Image credit: Pastor Louise Hilbert
“You know those times you were in college and you were stuck and didn’t know what to do and you picked up the phone bawling to someone on the other end, and they answered and were supportive?” Dianna said, putting both emotion and intensity into a response that was filled with urgency and heart.
“Yes,” I said, nodding.
“That’s what it was like calling the synod after Pastor Bill’s death. It was like that.”
Frieden’s Lutheran Church is the kind of community that makes up the backbone of the Lutheran expression of the faith in North Carolina. “We’re a small country church,” Dianna said with both pride and frankness, noting that their community in Gibsonville, though within a stone’s throw of Elon University, still very much reflects the long stretches of farmland around it. Having served as congregation council chair of this thoughtful, family-oriented community whose tall white pillared sanctuary stands out near the cross-section of Highway 61 and the country road that bears its name, Dianna will be first to tell you she wasn’t sure how the NC Synod could help after the sudden passing of their longtime pastor, Bill Zima this past September.
“I’ve been Lutheran for a while now,” Dianna said, “but I don’t think I ever remember interacting with the synod much. We were just kind of doing our thing.”
The day-to-day ministry of the local parish can indeed lead to a “doing our thing” sort of pattern, and why wouldn’t it? Most everyone goes about their typical days relying on the previous day to plot their steps.
But when the Rev. Bill Zima suddenly became ill after serving the congregation for almost fourteen years, the wilderness time of it all prompted action. The future would not be typical. “We wanted them to know that the synod was with them regardless of how Pastor Bill’s illness progressed,” The Rev. Danielle DeNise, Director for Evangelical Mission for the North Carolina Synod said. “It was so helpful to know someone was there to lay out next steps,” Dianna noted. “Pastor Danielle was so helpful and reassuring. They were there for us. I remember Bishop Tim noting that synod literally means ‘doing life together,’ and boy did that prove true!”
When it became clear that Pastor Bill was not going to recover, synod staff were already a few steps ahead lining up pastoral care, preaching rotations, and monetary support to ensure that the congregation could do what it needed to do to be made whole. “We wanted to create space for families to grieve,” Pastor DeNise said, and so the Northern Piedmont Conference pastors opened up prayer times and the sanctuary remained available for community members to come in and pray, cry, and remember.
In moments of crisis, keeping “first things, first” is essential, and the North Carolina Synod staff tries to keep this in mind. They quickly offered a long-term interim to provide the pastoral care and preaching leadership the congregation needed. Celebrating her 34th year as an ordained minister, ten of those as an interim pastor, the Rev. Louise Hilbert noted how the synod offered the congregation a way through this daze that provided consistency and loving support. “This church has an incredibly long history of faithfulness,” Pastor Louise said confidently, “and that will absolutely continue!”
A golden thread through all of the reflections, though, wove itself through the tender attention and care that was given to those who had the most questions. “Since there are lots of kids at Friedens, we got grief books for their library and we led a Sunday School session where students were invited to envision heaven with Pastor Bill there,” shared Pastor Danielle. The children of the congregation were especially fond of Pastor Bill, and sometimes the smallest amongst us have the biggest feelings when these sorts of major life events happen. This kind of care had a particularly strong impact on the community.
“Pastor Danielle came in to do a grief session with the children of the congregation,” Pastor Hilbert noted when asked what she thought the most important and memorable move the synod made after Pastor Zima had died. Dianna agreed that the care for everyone in the community, even the smallest ones, was so important. “Pastor DeNise even arranged for someone to come in with a support animal, talked through grief with the youth and adults, and then preached on how God continues to be with us,” she said.
Jesus noted that the community that gathers around his words will be the kind that pays attention to “the least of these,” and while everyone in the community has felt the impact of Pastor Bill’s passing, the children of the community are being held the tightest.
“This small country church has been helped by having an active partnership in the NC Synod,” Pastor Louise said matter-of-factly. In doing the work of faith and life together and acting—when “doing our thing” is no longer possible—this community of faith moves forward with love, courage, and the kind of support that encourages resurrection hope.
And that’s important for all of us, no matter our age.
Caring for a grieving congregation is one of the ways the NC Synod—its bishop and bishop’s staff, its pastors and deacons, its congregations—embodies its core value of relationship and its purpose to support vital congregations. Your Mission Support giving also ties you directly to this support. YOU are the synod; YOU are walking together with Freidens. Thank you for your generous gifts which enable this embodiment. Thanks be to God!