Pastor, St. Luke's Lutheran Church of Logan Square
“As we look at this change in front of us, what do we need to hold onto so that we don’t lose ourselves?”
Pastor Erik Christensen was ordained and called to serve as pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square in October, 2006. Prior to that, Erik worked as a youth advocate and community organizer with and for runaway, homeless and street-dependent youth.
In October, 2010 Pastor Erik was received onto the clergy roster of the ELCA. Prior to that he had been credentialed by Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM) and served as Co-Chair of their governing body. ELM works to expand ministry opportunities for publicly identified LGBTQ rostered leaders and seminarians who are changing the church and society through their ministry. (Source: St. Luke’s website)
We talk in the middle aisle of the sanctuary of St. Luke’s. Erik later describes our conversation on Facebook:
“What was originally intended to be a conversation about how a congregation makes the decision to sell its property bloomed into a conversation about the relationship between vision and value, the challenges of negotiating change and honoring tradition, the grief of leaving our homes and the new life that waits on the other side of those decisions, and my understanding of the sacraments and the resurrection of Jesus.”
Before I came to St. Luke’s in 2006, they had just passed their centennial, and there had been a very intentional conversation about, will this ministry continue? They were receiving advice from representatives of the national church body who’d conducted a feasibility assessment for redevelopment at this site. The advice they were getting was, it’s been a good run; you’ve had a century of ministry in this neighborhood. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. We can help you kind of have a good death.
Half of the people who were here at that time thought that that was wise, and about half disagreed. And when they put it to a vote, those who wanted to continue won the vote by a margin. A very thin one. Most of those who felt like it was time to close left. They had sold the parsonage, which, for almost a century, had been church property. They were able to sell it before the housing market crashed, so they actually got a good price for it and were able to use that money to put a new roof on, to buy a new boiler and make sure they didn’t get hit with any unexpected capital expenses.
With the remainder, they opened up a call for a full-time pastor to come help them redevelop themselves. Essentially, they had self-funded a redevelopment. When I arrived, there were about 12 members in their sixties, seventies and eighties.
There’s something about that number 12 that I can’t put my finger on.
(Laughs) That’s right, it’s shown up in lots of sermons. We’ve talked about how 12 is a good number to start with.
How did they find you for this job? Or did you find them?
They found me. They were looking for a pastor to come and lead them, and I was looking for a congregation, and both of us were having trouble for a variety of reasons. With so few people and such limited resources, the word was that this was kind of a nonviable situation. My situation was that I had finished my seminary education and my internship, but I had been removed from the ELCA’s [Evangelical Lutheran Church of America] candidacy process for being openly gay.
Our denomination would change its policy about LGBT people serving in ministry in 2009, but I was wrapping up my education in 2004. So this congregation was struggling to find a pastor, and they got a postcard in the mail one day from this organization saying, would you be open to looking at LGBT candidates in your next call process? And they said, Well, nobody wants to be our pastor and nobody seems to want these pastors. You know, maybe there’s a fit here.
They needed somebody with all of the skills and background that come from a seminary education in terms of interpretation of Scripture and knowledge of history and tradition and practice with arts of worship, but they also needed someone with an entrepreneurial side [who could say] here’s how you build something when there’s nothing around. Here’s how you look at a situation, and rather than see the deficit, find the asset and start building on what you have rather than rehearsing the story of what you don’t have.
How large is the congregation now, nine years later?
We have about 120 members now, up from 12. However, the definition of “regular attendance” has changed a lot over the decades. Our average worship attendance on a Sunday morning might float between 50 and 75.
How much of your own measure of success is connected to the numbers?
Well, the question of how you connect success to numbers is so tricky. Because growth is positive. Not all growth is sustainable. And not every increase in numbers represents a lasting growth. Do I want our congregation to grow? Yeah. I want it to grow in trust and in deepening commitment to one another and to the needs of our neighbors, and I want that to be done in a way that’s transparent and honest and attractive enough that other people say, “I’ve wanted that too. I’m going to go check them out.” That kind of growth is great.
