RACINE — Members of three Lutheran churches on Racine’s north side have been working together for a little more than a year to develop a plan for the future of their mission. And, on April 30, they will vote to finalize those plans to form one new, combined Lutheran congregation to carry out that mission.
While it doesn’t yet have a name, the new congregation would bring together members of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, 1015 Four Mile Road, Caledonia; St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, 3011 Erie St., Racine; and Zion Lutheran Church, 3805 Kinzie Ave., Racine.
These congregations — like some other mainline churches in and around Racine — have experienced decreasing membership, lower worship attendance and greater financial burdens in recent years.
At the time they came together, all three were served by half-time pastors and found themselves in “buildings that no longer meet the needs to continue doing the ministry we hear God calling us to do,” according to the mission plan for the consolidation. “It is clear something new and different needs to be done in order to continue providing viable ministries in the community,” the plan reads.
The idea for what that “something new and different” could be grew out of a December 2015 conversation between the Rev. John Bischoff, who serves both Zion and St. Paul’s churches, and the Rev. Michael Mueller, who was then pastor at St. Andrew (he recently left to be the full-time organizer of the Racine Interfaith Coalition), about the future of their congregations.
“Rev. Mueller knew I was looking at combing Zion and St. Paul’s, and that led us to ask the question ‘What can we do together?’ ” Bischoff said.
Soon after, the two pastors brought their congregations together for a joint Christmas Eve service and it drew more than 100 people to worship. Such a number seemed encouraging to congregations whose average worship attendance had dipped to 40 people or fewer.
“We could see something special was going on here,” Bischoff said. “And we all agreed to enter into a conversation about what type of future was possible, with all of us working together.”
The three congregations formed a mission team to investigate what a new, combined mission would look like and how they might be able to accomplish that mission. Team members — two from each congregation plus the pastors — met frequently from February through October 2016, and developed a proposed mission plan.
On October 30, all of the congregations voted to approve the plan, and that set into motion the process of the legal consolidation into one congregation, Bischoff said.
Three members of each church were chosen to be joint commissioners and their job is to oversee the work of creating a new constitution and by-laws, and the creation of a new legal entity in accordance with Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) guidelines, and state and local laws.
Part of the mission strategy is to sell all three church buildings and use the assets from those sales to carry out the new congregation’s ministry. The goal is to find a neutral space for their new home, where everyone can worship together without any one group feeling ownership, Bischoff said.
They have been invited to share space with Trinity United Methodist Church, 3825 Erie St., where they would have their own office and program spaces, and share the sanctuary with Trinity’s congregation, with separate worships times, according to the Rev. Don Francis, pastor at Trinity.
Francis said when he extended the invitation, he envisioned the collaboration as “a synergistic gathering of similarly-minded Christian people.” His congregation and the Lutheran congregations have worked together in the past through ministries including the North Side Food Pantry and National Night Out, as well as in joint worship, he said.
While Trinity and Racine’s new Lutheran congregation would still be separate entities, there is a full communion relationship between United Methodists and ELCA Lutherans, he said. “So, if some of the people from their congregation wanted to worship at our time, and vice versa, it would not be a problem.”
Moving to a new space, such as Trinity, will also increase handicapped accessibility for members, which was not available at some of the previous three churches, Bischoff explained.
“We had a worship service in the new space with all three congregations on March 26 so that everyone could see what it would look and feel like,” he said. “It was a powerful worship service.”
And, assuming that the vote goes through on April 30, the new congregation hopes to hold its first official service in that new space on June 4.
Range of emotions
The overall process of consolidation is a complicated one, said Bischoff, whose intention is to remain as the new congregation’s pastor. And the biggest difficulty throughout the process has been dealing with the emotional response to the need to merge.
Members of all three congregations feel a deep attachment to their own church, with some having generations of family worshiping at the same location, including those who helped build the churches, he said. “There has been a lot of personal emotion with this. It has not been an easy ride.”
Still, the process has gone as well as can be expected, Bischoff said. And, the need to consolidate is real.
“If these congregations don’t do this, all of them would likely close in one or two years,” he said.
Jan Kasbeer, a member of the St. Andrew congregation who is one of the new group’s joint commissioners, said she is excited about the consolidation because she thinks it will mean that the congregation will be able to do more outreach — something that was not always possible as membership declined.
Outreach is one of the key values stated in the new congregation’s mission plan. And Bischoff said the hope is that by combining their assets, the new congregation will be able to call a second pastor, one whose focus will be on outreach — especially reaching out to youth, young families and “all those who we don’t see in church.”