For the preceding several years, Salem English Lutheran Church had been on a journey: from a small corner of their cavernous, old sanctuary, to the emptying sanctuary of Lyndale United Church of Christ, three blocks away, to the Intermedia Arts Center in a cramped art gallery space that was still holy space every Sunday (and some Wednesdays) for two whole years, Salem came home that day in January of 2012 to a version of their old home that they could never have imagined.
Gracious God, you have called your servants . . .
In 2006, Salem had called a young pastor whom the ELCA would not allow to be ordained because she was openly lesbian and in a relationship. She led this church through nearly 10 years of decline, death, uncertainty, wilderness wandering, endless hours of committee meetings, and many, many worshipful experiences. Pastor Jen Nagel was my pastor and friend for some of my most wilderness-like years of waiting for call. I resonated with a church that found itself in the wilderness like I was, one which had stepped out to accept everyone. These were some committed servants of God. Some of them remind me of some of you here at Trinity.
…to ventures of which we cannot see the ending…
Salem Lutheran did not know the end of the journey that they began in 2006, when they began conversations that addressed their reality: They were a church built for 2000 members which now had about 50.
That journey ended, or rather found its fulfillment, in SpringHouse Ministry Center six years later. First Salem, then at Lyndale UCC, and finally First Christian Church of Minneapolis, made the commitment to form a new kind of ministry: a cooperative model in which each church pooled significant resources toward a common worship space that is also a significant community space, while each congregation retained its own identity, board, and pastor.
First Christian Church was the last member of the three-church co-op to join. In 2008, First Christian sold its two-city-block long property that included a nursing home (which had closed a few years before they sold), a huge fellowship hall, a stunning fireside room (with a fireplace), and an architecturally significant, gorgeous sanctuary, initiating their own journey of discovering the future of God’s calling for them, beyond their historic safe space.
I worked for First Christian as their office manager during this time; they closed on the sale of their church before they knew what they would do next. Their interim pastor, Rev. Bob Brite, looked around the whole Twin Cities area for a new church space. First Christ even looked at an unusual two-story building that ended up becoming a law office. None of the available church buildings for sale looked good, and with their 85 members, many of whom were over the age of 70, some of whom had helped build that beautiful building in 1954, First Christian’s next steps were far from certain.
...by paths as yet untrodden…
The co-op model that came together in SpringHouse Ministry Center had perhaps not been tried much: three declining churches that had once thrived in membership joining in a new form of ministry together. I don’t know where else this model has been tried. But this co-op model is a real path, with a real outcome, when churches are not ready to close. Where does the path lead when you are not ready to call God’s ministry ended?
…through perils unknown…
These perils unknown. What are they? Running out of money? Out of members? Out of possessions? Out of energy, or inspiration, or hope? All of these elements will come and go multiple times throughout our lives, as individuals as well as communities. Beauty comes in many forms. The Holy comes through the same Holy Spirit wherever the Spirit blows: through a beautiful sanctuary, or someone else’s beautiful sanctuary, or a cramped art gallery, or a beautifully renovated building.
Some important things will be lost. Sadly, some important people may be lost too. First Christian was in the best financial position of all three churches to engage the co-op; they also stayed together without losing any members. Salem’s membership was in flux with newer members, but the core congregation stayed intact through many moves along that untrodden path.
We are seeing potentially rapid change at Trinity Lutheran Church in Park Forest. We might see the sale of our building before we’re ready to leave. We may get the option to rent back our space without the burdens of property ownership. Or we might not. But I can say from personal witness that faithful people can weather change, and that God indeed calls us beyond the walls that we have known, our physical walls and our spiritual walls, our emotional walls and our social walls.
We are not First Christian, Salem Lutheran, or Lyndale UCC. Perhaps this co-op church is a model that works better in a city than a suburb. But perhaps it can work anywhere. I have begun to tell the story of this ministry here; I will tell you more because I think it’s an important story for us to hear and pray over. You can find them on the web at www.springhousemn.org.
Until we find that path that God has for our future at Trinity, I propose that we pray this prayer together every Sunday: “Gracious God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
No matter where our path leads, these are your days to shine, Trinity. We have work to do, but we also have the Creator of our whole lives and universe to walk with us, sustain us, and love us into a whole new life.
May God bless you every day!