Story Magazine

Third Quarter, 2008

Our Savior’s Lutheran Shares Resources, Gifts With Multiple Congregations

by Shelley Cunningham, '98, M.Div.

Mark Halvorson, '73, senior pastor of Our Savior's Lutheran in Mesa, Ariz., is committed to stewarding multiple congregations.

What's the best course of action for a congregation seeking to make the most of its resources: Renewal?  Reimaging?  Investing in the future?

At Our Savior's Lutheran Church in East Mesa, Ariz., it's all of these things.  The congregation is committed to raising up leaders who can draw in a new generation of believers. But it has also found ways to revitalize existing ministries by sharing its gifts of leadership and volunteerism.

"This truly is a stewardship issue!"  Senior Pastor Mark Halvorson, '73, said. "It's a mission issue, of course, but it's about stewardship in that we are trying to use both our financial and people resources in the best way possible."

Change of scenery, thinking

When Halvorson came to Our Savior's from Minnesota four years ago, he was struck by the differences he could see in the area.

The church followed a typical "snowbird" pattern, with a predominantly senior population that grew considerably in the winter months, as seasonal travelers settled in, and got smaller in the summer. Yet Halvorson soon found that "there was a real openness to try new things within the congregation.  So many had come from traditional churches in the Midwest. But there's something about living in Arizona where you don't have that sense of 'this is the way it's always been.'"

One seed planted by a previous pastor was to start a new church. A number of families at Our Savior's made an 18-mile drive to East Mesa from the neighboring community of Gold Canyon each Sunday. These families expressed an interest in attending church closer to home. But instead of following the usual model of beginning a completely independent congregation in that area, the Our Savior's leadership team decided to launch a second campus that would remain affiliated with the congregation.

"We started out worshipping in Gold Canyon in January 2003, and our total outlay was just about $10,000," Halvorson said. "You can't start a church with much less than that."

Still growing

Attending the ELCA-sponsored Churches Starting Churches, an annual conference for congregations with multiple campuses, gave Halvorson additional ideas, resources and support for the venture. Over the last three years, the congregation has outgrown its Best Western hotel worship site and moved to a new temporary site.  They recently bought land in Gold Canyon and hope to move into a permanent home within the next three years.

"One thing that helps us is we have a vision for ministry that is clear, and full of hope and excitement," he said. "People can sense that, and they just come on board."

Adding a campus is enough to generate energy and growth for a congregation, but in the midst of the expansion another opportunity presented itself. Epiphany Lutheran Church in Apache Junction, about halfway between East Mesa and Gold Canyon, was failing. "They were worshipping about 35 people in the summer. The former bishop was getting ready to close the doors," Halvorson said. "We saw a tremendous opportunity to revitalize an existing community. One of our pastors, John Braaten, began interim ministry there.  This coming January after the final vote, Epiphany will become a third campus."

Full circle

Halvorson feels the ties of history with this move, because Epiphany originally gave birth to Our Savior's 24 years ago.

Bringing vitality to three campuses might seem a daunting task, but Halvorson said the congregation is meeting the challenge.

"It's the Spirit at work. They can sense a newness, an excitement with all that is happening.  People coming down for the winter are saying, 'We haven't sensed this kind of thing in our other congregations for years.'"

Lay people are intricately involved in all aspects of ministry at the three sites, he said. Particularly at the Gold Canyon campus, volunteers are doing almost everything: finding a place to worship, coordinating logistics, organizing public relations in the community, knocking on doors, inviting neighbors and friends.

"The big thing we have to do is make sure we have enough pastors to go out and preach."

Looking forward

That goal fits nicely with the other part of Our Savior's commitment to faithful stewardship:  raising up leaders who can guide the church into the future.  This past year, Our Savior's hosted its first intern from Luther Seminary.  Another is starting this month.  Ideally, in several years, Halvorson sees the three campuses supporting two interns.

"It's a healthy role for a congregation to view itself as a teaching parish, because we are developing new leaders," he said. "It's about more than just helping ourselves. It's about helping the church into the future."

But Halvorson's vision wasn't just to focus on his own congregation.  He worked closely with synod and Luther Seminary staff to develop a pilot cohort for internship. It presently consists of four Arizona congregations --Desert Cross in Tempe, Peace in Glendale, Central in Arizona City and Our Savior's. The Phoenix cohort will receive special assistance this year from Luther Seminary professors Craig Van Gelder and Mary Sue Dreier of the Congregational Mission and Leadership division as they explore creative ways to grow the church.

"When we [held interviews for the intern positions], we were looking for students who were excited to try new things. Each setting is different.  Only two have more than one pastor.  Three are starting ministries at new campuses.

"If we want the church to grow with young people, then we have to get younger pastors and leaders," Halvorson said. "It's very easy to grow the church down here with older people, especially seasonally. And our older members are very generous and do some  fabulous ministry. But we see that having younger pastors is a key thing for our future. Our bishop, Steve Talmage, has an incredible vision for our synod that includes this initiative."

Is it possible for a congregation to undertake so many different initiatives at once? Halvorson feels the more time that passes, the more people are embracing the possibilities that lie ahead. And that, in turn, has led to a resurgence of energy and a deeper sense of what God is doing with their gifts--exactly what good stewardship is all about.

"It's really an exciting time down here," he said. "We're discovering what all good stewards are experiencing: Being a missional church in the 21st century can be quite a lot of fun!"