By Steve Jones
10:26 AM EST, January 22, 2013
For more than 50 years, St. Timothy Lutheran Church was Lenna Sheridan's church home. Sheridan joined the Timonium congregation in July 1960, just five years after it opened.
It was a robust church for most of Sheridan's time there, she said. She was a longtime Sunday school and Vacation Bible School teacher. She did Advent and Lenten programs with children and wrote the church's newsletter.
She served as the chairwoman of the Lois Circle, a women's fellowship group and started a program called "Joy Day," in which adults and children would put stuffed animals in Christmas stockings and fill Easter baskets with candy and religious materials for the Lutheran Mission Society.
In recent years, however, membership at the church declined dramatically. By last fall, the church that had once had nearly 700 members in January 1973 had fewer than 70 members, with only 20 of them active. The Synod recommended the church merge with Grace Lutheran English Evangelical Church in Lutherville.
"We couldn't get new members, and a lot of the older ones were dying," said Sheridan, of Timonium. "The children weren't coming either. It was a large building, and we couldn't keep up with the expense."
Rev. Veronica Webber, pastor at Grace Lutheran since August 2011, said she and St. Timothy's pastor, Rev. Jason Burns, along with members from both congregations, met to discuss the merger.
Grace Lutheran's membership also had declined. The 127-year-old congregation had dwindled to a few more than 100 members. Webber favored the merger but was unsure whether the church councils would approve it.
"The night before the vote, I was really worried," said Webber, who at 28, is the youngest and first female pastor in the history of Grace Lutheran. "I stayed up all night praying about it.
"Everyone thought it was going to happen, but we wondered if the people would want to change enough to make it happen. It was going to be a big transition."
St. Timothy celebrated its last worship Sunday on Oct. 28, 2012. On Nov. 4, St. Timothy Lutheran joined with Grace Lutheran.
"I was expecting a lot of tears, and there were not," Sheridan said. "It was a nice service. I thought when we started this process it was going to be hard for me, but it hasn't bothered me one bit."
'It's OK to change'
Prior to the merger, a mission plan was developed to ease the transition and help the expanded church meet its new challenges. Webber emphasized the immediate importance of a smooth integration and an openness to embrace new ideas.
"We wanted everyone to feel welcome from the beginning," Webber said. "The people from St. Timothy are referred to as 'new members'. They're not 'members of St. Timothy' who just came here."
Webber said the councils from both churches have co-mingled and St. Timothy's Lois Circle group merged with Grace's Helping Hands group to become the Helping Hands Circle.
"It's been a big transition for everyone, but we want people to know that it's OK to change," Webber said.
St. Timothy's pastor Burns, did not make the move to Grace. He is on leave, pending another placement within the Delaware-Maryland Synod.
Also, before the two churches came together, Webber attended services at Grace and visited St. Timothy's homebound members.
"We went from having six homebound members to 21. I wouldn't be able to visit all of them regularly ... so we hired a visitation pastor to help me reach everyone."
Grace is also working on making its facility ADA-compliant, and said the church has called in architects to help.
'Huge difference in population'
A 2011 National Council of Churches report stated that national membership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church dropped 2 percent from the previous year, with even steeper declines affecting the Episcopal, Presbyterian and United Church of Christ memberships. The number of members in the United Methodist Church has dropped every year since 1968.
"In the heyday of the Lutheran Church during the 1950s and 1960s, the average Lutheran woman had 4.1 children," Webber said. "The average Lutheran woman now has 1.8 kids. That's a huge difference in population."
"A lot of people are leaving traditional churches simply because a need isn't being met," Webber said. "The rise of the nondenominational churches is a big factor. The biggest group of people missing from our churches is my age group, people in their 20s and 30s.
"You want to do whatever you can to keep your current members here, but you also want to make sure your church is ready for the people who aren't here yet."
Webber feels that the solution lies within the surrounding community, and is concentrating her church's efforts there.
"We have to look at this community to determine who could potentially come and worship here," she said.
Meanwhile, Sheridan said the transition for her and other St. Timothy parishioners has been a graceful one.
"Anything that we liked to do, they have seen that we have it here," said Sheridan.