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Merged for Mission
The Full Story of how Amazing Grace Lutheran Church
uses demographics in ministry. . .
After a Tenuous Transplant, Two Churches Begin to Beat with One Heart
For most pastors who are called to one community, one church, there's no place like home. But if you're an interim pastor and soon-to-be-traveling theologian like Bob Hoem, it seems there's no place like someone else's home.

Two years ago this long-time Lutheran pastor stood on the porch of his home ensconced in a rural neighborhood of Washington state, clicked his ruby slippers and did a reverse Oz—leaving his own church home to take on the full-time job of pastoring two other congregations in Aberdeen, Washington. Hoem's mission was to help both churches transition to a new pastor. What Hoem didn't know was that he would soon be taking on a considerably more difficult challenge—that of convincing the two congregations that they needed to merge. And one of them, at least, was not about to go quietly into the night.

Their Synod, Southwestern Washington ELCA, was reluctant to be in the position of having to force Trinity Lutheran, the smaller of the two  churches, to give up the ghost—especially since it had been around for longer than most of them had been alive. Even the larger church, Our Savior's, was on the verge of becoming as obsolete as the honky-tonks and gambling houses that once lined their sawdust-covered streets. Aberdeen was a rough-and-tumble town—so raucous that in the early 1900s this logging boomtown boasted of being the "toughest town west of Chicago."

But booze and misspent fortunes could not turn out anything as tough as white-haired Lutheran ladies who, a century later, were about to be turned out of the only church home they had ever known. Not a few were baptized, confirmed, married...and planned to be buried there as well. But one thing was for certain: before these descendants of a long line of unruffable Scandinavian immigrants would move, they would have to be pried from the pews.

Newly installed interim Pastor Hoem had considerable empathy for

their plight.

"There has to be a lot of listening and affirming over the sense of loss taking place when a church changes its name, it's building—almost everything," says Hoem. "We are people of place, people of turf—it doesn't matter whether it's a church, or a home...and the idea of even losing one of the buildings, which eventually may happen, is very has something to do with relationship ultimately."

But the reality was that consolidation (the word "merger" is verboten in ELCA lingo) was inevitable if both churches were to survive. Trinity, the smaller of the two Lutheran churches, although "swimming in money" according to long-time member Dr. John Smith, was experiencing "only marginal growth." Our Savior's, on the other hand, had a larger building, but was facing both a decline in membership and financial hardship. Combining the strengths of both congregations seemed to make sense. Still it was hard to face the idea of consolidation, even though the climate for doing so had warmed considerably since the year before when talk of a merger set off a mini-revolution.

While they were not quite ready to order ten tons of tea to throw into nearby Gray's Harbor, some of the
church members were less than happy with the Synod's attempt to persuade them to merge. Joan Nelson, a professional planner and ReVision facilitator recalls their vehement reaction when the subject was first broached:

"The question of merger had come up with the Synod's regional outreach person before. But, frankly, it caused quite a stir—there was a lot of lashing out at him—complaints about the denomination interfering and that 'he can't order us around' sort of thing."

As it turned out, the decision to consolidate became less an issue of survival as it was a result of revival—a spiritual awakening on the part of each church that compelled them to believe that together they would be a stronger force in reaching their community with the gospel. Three significant factors in this huge shift were: 1) Strong, visionary leadership on the part of the interim pastor, Bob Hoem, 2) both churches going through Percept's ReVision process, and 3) the use of Joan Nelson as a facilitator of ReVision's small groups and planning retreat.

"Their mindset changed significantly after each church went through the ReVision process," says Joan. "They went from a 'Oh we are in such bad shape, we had better just give up and we'll go worship with them,' to 'Well, we really need to go out there [in the community] and share the gospel, so how together are we going to do this?'"

Joan and Bob both knew early on that for consolidation to be successful, it was important that each church do their own ReVision process. "The consolidation had to have both parties looking at the same material but from their own perspective," says Hoem. The fact that each church was able to do a separate ReVision was helped along by the
Synod which gave them each a grant to complete the process, etablishing a climate of good will.

Joan's part in ReVision was minimally invasive. As a professional planner highly skilled in process she was aware that the greatest (and most lasting) changes on the part of an individual or group are the ones that come about when you discover them for yourself. It also helped that she was above the fray—neither an official representative of the Synod or a member of either church. And, she was passionate about what she believed, bringing compelling stories of renewal and transformation that reinforced the concept of becoming a church for others—a theme that Hoem was helping to drive home in every way possible.

According to attorney Rich Vroman, president of the recently formed Amazing Grace council, Hoem did an outstanding job of being both fire-starter and consummate diplomat.

"Bob is a great interim pastor," says Vroman. "He seems to be able to push you gently in one direction without stepping on any land mines. Clearly he is there with an agenda but he doesn't shove it down your throat. But it was evident from the first day that he preached that he was going to figure out a way to combine the churches...and ReVision was part of that plan that proved so effective."

