After individuals experience hard times, they have to go through a recovery process. The process often involves a time of mourning, a reevaluation of identity and renewing of both a sense of purpose in life and hope in the future. Faith communities are no different.
Voting to remove their pastor in January was for St. John Lutheran Church members a very difficult experience. About half a year later, there are signs that the congregation is recovering and moving ahead.
David Walz, St. John’s president, presided at that voters’ meeting in January and has overseen the work that has been done during the last six months. “Following Pastor Knapp’s removal from office,” Walz said, “one of the urgent priorities for the congregation was to make sure that Sunday worship and pastoral care were being taken care of.”
The board chose to have a number of pastors in the area cover the preaching, and to have a retired pastor and member of the congregation, John Helmke, take care of visiting the homebound members and do some of the pastoral care for those who were hospitalized.
Another decision the board made early on was to publish their names, phone numbers and email addresses on the first page of the congregation’s newsletter. Walz said, “We did that to make sure that all of our members knew who the leadership of the congregation is, and to encourage them to get in touch with us, especially if they had questions or concerns.” Walz said that in his job as a financial planner he has learned to listen to people without needing to direct the conversation. “I’ve had to do a lot of that,” he added.
The congregation suffered what could have been another blow in April when one of their staff members, Pastor Gnewich, died. Walz points to his funeral as an important time in St. John’s recovery. “If anything,” he said, “it helped bring the congregation together. Pastor Gnewich’s death maybe refocused our attention on the basics of life and death and the hope of the Gospel. It was an event that helped draw attention to the basics of faith and why we exist as a congregation: to support one another through difficult times, share the hope of the Gospel and to celebrate the work of God in the life of an individual.”
“Back to Basics,” said Walz, could be the theme for the last six months at St. John. Back to basics has included an attempt by the board to encourage and enable members to participate in Bible study. The number of opportunities to study the Bible were increased. David Kluge, who has been the vacancy pastor for St. John since Easter, said, “A continuing and growing emphasis on small group Bible study . . .will provide the greatest blessings over time . . . a period of two to three years.” Attempts were also made to make Bible study relevant to current issues. The presentation in May on the DaVinci Code is one example.
Trying to reenergize the congregation’s outreach to the community is another example. Church members staffed a booth at Summerfest and more attention has been given to welcoming people who visit on Sunday morning. Pastor John Helmke put his sense of the new focus this way: “The challenge I see for the future is keeping the younger generations in the fold. We delude ourselves thinking they have all moved to the suburbs. Many have not. Many have decided the church is no longer relevant to their felt needs. We need to reach out, not with more answers, but with genuine concern, asking how we might serve them better in the future and enlisting them to help us get this job done well.”
Many members of St. John believe that their school will be a big part of the response to the challenge Helmke articulated. Walz reported that, following the January voters’ meeting, first the board and then the congregation made a commitment to continue the ministry of the school. He added, “There is still a lot of work to make that a reality, but we are excited about bringing on board a new principal with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and ideas.”
That new principal’s name is Monique Nunes. Nunes sees great potential for the school to draw students from the community and grow. “From where I sit,” she said, “and from what I see, and from what I can gather, this school and this community are on the brink of a major upswing. In a meeting I recently had with some parents, including residents of the Forest Park community, the conversation centered around the future with absolutely no dredging up of whatever painful past there was.”
Another way St. John is attempting to connect with the community is through a program they are calling Family Faith Fiesta. The program, which will begin on July 11 at 6 p.m., will include a light meal followed by activities. It’s a new twist on the classic vacation Bible school model, with parents being asked to come along with their children, having the sessions in the evening, and running the program on successive Tuesdays through August 8.
Walz sees other signs of recovery. He said that attendance at worship has picked up a little. There has been a renewed willingness of members to be involved in the ministry and life of the congregation together with a realization that the burden of ministry does not fall on the pastor’s shoulders alone.
Nunes, who is new to the congregation, said that she sees many symptoms of health and hope. “I might be somewhat biased,” she said, “but I have no reason not to expect that in spite of its storied past, St. John’s best days are yet to come. I want you to write a good news story of resiliency and how faith in Jesus Christ can create real community.”
Kluge shares this positive view of the future but in a more measured way. He sees much good coming out of the congregation’s recent struggles. He said, “I see smiling faces, a determination to reach out, calls to reexamine our reason/purpose as a Christian congregation and school. It will require hard work and a willingness to sacrifice on the part of all our members. With God’s blessing we hope to see a gradual turn around from a congregation that has been coasting.”
“All I know is that God has blessed St. John with some great leadership and they are determined to turn things around. Will we succeed? God knows. Let’s see where the path leads,” he continued.
Kluge was anxious to frame St. John’s future in spiritual terms. “This is not merely a matter of saving an institution known as St. John Church or School,” he declared. “It is a matter of lovingly carrying out our Lord’s command to declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ; making ‘disciples of all nations’ … that includes the people of Forest Park and surrounding communities. We invite the unchurched to become part of what we are about and our motto says: Building Community Centered in Christ.”
Walz also believes that the future is full of possibility. He attributes his hope in part to a study of the book of Genesis in which he has been engaged at St. John for the past year. In that study he encountered patriarchs like Abraham and Sarah who were given a promise by God but had to wait a long time and experience seemingly contradictory circumstances before they were able to witness the fulfillment of the promise.
Walz has also seen good come out of the recent struggles in a very personal way. “I think it has made me much more aware of the realities in a church,” he began, “that even though we’re all be believers in Christ and touched by his love, we don’t always get along, that there are differences and difficulties.
“It has caused for me a much more intense or real prayer life”lots of time spent on my knees in prayer for St. John, for me, for Pastor Knapp. There has also been a realization that in leadership we don’t always know the way to go, but we still have to lead and make decisions. But I’ve also seen that the resources God gives us can help us through those difficulties and challenges.”