From Survival to Hope: 150 Years of Ministry in the City
by Charles Leonard (January / February 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 1)
Saint Mark's Lutheran Church celebrated its 150th anniversary during 2000. This congregation has had a very prestigious history and has made great contributions of leadership and commitment to the wider church over the years.
She was very instrumental in providing leadership to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia by providing some of the first professors to help establish this institution.
Saint Mark's pastors have also provided their skills to help promote the long term work of the Ministerium of Pennsylvania as well as assistance in promulgating the churchwide stewardship program. The congregation has also given financial and moral support to help plant new congregations.
Throughout its years of ministry, this congregation has gone through much change and transition. Like many congregations located in and around big cities, she has experienced the wave of immigrants coming to America during the first half of the 20th century, the socio-economic changes of the times and the reconfiguration of neighborhoods. These developments brought much change for the congregation and the manner in which it does ministry in the city.
Saint Mark's Church has changed its location at least once during its existence. During the early 1900's it was located in the vicinity of what is known today as Center City Philadelphia.
In the 1920s, in an attempt to be forward thinking, the congregation decided to move further north of the city to an area which is now known as West Oak Lane. The city and its population were expanding. At mid-century the congregation was doing very well with its membership and worship attendance.
During the 1960's and 1970's the church began to reach out to the new wave of residents to the area, the African Americans. Much work was done in the community and many new neighbors were visited and invited to join the church. Many did and became active.
At the same time many of the old Saint Mark's members were moving further to the outskirts of the city. This development continued through the 1980's. This was a time of great transition for the congregation, and there was a question of whether or not the congregation would survive.
After three Lutheran congregations in that northern part of Philadelphia closed, this congregation, the only one left in the general vicinity, was determined to be "at risk."
The 1990's would bring about another twist in the congregation's transition.
Leadership Brings Hope
In 1991 Pastor Violet Little and I were sent as interims to work with the congregation on a part-time basis. When we arrived, we encountered a small worshiping community with little hope for survival. The church was open only on Sundays and whenever there were special programs or worship services.
We immediately began to institute some changes in worship and in programming. Among these changes were an introduction of weekly communion, a more personable "sharing of the peace" during worship, weekly Bible study, strengthening of the women's group, and the resumption of the Summer Camp/Vacation Bible School program.
These changes also brought about a renewed sense of purpose and meaning for the congregation. It also created a need for more congregational leaders to take a more active role in the church.
Pastor Little and I came with a commitment not to close the church, but to help the congregation to clarify its ministry and identify leaders. Both of us loved people and were very much interested in what members thought about their church and in helping to create a more positive outlook for the future.
We were very intentional about providing moral support and encouragement to the then current and prospective leaders. We were careful to affirm members and friends of the congregation who came to offer their gifts during this period of renewal. All of these changes in worship, programming, and pastoral approach brought about a new surge of hope for the people.
New Strength in Unity
Two major developments in the life of this congregation came in 1992. During this year, another congregation, Messiah Lutheran Church, had to make a decision to disband or work with another congregation. After much discussion between the two church councils and the chief lay leaders, it was decided that Messiah would leave their building and the remaining active membership would join St. Mark's "en mass."
Both congregations joined together for the closing worship service at the Messiah site on Sunday, September 22, 1992. The following Sunday Messiah's active membership joined St. Mark's at the morning worship service. Both of these services were festive and uplifting. Both congregations had no idea what their merger would bring.
The Messiah membership brought a new surge of energy, creativity, and people power. The new St. Mark's was on the move. The new congregation saw great possibilities and a much brighter future. During the following year they called me, their interim, as pastor on a part-time basis due to the financial situation. This was important in that I was the first African American to be called to this congregation
Toward a New Vision
The congregation began to expand in its program, worship attendance and leadership. Pastor Little had moved on to another call, but had made a huge contribution towards this development. She had done much to create an inviting and pleasant atmosphere in the whole of congregational life. Augmenting this work was that of Mrs. Dorothy Ricks, assistant to the Bishop of Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. She was very intentional about having St. Mark's membership participate in a new leadership development program that was designed by her to encourage and equip new congregational leaders for congregations going through transition and renewal.
This "Faith And Leadership Academy" became a major piece in the success of St. Mark's Church. During the next five years, the congregation would send over a dozen leaders to take part in this program. All would return to institute a new ministry in the life of the congregation. Among these programs would be a youth ministry, a care-giver's ministry involving recognition of member birthdays and other important events in their lives, an evangelism ministry, a deacons' ministry, a pre-school ministry, a boarding home ministry, and a number of others.
Each leader brought a new ministry to the congregation as a result of their work at the Faith In Leadership Academy. These leaders returned equipped, encouraged, empowered, enthused, and turned-on for ministry.
One of the greatest gifts that they received from the Faith In Leadership Academy was the acquiring of confidence, the building of self-esteem, a greater affirmation and understanding of their spiritual gifts, as well as a very strong commitment to use these gifts for the building up of the congregation.
I still serve St. Mark's as a part-time pastor. This may be seen as a departure from the ideal traditional paradigm of a full-time pastor for each congregation. The positive value of the part-time pastor has been to encourage more effective lay leadership, to allow the congregation who can't afford to pay a full-time pastor to still have pastoral leadership, and to allow for even greater partnership between the clergy and lay.
The part-time pastor model should be seen as a viable option for those congregations who are too small or economically challenged to meet pastoral salary package demands.
Faith and Commitment
In his book, The Everyday, Anytime Guide to Christian Leadership, Walt Kallestad writes, "Effective leaders are people of great faith. The essence of faith is risk. A leader constantly risks going where the possibility of failure is greater than the possibility of success" (p.85).
Faith is the essential element to success in any pastorate. Without it one is grossly hindered in the ministry. It took great faith for Pastor Little and I to go to St. Mark's to invest our gifts, talents, and commitment in the hope that a new congregation could emerge from the remnant of a severe transition.
|The positive value of the part-time pastor has been to encourage more effective lay leadership.|
It is true that the Bishop and the congregation were both unsure if the congregation could survive all the change. Pastor Little and I said "yes!" and some of the faithful remnant came forward to stand alongside of us. Each encouraged the other and through faith they persevered together. It was then a small congregation, but focused on doing its mission. Moving from a mode of "survival" to that of "doing ministry" had to become a priority for all involved.
Faith said that God had a plan for St. Mark's congregation. The pastors focused on helping the people discern the work of the Holy Spirit and learning how to "walk by faith and not by sight." Walking by sight alone, the congregation was limited in its ability to do the ministry. Faith empowered them to take the challenge to reach out to the community by way of its outreach efforts.
It was not too long before the membership realized that it was making a difference in the lives of many. Through this affirmation and encouragement came a vision and a greater desire to do mission. The vision of making an even greater impact on the community has led the congregation to consider a capital improvement campaign to expand the facility in order to do more ministry. It is hoped that the funding for this project will come primarily from State Community Development Funds. This may be seen by some as a huge risk, but the congregation sees it as faith in action.
The success of St. Mark's Church could be attributed to pastoral and lay leadership in partnership. This leadership on both sides has been committed to a common vision, intentional in its outreach while exercising much flexibility in order to include as many as possible in carrying out the mission. As we reflect on 150 years of ministry we say "To God be the glory."
Charles Leonard is Director of Contextual Education, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and part-time pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Author Pastor Charles Leonard and Pastor Violet Little assisted in the revitalization of St. Mark's Lutheran Church.