The cornerstones of both St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Lutheran churches have the words “Evangalis che Lutheranische Kirche 1899” in common. They now share a whole lot more.
As of Aug. 1, Rev. Audree Catalano is serving as the pastor of both congregations. She will be splitting her time equally between St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s, and the two churches will each pay half of her salary and benefits.
The circumstance leading to this arrangement didn’t happen overnight. In fact, their story goes back to the 1960s when all of the churches in Forest Park saw the beginning of a steady drop in attendance.
Baby Boomers were not content to stay in their hometowns while new freedoms awaited and a migration of various ethnic groups from the West Side of Chicago began to split residents into other non-Lutheran churches. The result, after almost 50 years of shrinking, has been that last year St. Peter’s averaged fewer than 15 worshippers during Sunday services and St. Paul’s had about 25.
This is in stark contrast to an average attendance of 146 worshippers enjoyed by typical churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), the denomination to which St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s belong.
With so few members, both congregations have been facing financial challenges.
“We’ve been without a pastor for over four years,” Ruth Loyd, the council secretary at St. Peter’s said. “Lots of members have been doing double duty.”
She explained that in order to pay the bills, they have had arrangements-first with the Berwyn school district and later a Mexican Pentecostal church named New Harvest-to use the building that they own in exchange for money. They also found it necessary to sell their parsonage to pay the bills.
Loretta Woeltje, the church secretary, meanwhile saved money by finding retired pastors who would preach on Sundays, avoiding the expense of paying salary and benefits for a resident pastor.
Likewise, St. Paul’s has taken $24,500 from its savings in just the last 10 months for routine expenses, leaving only $500 in reserve. For 14 years they, like St. Peter’s, have benefited financially from donations from another congregation using their building, the Thai Community Church. The financial squeeze got so critical that an emergency congregational meeting was called for July 15, at which time members voted to authorize Catalano to negotiate with St. Peter’s regarding some form of partnership.
Four days later, St. Peter’s council voted to do the same, and the deal was done. The two congregations are copying a model used by some 1,400 of the 10,470 congregations in the ELCA. Called a Multiple Point Parish, it’s where one pastor serves as kind of a circuit rider preacher for two or more churches.
“We’re excited about it,” Loyd said.
Judy Jilek is the council’s vice president at St. Peter’s. Her biggest hope is that parishioners will see the move as a positive one that brings more stability to the church.
“We hope some people will start coming back,” Jilek said. “I think some people left because we had no pastor.”
John Donat, who years ago was a member of a two point parish in Chicago and is now St. Paul’s president, said he is relieved and optimistic about the strengthened relationship with St. Peter’s. It is allowing St. Paul’s to survive, he said.
“It will help take some of the financial strain off St. Paul’s, and both congregations will be working together,” Donat said.
Lou Carlile, a former council member and presently a seminary student, talked about the benefits of cooperation in terms of economics. He said that because small churches have few resources, it is difficult for them to make a big impact on their communities. By combining resources, he said, the two congregations could buy bigger ads in the media, save money on bulk mailings and put on bigger events.
While members of both churches seem to be celebrating the arrangement as a blessing and sign of God’s providing, Carlile said this should not be a permanent fix.
“Having two small congregations, each in their own building, is not a long term solution,” Carlile said. “The best case scenario is that this arrangement gets both churches over the hump and they recover to the point where they can stand on their own.”
Pastor Catalano also saw many benefits coming from the new relationship. She said now St. Peter’s will have its own pastor to preach the Word and administer the sacraments instead of what Donat refers to as a “rent a pastor.” She said growth is possible for both congregations.
“Each church will have a spiritual leader who can work toward equipping the saints for evangelism and outreach to the community and to each other,” Catalano said.
She also acknowledged there are potential challenges that might come with the partnership. The coordinating of events and scheduling could be an issue as well as trying to organize two different leadership teams, she said. Catalano also acknowledged that size does matter when it comes to growing churches.
“Both churches are small and therefore it has been very difficult for them to mobilize themselves and build the kind of leadership that is needed to live what it means to be the church through different ministries,” Catalano said.
The Rev. Cynthia Hileman, an assistant to the Metro Chicago Synod bishop who knows both congregations well, added her reservations to Catalano’s realism. “It’s hard to be a pastor of a small parish, and it’s hard to grow a congregation when you’re working part time,” Hileman said. “In addition, there is the creative tension between keeping things the same and the call of the Gospel to do a new thing and connect with new people.”
Several St. Paul’s members referred to the new arrangement as a Band-Aid that stops the bleeding for now, but is not a long term solution that addresses those factors contributing to the 50-year long decrease in membership. They said their view is a realistic eye on where the numbers and the money are headed.
“We have no idea where it’s going to lead,” Donat said.
On the other hand, Shirley Zapfel, who has been a member of St. Paul’s since she was baptized 79 years ago, said there is always reason to be optimistic.
“It’s family, friends and faith that bring you through the hard times,” Zapfel said. “How many times before have we said ‘God will provide’? And he has.”