By Sarah Gioe
Mergers have become a popular prospect to consider when congregations find themselves facing fewer people in the pews and decreasing funds. It seems somewhat obvious: if you join with another parish, you can pool your resources and your people to create a stronger, healthier congregation. Yet there are many hard decisions along the way—and the time has to be right.
When Augustana Lutheran Church in East Elmhurst merged with Grace Lutheran Church in Astoria last fall, it had been a long time coming. The Queens congregations sat a mile apart, had a history of shared worship, and actually considered merging as long as 25 years ago. Conversations about consolidating would pop up every now and then, but there were the usual roadblocks: if you have two buildings and two pastors, who gives up what? Who has to move?
In 2011, Pastor James Klockau of Grace approached Pastor Rosalind Brathwaite of Augustana to see if there was interest in reviving the merger discussions. Both congregations were in precarious positions. Grace had sold a parsonage to stay afloat; Augustana sold a parking lot. "The money was dwindling," said Pr. Brathwaite. "We knew we had to do something." The two councils formed a committee to start exploring options.
"The first thing we did was work on a rationale for merger, a narrative describing the reasons why we were stronger together," said Pr. Klockau, citing 40 years’ worth of shared ministry between the two congregations. "And yet, it was not easy in any way. Understandably, nobody wanted to give up anything."
Each congregation had its own assets and liabilities. Augustana had a newer, nicer building that was twice as big but off the beaten path, whereas Grace was convenient to the subway and had a smaller worship space but a thriving school. (Their universal pre-K program was recently rated #4 of the top ten preschools in New York City, and Principal Mary Leake was recognized by the National Distinguished Principal program last year.) After meeting for two years, the joint committee still couldn’t come to an agreement. A number of possibilities were entertained; some people wanted to keep both buildings: worship at Augustana and keep the school at Grace. When synod staff attended a meeting in October 2013 to help move the process along, Bishop Rimbo’s practical suggestions finally broke the stalemate: the location should be Grace, because of the strong ministry of Astoria Lutheran School there. He also suggested that Pastor Brathwaite stay on as a part-time associate pastor, which eased the concerns of Augustana members who were not happy about selling their building. "This was a win-win," said Pr. Klockau. "Everyone agreed."
Passing of the peace at Augustana's Service of Leave-Taking, November 2014
Following the agreement, things fell into place. Both congregations voted unanimously to merge, and, after working with lawyers and developing budgets, the paperwork was submitted to the New York Supreme Court. The congregations began worshipping together last August, and Augustana formally closed in November.
"Merging is a way to continue to be a presence in a neighborhood," says Pr. Klockau. "It might seem like it was the death of Augustana, but it isn’t." Pr. Brathwaite brought over Augustana’s nursing home ministry, prayer ministry, and regular Bible study, allowing Pr. Klockau to focus on the children, families, and outreach through the school. The two leaders work closely together, enjoying the flexibility of shared ministry.
Worship attendance has tripled at Grace, between the 15 Augustana members joining, a new Children’s Church component, and stronger outreach to the community. For the first time in decades, there were enough children to begin a Sunday School. Weekly giving has increased. A newly-elected, diverse council—with members from both congregations—is providing fresh vision.
"Since the merger, I have felt such a sense of possibility, a sense of relief, that this place has a future," says Pr. Klockau. "You just get rejuvenated, feeling like we accomplished something positive and seeing that it’s working in the growth of the congregation. There are just so many possibilities now that weren’t there before."
"Coming here has given me a certain amount of fulfillment," says Pr. Brathwaite, who is hugged by preschool children as she walks down the hall. "I’ve just felt welcomed, like I’ve been here all the time. Praise God from whom all blessings flow."