From the Pastor
Several weeks ago I shared the following article with the councils from all three of our congregations and felt as though I should share it with everyone. It is inspiring to see congregations in other parts of our country building similar relationships to ours and I feel as though this can be an example to all of us as we find new ways to live into our commitments to one another. The Church was never meant to be a series of independent isolated groups of people, but one body that is both the recipient of and the giver of the life found in Jesus Christ. So, “let’s get busy, and live boldly!”
An excerpt from the August edition of The Living Lutheran magazine titled “Stronger Together: Blended Congregations” by Robert C. Blezard
In many cases, Lutherans are working with full communion partners to consolidate churches into a congregation whose identity is both/and— neither fully Lutheran nor the other. That’s the case with Spirit of Faith Lutheran-Methodist Church, Woonsocket, S.D. It formed as a single church after decades of being three struggling independent congregations (one Methodist and two Lutheran) that shared Rhonda Wellsandt-Zell as pastor. Each of the three congregations was just getting by. In addition to facing the expected 21st-century church challenges, they had a confusing worship schedule that rotated every week and had to shoulder the costs of maintaining three facilities in close proximity. “All three buildings were in dire need of some pretty significant repairs and renovations,” said Rachel Anderson, treasurer of Spirit of Faith. It was clear that the path was unsustainable and something had to be done. Understanding this, Wellsandt-Zell recalled the day she challenged members to get serious about their future: “I said to them, ‘We have to decide. Are we going to live or are we going to die?’ ” The congregations decided to live. “I said, ‘Well then, let’s get busy and live boldly!” Wellsandt-Zell added. After a period of study and prayer, one of the Lutheran churches went out on its own and the other two congregations voted to merge in 2016 to form Spirit of Faith. “Through our visioning process, we began to realize that it wasn’t so much about the buildings, but what we were called to do as the church,” Wellsandt-Zell said. “Once we started doing strong mission focus, looking outside the walls beyond ourselves, everything changed.” Envisioning a life beyond its walls, Spirit of Faith demolished its Lutheran church building and moved into the larger Methodist facility. But this spring they tore down that building too. As they await this fall’s completion of a new structure suitable for ministry in the 21st century, they are meeting in community places, including a lumber yard, public pool, baseball field, courthouse lawn and nursing home. “The transformation of the thinking was that we are the church—we the people,” Wellsandt-Zell said. “The building is a tool for us to carry out the mission.”
This transformation also brought them a new identity that isn’t entirely Lutheran and not entirely Methodist, but something bold and new. “We’ve really felt more and more just like we’re all in this together and we’re all family,” said Anderson, who belonged to the Methodist church before the merger. “We are all there for the same reason: We want to hear the word of God.” Wanda Swenson, who came to Spirit of Faith from one of the Lutheran churches, agreed: “The Lutheran and Methodist thing doesn’t really matter. We’ve had a common purpose and goal and mission, and that has united us. It just instills in us the energy to go out into the community and do things for others.” When new people join Spirit of Faith, they are given three options to identify themselves—as a Methodist, a Lutheran or simply Spirit of Faith. It has helped the congregation reach people who are unchurched or ambivalent about denominations. As a result, the old way that we measure the vitality of a church—finance and attendance—is out the window. “You should be asking, ‘What is God doing in people’s lives? How are we impacting the neighborhood? What’s happening to people’s priorities? And how are the people who are in poverty connected to this ministry?’ ” Duran said.