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Potlatch Lutheran, Presbyterian churches share pastor, worship

Serving the Lutheran-Presbyterian parish in Potlatch, Idaho, the Rev. Larry Veith appreciates both the flexibility of Presbyterian worship and the repetition in the Lutheran liturgy.

Larry Veith
The Rev. Larry Veith

Nearly three years after coming to his first pastorate out of Fuller Seminary in 2002, he is discovering the roots of the 100-year history of both Grace Lutheran Church and the Community Presbyterian Church, which formed an ecumenical parish 35 years ago.

Since deciding to share a pastor in 1971, the churches have alternated between Lutheran and Presbyterian pastors.

Until five years ago, the pastors conducted two Sunday services, one in each church, following the style of each denomination. 

Now the churches hold a 10:30 a.m. worship service for both congregations.  For a month, they meet at Grace Lutheran and use the Lutheran liturgy.  Alternating months, they experience a Presbyterian service in the Presbyterian building.  The Sunday school is always at the Presbyterian church.

“We switch between buildings and styles so each church can maintain its identity, but we live together in the community and do mission together,” Larry said.  “We are one community.”

He finds a vitality as the churches worship, study and serve together like one congregation but with two buildings and worship styles.  Along with having a Parish Council, there is a Presbyterian Session and a Lutheran Council.

Having grown up in “a Presbyterian world” in Ventura, Calif., Larry did not realize “Presbyterian” was a worship style.  He soon learned to lead the liturgy in the Lutheran book of worship.

Lutheran cross
Lutheran sanctuary

 “It’s refreshing to experience the humility of these people of different traditions worshipping together,” he said.

Each week, Larry’s sermons relate the Scriptures to the people’s lives.  In prayers, he remembers people who suffer locally and from the world’s injustices.

As a youth and as a youth pastor, he went with Teen Missions for two months to rebuild a church in Jamaica and a month to build a youth house in Kenya,

“Those experiences gave me an awareness of poverty and justice beyond books and TV,” he said.  “Befriending Kenyans helped me see with new eyes and bring a global perspective to sermons.”

On those mission trips, Larry also developed a habit of daily prayer and Bible reading that nurtures his ministry.

Presbyterian cross
Presbyterian altar

Larry, lay leaders and the Rev. Ken Onstot, a former pastor now at Hamblen Park Presbyterian in Spokane shared the following background on the community:

The Potlatch Lumber Mill founded Potlatch in 1906 as a company town.  It built and owned the stores, houses and church buildings. 

The mill built a Catholic church and a 900-seat Protestant church—called the Union Protestant Church.  Norwegian Lutherans, however, decided to build their own church, holding meetings and worship in early years in Norwegian. It celebrated its 100th anniversary in October.

In 1937, the mill began selling the stores, houses and other buildings.  When it gave the church buildings to the congregations in 1940, the Protestant church decided to affiliate with the Presbyterian Church, because many of its pastors had been Presbyterian.

The Presbyterian building burned in 1951 and was rebuilt on the current site by 1953.

When the mill closed in 1981, a few managers moved to other mills, but many people stayed and began commuting to jobs in Moscow 16 miles south and Pullman about 25 miles southwest.  The town is now about 800 with about 2,500 in the surrounding area.

There are loggers, U.S. Forest Service workers and farmers in the surrounding area.  There are fewer farms, because many have retired and lease the land.  Now one farmer can farm land once farmed by several, growing wheat, lentils or bluegrass. 

The Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, which have fluctuated in membership over the years, now have about 40in each congregation with about 60 at worship. 

Ken, who served there from 1979 to 1988, said when the company left during his ministry, it changed the expectation that young people would graduate from high school and stay to work at the mill.  Since then, more have gone on to college.

“The community became more cohesive, forming a food bank and supporting those who struggled when the mill left,” Ken added.  “People in the church talked more about what was important in life beyond having a job and making money.  They realized the importance of caring for each other.”

The Presbyterian and Lutheran members and members of four of seven other churches in the area—St. Mary’s Catholic, Elmore United Methodist, Princeton Church of the Nazarene and Onaway Faithful Gospel Church—donate food and volunteer at the food bank, which is open on Tuesdays.  Others run a clothing bank.

Larry and pastors of five other churches meet regularly in a support group and plan five ecumenical worship services each year—Thanksgiving, Easter morning and evening services, baccalaureate and a summer service.  On fifth Sundays, they hold evening worship services together.

Five to 20 teens from six congregations meet in a weekly community youth group at the Presbyterian church.

For Larry, relationships from meeting people each day at the post office and stores are central to ministry—wherever people are and whenever they gather.  

“Pastors need to be in relationship with people,” he said.

So he drops in to chat with the women who meet each week and make more than 100 quilts a year to distribute locally or overseas through Lutheran World Relief. 

Gayle Worthington, parish council president and a member of Grace Lutheran, said the parish does some outreach aided by matching funds from Thrivent for Lutherans.  They help support the Children’s Home in Lewiston.

Sunday school children raised $500 in a rummage sale. With a $400 match from Thrivent, they  bought gifts for children.

Eileen Ball said when the churches came together, mission became foremost—giving to the larger denominations, to world mission and to local outreach.

For information, call (208) 875-0015.

Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © March 2007