A funny thing happened on the way to two Lutheran congregations joining forces—a thing that hardly ever, ever happens in churches of any stripe, size, or denomination: Every church member agreed.
“You know how hard it is to get people to agree on something?” asked Tim Hahn, congregation president at Mt. Gilead Lutheran Church in Mt. Pleasant, NC. Hahn wasn’t really asking a question. He already knew the answer. So he answered his own question. “It’s so hard to get two churches to agree on something. It’s just astonishing.”
“It” is an agreement—a rather unique agreement—between Hahn’s lifelong congregation and a Lutheran neighbor barely a 10-minute drive away: The two shall become one. Not one congregation, but one Lutheran parish; the first new parish the North Carolina Synod has seen in recent memory, said one synod official.
This past July, Mt. Gilead and St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in nearby Gold Hill officially created PALM—the Piedmont Area Lutheran Ministry. And as Hahn marveled earlier, there was nary a single “no” vote between the two congregations. “Everybody said, ‘There can’t be anything bad with this,’” Hahn said. “(They said) ‘It has to be all good.’” And, truth be told, members at both of these historically rich congregations knew that their options were limited. Ministering the last two decades with part-time pastors and rotations of weekly supply preachers, Mt. Gilead and St. Stephen’s felt, in the words of one leader, that “we had to do something.” “It made sense to do it,” said St. Stephen’s president Ben Callahan.
The two congregations knew each other well. They had cooperated in the past. And more than once since both their beginnings in the 1830s, Mt. Gilead and St. Stephen’s had partnered with other congregations in sharing a single pastor. This arrangement, however, takes the more common yoking of congregations a step further. And PALM might, if things go as hoped, broaden further to bolster the ministries of three, four, or five more small congregations that similarly have been unable to afford a pastor of their own. Questions of curiosity already are coming in from neighboring Lutherans, Callahan said.
Mt. Gilead is not going away. St. Stephen’s is not going away. PALM simply allows the two to worship in their sacred spaces on Sunday mornings, lead their own Sunday school classes, and pay their own utility bills, while also sharing the leadership—be it a called pastor, a deacon, or a lay minister—more affordably. It’s a model based on other multi-church parishes in places such as Virginia and Pennsylvania, but not so common in North Carolina, where generations of synod leadership once believed every church should have its own pastor. Modern trends are making that unrealistic for many.
“Who would serve a quarter-time call?” Hahn said of clergy who also have bills to pay. “The last thing we wanted to do was to close the doors. Our church is the building, but that’s not what we cherish. We cherish our relationships with each other.”
Small congregations dot the country roads in this corner of Rowan, Cabarrus, and Stanly counties, legacies of the centuries past when German Lutherans planted “a church on every corner,” NC Synod Bishop Tim Smith said. “Some of them are insisting that they want their own pastor,” Smith said. But the reality of shrinking church memberships and clergy unwilling to “work for peanuts” mean that such tiny congregations persist most often with long-term interim pastors or a rotation of different faces in the pulpit Sunday to Sunday.
It wasn’t peanuts that previous pastors worked for at Mt. Gilead or St. Stephen’s. But St. Stephen’s president Callahan knows his congregation’s history well enough to know that most clergy dating back to the 1830s there served a second congregation as well, and many also farmed to make ends meet. In some cases, Callahan said, a minister’s pay was based “on how much collection they took up.” A parish model such as PALM can ease the burden on clergy while at the same time lessening the financial strain on congregations whose Sunday attendance might be 20 or less. Such is the case at both Mt. Gilead and St. Stephen’s.
For the past half-decade or longer, both congregations enjoyed part-time ministry from pastors Ray and Ruth Ann Sipe, who served Mt. Gilead and St. Stephen’s, respectively, while also doubling up at second locations. Pastor Ray also held down chaplain duties at Trinity Place retirement center in Albemarle before the couple accepted new duties this year as Lutheran Disaster Response Carolinas coordinators for the North and South Carolina Synods.
It was the Sipes’ departure, Smith said, that rekindled talk from five years that had fizzled between Mt. Gilead, St. Stephen’s, and other congregations nearby. With the departure of the Sipes—whom Callahan credits with preparing them over the years— “four congregations didn’t have anybody,” Smith said. The time was right to think outside the box. “That gave these congregations an incentive to have some vision and say ‘Look, (by ourselves) we’re not going to get anybody,’” Smith said.
The synod’s Director for Evangelical Mission, Pastor Danielle DeNise, walked with the two congregations through the process. Synod Finance Director Michael DeNise helped draw up the legal papers of incorporation for PALM. And Smith met multiple times with Hahn and Callahan. By mid-July, it was all official. St. Stephen’s Facebook page joyfully announced “It’s official! Mt. Gilead and St. Stephen’s are now a yoked parish: Piedmont Area Lutheran Ministry.”
“We believe that yoking and parish agreements are going to be the way of the future,” Smith said. “This parish (PALM) is saying, ‘We don’t know what’s in store, but we know God is up to something.’”
Editor’s Note: Surely, God is up to something! And, your Mission Support dollars are helping the synod staff respond to congregations just like these. Thank you for your faithful support.