Trinity Lutheran used to have a large church building in downtown Appleton, Wis. But now they worship around a wooden cross and baptismal font cut from their former building’s altar in a new space—a funeral home chapel in Menasha, Wis. There they’ve found renewal and flourishing faith.
Trinity’s path to worship at Wichmann Funeral Home’s Tri-County Chapel spans more than a century. From its start with 15 charter members and three children to expansions in 1925, 1954, 1963 and 1996, Trinity grew and changed alongside Appleton. But leading up to the congregation’s 150th anniversary in 2015, members began discussing Trinity’s future.
“For many years, we had concerns about how to pay the bills,” said member Mary Robertson. “The building was large, but the congregation was not growing.”
Trinity isn’t alone. Neil Harrison, ELCA director for congregational renewal, said that in the ELCA and other mainline Christian denominations, an average of 65 percent of congregations are experiencing membership decline rather than growth.
Brian Bankert, pastor of Trinity, said discussions at the church reached a turning point in April 2014. That month, Appleton decided to begin an eminent domain process, wanting Trinity’s land for a library.
Bankert said the ELCA, synod officials and the congregation stayed in close communication throughout the process.
Then in June 2015 the city decided against the purchase. “This augmented a discernment process in the congregation,” Harrison said.
Bankert agreed: “We had a great advantage at Trinity in having outside forces making us make a decision.”
Even so, emotions were heightened. “We spent a lot of time not listening to each other, but listening to the arguments we could make,” Bankert said.
New ways of being church
Jean DeVoll-Donaldson, director for evangelical mission for the East-Central Synod of Wisconsin, worked through the changes with Trinity, including a synodwide Seeds for Growth transformation process, which helps renewing congregations discern where God is calling them.
DeVoll-Donaldson meets with congregations periodically over 18 months as they decide their future. In meeting with Trinity, she recognized that members were grieving, so she brought in a counselor. “Part of what I, and others, did was to help folks hear one another and see behind the harsh comments to the grief and other emotions behind the reactivity,” she said.
Then DeVoll-Donaldson brought in two other ELCA congregations in Appleton, Grace and Our Redeemer, to help Trinity imagine different ways of being church. Representatives from the congregations talked about what they could bring to a ministry partnership and how that could further their mission.
The ELCA supports such congregational discernment, Harrison said. “The ELCA is grounded and centered on the health and vitality of our congregations as the heart and engine of the church of Jesus Christ,” he said. “We need to focus on bringing different congregations together to move forward with healthy, vital ministry in the 21st century.”
“We need to focus on bringing different congregations together to move forward with healthy, vital ministry in the 21st century.”
Finding and embracing a new home
After a local developer offered to buy its property, Trinity voted on whether to stay or sell. On Pentecost Sunday 2016, 95 members voted to sell, with 24 voting to stay.
Trinity was able to remain in its building for a few months, but members had begun looking for a new home while they were still deciding whether to sell.
After officiating a funeral at Tri-County Chapel in nearby Menasha, Bankert realized that it could fit the congregation’s needs. “The funeral home’s chapel on the edge of town was just the right size. They made us a very generous offer for Sunday morning worship, and we accepted,” he said.
The congregation found office space at Grace, where they also hold their choir rehearsals, special events and Wednesday worship services.
The new liturgical year was also a time of new beginnings for Trinity as members held their first worship service in Tri-County Chapel on the first Sunday of Advent, Nov. 27, 2016.
“In our small chapel, we feel closer because we are physically closer to one another,” Robertson said.
Services are interactive; sometimes members enact scenes from the Bible. One Sunday members represented different people and beings in the creation story as found in Genesis. A narrative lectionary helped members connect their lives to God’s word.
“When we felt like we were being tested, we talked about Job. When we needed new life, we were talking about Revelation,” Bankert said. “It seems like we are part of that story.”
Robertson, who is a congregational Seeds for Growth leader, said listening intensely to one another increased personal connections and offered more opportunities to pray for one another. “Now we pray honestly and intensely because we know each other and care about each other,” she said.
As Trinity renews relationships, Bankert said generosity and support for local ministries is growing: “We gave more in benevolences (Mission Support) in 2017 than over the last eight years combined.”
Robertson said Trinity’s changes have helped her trust in God. “Who knows what the future will be, but it doesn’t matter,” she said. “We just want God to be in charge.”