Hoem also found ReVision to be a vital component of the consolidation process. They worked as a team: Joan did the main facilitating, while Bob did the preaching, weaving ReVision in with the biblical imperative to become like Jesus and get engaged in the culture. To reinforce that imperative, ReVision was used in concert with an 8-week bible study program designed by Dr. James Moy of the Northwestern Washington Synod ELCA in Seattle.

"It was a good marriage," says Hoem. "Because if you are just looking at the data, you could just say, well, so what? But if the data is connected to the biblical imperative, and you have decent theology going with this, it is really hard to resist that kind of combination. Think of it as a set of binoculars. You've got one lens focused on the biblical narrative and the other lens on the community. That is where ReVision comes in, because it gives you an unbiased picture. It is simply data or what the Percept organization has gathered through many sources about people's attitudes, their situation in life, their preferences about music—all that is in the ReVision material. That's part of the tool. It's not the answer itself, but it is an integral part of keeping the binoculars focused."

As to where that lens needed to be focused, Hoem calls to mind the story of the Prodigal Son. In this parable, the father was always focusing
on his errant son, sorrowful for his loss, but joyfully expectant that he would return. Hoem believes that the church at large—across all denominations—has unfortunately behaved more like the elder brother rather than the selfless, loving Father who, when he saw his son coming from far off, "ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him."

Hoem stresses that he's talking about ALL PEOPLE—not just "the successful, the educated and the people who have got it together," says Hoem. "Particularly the marginalized. That is a very important part of the New Testament. People may think of a church as a place open for all but when you say, 'Who are the all?'... well then they become very nervous."

For the most part, the members of the newly transformed Amazing Grace—cognizant of just how amazing that grace was that helped them through a potentially difficult consolidation—are ready to overcome that nervousness for a higher purpose: that of sharing in the ministry of Jesus Christ to "seek out and save those who are lost."

During the end of the ReVision process, the church went into action—putting six new ministries on the drawing board. The most developed one thus far has been the Alpha prison ministry. The Alpha Course, which first originated in Holy Trinity Anglican Church in London is an in-depth exploration of the Christian faith that is widely used in churches. After the members of Amazing Grace went through the program a team of them decided to take Alpha into nearby Stafford Creek Correctional Center—the third largest prison in the state. "As a result of doing ReVision, they started the Alpha program at their church which, in turn, gave them the courage to venture out and conduct this same ministry at Stafford prison," says Hoem.

Alpha Prison Ministry has met with resounding success. The 30 or so inmates who attended the program have begged them to continue it. Chaplain David Dunning, who has seen a lot of prison ministries come and go attributes Amazing Grace's success to a proposition built on the right preposition.

"Most prison ministries fail simply because they don't understand the difference between doing things "for" God and doing things "with" God," says Dunning. "Pastor Hoem and his team clearly belong to the latter group—they are not just here because, 'we see the opportunity so we're going to do it' kind of a thing."

ReVision has also been pivotal in helping Amazing Grace to both identify potential leaders and in giving a renewed sense of mission to the existing leadership. Church council president Vroman is excited about the direction that Amazing Grace is taking.

"There is lot of lot of energy in the church right now," says Vroman. "We had a really successful council retreat this summer which was due in part to the issues that Percept helped to identify. It was very beneficial in the sense that it energized the Council members in regards to what their responsibilities are as well the role they need to play in helping us to move forward."

Momentum happens when a vision is birthed. The adrenaline flows and a church is ready to shift out of neutral and into first gear. But in order to keep ministry moving, it is equally important to have a pastor who is on the same track as the congregation. In that regard, ReVision has helped Amazing Grace to focus on exactly what qualities they are looking for in a new pastor.

"Many of the things that were learned through Percept have formed the criteria that the Call Committee is using in evaluating a prospective get the proper fit for where we feel we are now going as a church, says Vroman. "They (the Call Committee) will be asking point blank questions right out of the Percept materials in regards to where these candidates
are—especially in terms of outreach ministries. So, when we ask a question of the pastoral candidate and he or she comes out with an answer that is not in sync with our vision, then we know that person isn't the right leader for us."

Lynette Lyle, a mental health professional and former member of Our Savior's agrees with Vroman that ReVision has greatly impacted the church leadership—especially when it comes to engaging the youth. 

Her own daughter, who was in a ReVision group comprised of mainly teenagers, is now on the Call Committee.

"ReVision is another inroad—it's just another piece that I think she (her daughter) takes with her when she goes to the Call Committee meeting. She has the demographics in her head and her own experience as a youth. So, between the pastor preaching about it on Sunday, our discussion groups and Bible study and the input of our youth...ReVision kind of flowed into the fabric of the congregation."

When the two declining churches of Our Savior's and Trinity merged, they did so for all the right reasons. Because of that, they will do more than survive—they will likely thrive. It is perhaps more than coincidental that the name Aberdeen means "confluence of two rivers". When two streams flow together they form a more powerful body of water—one that rushes forward forcefully, yet purposefully, molding hardened rock into smooth pebbles, and making the land around it fertile. This is how Amazing Grace Lutheran Church has begun to see themselves—no longer as two separate streams watching their life ebb slowly from them, but as a strong, forceful river that exists to nourish their city. -Jenni Keast

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