When Robert Ward arrived at First English Lutheran almost eight years ago, the Columbus, Ohio, congregation had just enough money to stay open another 18 months.
"Rather than trying to sparse that out, we decided to go full throttle and proclaim and live out the gospel," the pastor recalled. "There were a few faithful people here who worked very hard to keep the congregation up and running."
Despite those efforts, the congregation ended up broke a year-and-a-half later.
"One of the sons of the congregation had planned on having his wedding here," Ward said. "After that, we planned on closing our doors."
Today, First English bustles with new ministries and activities. And more people in this economically challenged neighborhood consider the congregation home.
"This place used to be known as the white church," he said. "The neighbors didn't feel welcome here. Now this place is known as 'our church.' People feel like they belong. They feel connected."
In 2001, Fred Soltow arrived at Shepherdstown [W.Va.] Lutheran Parish, a two-point ministry of St. Peter, Shepherdstown, and St. Luke, Shenandoah Junction, W.Va., which have shared more than 150 years of ministry together. Both congregations had experienced conflict over the years — so much so that St. Luke had discontinued sharing the peace during worship.
Today the congregation carries that out and "it's a hug fest," the pastor said. "It takes us five minutes and we're always running late. It's a warm and friendly church. And if you aren't at worship, people notice. People check on you. You feel like you're worth something."
An elderly member recently described how people brought her meals, visited and offered a helping hand after her husband died. "People really care. It's like another family," Soltow recalled her saying. "That's the way it ought to be."
Some might call First English and the Shepherdstown parish resurrection wonders: congregations that once faced conflict, decline — even possible closure. But through self-examination and a lot of determination, they have turned around with a renewed sense of purpose and invigorated ministries and outreach.
Both congregations revitalized with help from their synods and the churchwide Congregational and Synodical Mission's renewal team, which provides such support as transformational ministry training, coaching, and assistance with ministry adjustments, ministry mergers, consolidations and relocations.
Attending an ELCA transformational ministry event helped leaders at First English develop new vision and mission statements and "move forward with goals and specific ways we could address who we were and where we were going," said Sara Niekirk, chair and treasurer of the congregation's leadership team. "Everybody thought deeply about the congregation's strengths and why we would want to be in ministry here."
The result: a renewed commitment to their neighbors, "a group of folks who are very transient and living on the edge," Niekirk said. "They haven't experienced hope — Christian hope. We have a lot to give them in that way."
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