The former Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church at 930 S. Nickelplate Ave. was struggling with whether it could continue to keep its doors open as a congregation.
Bridget Linsmaier, an officer on the council at Kountze Memorial, contacted The Rev. Dr. Bruce Roth, Lead Pastor of St. Stephen Martyr in Canton, OH, in September of 2020, in search of ideas and help. "Our church had a decline in membership and the ones that are there are older," she said.
Linsmaier said it wasn't the first time Kountze Memorial sought help.
"We've been a struggling church for a number of years," she said, "But the problem was ... change. To merge, there would have to be a lot of change. The church was going to have to close. The members didn't want to drive farther or change the worship time. I called St. Stephen's and asked Pastor Bruce if there was a program that allows smaller churches to stay open so our people would stay. He shared about the possibility of adoption, employing what is known as the ‘Anchor Church Process.’"
By adoption rather than a merger, the church in Louisville will remain open and will operate under the auspices of St. Stephen's ministry. Roth said the goal is not only to maintain a Lutheran presence in Louisville but that the two congregations "move in ministry together."
Roth shares, "We're adopting them into the family. It's our hope that we really create a whole new sense of mission... So many congregations don't have the energy to survive. Oftentimes, those churches struggle with disgruntlement and controversy. We want to create a healthy church that sees itself as part of a larger mission to help you experience God’s love and grow to love like Christ."
The Anchor Church Process, created by the Rev. Doug Hill of Littleton, Colorado, offers congregation models, including multiple-site churches, franchises, and adoption of smaller churches by larger ones.
“It’s about sharing the promise and gift of new life,” Roth said. “Healthy churches need a strategy to regenerate every three to five years to encourage growth. With life, everything has a bell-shaped curve. But how do you turn it into a sigmoid curve? How do you start going back up again? To create a new culture, you have to be willing to move things forward and take some risks and try some new things.”
In the case of Kountze Memorial, the church hadn't had a regular pastor in seven years. Membership was down to 25 to 30 with about 19 regulars, all voting unanimously for the merger. St. Stephen has a membership of more than 800 with a weekly attendance which has grown from 135 to averaging about 450 since 2000.
Linsmaier said, "Sometimes, we felt like it was a brick wall," she laughs. "It's bittersweet. It's the closing of Kountze, but it's an opportunity beyond belief. Otherwise, we were going to have to put our building up for sale. It's not like every day somebody's opening the newspaper and looking for a church to buy."
Each church formed transition teams responsible for overseeing a nine-step synodical process and performing due diligence as it pertains to finances, governance, staffing, legal considerations, a supply pastor, technology and membership.
"I think what we've lacked over the years is good, solid leadership," Linsmaier said. "With St. Stephen's, we have that."
To deepen the new relationship, the two congregations gathered for two special events, including a "history gathering" to share stories of how each church began, and a "Scriptural gathering" to share their faith experiences.
"That was a powerful sharing," Roth said, adding that both churches were born out of "missionary zeal."
The history of Kountze Memorial Lutheran goes back to the 1840s in East Canton. Prior to 1844, it was known as United Evangelical Church. From 1844 to 1891 it was known as Trinity Lutheran Church. The church was named in honor of Christian and Margaret Kountze, two of its original members. One of their four sons, Augustus, commissioned the 1891 building, named after his parents. The church relocated to Louisville in 1970 following a fire in 1968.
St. Stephen was born from a small group gathering at the Lake Cable Clubhouse in 1966. In 1972, the growing church called its first pastor, Ned McMillen who led the purchase of land and the construction of an "A-framed" building at 4600 Fulton Drive NW.
A new sanctuary was built in 1986, with the addition of a family center, parking lot, offices, and classrooms in 2000.
As with most mainstream faiths, Roth said, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is facing a crisis in pastoral and lay leadership. Average worship attendance in ELCA churches has fallen by 33% over the last 10 years, more as a result of the pandemic.
"You have to compete for people's time and energy," he said. "I also think it's a matter of relevance. What is the purpose of the church? What is the mission? It's rare today to hear a pastor proclaiming a mission that's exciting and compelling. We must be willing to stick our necks out and proclaim the love of Christ in a meaningful way."
To learn more, call St. Stephen at 330-492-4591