Extraordinary Calls in Extraordinary Times

By Margaret L. Farnham

Professor Brad Binau in a recent letter to alumni spoke of “these extraordinary times.” He wrote of the challenges Trinity has faced in the wake of the economic downturn, and the seminary’s need to make decisions entailing real sacrifice.

“We have repositioned ourselves by making needed adjustments to reshape our budget, faculty, staff and salaries. We have repositioned ourselves for mission,” he wrote.

In the past two years Trinity graduates also have had to “reshape” their ministries and “reposition” themselves for mission. A fragile economy and the sometimes contentious discourse over social issues have provided them with unique challenges.

  • Pam Challis (’95) in January became the first called pastor of Living Faith Lutheran Church, Santa Clarita, California, a newly formed ELCA congregation. The call will mean a move from Arizona to California and a long-distance marriage for Pastor Challis and her husband, David, but she supports and looks forward to guiding this new church in its mission to provide outreach to a diverse community.
  • Tim Bauerkemper (’01) also began serving an ELCA mission congregation, currently named Lutheran Mission of Seguin in Seguin, Texas. When his former congregation, Faith Lutheran, voted to cut ties with the ELCA following the August 2009 churchwide assembly, about 130 members of Faith who disagreed with their congregation’s vote turned to Bauerkemper and said, “We are a ministry, a community, we don’t need the buildings ... Pastor, can we start a church?”
  • Shelley Nelson-Bridger (’06) left her first call in February 2010, after the congregation where she was pastor, Bethel Lutheran in Springfield, Georgia, voted to split from the ELCA. She drew on her passion for administrative work and her previous experience as the director of a small nonprofit and sought employment at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Meanwhile her spouse, Seth Bridger, continued to serve as a mission developer in Pooler, Georgia. In May, after more than a year of uncertainty, budget tightening, and much prayer, the two will begin a new, shared call at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Patrice Weirick (’05) serves two congregations north of Pittsburgh that have been hard hit by the economy. She went six months without having her benefits paid from one of the congregations. Both congregations continue to hold monthly fundraisers like bake sales and spaghetti suppers to pay their bills.

In a vocation known for relocation, some in ministry say the economy has them staying put. Others have been forced to seek new calls. Their stories are endless; their challenges unyielding, yet filled with hope. These Trinity alumni persevere in the knowledge that their calls and the church’s mission will withstand the current economic turbulence and the discord over the ELCA’s decision in August 2009 to ordain openly gay and lesbian individuals.

Pam Challis (’95) answered a call to lead Living Faith Lutheran in Santa Clarita, California.
In January 2010 Pam Challis left a call in Arizona that had come to be defined by conflict over finances, the churchwide decision of August 2009, and a host of other internal disagreements. Her sewing hobby soon became a source of income as she began doing alterations and tailoring for others. She continued to sew and pray and question God in the process. “Then I received this one-page sheet on a young upstart church in California called Living Faith,” she said.

Living Faith began after its mother church, Christ Lutheran, decided to separate from the ELCA following the August 2009 churchwide assembly. The members of this new Living Faith opposed the congregational vote and wanted to remain a part of the ELCA.

Located in the Santa Clarita Valley north of Los Angeles, Living Faith held its first worship service a year ago at Easter. Its members also started a conversation with their synod, adopted a name, designed a logo and welcome cards, and began the search for a pastor.

“This is an amazing group of movers and shakers; they make decisions and they love Jesus,” said Challis, who resonated with the group’s core beliefs to provide a safe place for all to worship, to fully engage members, and to be flexible and open to change.

“The congregation is wonderful, and dedicated to being in the ELCA ... They are reframing how they talk about themselves—they are the church that stayed,” said Challis.

She ultimately accepted the call and moved to California from her home in Phoenix in January 2011. Unfortunately, her husband of 30 years had just taken a new job as a property tax specialist in Phoenix and was unable to move with her. For now they will have a commuter marriage and connect through weekend flights and the online video phone service Skype.

“In this economy you have to take the opportunities as they come. Southwest Airlines will become our best friend,” said Challis, who took a $5,000 decrease in salary when she accepted her new call.

She remains excited about her call and life in California, though she wants to move slowly through the process of becoming a full-fledged congregation. Without a permanent home of its own, Living Faith currently holds services at 5 p.m. on Sunday evenings in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.

“I’m not in a big hurry to become an official congregation, because there is a lot of work to be done,” she said. The community, which currently consists of 33 family units and 80 members, needs to form connections and continue to grow. They also need to overcome the grief that comes with separating from a congregation of 1,300 members. According to ELCA policy, they will need to be ready to become a congregation in two years.

“We do want to be a place of hope and peace and justice in the valley,” said Challis. Many of the members of her congregation work in the entertainment industry in and around Los Angeles. The mission field there is vast.