But if growth just means how many people come on a Sunday morning and does the money that they give allow us to continue to do what we’ve always done, I’m not interested in that kind of growth. Because so quickly, that kind of growth becomes about justifying what we’ve always done as the end toward which we should always be moving. That kind of growth sucks out of the room the impetus to ask the question, what’s needed now?
Two weeks ago now, it was January 25th, we took a vote. The issue was whether or not the congregation would authorize our council, our board of directors, to list this property for sale. This property that has been, in one form or another, part and parcel of our congregation’s life since 1900. What drove the timing on that vote was the unsustainability of our assets and the burden of this property. This property has about a half a million dollars in deferred maintenance.
As we’ve grown, the local regional Chicago expression of our church, and the national church have seen that growth, even among young adults, which is kind of a coveted community of people in churches, and they’ve said they wanted to support us in that. They wanted to learn from that and understand what are the ingredients that have made that work? But also, they can’t just underwrite this in an open-ended way.
They said, “You get a grant for the next three, and there will be pretty severe step-downs each year. Let’s see what kind of growth that grant gives you. With that amount of time, can you come to a place of self-sufficiency?”
We continued to grow, and that support continued to decline, and the question was, “Are we going to get there? Are we going to get to the place where we’re able to sustain this before the support runs out?” By early 2014, we could tell we weren’t going to get there. Then we had to ask ourselves, so what does that mean? Does that mean we failed? We’ve gone from these 12 members who held on when they were told that you should shut down to over 100 people who are gathering on a regular basis for worship and service and care and education. Is that a failure, because we didn’t get there?
At some point, people began to ask, “Well, when did we decide that a successful redevelopment meant that success will mean we find a way to go back to the way things used to be? And what does it mean to be sustainable? Is it possible that there’s actually already enough people and there’s already enough money for us to be together in a sustainable way? And which of our practices are at the heart of who we think we are as a congregation, and which ones are the ones that we’re doing because they were happening when we got here and we just sort of picked them up?
So we started a listening campaign, kind of used some of those community organizing tools, sitting down with people one on one and then in small groups and then in town halls, asking the question, “What makes us us?” And not, “What makes us a church?” or “What makes us Lutheran?” We wanted to know, what are the distinctive marks of who we are? And as we look at this change in front of us, what do we need to hold onto so that we don’t lose ourselves?
We saw themes bubbling up as we looked at all these interviews with all these people. They were saying, “This is a congregation that’s open to everybody regardless of their station in life. So whatever we do next, it better express that value.” We had people saying, “This is a congregation that’s working really hard to follow Jesus, so we need to know who Jesus is so that we can understand how and where Jesus lives in the world.” And they were saying, “This is a congregation that’s progressive, so we’re still interested in these ancient questions, and we’re open to answering them in new ways.”And they said that “the things that we say and do on Sunday morning shape what we say and do as a congregation in the public square throughout the week.”
What they did not say was, “We worship in this beautiful room.” It was like a loud silence, you know? I mean, the room did come up. People were saying things like, “It’s a beautiful room, I love it. But we could be us somewhere else.”
So as we sat with those answers, the council said, “What do you want us to look at? Do you want us to go explore what it would look like to sell our property? Do you want us to explore what it would look like for us to reduce our staff? Do you want us to make plans for this congregation to close, basically kind of run the clock out on this current model?” We serve on behalf of you, so what do you want us to be exploring for you? And we did a non-binding vote. Over 90% of the congregation said, “Give us options around selling.”
Do you think you could find that it’s possible to be more authentically who you are without this building?
(Pause. Laughs.) You know, the temptation is to answer that question yes. Like, yes, if we step forward into this new reality where we realign our assets around this conversation about values, we could be more who we are, we could be truer to who we are. I think there’s a huge temptation to say that the answer to that is yes.
