When Contraction Leads to Expansion

When Contraction Leads to Expansion

“I suppose you could report that two more Lutheran churches closed in the City of Detroit,” deadpanned Pastor Brian Dupre. “Or we could announce that a new mission congregation has begun a fresh work of bringing Jesus and His love and hope to the people on Detroit’s West Side.” A sly grin comes across his face, and there’s a mischievous glint in his eye like he is three moves ahead of his opponent in a chess match.

Rev. Brian Dupre is the Pastor of Faith Lutheran Church, Detroit, Mich. Faith is a new mission plant in the City, and it has been birthed by the merger of Berea and Greenfield Peace Lutheran Churches. Both congregations had been faced with the reality of aging facilities. Both congregations had grieved the closing of their respective day schools in past decades. Both congregations had members who remembered the “bulging Vacation Bible School” experiences of the past, even as these same members experienced the reality of the sharp decline in population of a once-prosperous city. And both congregations had faith in the God of the New Creation and in the God who “makes all things new” by the power of His resurrection. They still had hope! They still had the promise of God’s presence and the confidence that His call on them was valid and certain. But how should they proceed?

Berea

They story begins with Berea. In 2014, feeling trapped in an aging building in need of repair that “had steps everywhere!”, as one aging member remarked, and in an area of West Detroit that had transitioned from residential to largely light industrial, the people began to pray. They knew the Lord of the Church wanted them to reach out and witness to their community; but there were very few people actually living in their community. Nearly a year of prayer and conversation went by. Then it was decided: sell the building. The Church would continue and seek to find a ministry area with more population density to whom they could witness the love and life in Jesus. All this happened while being served by a vacancy pastor, Rev. Michael Grannis. After just over a year, Pastor Grannis left, but the pastoral vacancy would continue for another two years with a variety of visiting preachers, and no real pastoral leadership … just God’s people, working, meeting, praying, and seeking God’s direction.

Greenfield Peace

Meanwhile, about a year after the Spirit’s movement through Berea, the same Spirit of missional desire began working among the people of Greenfield Peace, a sister congregation also on the west side of Detroit. Also being served by a long-term vacancy pastor, Rev. Ken Spence, the congregation began to pray and talk, seeking a way forward. Demographic studies were requested from the Michigan District Office of the LCMS. A new governance model was sought to better serve the congregation. Then, as Pastor Spence stepped away, continued prayer and conversation led the congregation to an openness to discuss the possibility of a “partnership of some kind” with a sister congregation of the LCMS.

In October of 2016, Pastor Brian Dupre was installed as Pastor of Berea Lutheran, Detroit. Within a few months, conversations with Greenfield/Peace were begun. It began with “Elder breakfasts” and led to weekly meetings of each ministry area, i.e., Trustees, Altar Guild, etc. Pastor Dupre said, “It really helped that several of the ladies had strong LWML (Lutheran Women’s Missionary League) connections.” Immediately, both groups of leaders committed to full and complete disclosure regarding membership and finances. If they were going to consider working together, “there needed to be a high level of trust.”

“There was only one congregational vote,” reported Pastor Dupre, “and that was to ‘work toward merger: Stop voting on everything! Let the leaders lead! We elected them!’” That sentiment carried the days and weeks and months of work as the two groups of leaders met, prayed, communicated weekly with every member who gave them an email address, and prepared for monthly “open forum” congregational joint meetings, first at Berea’s rented worship space one month and then at Greenfield Peace’s sanctuary. Most of the work was “at a pretty high level,” stated Dupre. “But people being people, sometimes we got into some crazy ‘discussions’ like what candles should be used, wax or oil.” The smile returns to Pastor’s face as he expresses his pleasure in reporting that “the vision of ministry is expanding. We’ve gotten past the candle question!”

New Identity

In the course of a year, a new identity emerged: no longer Berea … no longer Greenfield Peace … but Faith Lutheran Church. On December 3, 2017, the “Joining Service” was held at the rented worship site as Greenfield Peace had also sold its long-time sanctuary as part of the merger process. Members gathered to celebrate the merger or “marriage” of the two congregations into one new mission! It was a great party atmosphere in worship, complete with the signing of the Constitution by charter members of the new congregation during a very creative rendering of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” by the choir!

“If you were an elected leader at one of the congregations, then you continued as an elected leader of Faith for the first year,” affirmed Dupre. “Then we’ll have elections per our new Constitution and By-Laws.” It’s important for everyone to feel ownership in the process.

Faith has found a way forward as one of the newest congregations in the Michigan District. They are still looking for a permanent facility and location to call “home.” But wherever the Lord of the Church places them geographically, they will be poised and “ready to be used by God to reach more people with the Good News of God’s love in Jesus,” intones Pastor Dupre with his rich baritone voice through a hope-filled and contagious smile. “We may not be finished with this whole merger thing. We may find a suitable new partner who has a great building in a great location who wants to join us in God’s great mission. Who knows? We just keep praying and working.”

“We just keep praying and working.” That’s a great attitude for anyone in the Lord’s work. It’s an attitude of humility that focuses not on position, but on posture. Where the Church used to hold a central position in the community, it now has the privilege of returning to her rightful posture as servant to the community in the name of Jesus. This new opportunity for focused ministry and expansion of God’s Kingdom calls for humbly setting aside our personal (and individual congregation’s) agendas in order to work side by side in a differently-defined mission field, but directed and empowered by the same mission mandate: Go … and MAKE DISCIPLES of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them… And behold, I AM with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20). The story of Faith, Detroit is not a story of merger for the sake of survival, but rather, a story of contraction that leads to Kingdom expansion!

Author’s note

As the Congregation Mission and Ministry Facilitator for the Metro Zone, I was privileged to work with both congregations and their journey described above. They are some of the bravest people I know as they courageously took one step at a time into their new future together. While their humility before the God who has called them is evident by their willingness to give up their respective identities to become a new mission, their pride in being called God’s chosen people in Jesus Christ is also evident in their bold witness to the Crucified and Risen Savior. I anticipate hearing about God doing some awesome things through them even as I pray God’s rich blessing upon them. Their story dare not be just a story about urban congregations finding a way forward. Rather, my hope is that their courageous story will spark prayer and conversation and a fresh move of the Holy Spirit for more biblical thinking that moves past “survival” to thriving models of ministry as we learn to work together in mission with our loving Savior and LORD of the Church.

Resources:

  • Better Together, Making Church Mergers Work, by Jim Tomberlin and Warren Bird, Leadership Network, 2012. ISBN 978-1-118-13130-5 (hardback) Also available electronically, 978-1-118-21819-8
  • Canoeing the Mountains, Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, by Tod Bolsinger, Intervarsity Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-8308-4126-4 (paper), 978-0-8308-9940-1 (digital)
  • ME and WE, God’s New Social Gospel, by Leonard Sweet, Abingdon Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4267-5776-1.
  • Your congregation’s CMMF from the Michigan District, LCMS (visit org).

City (c) mihailomilovanovic/iStock    Cross (c) baona/iStock

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