Beautiful morning for a drive across Texas.
This morning I left the house around six for the 2 1/2 hour trek across East Texas to Trinity Lutheran Church in Orange, Texas. In some ways being a bishop is like being on a Lutheran Youth Encounter team. Itinerant. Going from church to church, wanting only to serve in a way that supports the mission of Christ.
Founded 1907, Trinity is in the Golden Triangle, a group of towns forming a triangle in an oil-rich industrial area. Dupont used to bring Northerners down in droves. No more. Beaumont is the largest with a population of 132,000. Port Arthur, Bridge City and Orange form the rest. We have ELCA congregations in all these towns, once, many had 150 in worship. Now all are struggling with less than 50.
Trinity was served by LCMS pastors till 1929, but never became a member of LCMS. This was Ray Flachmeier’s first call: ’60-66. Carroll Shaddock grew up here. Deaconess Pat Gordon served here in the mid-nineties. Mother Petrulah (an Episcopalian priest) served here, and Pastor Cindy Beck. They historically sent kids to Lutherhill and Chrysallis.
Until recently, Trinity, Orange shared a pastor (guitar-playing Tim Norris) with a congregation across the state line, St. Paul in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Due to financial reasons they backed out of this relationship, and have contracted with Synodically Authorized Lay Minister Paul Zoch, who serves St. Mark’s, Bridge City, TX, also in the Golden Triangle. These three congregations each have about 30 in worship on an average Sunday.
I was invited for their leadership’s visioning day. We began with breakfast at 8:30. I could have come yesterday and stayed the night. I have a budget for such things, but I don’t use it much. I like sleeping in my own bed, and I’m an early riser. So, a cup of coffee and I’m off. I think of early Methodist circuit riders getting on their horses week after week to visit congregations. I have it easy in my air-conditioned car.
Trinity’s “Visionquest” as they called it, began after a big breakfast of stories and ice breaking. A dozen people—a few life-long members, four from one family. We read together Acts 2:42 ff three times. The mission of the church was the topic: marks of an outwardly-focused church. They talked about awe, devotion to the apostles’ teaching, daily prayer and communion, sharing possessions, radical generosity. What would that look like here?
We shared stories and strategies for small congregation outreach. I asked questions about their past. They shared frustration with former pastors and the synod. Then we talked about the future.
Getting beyond institutional survival to the space where all the energy is outwardly focused on serving and evangelism is a struggle for congregations of any size. Naming the struggle is a vital first step. It will be interesting to watch Trinity over the next five years to see what happens.