Born and raised in Indiana, Pastor Challis said she remembers a conversation with a Trinity classmate who chose to be a mission developer. “I wondered, why would you do that? And now, here I am ... We don’t fit the mold of a usual mission start, and yet at the same time we are a new start. It is nice to be a trailblazer and help folks think differently.”

Tim Bauerkemper holding son, Benjamin, and spouse Jennifer (left) with son, Lucas, welcome Bishop Ray Tiemann of the Southwestern Texas Synod. They are joined by members of Lutheran Mission of Seguin, including Edith Kiel (right).
Pastor Tim Bauerkemper shares a similar sentiment.

“There is a huge excitement in watching the birth of a new thing that God is calling into being,” he said.

Bauerkemper had served nine years as associate pastor at Faith Lutheran Church, Seguin, Texas, when the congregation voted to split from the ELCA. In the midst of the turmoil the church’s senior pastor of 44 years died.

“The wheels came off the congregation I was serving in a hundred different ways,” said Bauerkemper. Members of the council, who Bauerkemper said were elected on an “anti-ELCA agenda,” would not accept help or take advice from the national church.

“I was pretty much on my own; it was awful,” said Bauerkemper, who describes himself as the only pastor of a congregation that we know to have conducted three first votes to secede from the ELCA (the vote passed in the third round).

A group of some 130 people from Faith who did not want to separate from the ELCA, and who did not want another vote, met with Bauerkemper and asked him to help them form a new church. That group walked out of Faith, behind Bauerkemper, during the closing hymn on December 5, 2010, the day of the congregation’s third first vote.

Bauerkemper’s new congregation, currently referred to as Lutheran Mission of Seguin, had their first worship service on December 19, 2010.

The synod council of the Southwestern Texas Synod approved Lutheran Mission of Seguin as a Synodically Authorized Worshipping Community (SAWC) on February 26, 2011. The congregation began meeting at a Baptist church, but when the landlord raised the rent they moved to a storefront senior center in Seguin for $250 a month. They have a large hall for worship and conference rooms for Sunday school and youth education. The choir can rehearse on Wednesday evenings for an additional $25. The congregation met under a tent in the backyard of a Bed and Breakfast on Wednesday evenings during Lent.

The fledgling congregation is able to pay Bauerkemper the same salary he received at Faith, but he went on his wife’s insurance plan to eliminate those costs.

“There is excitement in this call, and in watching 130 people stand up and claim their ministry and their identity ... A number will tell you things like, ‘I don’t care about the gay issue, this is about being in partnership with other Christians throughout the world.’ For all of my people you can bracket the gay and lesbian thing; it is about being part of the body of Christ beyond our local gathering,” Bauerkemper said.

Seguin is a conservative Texas town, something Bauerkemper understands. He grew up in Austin and attended Texas Lutheran University in Seguin. “Down here many pastors have led their congregations out of the ELCA. Most congregations deciding to leave in our synod have been pastor-led in doing that. This is somewhat unique when a third of the congregation walks out with the ELCA, and I with them,” he said.

Eventually Bauerkemper said he hopes his new congregation will become Reconciling in Christ, a designation a church adopts to declare its openness to gay and lesbian individuals.

“I want to do the process right and have the conversation. I think it is something the community has to own and not agree to,” he said.

By summer the group will identify as “a congregation under development,” which is the normal plan for starting a new ministry, Bauerkemper said. At that time they may also look at adopting a new name.

“You don’t name a baby before you know if it is a girl or a boy. This thing is still in the womb, we haven’t given birth yet. We’ll pick a name once we have an identity,” said Bauerkemper, adding that he hopes the new moniker represents what they want to do in the future.

The sense of vision and mission is there among his new congregation, but he said it is harder to articulate with a group of 130, rather than the typically smaller mission development congregations. He said it is easy to miss the quiet voices. In addition, his group has a history that goes back more than 40 years.

“When we studied ELCA ecclesiology and the constitution (all that stuff in Pastoral Leadership), we didn’t study leaving the ELCA. We looked at how a congregation structures itself and does ministry. The world has changed in the last three years, why would the church think it is exempt?” he said.

“There is a different spirit in what is going on,” added Bauerkemper. “Was it a good experience? No, I’m not going to lie and say it was, but there is something redeeming in having to define yourself.”

Shelley Nelson-Bridger and Seth Bridger, with sons Noah (standing) and Zachary, look forward to a new beginning in Cincinnati.
In the last year, Shelley Nelson-Bridger also found herself “reshaping” her call and ministry. On the Sunday she returned from maternity leave in December 2009, her congregation in Springfield, Georgia voted 91 percent in favor of leaving the ELCA.

