The Rev. Nancy Kraft says it takes five years for a church to change its mission and the way in which it approaches the community, but after just one year at the helm, the new pastor said change is happening much faster than she expected at Ascension Lutheran Church, in Towson.
Under Kraft's guidance, parishioners say, Ascension has grown to be more inclusive and accepting of all people and that members of the congregation have expanded their roles in the community and as volunteers within the congregation.
Kraft's "bold leadership" is somewhat progressive, but more aligned with what the church must become to increase its membership, draw a younger crowd and remain relevant, said 18-year-member Jill Jahries, of Lutherville.
Kraft, who became Ascension's pastor in May 2016, is "really good about reminding us about Jesus' time on earth and the fact that he was the ultimate includer," Jahries said. "There was not a selective group he sought out that was already walking the walk, so to speak. He really recognized and reached all people where they were and created a sacred relationship that allowed those people to be themselves and feel whole so long as they were being mindful of one another."
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which Ascension Lutheran is a member, has seen the number of its members decrease in recent years, according to the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, the denomination's presiding bishop.
"We're set up to do church the way our parents did church and it doesn't work," Eaton said, adding that it was up to the church to adapt to changing communities and an "increasingly secular society."
A 2015 Pew Research survey on religious habits found that the percentage of adults who described themselves as religiously affiliated shrank between 2007 and 2014. Additionally, the percentage of adults who were religiously unaffiliated increased 7 percentage points, resulting in an overall U.S. population that is slightly less religious than it was a decade ago.
Mainline congregations must welcome a more diverse group of potential members if they are to continue to flourish, Eaton said.
The trend away from the church is one Kraft said she does not want to see continued in Towson, though she says she is not focused on increasing membership but on drawing members "closer to Christ."
However, bucking national trends is part of the reason the 750-member congregation chose Kraft to lead it. Involvement at Ascension Lutheran is up since Kraft was hired by a majority vote of the congregation.
"We've had lots of good pastors, each one with their own gifts and skills, but she's ready to lead us in outgoing service to our community and building on things we've done in the past," said parish administrator Sue Hartman, a 29-year member of the church.
Other members say Kraft is leading the church into the 21st century.
"Like any mainline denomination right now, our numbers are dwindling, but some congregations are growing, and I would love for Ascension to be one of them," Kraft said.
A new role in Towson
Ascension Lutheran Church traces its beginnings to 1941, when a small group of people met in a home on York Road, gathering regularly for worship. The Towson church opened on its namesake day, a Christian holiday celebrating the ascension of Jesus into heaven, on May 14, 1942.
Construction started on the present sanctuary in July 1949 with a formal dedication on June 4, 1950. In June 1959, the church added an education wing and a nursery school to better serve the community. This year, the church celebrated its 75th anniversary.
A native of Hamilton, Ohio, Kraft served the Lutheran church in her home state as well as in North Dakota and North Carolina before coming to Towson, she said.
Most recently, Kraft led Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte, N.C. Over a span of 11 years at what she describes as a congregation of mostly LGBTQ churchgoers, Kraft said she tackled social justice issues and helped champion same-sex marriage rights in the southern city.
In 2014, Kraft joined other clergy and the United Church of Christ in filing a lawsuit against the state's same-sex marriage ban on the basis of religious liberty, a full year before the 2015 landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
The role is one that earned Kraft recognition from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which came out in support of same-sex marriage in 2009.
"A lot of the work she is doing is the work we hope other pastors are doing," Eaton said. "She did a great job in Charlotte, and I'm sure she's bringing life in to where she's serving now."
Kraft said she is still working out her vision for the congregation's future, but in the meantime is focused on increasing church involvement in the community and challenging the congregation with thought-provoking sermons.
In a recent post to Inside Nancy's Noodle, Kraft's blog about her faith, the church and her experiences as a minister, Kraft questions the relationship between Christianity and evangelism.
Though evangelical is in Ascension's denominational name, Kraft said she prefers that the church focus on action directed at improving the lives of others rather than evangelism.
Instead of preaching strictly from the pulpit of a "pastor-strong" church, Kraft has moved to push the congregation to one that emphasizes "good deeds in action, rather than in thought," she said. It's a mission she says is influenced by hours of deliberation and research Kraft undergoes to fine tune each Sunday's message.
It's not rare for "Pastor Nancy," as she prefers to be called, to rewrite a sermon multiple times until the message is perfected for a congregation she said enjoys being pushed to think harder. Sermons often begin with an exclamation and end with a question or call to action, she said.
"People here are really well educated and have a history of having excellent preachers, so I think I'm working harder here than I ever have in my life," she added.
In the past year, Kraft has moved to make sermons more interactive by increasing the congregation's involvement in Sunday sermons and challenging members to think about scripture outside of the church by making those teachings a greater part of their daily lives.
She has also attempted to make the church experience more child-friendly, adding a children's song as part of worship in the summer.
"A lot of my friends who don't go to church have this old idea of what church is," Jahries said. "You just passively sit and are lectured and don't get stirred [to action]. When I talk about who Pastor Nancy is and what my church is, I have a lot of pride in that."
The church is changing for the better thanks to the congregation's help as well, Kraft said. Earlier this year, church staff revamped Ascension's website to include audio recordings of each week's sermons.
Recently, Kraft invited members interested in leading sermons to do so on some Sundays. The group meets with Kraft to discuss how sermons are written and to rehearse their presentation — a practice the congregation has embraced, Jahries said.
Kraft's next focus is on welcoming a Syrian refugee family to an unused parsonage on church property. Ascension has hosted families on the property in the past, Kraft said. Church staff are now working with a Baltimore-based nonprofit to place a family in the home in the next few weeks.
"Once you help people to imagine that we can be more, I see them embracing that," Kraft said. "I can foresee in five years we are just going to transform [the church]."