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First ELCA congregation gives birth

After 25 years in Palm City, Fla., mission helps mission

By Thomas L. Weitzel T

he story of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Palm City, Fla., and its 25 years of history is the story of mission helping mission helping mission.

Immanuel has the distinction of having been the first mission of the newly formed ELCA, organizing on Jan. 3, 1988. On that very first Sun- day, part of the offering was set aside for the start of other congregations, which established a mission priority that would become part of the fiber of this congregation. Immanuel’s mission developer and first pastor was Luther D. Kistler, who had spent the previous 19 years serving as mission pastor at Musash- ino Lutheran Church and Japan Lutheran Seminary in Tokyo. When Kistler arrived in Palm City, it was clear that “the little town was ready for a church,” he said. “I rode my bike all around town. My wife was my secretary, and all I did was make house calls.” Those calls paid off. “We brought in 800 members in eight years,” Kistler said. “People would tell me,

Weitzel is a freelance writer, intentional interim ELCA pastor and a consultant in parish renewal, living in Largo, Fla.

‘Because you came to our house, we will come to your church.’ ” With that kind of growth, it wasn’t long before Immanuel was ready to build its sanctuary, which members did two years after organization. And Kistler’s previous church in Japan wanted to be a mission partner. “That church sent us $25,000 to help us out,” he said. “Isn’t that incred- ible? We Lutherans in America had been helping missions in Japan since 1899. And now they were helping us!”

Not only that, the Japanese church sent 25 people to attend the dedica- tion of Immanuel’s sanctuary. The stained-glass window over the entry- way is dedicated to that church and their partnership.

Growth & expansion Kistler served Immanuel until he retired in 1994, having helped to also build a multipurpose building for the growing congregation. In 1995, Tom Hartley came to Immanuel and led them through another building project in 2001. He serves today as only the second pastor in Immanuel’s 25-year history. Growth continued over the next decade at Immanuel until it hit a

28 The Lutheran •

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Palm City, Fla. (right), was the ELCA’s first mission start, organizing Jan. 3, 1988 (inset). Now the congregation has birthed another start in nearby Tradition, Fla., which is led by Maryanne Kehlenbach.

peak of 1,566 members in 2008 before taking a slight downturn that came from the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 and then the recession. “The eye of three hur- ricanes passed right over us in two years,” Hartley said. “Two of those were only three weeks apart in 2004. It really hit the spirit of the people. A lot of our longtime members left town.”

Undaunted, the congrega- tion moved forward in mis- sion by opening a preschool in 2005 to serve the community (now with 80 children), while membership shows modest growth again at 1,380. Shortly after the preschool opened, church leaders took note of the development of a new com- munity about 12 miles north of them called Tradition. This master-planned community of 8,300 acres had about everything that a new town would ever need, “except a church,” Hartley said.

So Immanuel’s leaders and pastor initiated a capital campaign in Janu- ary 2009 that would be split equally between mortgage reduction of their building debt and money for an ELCA mission in Tradition. “It was the height of the reces- sion,” Hartley said. “Everybody thought we were crazy!” Even so, they raised almost $500,000.


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