“I knew I was going to go that Sunday to the vote ... Even in the midst of it all, I was still their shepherd and they were still my congregation. I had this deep sense of guiding them through the process, even though I knew we would not be together on the other side,” she said.

In the week following the vote she presented her church council with a letter stating her needs and desires as she prepared to resign her call. They accepted her proposal and she preached her last sermon at Bethel Lutheran Church on Transfiguration Sunday, February 14, 2010.

The weeks between the vote and her last sermon were sad and dour and not “gospel embodied,” she said. “I would arrive at the church and ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ And I would say, ‘I am here because of Christ.’ And that was on my mind and heart standing up in the pulpit to preach.” She compares her departure to a divorce. “The ricochet effect of something this toxic ebbed into our life, our marriage, and Seth’s congregation,” she said. In addition, they had to move from Bethel’s parsonage to another home with their sons, Noah, 5, and Zachary, 18 months.

“I am thankful that I left with my head held high. I left the same way I came in, with grace and dignity,” she said. She and husband Seth, a mission developer with Abundant Life Community Church in the town of Pooler, decided to stay for the sake of his congregation. Shelley went to work in the Counseling and Student Support Services Office at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and came to appreciate this time and space in a non-congregational setting.

“The [school] was a very positive place to be. You are praised for the smallest things, which reminded me that in ministry we don’t do that enough. SCAD’s been a great place to be for this year. I have enjoyed serving with a large, dynamic staff of fifteen counselors and interns, and now I am ready to begin again,” said Shelley.

To supplement the family’s income during that uncertain time, Seth became “bi-vocational” and took a second job as a cook, working 10 to 15 hours a week between March and December 2010.

This section of Georgia on the eastern coast is inhabited by members of the military, with people coming and going. In addition, the economic downturn has taken its toll on the community of Pooler. From the Bridger’s front door they can see five homes in foreclosure.

“Seth did what God sent him here to accomplish, but it was time to press the restart button and start the next chapter,” she said. The couple submitted their mobility papers late last year and on May 1 they will begin a new chapter at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Cincinnati.

The Rev. Dr. Cinda Gorman, a life and career coach, who has served congregations in a shared ministry with her spouse, will assist Seth and Shelley as they enter this new ministry together. “We know we need a conversation partner ... We’ve never done this before and it is better to be honest about what you know and what you don’t,” said Shelley. She will focus on worship and administration, while Seth tackles outreach and education. They will share worship leadership, preaching and pastoral care duties.

“The learning curve at Gloria Dei will not be the size of the congregation, or what demons to slay, but how to work together in a healthy place,” said Shelley.

The experiences of the last year have offered many lessons already. “It has challenged us to live on less and reprioritize,” she said.

Patrice Weirick with Emma Majewicz, who was baptized at Faith in Aliquippa.
Nobody knows the challenges of “repositioning” priorities better than Patrice Weirick, who is pastor of two parishes about 25 miles north of Pittsburgh. Faith Lutheran in Aliquippa is about five miles from VanKirk Lutheran in Monaca. Together the two churches are known as Center Township Lutheran Parish, and both have endured the consequences of a turbulent economy.

In the last two years several members have lost jobs and had to move away. Others have had to endure longer commutes into Pittsburgh for new jobs. At least two families from each congregation left following the churchwide decision in August 2009.

“I went five or six months with my benefits not being paid at one of the churches,” said Weirick. “If we did not do some kind of fundraising every month we would not meet our bills.”

Her area originally took a hit when the steel mills closed in the 1980s. When USAir made the Pittsburgh airport its hub, many people went to work for the airline. When they pulled its hub in 2005, many – including several in Weirick’s churches – lost their jobs. The economy’s collapse a few years later exacerbated an already dismal situation.

Still, the people – about 30 worshippers in each congregation – remain dedicated to the mission of their church. They hold spaghetti suppers and rummage sales to make ends meet, but they also serve meals to homeless individuals in the area. They have collected funds for Haiti, created health kits, and taken turns leading worship at a nearby nursing home.

Some of the women this spring decided to make soup every two weeks and sell it for $5 a quart. They turn a profit of about $100 each time. In the fall they do the same with homemade pies.

“They do a lot, but they could do a lot more if they didn’t have to pay bills or me,” said Weirick. “I get discouraged ... You wonder if you’re doing a good job and you’re the right person for the job.” But then Sunday comes and 28 children arrive for Sunday school, and the ladies who prepared the pies wander into the pew.

“The people are great; they are dedicated. They are great people to worship with and to be involved in their lives and to hear their stories,” she added.

In these extraordinary times—in these extraordinary calls— Trinity’s graduates continue, as Dr. Binau concluded in his letter, to embody the news that life and hope, not death and despair, will have the last word.