev. Evelyn Dahlke, at Northeast Community Lutheran Church.
The new entity is the result of a merger of St. Paul Lutheran Church (which Pederson formerly served); Emanuel Lutheran (where Dahlke had been pastor); and Holy Triune Lutheran. All three congregations, geographically within a dozen blocks of one another, are part of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The consolidation pro-cess requires that each of the congregations involved dissolves, after which a completely new entity is formed. Members of all three parishes knew the handwriting was on the wall. Their respective memberships were steadily declining. Still, the process was difficult.
“Making decisions about buildings is where most consolidation discussions break down,” said Pederson.
“People fall in love with their church [buildings],” Dahlke said, while discussing why people become so attached to the spaces in which they worship.
The Northeast Minneapolis consolidation almost fell apart. At one point, while the congregations were voting where to hold worship, the members of Holy Triune temporarily stopped consolidation discussions.
“It was around Christ-mas, which is an emotional time of the year, and the members of Holy Triune decided they needed to put a hold on the process. They never stopped [the] discussions and after about six weeks they had a ‘re-vote,’ [after which they] decided to join in worship at Emanuel,” Pederson said.
Now that they’ve gotten past the initial conflict generated by picking a worship location, members feel the process has been smooth. A task force was created to prepare the worship space currently being used. They combined features from all three of the uniting churches.
The result is a congregation combining three northern European traditions. St. Paul Lutheran was a German immigrant church; Holy Triune, previously known as Concordia Lutheran, had a Norwegian heritage; Emanuel was Swedish in background.
Although dissolving their separate congregations was difficult for the members of the three churches, many who now belong to Northeast Com-munity Lutheran Church feel the change was good.
“The consolidation talks made us look at our mission statements again and then refocus on how we could accomplish those goals. It also improved our relationships with the Minneapolis [Area] Synod and the ELCA as a whole,” Pederson said.
Dahlke added that all of the churches had a similar mission statement, which made the consolidation between the three churches easier still.
One clear benefit is the savings realized by operating one property instead of three. Compensation is now paid to two pastors instead of three (Holy Triune had been without a pastor at the time of the consolidation). And, there is the benefit of one sustainable membership instead of three marginal ones.
“The first Sunday at Emanuel, when everyone was all together, was great! The whole sanctuary was filled again,” said Joyce Lind, a member of the former Emanuel Lutheran Church. The consolidated parish is currently using Emanuel’s building.
The process isn’t over for Northeast Community Lu-theran. Members need to finalize a permanent location. It could turn out to be one of the three existing facilities, or some place entirely new.
At present, attendance is down. Pederson said low attendance is to be expected in the summer, and the slower months were planned as a time of rest for the new congregation. There are plans to heavily publicize the new church in the fall.
“It is a continual effort. We are trying to be as transparent as possible so people will not feel like there is something going on behind their backs,” Dahlke said.
She explained that, although the consolidation has been a trying one, there has been a positive lesson learned. “We are very careful to distinguish between a church and a worship location. The church is the people gathered.”
For the newly consolidated Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, the transition went smoothly, although members from both consolidating congregations had to deal with a variety of issues.
Said Linda Imbertson, a member of the former Peace Lutheran Church, “Those concerns had to do with control over how the church should look, what furniture to use and letting go of what some considered to be ‘the way we do things.’ It was quite a learning experience for me.”
Amazing Grace is comprised of Royal Redeemer Lutheran, Mendota Heights, and Peace Lutheran, Inver Grove Heights. Both former congregations and the new entity are part of the ELCA’s St. Paul Area Synod.
The two congregations were about five miles apart, with other ELCA churches within closer proximity. The Rev. Sarah Lutter, the interim pastor of Royal Redeemer, said the unifying of Royal Redeemer and Peace was a natural transition.
“The two congregations had worked together before, so they had a history [of sharing]. And, both congregations have a strong tradition of a very active social ministry. That is the main thing that brought [them] together,” Lutter explained.
Unlike a consolidation, when a merger takes place, one congregation is ab-sorbed into another. However, the leaders at Royal Redeemer and Peace obviously tried to avoid the negative images associated with doing that.
“We tended not to call it a merger, but a unification process instead,” Lutter said.
Changing the name of the process wasn’t simply se-mantics though. Each of the congregations had reasons to want to unify with the other.
In recent years, Royal Redeemer had stopped growing. Peace was growing but could not afford to pay for two pastors.
Both of the congregations recognized their needs and were ready, by September of 2006, to begin discussing merging with one another.
“When I began with Royal Redeemer, they had just finished a three-year grant to grow their congregation. [The process] hadn’t been successful, so they were deciding about where to go from there,” Lutter said.
Royal Redeemer was an older congregation, but the members knew they wanted to be able to continue to worship together — rather than scatter to other churches. “We [at Royal Redeemer] are a very close-knit group and enjoy worshipping together,” said Jean Jantzen a member of the congregation.
After a year of planning and discussion, the last service was held at Royal Redeemer on Palm Sunday with members of both congregations in attendance. The celebration concluded with a procession to Peace Lutheran, where the joined churches will continue to worship.
Royal Redeemer’s property has been sold to another congregation. “The members of Royal Redeemer are glad the building will continue to be used as a church,” Lutter said.
Both of the congregations have decided to try to keep an open mind during the beginning of the new relationship. “Only one family was not involved in the merger, and that is because they had a child going to confirmation at another church in West St. Paul,” Lutter explained. “So they decided to go to that church instead.”
Cosgrove is a Metro Lutheran summer intern.