Area churches plan to merge congregations

by SEAN KEENEHAN

Our Savior Lutheran Church, 6009 N. Northcott Ave., and Saint John Lutheran Church, 7429 N. Milwaukee Ave., Niles, have announced that they will merge to form one congregation in 2016.

The new congregation will meet at Saint John Lutheran, and the church will be called Ascension Lutheran Church.

The idea to merge came from discussions that Saint John pastor the Reverend Matthew Gunia and Our Savior pastor the Reverend Eric Carlson had about the struggles of their congregations, including financial concerns and the small number of people in each congregation.

"Through talks we started looking at combining our resources, the people, the talent, and the finances, and we thought it would be much easier to have one building to focus on," Carlson said. "The buildings are very expensive, and so it started to make sense that if we were to have one building and used the money for missions out of one location it would be much more effective.

"The idea is that one of the properties would be sold and the proceeds from that would be used to update the other facility. The hardest decision was which building we would meet in and which one would be sold."

Carlson said that Saint John Lutheran provides the best opportunity to the church community for missions and outreach and that it was selected due to its high-visibility location on Milwaukee Avenue, its handicapped accessibility, and the existence of a gymnasium and a closed school on the grounds that once operated as Saint John Lutheran Day School.

The school was in operation from 1860 until it closed in 1997 due to low enrollment. During the school’s final year there was a total of 28 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

The Saint John gymnasium is being used by local sports teams for league play. Carlson said that there are plans to establish day care and a pre-school, and that the building’s classrooms will be used for Sunday school and adult bible studies and that it will be available for use by community groups.

The school requires improvements in order to meet the building code, with funds coming from the sale of Our Savior and lower expenses due to the merger, Carlson said.

All members of the congregations, including children, had an opportunity to submit ideas for a name for the new church. A panel of five area pastors narrowed a list of 70 names to five, and the final decision was based on voting by the congregation members. "It’s sort of a hopeful name of our ascended lord looking over us, leading us, guiding us and that, as Christians, we too will ascend with him," Carlson said.

"This is truly a merger to a new congregation," Carlson said. "It’s going to have a new constitution, new leaders, a new name. It’s not simply one church absorbing another.

"We’re trying to do that so we can have a new focus and a new energy. The good traditions of the past will come, but then we also are going to not be bound by an old way of thinking."

The merger is expected to be completed in June of 2016, and due to the small size of the combined congregation, which Carlson estimates to be around 80 members, only one pastor will be selected for the new church. Carlson said that the process is not competitive and that the pastors are waiting to see who gets a call first from another church to become its pastor. Whoever remains will become the pastor of Ascension, and Carlson said that he hopes that a decision will be made by the fall.

"It’s been a very good process, difficult emotionally, but everyone has been really looking at the higher purpose and the higher good going through this," Carlson said. "Our focus has been on serving the community and on missions and outreach, and our decisions have been made with putting those things as the higher priority."

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