Ministry does happen in old, small congregations
Churches can carry out their mission despite limitations in financial resources and staffing.
EAST PALESTINE -- Most church members would probably agree that not much is likely to happen in old congregations, small congregations and congregations without a full-time pastor.
Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, at the corner of Grant and Walnut streets, is in all three of these categories. The congregation is in its 94th year.
The average worship attendance is about 40. The congregation cannot afford a full-time pastor, so for the past five years I have served the congregation. I'm retired from full-time ministry and I am an "ongoing, long-term interim" pastor. I live in Minerva, which is 32 miles from East Palestine. Every Sunday, Monday and Wednesday (and other days when needed), I drive to East Palestine and minister to the congregation and the community.
Despite the stereotype of a congregation like Grace Lutheran, I would like to share some exciting things that are happening there in ministry and outreach.
In May 2003, Grace started a food pantry as an outreach ministry to the community. The pantry is open the fourth Wednesday of every month. About 60 families receive food each month and the number is growing.
Volunteers of all ages -- including elementary school kids, youths and senior citizens -- help out at the pantry. Fifteen to 20 volunteers help pick up about 1,500 pounds of food every month at two Youngstown food banks. Church members then prepare the food for distribution. A local bakery donates pies and other baked goods each month. No congregational funds are used to operate the food pantry. It is funded by individual gifts and grants from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans.
The fourth Sunday of each month is Youth Sunday. Junior and senior high school students serve as readers, ushers and greeters for the worship service. Music is provided by the young people with about eight to 10 youths involved each month. A pizza party follows the worship service.
Grace Lutheran also has a hand chime choir that plays at worship services about once a month. One thing that makes the hand chime choir unique is the age range of the choir members. Two regular members are in their 80s and another member is in junior high school, so the ages of the choir members span some 70 years. What a neat way to bridge the generation gap -- praising the Lord with music.
Reformation Sunday at Grace is also "Yes" Sunday, a time to say yes to the ministry and mission of the congregation. Sunday School is held at 9:30 a.m., and then there is a breakfast for everyone hosted by the congregation council. After worship, the annual meeting of the congregation is held with election of council members and action on the proposed budget for the coming year.
In addition, there is an active women's group and an annual mother/daughter dinner. I lead a Wednesday morning Bible study group twice a month. The choir leads worship every Sunday, year-round!
Meanwhile, about two years ago, Carol Day, one of the women of the congregation, wanted to use her artistic creativity to brighten up the nave of the church. The 90-year-old nave was attractive and clean, but very plain.
Carol's first project was to make beautiful, colorful banners for the front of the nave for each season of the church year. Next she made six small banners, each with a bright background. Each of these banners displayed a different passage from Scripture. They were hung on the side walls of the nave.
Last fall, she decorated the broad windowsills of the 11 nave windows to enhance the area and they have been changed every season of the church year.
The Lenten series was especially meaningful, with each windowsill containing symbolism of a different event in the passion. The congregation was fascinated by the windows. Many went from window to window, writing down the Scripture texts.
On Trinity Sunday, Carol unveiled the latest series. This time each window tells the story of a different miracle of Jesus. Again, each window displays the Scripture text along with a visual aid to depict a miracle. Most of the displays are pretty easy to guess, others are a little more challenging. One even sent me to my Bible to look up the text in order to figure out the miracle that was depicted.
This May 8 was not only a special Sunday at Grace because of the baptism of an infant and the welcoming of three new members, but it was a special surprise for me when the president of the congregation council, Wendy Pagani, announced the 45th anniversary of my ordination as well as my 73rd birthday and my five-year anniversary at Grace.
Then my family entered the church. My two sons read the lessons, my daughter sang a solo accompanied by her mother, my three young granddaughters were there for the children's sermon, and I got to commune with my family. After the service there was a luncheon for everyone complete with a beautiful decorated cake. Attendance for that service was the same as it was on Easter Sunday!
I mention these activities only to let you know that ministry and mission can and does happen in small, old congregations, even without a full-time pastor.
Praise the Lord!