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Holy Spirit and intentional work have led to an attendance turnaround at Lake Bronson’s Zion Lutheran Church

By Pastor Devlyn Brooks

LAKE BRONSON, Minn. -- Synod Authorized Minister Kathy Levenhagen can’t pinpoint exactly when the attendance tide turned in Zion Lutheran Church’s favor, but she knows one thing for certain.

There wasn’t a “snap-of-the-finger” moment that magically solved their attendance issue. Rather, it was a sustained effort at ministerial outreach, mixed with the Holy Spirit’s helping hand.

On any given Sunday, Levenhagen can now look out from the pulpit to see between 20 to 25 people worshiping, even a young family with six kids that has recently begun to attend. But, for this SAM, who has served this parish for the past 11 years, she can remember Sundays when attendance might mean six people, she and the organist included.

Unlike the story playing out at many rural parishes across the country, Zion’s story isn’t one of worry and woe. In fact, when speaking about her church’s growth, you can hear the effervescent joy bubble out of Levenhagen.

“People go where there is life,” she said recently while discussing her decade-plus of ministry. “Where are people supposed to find life when you think, ‘Oh, we’re all just dying off here, and they’ll eventually close the door’? Too many churches are worried about money and the care of their cemeteries after they’re gone. But they are not worried about finding life.”

To fully appreciate both Zion and Levenhagen’s story, we first need to back up to 15 years ago when Kathy and her husband Richard’s last child went off to college.

The Levenhagens, parents of four and grandparents to 12, have called their farm near Lake Bronson home for nearly 50 years. In fact, they were married and their children were baptized in the very church where Kathy now serves as a SAM.

“Then, when our last daughter graduated, and was about to leave for college, she asked me what I was going to do with my time,” Levenhagen said. “And, I thought, ‘Good question!’”

Some might say this is where the Holy Spirit intervened.

Years earlier, while volunteering at a synod event, Levenhagen said she learned about a lay leadership initiative that interested her. The Growing in Faith to Serve (or G.I.F.T.S.) program was an ELCA leadership program, which provided a variety of ways through which lay people could serve. And after getting involved in the program, Levenhagen used what she learned to provide pulpit supply to the many surrounding rural churches.

She was moved by the experience, and found joy in being able to serve so many churches in need.

“I worked about every Sunday,” she said. “It was crazy.”

Then, several years into her ministry, her home church, Zion in Lake Bronson, found itself without a pastor. And so, emboldened by her experience preaching all over the region, Levenhagen petitioned the bishop to allow her to begin serving her home church, an unorthodox proposal at the time.

Recognizing the unique situation in such a rural area in far northern Minnesota, Northwest Minnesota Bishop Larry Wohlrabe signed off and issued a SAM contract to Levenhagen to serve the parish, including Zion and its partner, Maria Lutheran Church in Kennedy, Minn.

Broadly speaking, a SAM is a lay person authorized by the local bishop to preach and preside at communion under special circumstances and in a specific location. So, for instance, as Levenhagen points out, she isn’t authorized to preside at any churches other than her own two.

Nowadays, it’s not unusual to hear of synod leaders commissioning SAMs in churches looking for creative ways to fill their leadership gaps. In fact, under current Synod Bishop Bill Tesch, raising up locally devoted SAMs is becoming an important model for the church’s future.

But rewind a decade, and this wasn’t necessarily the case. So, in some ways, Levenhagen was at the very heart of the beginning of SAM ministry here in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod.

“If I was going to tell someone about being a SAM, I’d say that most of us live in this area where we are serving. It’s our heart’s desire that the church we attend stay open for people to worship. We have an investment,” Levenhagen said. “These are small churches that people are going to, everyone knows everyone. The culture and the grain of the people, we already have that understanding. We don’t have that crazy learning curve when other clergy leaders move into the area. So when you have a heart to serve in ministry; God is going to find a way to help you.”

Now, back to the story of Zion’s divinely inspired resurgence.

With Levenhagen firmly installed as a locally invested leader, the parish of Zion and Maria Lutheran, could focus on delivering the ministry. But even with a leader in place, growth didn’t come overnight for Zion Lutheran. In fact, for the first several years with Levenhagen in the pulpit, a good Sunday’s attendance was about 10 people.

“About six years into my ministry at Lake Bronson, I started counting, and I realized I had performed about 50 funerals in my time. I’d have three funerals in a week sometimes,” Levenhagen said. “I was talking with someone in church one day who asked where all of the people went. And I told her that they were all across the road … in the cemetery.”

Ironically though, that time frame also seemed to be a turning point for Lake Bronson. … As they say, God works in mysterious ways.

Little by little, Zion became the “Little Engine that Could” of rural ministry.

First, a neighboring church in town lost its pastor, and a few of those parishioners wandered over to Zion, and some stayed, with as many as four of them now claiming membership there. In fact, one of the new members that wandered over, a 62-year-old man who had never been baptized, asked if he could be baptized at Zion. And the resulting celebration by the congregation sprang life back into the church.

Second, during the same time, a group of Zion’s women quilters identified a few local widows whom they knew were spending a lot of time at home by themselves, and so the quilters recruited them. Even when some of the widows protested that they didn’t know anything about quilting, the quilters responded, “Then just come and have coffee and converse with us.”

And then two years ago, Levenhagen started an every-other-week story hour after school on Wednesdays in which the kids get dropped off by the school bus right at the church, then receive something to eat when they get there, and then they hear a story and usually get to participate in a related activity that ignites their imagination.

One time, to replicate the troubled waters that frightened the disciples in the boat but not Jesus who was busy in the back napping, the kids got to use straws to blow around the water in a tub full of small wooden boats built by Levenhagen’s husband, Richard. Levenhagen said the kids thought it was a hoot!

Another key to the program’s vitality is that Zion makes it intergenerational. There are retired volunteers that come to help out with the story hour, and even some of the children’s moms hang around, producing a true, multi-generational faith activity.

“When the kids come, our older folks make a special point of sharing the peace with them. Those kids are just loved on when they show up,” Levenhagen said. “They want the kids to know how much they like them to be there. If I’m a kid, no one is scowling at me, they shake my hand, I’m not a guest here. I am part of the family.”

As a result of story hour, Levenhagen said a family with six children has now started regularly attending worship and is asking about confirmation.

“All of these little things happened that gave people encouragement, gave them hope,” Levenhagen said. “We were doing more than just funerals, which showed people more was going on. Some of those things are what bring other people into church. And then, sometimes the church is the very first place where they feel they belong.”

Levenhagen is aware that Zion is defying the trends taking place all across rural ministry. Comfortably worshiping 20 to 25 on a Sunday isn’t something they take for granted. After all, it wasn’t that long ago they were worshiping less than half of that on a Sunday.

So, she said they trust in the Holy Spirit to guide them, and they work hard to provide mission and a community experience whenever and however they can.

“There’s this prevailing idea that things can only happen in a church on a Sunday,” she said. “But that’s not true. We need to be more flexible. We need to invite people to come and see, come and experience what being in a faith community can offer.”

Levenhagen said there isn’t one playbook for every church, but rather what’s important is a desire to offer hope, and then trust in what God does.

“We doubled our worship. Between 20 to 25, that’s a general Sunday average now,” she said. “In a rural church, where no one is moving into town, that’s a pretty good statistic! … Imagine if we all doubled our church!”