Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Chalmette, Louisiana lies in New Orleans’ St. Bernard Parish. Assistant to the Bishop Don Carlson and I were here last night for an exit interview. Jim Shears is retiring after over 17 years at this parish, in this parish.
After eight feet of water in Katrina, this congregation has struggled. Jim lost his house and everything in it. The synod paid his salary for two years after Katrina. When we asked the Council who had lost a home, every hand went up. Every hand. Jim now lives in Memphis. Chalmette’s population is half what it was pre-Katrina. As we drive around, everywhere there are empty slabs where houses once were.
But there are signs of hope. Houses are cheap, so young families are moving in. A significant hospital project is under way that will provide not just medical care, but also much needed jobs. Gethsemane’s preschool is growing. With 75 students (90 pre-K), they now have a waiting list, and have just added a 3-hear-old class
Gethsemane was organized in 1952 as a congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). In 1978 the congregation, under the leadership of LCMS pastor Walt Schindehedde, left the LCMS and joined the AELC (Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches), which later joined in the merger that formed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Jim Shears was also LCMS. In 1993 he became ELCA and was called to serve Gethsemane, which eventually became the largest ELCA congregation in the New Orleans’ area, growing from 520 to 750, 1993-2005. Then Katrina hit.
“Pastor Jim turned us into an outwardly-focused church,” says a member of the Congregation Council. “We’re known as a place to turn to for help.” Situated on the main drag, they’re well-known in town. “Now we have to rebuild our capacity.” There is an uphill climb yet. They’re still not meeting their expenses without outside help, even though their building is paid off and they have no debt. When 2/3 of your congregation leaves, you have to start over and rebuild from the ground up.
They’re not the only ones. There used to be seven Catholic Churches in this heavily Catholic area. Now there are three: Our Lady of Prompt Succor, Our Lady of Lourdes (across the river) and historic St. Bernard.
We will place an interim pastor immediately, then help them apply for a redevelopment grant. Then they can get a redeveloper or a first call pastor. After a pastor with 17-years’ tenure, the next pastorate is often not long, an unintentional interim. So they either have a long, intentional interim, or they’ll have a short next pastorate, or a redeveloper. In either case, I trust that the Spirit that brought them this far will lead them into engaging ministry in this place where they are more needed than ever.