May 28, 2014

The power of dreaming big

Every week, senior citizens with dementia or physical impairments gather in one of the large new classrooms at Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Barrington, Illinois. There, the seniors play games, make friends and reminisce, while their caregivers get some much-needed time alone to work, run errands and recharge. It’s just one of the ways Atonement’s massive renovation project – which included this classroom space – is enabling the congregation to better serve its community.

Since seven families founded this congregation in 1961, Atonement has grown to worship more than 400 people in three weekly services. But its aging building “looked more like a bunker,” says Atonement’s senior pastor, the Rev. Don Wink. “We needed to open up our view to and of the world.”

Atonement’s old narthex was also about four times smaller than the congregation needed. Its day school needed more space. Its choir and other musicians had no place to practice before services. (The drummer for its contemporary worship service practiced by drumming on a notepad in the hallway in order to keep the noise down.) The building’s air conditioners couldn’t run at the sametime without blowing a fuse. Parking wasn’t ample either. “For new people, if there’s no place to park, they won’t come in,” Pastor Wink explains.

Despite the congregation’s reluctance to take on debt – and despite the economic downturn of 2008 – Atonement decided to dream big, undertaking a massive, two-phase renovation of its building.

Phase 1 of the project added the new narthex and center entrance to the church as well as designated music rooms, Sunday school classrooms and office space. It also tripled the size of the parking lot. The congregation was planning to take a break between phases, but the initial project galvanized it. “The biggest impact of the building project was that we did it,” says Pastor Wink. “It transformed us from a church that couldn’t get big things done to one that could.”

So Atonement decided to seize the momentum the building project had brought it and proceed immediately with Phase 2, adding space to the day school as well as a large multipurpose room and a designated room for its high school-age youth. “To do two major building projects in a recession? Either we were really inspired or really crazy . . . or both,” Pastor Wink says.

The Mission Investment Fund worked with Atonement throughout both phases of the project. “Local banks, Thrivent and MIF all wanted to work with us,” says Pastor Wink. “MIF was the most competitive in every way. Their terms were the best. Their flexibility was the greatest.” And MIF’s commitment didn’t end with the financing. “MIF was very interested in how we were using our new space for mission and ministry,” says Atonement’s Parish Administrator Director Pam Loden.

Upon completing the renovations, Atonement experienced two straight years of increases in first-time visitors at every Sunday service. And its expanded space is enabling the congregation to serve the community in ways it couldn’t before, like the “Day Out” program it’s offering seniors in need of respite care. The congregation has also hosted a wellness fair, a marriage seminar and teen dances in its multipurpose room. It is renting affordable space to community groups for rehearsals and athletic events. And every Christmas, it offers its new narthex space to families of children with autism so the kids can pose for photos with Santa away from the overstimulation and unfamiliarity of the mall.

“The new building has allowed us to become much more visible,” Loden says. “We’re using the new space for the kingdom and the community.”