15 February 2007

Little Church in K-Town

I’m unexpectedly proud of the little church we attend, Kaiserslautern Evangelical Lutheran Church. It’s a Lutheran church for English-speakers, mostly Americans with some connection to the military here. It’s been here in some form or another since the late eighties. When we first started attending, nearly two years ago, it had been without a pastor for several months. Because of its small size, KELC can’t really afford to pay a full-time pastor. So it has hired a succession of retired pastors from the States, giving them the use of a small apartment, with a half-time salary and the hours to go with it. Despite the small salary, the position is fairly attractive for adventurous retirees who would like to live in and travel in Europe for a few years.

But last year, the church decided instead to hire the pastor who was filling in for us, who just happened to be the full-time pastor of the German Lutheran church where we meet. He is an American who married a German and has lived here for about 15 years. With the permission of the German congregation, he took on our congregation, too.

It’s a good match, I think. And hopefully a bit more permanent than the few years that an American retiree could reasonably be expected to stay. With this decision, however, came another question: what should the church do with the apartment and office space it’s been renting for at least 10 years?

The current pastor doesn’t need it. He already has the parsonage connected to the German church, as well as his own office. KELC uses the apartment perhaps once every few months as a meeting space. Other than that, it is glorified storage, and for not very many things, at that.

We’re progressing rather slowly in deciding for sure what should be done, but it looks like we’ll let some or all of the space go. We could keep it if we wanted—the money is there.

In fact, the only problem concerning money for this church (other than that it’s woefully disorganized) is figuring out what to do with it. Yes, it is a small congregation. But the expenses are small, too. We meet in the sanctuary of the German church, and for what is really a nominal fee plus sharing a few expenses, like altar candles. We have a part-time pastor, but because of German tax regulation concerning second jobs, we can’t pay him what we would have paid someone from the States. The biggest budget decision to be made at the last members’ meeting was which charities the church should contribute to.

That in itself is refreshing. A church that isn’t short of money. But here’s the other thing—even though we have the money to keep the church office and apartment, many of the members would rather give up the space. Why spend thousands of dollars a year to keep a barely-used office? We could be giving it to Orphan Grain Train (through which we support a Russian orphanage) or Lutheran World Relief. Or to the German church to help fix their aging roof or paint their sanctuary.

By contrast, a number of years back we attended a church that met in a high school auditorium. It was small, too. It was also short of money, given that rent and a pastor’s salary were both much higher there. But still, for a good number of members, the burning question was, “When are we going to get a building?”
Granted, the situation was a bit different. The ushers for each week did more than collect the offering. They arrived a half-hour early so they could unpack “church” from the storage closet and set it up: a rolling wooden altar, a sound system (which was stored inside the altar), banners to lighten up the dark space. And after the service, it took another half-hour to put it all away again. A bit of hard work that never went away.

So we don’t have that here. We meet in a lovely church already, and everything is already set up. But still. There does not seem to be the yearning for “space of our own.” Even though we fit our service times around those of the German church. Even though everyone here is a transplant.

I’m not sure why the attitude is different. Perhaps because most members are not here for the long term, it is easier to hold things with a lighter grasp, and even let them go. But I like what members are saying, and what their priorities seem to be: not “growing the church,” but being here for those who need us, and using our money to make a difference to those who need it.

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