The four Evangelical Lutheran Church of America congregations in Kanabec County and their leaders are combining efforts to support a common purpose. 

Pastors from the four ELCA Lutheran churches in Kanabec County, Calvary Lutheran Church, Grace Lutheran Church and Immanuel Lutheran Church and Hope Lutheran Church realized their shared common values, leadership qualities, jovial chemistry and the desire to fulfill God’s ministry could be used best by being collaborative partners they created, Kanabec County Churches of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (KCELCA).

Shared challenges

Churches worldwide are experiencing a decrease in the number of people, from all generations, attending weekly services and activities. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Northeastern Minnesota Synod, estimates that they are currently experiencing a 50-year downward trend of participation. These trends are similar for churches in Kanabec County as well.

According to the Pew Research Center’s latest data, church attendance is declining throughout the United States. In the last 10 years, the number of Americans who say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month dropped by 7 percentage points. In surveys taken in 2018 and 2019, only 45% of Americans said they attended services once a month or more. However, the rate of attendance among Christians is fairly steady. 

What is more at issue, is the rise in the number of  people who are religiously unaffiliated (also called the “religious nones.”) The Pew Research report “In U.S. Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace; An update on America’s changing religious landscape” published Oct. 17 concludes the rate of religious attendance is in decline not because Christians aren’t attending church, but because Christians are a smaller portion of the population.

To better reach and serve their parishioners, Kanabec County ELCA churches have focused on what they can do together.  

Sharing solutions

Filling the needs of the community, sharing resources and breaking down the silos that were founded in deep tradition and history can be difficult. Inevitably sharing resources and building deeper collaborative partnerships has nurtured relationships between congregations. 

“We’re using God’s ministry in our community verses what has traditionally been done as individual congregations,” said Pastor Paul Lutter of Grace Lutheran Church. 

“Our congregations are going to stay the same,” said Pastor Dean Oelkfe of Calvary Lutheran Church. “We have been forced to ask questions of purpose.”

Activities that use to take place inside the church with congregation members are taking place outside their respective churches collaboratively to better serve all the congregations. For example, in early September KCELCA hosted a free community picnic in Mora and served just shy of 200 community members. They also plan other events throughout the year. 

Next up is the Community Thanksgiving Day Dinner, held on Thursday, Nov. 28, at Grace Lutheran Church from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. In 2018, 250 meals were served, including deliveries to those who were unable to leave their homes. 

“The collaboration and sharing of resources makes cooking, serving and delivering Thanksgiving meals possible,” said Oelfke.

Pastor Sierra Westerman of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Brunswick shared how their youth groups participate in joint activities several times a year. “We are able to create greater awareness and bringing youth together to share the ministry of God, which is amazing,” While they each host their own confirmation classes, they come together several times each year for special service projects and synod retreats. “Our youth ministry leaders do a great job of working together,” said Pastor Luther.  

Sharing pastors

The fourth church to join this partnership, Hope Lutheran Church in Grasston, needed a pastor. They were facing a challenge many rural churches often encounter: funding. Through the collaborative partnership, Calvary Lutheran Church agreed to fill their need by agreeing to shared pastoral services at a price they could afford. 

Between Oelfke and Deacon Susan Williams, the pastoral team serves both churches. These two congregations, once very separate, have formed a bond with many attending worship services in one or both locations, all while maintaining their congregations integrity, bond and sense of community.

Taking on Mental Health

KCELCA has also received a grant from the Northeastern Minnesota Synod to provide mental health educational events to their congregation, community and staff. 

“Mental health is not something we’ve done much with. Identifying that it is not a character flaw, a sin or demon possession is important,” said Westerman.  

There are endless possibilities,” said Oelfke when asked of the future of KCELCA. One thing is certain, the days of semi-friendly competition between these churches have been replaced with a sense of community and collaboration.

For more information on the mental health series, or other programs, please contact any of the church offices.

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