June 3, 2016

Restoring luster to a place of grace and welcome in the South

“The renovation of our current facility will support our mission to present and future generations ... Our goal is bold and challenging, just like the gospel we proclaim!”

With that proclamation at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Atlanta, the capital campaign was on!

Founded by German faithful in 1869, St. John’s is the oldest Lutheran congregation in Atlanta. Nearly 100 years—and several site moves—later, the congregation settled into a new home in Stonehenge Mansion in the Druid Hills section of the city, purchased for an amazing price in 1959. A new sanctuary, with a central altar, was added to the existing structure a decade later.

“This beautiful building, an old icon of the South, has been transformed into a place of grace and welcome,” says The Rev. Philip Reitz, a consultant with MIF Capital Campaign Services (CCS), which directed St. John’s campaign. “Now this is where ministry happens.”

The impressive, stately facade and interior spaces belie the true condition of the buildings, which are in need of much repair. St. John’s turned to MIF Capital Campaign Services to consult on the project. “When I first came and met with the congregation’s church council, I saw their passion. I saw their commitment,” Pastor Reitz recalls. “ ‘Our needs are significant,’ the members told me. ‘We must make this happen!’ ”

The Rev. Nancy Christensen, lead pastor called to the congregation only a few short years ago, proved to be a decisive leader for this fundraising effort. She entered discussions with MIF CCS in the fall of 2015, and she was adamant that the capital campaign be completed before Christmas. An aggressive time frame, to be sure. “It was an adventure,” recalls Pastor Reitz with a smile.

On Commitment Sunday, December 13—only six weeks after introducing the capital effort to the members— pledges poured in. The church not only met its initial goal of $650,000, but surpassed it by $20,000 on that very first Commitment Sunday. Another $100,000 in pledges has rolled in during the intervening months.

“This has been a tremendous outpouring of generosity by the congregation. It was above and beyond what we expected,” Pastor Christensen says joyfully. “Among the members, there is a great sense that we can make a difference. That came into play in this capital campaign.” She was particularly touched by initial, lead gifts by members, significant gifts made by the young adults of the church, and contributions from former members and friends outside the congregation.

Work already is under way in the main building to shore up the buckling grand staircase, refurbish the tall foyer windows and repair plaster after water damage. The sanctuary, too, will be refreshed with new floor coverings and refurbished seating.

This is simply the beginning of restoration; there is more to come. “We are being good stewards of the funds that have been given to us,” says Pastor Christensen. “But we haven’t been shy about telling folks that more work needs to be done.” Additional capital campaigns may provide the funding.

“This capital campaign has allowed us to make repairs to provide a safe place to do ministry,” says Pastor Christensen. “Our cold-weather shelter is on the second floor, but when our stairway was falling in, we had to turn away some folks. That was a problem for us. Now, with repairs made, we can offer a safe place for the community to gather. We’re becoming a venue for community events and weddings, and we hope we can do more of that.”

In addition to offering the “freeze” shelter during Atlanta’s cold winter months, the good people of St. John’s reach out lovingly to their community in many ways. St. John’s is the “pea-nut-butter-and-jelly and pasta-and-sauce” church for a local collaborative ministry providing food and clothing to low-income families. Once each month at St. John’s, members bring sandwich fixings and prepare sandwiches for those in need in the neighborhood. During the summer months, the congregation prepares lunches for school-age children who may not be getting nutritious meals while they are not in school. Before Thanksgiving, members host a special market, offering food for neighborhood families’ Thanksgiving feasts.

The congregation supports a refugee organization and provides tutoring and other assistance to sponsored refugee families. St. John’s is especially welcoming to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender individuals, supporting local LGBT groups and participating in key events.

It’s difficult to imagine that just a few short years ago, as Pastor Christensen was called to this congregation, members were considering selling the beautiful, historic buildings and moving to a new spiritual home. “We spent a year discerning our value to the community. We listened to our neighbors. We heard loud and clear that we do have an important place in this neighborhood, the community wants us here, and what we do matters.” That realization prompted congregational zeal to improve the gracious buildings.

Says Pastor Reitz: “This is God’s spirit at work—amazing people doing amazing things.”