May 29, 2013

A Wisconsin congregation with a vision

English Lutheran Church, a 115-year-old congregation located in the heart of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, has a clear vision for where it’s headed. In fact, the congregation transformed its church council into a “vision board.” Separate small leadership teams are empowered to make administrative decisions without vision board approval so that the larger board can focus more fully on what God is calling the congregation to be and to do.

With a growing number of young families with children, English Lutheran knew it needed more modern fellowship and education spaces. Deteriorating pipes had made the bathroom in the 50-year-old education wing unusable. The church kitchen was dated. The education spaces were too small to accommodate the congregation’s large Sunday school and confirmation class sizes. And the fellowship hall was located at the far end of the building, discouraging newcomers and members with mobility issues from attending coffee hour.

In creating a master plan for pursuing its mission, English Lutheran’s vision board met with Mission Investment Fund Church Building Consultant Director Patricia Dever to discuss options for improving its building. “Pat walked us through the different financial scenarios. She gave us the confidence that we had the means we needed to move forward with a major project,” said English Lutheran’s pastor, the Rev. Mark Solyst.

Ultimately, the congregation added more than 5,000 square feet of new space and renovated existing spaces. The project includes a new fellowship hall adjacent to the sanctuary, new education spaces, a new kitchen, new bathrooms, a new entry and a new music and youth room. There’s also a special room designed for use by a number of community groups.

Architecturally, the church’s exterior, with a soaring steeple, blends into the surrounding neighborhood of large historic homes. “We wanted to be a good neighbor from a design perspective,” says Bill Newburg, chair of English Lutheran’s finance committee. “Our new building was designed to fit into the neighborhood just like the homes do.”

To finance the project, English Lutheran chose the Mission Investment Fund, the same organization that helped it think through its building options. “We were delighted to go with MIF because they’re a ministry of the church,” Pastor Solyst explains. “We felt we were dealing with our brothers and sisters in the church, all working toward the same goal. It was a unique and refreshing experience.”

Using MIF also saved English Lutheran money, because MIF has fewer fees– and offers more assistance – than other lenders. “A church doesn’t have its own legal expertise,” Pastor Solyst says. “It was comforting to have MIF say, ‘we can help you with that’ with difficult things along the way.” Bill Newburg agrees. “MIF has been a partner with us,” Newburg says. “They’re church people and they’re willing to work with churches on what they do.”