April 8, 2014

Transforming a Montessori school into a Lutheran community

Fifty original members of an ELCA congregation in Southlake, Texas, chose to remain with the ELCA when their congregation made the decision to leave the church in 2010. So, with guidance from their synod, these intrepid 50 began the long process of starting anew as a “new wine” ministry. They call themselves “Abiding Grace.”

“These are life-long Lutherans,” says the Rev. Nick Billardello, pastor of Abiding Grace, “and they were concerned with the path their former congregation was going.” They were also concerned with losing the community that being a part of a worldwide organization gave them. “Lutherans are designed to be together, to work together,” Pastor Billardello says. Though new wine ministries present challenges in starting up, the Abiding Grace congregation remembered to let the Holy Spirit guide it. “I never felt we would fail,” says Pastor Billardello. “We just continued doing what God was calling us to do.”

Their first task was finding a place to worship. One member, when out for a drive, saw a building with a gym and decided to inquire about renting the site. She had stumbled on the local Montessori school, and the administrator met her with open arms. When the congregation began renting the space, it seemed huge, reflects Pastor Billardello. “We never thought we would fill the space, but as we continued to grow it became the perfect size. Now it is actually limiting.”

Meanwhile, Abiding Grace began working on a capital campaign with the Stewardship Key Leader (SKL) ministry, now a part of the Mission Investment Fund. SKL helps congregations raise funds for capital projects with a five-phase program that includes on-site visits and consultation with SKL experts who understand the unique needs of a congregation. “Each SKL team member has development experience with non-profits,” says the Rev. Kathy Haueisen, SKL director, “and nine of the 10 consultants are ELCA pastors.” 

MIF and SKL work to keep these services affordable. “Our fee is based on the size of the congregation, the number of current baptized members,” explains Pastor Haueisen. This fair-fee policy and SKL’s special knowledge of the needs of congregations helped Abiding Grace make the decision to work with this ministry. This decision was rewardedwith results. “MIF has been there for us since the beginning, which really helped reduce anxiety,” says Rev. Billardello. “MIF helped us when we were looking at property, helped us decide the best location to position our sign and gave us many other tips.”

The funds from Abiding Grace’s capital campaign made the congregation eligible for an MIF loan. When the Montessori school went up for sale in 2011, the congregation’s search for a permanent home began in earnest. Soon, it became clear that the school was where they wanted to stay.

Abiding Grace applied a portion of the capital campaign funds to the down payment on the property and supplemented that with an MIF loan. Abiding Grace was able to use the balance of capital campaign funds to renovate the buildings. An old farmhouse that served as the school’s administration building now houses church offices and a kitchen. The former garage is now a conference which contained a stage, continues to serve as the sanctuary; but by lowering the front of the stage, the congregation created a chancel for the altar, leaving raised areas in the back for the choir and bell choir.

Abiding Grace has done much work on many levels to succeed. “We realize that it’s not just about our church, it’s about doing God’s work,” the pastor says. The congregation decided early to make service a priority, and they joyfully put their space and their members to work to help the community. “When people are in need, we want them to think of Abiding Grace,” the pastor says. Many of their projects depend on the changing needs of the community and local shelter. Others are more regular: pot lucks and barbeques, free ballroom dancing on Sunday afternoons, an annual banquet for Special Olympics athletes, and an annual Day of Service—all friends welcome.

Having seen the grace that comes with a little investment in faith, Pastor Billardello encourages other congregations to work with SKL and MIF. “We have been very happy with the way the program was run. We built a strong relationship with the team member we worked with, and I’m sure the others at MIF are just as wonderful. The most important part of working with MIF was that MIF invested in our ministry. MIF was willing to do whatever it took to make our ministry successful.”