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Church–Missouri Synod, and the United Church of Christ remaining flat, on the whole, between 2000 and 2007 after peaking in the 1960s and 1970s.

In many respects the statistics are troubling, with pastors and congrega- tions nationwide feeling the effects. For example, the Metropolitan

Washington, D.C., Synod includes 80 congregations in southern Maryland, the District of Columbia, northern Virginia and Bermuda. Annual con- gregational reports showed a loss in baptized membership of 13.3 percent between 2003 and 2009.

Philip C. Hirsch, assistant to the bishop and the synod’s director for evangelical mission, deals with struggling congregations on a daily basis. If viability is measured strictly in economic terms, that is, whether a congregation can afford to keep its doors open, then he has concerns about the long-term survival of five of the synod’s 80 churches. But there can be other measures of

viability, Hirsch said, pointing to the fact that 50 of the 80 are declining in worship attendance, “and that’s our best indicator of participation.” Of the remaining congregations, 22 are stable and eight are growing. Why is this happening? There are some obvious answers, he said, but for churches to be able to do some- thing about their struggles, “we need to get to a posture of confession, where we’re willing to say that things have not been working out the way we had hoped.”

The core issue, in Hirsch’s opin- ion, “is that we haven’t transmitted the faith in the way that we had hoped we would. It used to be that people were concerned that their children wouldn’t sing the hymns of old, that they’d all be singing contemporary hymns.

“Now we’re concerned simply that our children will have Christian faith.”

22 The Lutheran •

Paul D. Erickson, assistant to the bishop for evangelical mission in the St. Paul Area Synod, said struggling congregations often can’t adapt to their changing environment. “Con- gregations now find themselves in communities that are filled with peo- ple from all parts of the world who don’t have a church background,” he said.

Although it comprises just the

eastern half of the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, St. Paul Area is the second largest ELCA synod in terms of baptized members. Its 118 congregations included more than 145,000 baptized members in 2009. Even so, that number represented an almost 11 percent drop since 2003. In assessing the strength of the congregations he serves, Erickson, too, interprets viability in at least two ways. The first, and most common, is what he calls congregational viabil- ity: “Can a congregation pay its bills and keep its doors open?” He estimates that at any given

time 10 to 20 of the synod’s 118 congregations might be struggling to stay afloat. Erickson acknowledged that more are dealing with financial concerns, but only 10 to 20 are “seri- ously considering shutting things down, having to employ a pastor less than full time, selling their building or some other significant move.” Erickson’s second measure is harder to assess. “Does a congrega- tion have life, energy, a sense of mis- sion and purpose in the world?” he asked.

Although the two definitions sometimes overlap, often they do not. “There are congregations that have no problems paying their bills,” Erickson said, “but they are stagnant and with- out energy or life. [On the other hand], there are also congregations that struggle financially but are very lively places of mission and outreach.”

24 


congregation keeps on giving to community C

losing usually ranks as the worst fate that can befall a congrega-

tion. When Kathy Rohrbach asked the members of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Uniontown, Md., even the children agreed that it was. It was fall 2003 and the historic congregation, dating to 1879, had dwindled to about 25 worshipers each Sunday. Casual discussions about the possibility of closing had begun some 10 years before Rohrbach served her internship year there. She was asked by the congregation to return as a stated supply pastor during her senior year at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Pa.). Rohrbach, now ordained and serving as an interim minister in the Delaware-Maryland Synod, approached the situation at St. Paul from a “hospice” perspec- tive. She agreed to work with the congregation for six months if everyone would commit to using that time for prayer, discussion and discernment. Terry Frock, who served several terms as council president, was the fourth generation of his fam- ily to attend St. Paul. At the time Rohrbach was asked to return, he remembers that the situation was difficult. There was no full-time

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