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Financial struggles foster common ministry

With church budgets a typical area for division in churches, First Presbyterian and Zion Lutheran turned financial struggles into an impetus for common ministry for the sake of the community.

Declining memberships in both congregations led to financial woes and some joint efforts.

Karl Felgenhauer, the Presbyterian treasurer for six years, said, “I could see it was a matter of time.”

Zion’s full-time minister left seven years ago.  To save funds, they hired a part-time interim, George Lacey, a retired Presbyterian minister in Coeur d’Alene.

Glen Leitz

Glen Leitz

“He loosened Zion’s service,” said Glenn Leitz.  “He used the Lutheran book, but made it more contemporary to appeal to younger people.  I favor having worship meaningful to our day.”

In 2003, First Presbyterian’s pastor left and a group began talking about combining forces to call one pastor.

Zion had considered sharing a minister with another Lutheran church or hiring a part-time pastor, but Fairfield’s isolation worked against those options.

“Karl and I first discussed whether the Lutherans and Presbyterians might have a closer affiliation about five years ago. I’ve known Karl and Ione for a long time,” Glenn said.

Nationally, Lutherans and Presbyterians, along with the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America, established full communion through a Formula of Agreement the church bodies adopted by 1997. 

“When I was growing up, Lutheran pulpits were for Lutheran pastors only.  I was a staunch Lutheran.  We stuck to ourselves,” he said.  “With ecumenism, we can have communion together.”

Now it’s more important for him to be a representative for Christianity.

From his frustration as a child trying to understand the King James version and his struggles with some aspects of Lutheran liturgies, he readily will let go of “old-time traditions that lack relevance” or “a liturgical service that turns people, especially young people, off to faith.”

When membership in both churches began dropping 25 years ago, they began a joint vacation Bible school and some joint Sunday school activities, but maintained separate Sunday schools. 

Karl Felgenhauer

Karl Felgenhauer

Beyond finances, Karl thought a shared minister made sense because “we serve the same Lord.  Maybe our order of service is different, but we have more similarities than differences.”

When the churches decided to pursue sharing a pastor, members went to Potlatch, Idaho, a logging town, where a Presbyterian pastor serves the joint Lutheran-Presbyterian parish.  They wanted to find out what the two churches there had learned from 35 years of sharing a pastor.

The Fairfield churches formed a covenant committee with five representatives from each church.  They met for about nine months and agreed how the churches would operate with one pastor and still maintain their identities and autonomy. 

They decided how to deal with two parsonages—by renting one—how to respect their differing liturgies and how to arrange their worship times.

Because both churches are comparable in budgets and attendance, each agreed to contribute half the salary and pension.

 “In the joint group, everything was surprisingly amiable, contrary to the bickering that was possible.  We were on the same wavelength, bringing the proposal back to our congregations,” Glenn said. “There were some foot draggers and people with questions about how it would work.”

After approving the covenant, the churches formed a search committee to look for a pastor.

“The covenant, which gives us rules to live by, is written so if it doesn’t work out and unforeseen things happen, we can get out of it,” noted Karl, who served on the pastoral search committee.

“We are breaking ground ecumenically,” Glenn said. “Our denominations are supportive. We are under the spotlight to see how it works out.

“The merger makes sense because at community gatherings, it has no bearing if you are Lutheran or Presbyterian,” he said.  “So why is there a big deal to maintain separate congregations and identity?    It’s more important to maintain our religious identity and have a functioning religious community.”

As a lifelong member of Zion, Glenn said the church is in his thinking often.  It was central in his childhood, when there was no TV.  Local schools and churches were the centers of activities for children and youth, and for community social life.  Vacation Bible school in his time was three weeks, not one.  Confirmation was a serious program, half a day each week all winter.

Now, Glenn said, it’s hard to keep children’s interest.

“Society has moved, and life is more complicated than the war between good and evil,” which he said held many.

Karl believes the two churches are now in “a honeymoon time” with the covenant and the pastor.

“The plan has exceeded my expectations.  We found a pastor who fits here.  He’s working hard.  We just don’t want to burn him out,” Karl said.

 “We’re optimistic about the future.  It’s the coming thing.  As we go to connectional meetings, we hear of similar decisions.  To do the job in this economic and social climate, we need to combine forces ecumenically.  We are on the cutting edge,” he said.

With finances a primary issue bringing the churches together, Karl said that by working together both churches have more funds for mission and evangelism—both for local projects and for world hunger aid, disaster relief, global mission, retired pastors and national church resources.


By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © October 2006