Trinity Lutheran Church, Winnipeg, Manitoba
The Rev. Ron Nelson has experience with God's unexpected callings and the blessings that come from thinking outside the box when it comes to ministry.
After his retirement as a full-time pastor, Nelson was presented with a part-time call to work with Trinity Lutheran Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Trinity was once a busy and active congregation, founded by and for immigrants from German speaking regions of Europe. As the demographics of the congregation and surrounding community began to change, Trinity saw a significant decrease in membership and had to face the reality that they may not be able to sustain their building, or their ministry, much longer.
Nelson knew the importance of this ministry, and accepted the call to work with the congregation of Trinity Lutheran to continue to worship together and create a vision for the future.
The reality of potential closure was inescapable. In 2010, approximately 30 people, most of them older, attended worship on Sunday mornings. In Nelson's own words, "I'm 70 and I'm one of the younger ones."
"Still Ron continued to believe that, marginal or not, his ministry at Trinity was important if not for others, then for himself and those who looked to an old Swede to proclaim the message of God’s grace found in Jesus Christ and those who follow in faith," said Pastor Mark Koenker, one of Nelson's nominators.
With dwindling numbers, the congregation was still somewhat hesitant to fling wide their doors to the surrounding community. The church was already an important player in the community—hosting a monthly food bank and community lunch, and lending space to a local refugee organization. Under the leadership of Nelson, the congregation moved to respond to the emerging needs of the community and address their own financial struggles by sharing their facility with a number of other groups. While there were struggles: schedules to be coordinated, spaces shared and storage areas created, the congregation learned to accommodate and even enjoy the increased traffic in the building.
"Maintaining the climate of sharing and scheduling day by day was a gift that came quite naturally to Pastor Ron," said Johann F. Kunkel, a retired pastor and Trinity member.
Eventually, Trinity made the move to change the name of its building. They were no longer the only congregation worshipping there. The vast ministry and mission taking place in the building was represented with the name of Good Shepherd Place. For Trinity Lutheran, the definition of church had changed. They moved from being a church for German Lutherans to being a church for the community. Nelson was quoted in the local newspaper as saying, "We've been learning what the Gospels are talking about."
"Good Shepherd Place was clearly an ecumenical venture, but it was also a community center where harmony and respect were essential for its health," said Norris Nordin, a retired pastor who attended Trinity. "That demanded a servant mentality and Pastor Ron modeled this so very well that the Trinity congregation cheerfully supported what he was doing and participated as fully as they were physically able. That spoke loudly of his conviction that the good news of God's love in Jesus Christ is proclaimed in both Word and deed."
Then, in 2013 Trinity Lutheran ceased to exist as a congregation. And "the last act of Winnipeg's first German-speaking Lutheran church was to give away their building so community groups could continue to use it."
A statement from the synod office affirmed the decision of Trinity Lutheran: "We're losing a congregation, but we're proud of the legacy they leave.
"Just months after marking its 125th anniversary, Trinity Lutheran Church handed over the keys—and the deed—to Aberdeen Mennonite Church, already a tenant in the building." Nelson spoke of the decision as a natural one: "We kept sharing it because, in the end, we wanted it to continue."
Demonstrating a unique balance of patience and persistence, Nelson led a faithful community in asking "How might God be at work in our midst?" Together, they transformed an inevitable church closure into new opportunities for the benefit of a much larger community.
As wife and nominator Dina Kingma said, "Ron never gave up on his vision."