No person is an island, the English poet and cleric John Donne noted four centuries ago—and neither are ELCA congregations in Hawaii.
“People think there is this body of the church ‘out in the tropics, in paradise,’ ” said Kathryn Zurcher, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church on Oahu. “But we have the same issues, the same struggles, the same concerns and the same joys as everybody else. We’re still Lutherans. We’re still people; we’re just out here in the middle of the Pacific.”
The ELCA has 10 congregations in the state, spread across four islands—Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the “Big Island” of Hawaii.
Lihue Lutheran Church on Kauai, founded in 1881 by German immigrants who came to work in the sugar industry, is the oldest congregation in the Pacifica Synod. It lies 1,500 miles from the synod headquarters in Santa Ana, Calif.
“The biggest factor that makes ministry unique in Hawaii is isolation,” said David Barber, whose long history in the state includes his current role as interim pastor of Calvary by the Sea Lutheran Church on Oahu. “Isolation is accompanied by a high cost of living, which creates much poverty and homelessness not always seen by those who come here for vacation.
“On the positive side, we are guests of the Hawaiian people, who are both hospitable and gracious. We get to experience and to celebrate the diversity of cultures to which Hawaii is home. And the frosting on the cake is the magnificent climate and a natural beauty that is not only a feast for the eyes but also brings healing to a person’s soul.”
Cindy Arndt, now in her third year as Lihue’s pastor, recalled what a local Hawaiian once told her: “The air is thinner here between God and us. We can truly feel God’s presence working in nature and in our lives.”
She added, “ ‘Aloha,’ in its deeper meaning, is to be in the presence of the divine breath of life. I realize that this may sound a bit romanticized, but there honestly is something to it.”
Also stitched into the fabric of the state are 11 military bases. The transient nature of the armed forces accentuates the need for congregational leaders to engage with worshipers quickly, said Jeff Lilley, who has been pastor of Lutheran Church of Honolulu for 12 years following 17 years at congregations in Kansas.
“Military families, once they find their way to a congregation, often jump right into both service and leadership,” he said. “But their time on the island is often limited to five years or less.”
Financial and educational pressures are other factors that can chip away at congregational stability.
“The quality of the public schools is less than optimal; a surprising percentage of public school teachers send their own children to private school,” Lilley said. “And our cost of living is forcing people across the economic scale to move away and is a major factor in the calling and retention of pastors. On Oahu, the median house price exceeds $700,000.”
Clergy turnover is a common problem but not widespread. At Lutheran Church of Honolulu, for example, one 72-year stretch was covered by just three pastors. The pastor who preceded Arndt at Lihue served there for 17 years.
“The pastors who have accepted or negotiated the challenges have been enriched by Hawaii and stay for many years,” Barber said. “The difficulty is in discovering and calling such individuals to the islands.”
A commitment to homegrown pastors may be one solution, said Diane Martinson, who has lived and worked in the state since 2001 and is now serving an Episcopal congregation on Oahu. “If the ELCA wants a sustained presence in Hawaii, I think it needs to dedicate resources to raising up local clergy,” she said. “I also think we should be looking at ways to work more closely with our ecumenical partners, the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, who have deep roots in the islands.”
Another helpful partnership is the twice-yearly Hukilau Conference, which connects clergy and laypeople from all the state’s ELCA congregations. The conference draws its name from a Hawaiian word for family and friends working together to cast a large fishing net.
“We share how we are doing ministry with the homeless, the vets and the elderly,” Arndt said. “We share work experiences in our congregations with that same spirit of coming together and sharing our workloads.”
Workloads that, Zurcher said, are remarkably similar to those in other regions despite Hawaii’s multicultural society, economic hurdles and distance from the mainland.
“People are just people,” she said. “Yes, the culture is interesting and unique, but really you could say those things about anywhere. We’re God’s people doing God’s work, trying to figure out how to be churches that shift and change all the time in a world that’s shifting and changing all the time.”