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stops, looks around, sees what’s going down—now up


athy Payne, former council presi- dent of North Emanuel Lutheran, St. Paul, Minn., said that her congre- gation had been “in a rut of despair and negativity for some time.” The 120-year-old congregation began to hit a period of decline in the 1990s. Member Larry Biermeier said simply, “NELC was an existing fam- ily oriented church, and the families were declining.” In addition, the con- gregation had gone through a pastoral crisis and was experiencing a rapidly changing neighborhood. It became clear, current council president Leslie Snow remembered, “that we would be closing the doors if something radical didn’t happen.” The something radical took the form of a neighborhood crisis—a triple murder. Sean Whelan, serv- ing as an intern at that time, helped launch the congregation into commu- nity outreach in response to the mur- ders, Snow said. Rebecca Thurman, the intern who followed, helped the congregation continue its efforts by applying for a grant from the ELCA. By the time Kisten Thompson was

called as part-time pastor in early 2009, the congregation “knew they needed to connect with their com- munity,” said Paul Erickson, assistant to the bishop for evangelical mission in the St. Paul Area Synod. Shortly afterward, the congregation com- mitted itself to the synod’s Mission Renewal Process. In May 2009, Thompson began


Congregation members serve one of the monthly free breakfasts that North Emanual Lutheran, St. Paul, Minn., puts on to attract people from the community.

walking the neighborhood, reflect- ing on and praying for what she saw. “Sometimes she went alone,” Erick- son said, “sometimes others joined her. But they began to wrestle with the question, ‘What is God calling us to do and be here?’ ” Several projects grew out of the prayer walking and experiences with the Mission Renewal Process. In early August 2009, the congregation held a National Night Out party on its parking lot. “We were stunned to see all the children come out along with their families,” Thompson said. “This really opened our eyes.” Next they offered monthly free breakfasts to the community, a long- time dream. “We have visitors nearly every week because of the break- fasts,” Thompson said. The week prior, the congregation delivers 300 fliers to homes.

One month, breakfast featured a lawyer answering questions, free of charge, about credit card coun- seling and mortgage foreclosures. At another a firefighter offered fire safety advice and home inspections. “What made it possible for us to move ahead,” Thompson said, “was

the partnership grant from the then ELCA Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission unit. Our first question was no longer ‘How do we pay for it?’ but ‘What is God call- ing us to do in our neighborhood?’ ” The result of all these efforts, Payne said, is that “North Emanuel is coming alive again.” Average wor- ship attendance went from 53 in 2008 to 71 in 2010.

Then, a service-oriented youth group and a faith formation hour for both children and adults began. Over the next 18 months, the congrega- tion plans to participate with Luther Seminary, St. Paul, in a biblical flu- ency project.

Members no longer wonder if the church can survive, Thompson said. “Instead we are focused on looking out and wondering how we can bless others,” she added. She described the congregation as

“small but mighty,” adding, “We are trying to be faithful in small ways, and God is the one acting in mighty ways, bringing blessings to us and to our community.” 

Linda Nansteel Lovell March 2011 25

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