What I’d rather say is, we have been who we are here. We weren’t any less ourselves here. This space shaped us and we shaped it, and we got a lot of use out of each other. This space got a lot of use out of us, and we got a lot of use out of it. It was a place that let us grow into who we’ve now become, and now we’re this people, and this people has to ask the question, how will we use our assets in service of our vision and mission?
My understanding is that this building is not a landmark, which means it could be razed and become a Walgreen’s.
Do you all have any feeling of responsibility to the past 100 years?
Hmm. Yeah. Yeah, there’s a difference of opinion within our community about what the responsibility is, too. For some in the community, it’s very important that this space remain a house of worship, and that as we explore potential buyers, that we prioritize congregations who would retain its use as a house of worship. For others, there’s a sense that actually, this neighborhood is kind of saturated with buildings that were built in the early 20th century as houses of worship, but that they exist in an environment where fewer people actually affiliate with religious community, and there’s a misalignment between the number of structures and the number of people.
In that environment, you might ask the question, how does this land get used in ways that support the values that have been kind of native to this land for the last century? So there you hear questions about, could we, as sellers, privilege proposals that would retain it as affordable housing?
Where will you go?
I don’t know. I don’t know. And so in that environment of unknowing, there’s a real draw to a firm answer. People would love me to say, okay folks, here’s where we’re headed, and I’ve heard people say like, how can we vote on leaving the building when we haven’t been given a compelling vision of where we’re headed next? I believe that any attempt right now to offer that vision is really just kind of an illusion masquerading as a certainty.
Have your thoughts ever drifted toward the last service?
In this space? Yeah. I think about what a leave-taking from this space would look like. I remember when I was in ninth grade, my family sold my childhood home. It was a huge house on a block full of little bungalows. We were a family of four in a really big house. It took a lot of work. Every summer my dad was putting us to work, scraping the paint off and painting again, just caring for and maintaining this beautiful old house. Then at some point, as I was moving into high school and my sister was moving into junior high, they could see the empty nest coming and realized, we have way too much house. The sensible thing to do is to move to a smaller house.
But it was so painful. Yeah. For all of us, I think. This was the house where I’d had my first pet dog. This was the house where my adopted sister, who came from Thailand, had first experienced snow. How could we still be us when all those memories are wrapped up in this place? I remember, I wrote a letter to the people who bought our house. (Long pause. His eyes tear.)
It is clearly a powerful memory for you. Do you connect that story to leaving here?
I think I choose that memory because, as a professional, there’s a desire to frame things in terms of profit and loss and bottom lines and making the wise choice. In some contexts, you would just look at [our congregation’s situation] and say, “do we buy or do we sell? What’s good for the bottom line, what’s good for the shareholder?”
But when I think about the woman who has brought her grandchildren to Christmas Eve worship here for the last 30 years, I can’t approach this leave-taking like it’s just a matter of what’s best for the bottom line. We all struggle with that desire to be practical, the desire to be efficient. I remember what it was like to be a little boy leaving my home and thinking, strangers are going to be in this house. You know? Strangers are going to be in my house. Yeah. I don’t even remember what was in the letter. I think it just said something like, “I loved this house, please take care of it.”
We can love a place, and our emotional connections to those places are important because important things happened there, but don’t confuse those emotions with a sense of ultimacy, that this is the only place that those things can happen. I loved that house. I wept when we left. And then we had a good life somewhere else, right?
Is there an object from this church that you’d like to take with you when you go?
We have this Biblical story of Moses leading the people through the wilderness and the Ark of the Covenant, and the question of what goes in the ark. This is where we put the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and the things that remind us, as we move through a foreign landscape, of who we are. So I think part of what goes in the Ark for us are these conversations that we had about, who are we? What makes us us, and what has to continue in order for us not to lose ourselves in the wilderness? Yeah, so I think those conversations and those statements of memory and of value, those have to go with us.
What about for you, personally? Is there a little souvenir you’ll take?
I want one good picture, like the good, old- time photos when everybody stood out in front of the church so you capture that moment in time. You can say, “This is who we were in 2015, and this was our home.”