It was all a matter of timing for the congregations of St. John’s and St. Paul’s Lutheran Churches in Tanunda to begin a new chapter together as Grace Lutheran Church.
Two and a half months in from their August 18 vote to amalgamate, the leadership team reflect on more than a decade of conversations that finally led to the merge.
“Both congregations have been involved in discussions to work closer together, not only with each other but involving the other Tanunda congregations as well,” said Grace Lutheran Church Chairman, Mr David Saegenschnitter, formerly of St. Paul’s.
“We had a fair crack at it probably seven years ago and it didn’t come off at that time, but I think we’ve got to have trust and faith that it wasn’t the right time, and the timing was right now.”
For thirty years St. Paul’s had been in a parish arrangement with Zion Gnadenberg in Moculta, but after broader conversations around the Barossa ministry, Gnadenberg requested to realign with the geographically nearer congregation of Angaston.
It was around the same time that St. John’s extended an invitation to St. Paul’s and all of the other Tanunda Lutheran Churches, proposing the formation of a new congregation.
“The door was really open for us,” said David.
“It worked well because we could collaborate closer with our sister congregation here in Tanunda, and form a closer tie and bond with them. And the reality is, if you look at it financially or whatever, none of us could stand on our own, but together it just all made so much sense.”
Declining membership is a challenge facing many churches across the country, but rather than view themselves as being forced into a merge, members of Grace prefer to look at it as adapting.
“You can look around Barossa, Australia-wide, there are congregations of 10 or 20 people that wouldn’t merge with anyone, trying to preserve their own identity,” said Pastor Guntars Baikovs, who has served both St. John’s and St. Paul’s since 2017.
“But here I would say, look at the bigger picture and the desire to do things together and to contribute more to the community and to the church universal. That was the guiding factor more than shrinking numbers.”
The congregation worships at St. Paul’s Church on Murray Street for the first two Sundays of the month, and St. John’s Church on Jane Place for the second two Sundays.
At this stage, there are no plans to move the congregation permanently to one building or the other.
“It’s not high on our agenda to actually worry about that right now because there are emotive issues there that if we press hard to consolidate too quickly there could be potential fallout,” said David.
“They were built extremely well and are in very good state of repair, so it’s not like things are crumbling down and we’ve got to get out because it’s a millstone around our neck to maintain them.”
The feeling amongst worshippers during the merge has been overwhelmingly positive, with Pastor Guntars describing it simply as “joyful”.
Grace’s Vice Chairman, Mr Michael Heinrich, former Chairman of St. John’s said the vast majority of members have embraced the change.
“We’ve consistently got up and asked people to talk to us if they had any issues, and really there was almost nothing along the way,” he said.
“People might have had a few doubts, but the majority of people really got on board and thought it was a good thing to do, and I think that’s how it’s turned out.”
Greater numbers have made a difference to the atmosphere at worship and at fellowship events with now over 100 people in one congregation rather than 50 or 60.
“At least when it comes to singing, there is a difference here!” said Pastor Guntars.
There is also a greater pool of resources available for important projects, and now that the formalities of amalgamation have been finalised, the church is turning its attention to those things.
“Now we can start focussing on what is our point of difference, what is our vision and mission,” said David.
The church already supports a variety of causes locally, nationally and internationally, with members recently travelling to Kenya and Nepal to assist with projects there.
They hope to find further ways to enrich and serve the community as they establish as a congregation and look towards a long and bright future.
“I think we’ve got really great people in our leadership team, more or less on the same page, so when we get together we actually look the same direction and do the same things with the same passion, and that will lead somewhere,” said Pastor Guntars.
“I’m not sure where and how far, but it’s joyful indeed.”