Interest Time, LCEF News

The Tiny Church That Never Gave Up

January 8, 2018 | Posted by LCEF

Prior to the turn of the century, New Life Church Lutheran in Hugo, Minn., was hurting. A decade of hard times had worn out the church, the congregation and the community. In 2003, the Minnesota South District installed retired pastor Rev. John Schildwachter to help rebuild the church.

Schildwachter, who volunteered to forgo his salary, agreed to commit five years to help the church, but a few conditions had to be met. First, the congregation had to listen to him and, second, all of their contributions beyond the operating funds had to go to paying down the mortgage. This small church, founded in 1975 as a mission plant and initially worshipping at the local elementary school, was determined to get through this trial intact. The congregation agreed to Schildwachter’s conditions.

Since difficult years had driven off a number of congregants, one of Schildwachter’s first tasks was to call all those who quit going to church or left to go somewhere else. When Schildwachter started, New Life only had 30 members. Within a year, however, through the Lord’s grace and Schildwachter’s efforts, the membership rose to 100. Two of the new members benefiting from this “new life” were Wayne and Susan Gartland.

The friendliest congregation

“I forget which, but it was either me or my wife who was the 100th member at New Life,” Gartland said. “When we moved to the area we visited four other LCMS churches, but decided New Life was where we wanted to make our church home.” Gartland admitted his decision was influenced by the fact that New Life was part of the LCMS Minnesota South District—a district he’d been part of for years and wanted to stay connected. However, he credits the “welcoming spirit of the church” as the biggest reason why they chose New Life.

Rev. Tim Heinecke, who was installed as New Life’s pastor in 2016, agreed. “Most friendly congregation I’ve ever encountered. Receptive to visitors, going up and meeting people they’ve never met before.”

Heinecke also noted that New Life members were hungry for the Word. “Bible study attendance is high. They want to be in the Word, which equips them to be friendly and encourage others.”

Outgrowing the church

After the mortgage was paid off, the church borrowed $80,000 to clean up and make some badly needed updates. They had the front of the altar rehabbed, the sanctuary re-carpeted, the sanctuary chairs re-upholstered and the lighting upgraded. The outdoor sign was spruced up, too. As Schildwachter continued to shepherd the church and the congregation continued to open their arms to those who walked through the doors, the church started growing.

In 2007, Schildwachter completed his five-year commitment and stepped down. Rev. Dr. Peter Nafzger from the seminary was called in and maintained the positive direction his predecessor had established for New Life. All this growth, however, was causing some discomfort.

“By 2014,” Gartland said, “we simply outgrew the church.” The desire to build had been with the congregation since 2010. “But we never felt a really strong need to build,” he said. “It was when we were holding confirmation classes in the narthex that we realized our time had come.”

There is no doubt that this congregation stepped out in faith to expand. They only had 150 members at this time, so coming up with enough money for a down payment was a stretch, not to mention taking out a loan to build. Again, this was a determined congregation who trusted God to do the right thing.

“There was a pretty strong consensus in order to keep growing and serving the community,” Heinecke said, “that this was what needed to be done.”

The goal was to borrow enough money to do the first of four phases, but as “we got closer to the deadline, the congregation voted to do all four steps at once,” Gartland said. “This really surprised the building committee, which was trying to keep costs down.” In less than four months, over $250,000 had been raised.

“That really surprised us, too,” Gartland said. Jokingly he added, “To this day I don’t know where all the money came from.”

Inviting the community in

Through Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF), New Life ended up with a bridge and a construction loan, borrowing close to $700,000. In all, the congregation put in better than $500,000 in cash into the project. But it was worth it.

They added a large addition north of the original structure, nearly doubling the size of the building. This allowed them to have a large fellowship area; triple the size of the kitchen; add two classrooms—“large classrooms designed to be classrooms,” Gartland emphasized—build a new office for the pastor, an office for the secretary, a small room to store supplies and two new handicapped restrooms, while remodeling the existing ones. The old kitchen became a Sunday school classroom with a sink and bathroom. The pastor’s old office was turned into a family room and space was created as a family gathering area for funerals.

One immediate benefit the church enjoyed was generated by all the new meeting rooms: this allowed more than one committee or group to meet each night. More importantly, the multiple meeting rooms meant New Life had more opportunities to invite the community to the church. For example, a Narcotics Anonymous group is meeting on Tuesdays while a Girl Scout troop meets on another evening.

“This was one of the things we designed the building for,” Gartland said. “And if it wasn’t for LCEF, I doubt we would have been able to go ahead.”

The church looked at borrowing through a standard bank. The numbers didn’t work. In fact, one of their former members approached the building committee with an offer, but the interest rate was too high. In addition, they couldn’t borrow more than $400,000 in total.

“Without LCEF,” Gartland said, “it wouldn’t have happened. We would have had waited longer, which would have hurt our ministry.”

The story of New Life is an exciting one. It’s exactly the kind of story that LCEF likes to be a part of. It’s also the kind of story that demonstrates what can be done for the Church through the investments of our faithful partners.

We invite you to come alongside us as we pray for God’s favor to be upon pastor Heinecke, the New Life congregation and the city of Hugo, Minn.

Originally appeared in the 2018 winter issue of Lutheran Church Extension Fund’s official magazine, Interest Time. View a digital version here.