On Sunday, July 12, 2015, the first congregation I was called to serve as pastor, Emanuel's Lutheran Church, Bellevue (Pittsburgh), PA, will be closing its doors. Technically-speaking the congregation itself has (as of the end of June) merged with another small parish in a nearby borough, but for all intents and purposes the building that housed this once-vibrant congregation of Lutherans will be shut down and will not be a house of worship for the people that built it and derived identity from it.
The Congregation Council of Emanuel's is holding a celebration service to mark this occasion and invited all former pastors and members to attend, if possible. Due to other duties on my calendar, I am unable to attend, but it was suggested that I write a letter that could be read aloud at their gathering. Below is the letter I wrote. I share it here for the sake of anyone who was part of the Emanuel's extended family who also could not attend, that they may read it and hear how grateful my family is for the ministry we shared there.
I also share it for the sake of anyone who has gone through or might go through a congregation closing. I imagine we'll be seeing quite a few more of these in the coming years. According to many statistics, nine congregations close each week across the United States. Congregation closings are difficult to do and they are difficult to talk about. However, I believe that it is important to acknowledge the life that a congregation once gave to particular community and its members. Likewise, it is vital to remember that God is always present in the midst of difficulty, raising up hope and vision for God's people.
Like most of you, I am deeply saddened that Emanuel’s will be closing its doors and no longer serving as a place of worship for a congregation that I deeply love, a congregation that not too long ago celebrated its centennial in Bellevue. There is something inside of each of us that tells us congregations are not supposed to close. They are places of such life, after all: wellsprings that nurture the young, challenge the faithful, and comfort the aged. There is something that disturbs and depresses us about an organ no longer being played, a font no longer being filled with water, a door of welcome no longer being opened to the lost and the lonely. For this reason and many more, this occasion must feel like a funeral.
I know that for my family, especially, this day is a very sad one. I met Melinda in this place. I asked her to marry me in the narthex one evening. Neither of us will ever forget the sight of Jack Grimes walking Melinda down that long, sloping aisle on the day we announced our engagement in front of the congregation. In October of 2005 we exchanged vows at the altar, and within the span of just a few years we had our two daughters baptized here. Now it is highly likely that we will never be able to return to this particular building that is so sacred to our family. What would the Martins' lives be like without the faithful people of Emanuel’s who welcomed us, gave us a spiritual home, and formed us in our early married life? We will always be indebted to this congregation for the ways in which you loved us. But as disheartened as Melinda and I are, I can’t imagine how the rest of you feel who have seen your children raised here, confirmed here, and maybe even married here. I can’t imagine how sad this must be for anyone who came here each week with the expectation they would encounter Christ again.
Additionally, you were the congregation that took a chance on a young seminarian out of the south. You called me to serve among you, but pretty quickly I realized the Holy Spirit had really sent me to Bellevue to be your student. You were experts at teaching me about God’s grace and the joy of following Jesus. You opened your hearts and lives to me, modeling patience amidst crisis and generosity amidst hard times. I will always remember celebrating kids’ birthdays in the social hall downstairs, playing VBS games out on the lawn, and many, many good Pittsburgh meals from the kitchen. For all of this I thank you.
But, as I said, you were my teachers, and one of the things you taught me was that Christ grants us the insight to see possibilities where we see only death, and that the Spirit opens our eyes to laughter and life where we might only sense doom and gloom. So, even in this sadness and loss, I hope you can still teach one another this lesson. I hope that God can open your hearts once again to realize, as the old Sunday School song goes, that “a church is not a steeple, nor a resting place…the church is a people.” This particular place may no longer be “in service,” but the people of God are never, ever out of service.
With that in mind, I hope that you see you are being presented with a choice in this situation: going forward, do you venture out and find another congregation in which to share your gifts, thereby showing the world that you follow Jesus, the crucified and risen One, the one who brings new life through his body’s presence in the world…or do you stay at home on the Lord’s Day from now on and withhold your gifts from God’s people, thereby showing the world that for all these years you were just worshiping a building? I know it may be somewhat out-of-line for a student and former pastor to pose such a question to his teacher, especially because you’ve given so much of your time, talent, and treasure to these walls. Nevertheless, I feel it is my duty today. And I ask it with the confidence that the Emanuel’s people I knew and loved would find this to be an easy choice. The Emanuel’s people who strengthened my faith for almost six years knew that death was the place precisely where new life began.
You will be in my family’s prayers today and on the coming Sunday mornings. I know it will be hard to bear, but please trust that the God of new beginnings will be with you. After all, that is exactly what the word Emanuel means. It is Hebrew for “God is with us.”
Yours in Christ’s service.