I came to Zumbro in September of 2009. To get acquainted with people, I took part in a series of small group gatherings. I had a list of questions for participants, and they had some for me. One question in particular stood out in my mind: “You call yourself a downtown church – what does that mean to you?” There were a variety of responses. But as I remember it, there wasn’t an especially strong sense of how our downtown location could be a springboard for ministry and mission.
Over the past ten years we’ve tried to more fully live into our downtown identity:
- We passed out food and gas vouchers to those who needed a helping hand, but we were soon overwhelmed with more requests than we could handle.
- We had a congregational meeting at which we considered whether to sell the parking lot behind Sinclair to a developer. The congregation decided it was best to hang on to the property.
- We celebrated our 150th anniversary and told stories of the three different locations Zumbro has occupied in the heart of Rochester. Many folks fondly remembered the walk on Palm Sunday in 1969 to our current location.
- We bought a food truck and started a meal program called Open Table.
So, back to my question: What does it mean for Zumbro to be a downtown church? And related to this: Is it important for us to be where we are today? These questions came up as we started talking about building renovations. Our 50-year-old facility was showing signs of wear and tear. Early in the process, a few suggested that maybe we should just do what Autumn Ridge did – sell our property and move to the outskirts of town.
Our stewardship theme last fall put the issue in bold terms: Finding God in the Midst of the City. Focus groups in January took this theme a step further and explored the possibilities for mission and ministry in our current location … and people seemed genuinely excited about it. The fact of the matter is, the mission field has been coming in our direction for quite some time. A growing number of community groups are using our space. Buildings are popping up all around us. UMR is just down the block. With an eye toward mission, the last two staff we hired – a director of mission and a youth and young adult minister – both ended up with a strong missional component in their job descriptions.
Perhaps we’re ready to more fully embrace what we’ve been saying for a long time: we are a downtown church. And our facility is a platform for the work God has given us to do. Since we’re staying put, our 50-year-old building is going to require some attention. The roof needs to be replaced. Our pews could stand an upgrade. We would benefit from an elevator in the front of the building to get people to various levels.
As you might know, we’ve been talking about these and other renovation projects for quite some time. Over the last several months, the Building Leadership Team has been guiding the way, listening to the congregation, and shaping the plans accordingly.
I hope you’ve had a chance to see the architectural renderings. They tell a story that is filled with possibilities. A number of things stand out for me:
- I appreciate the elevator in the front. The ramp is too long for some. The elevator will make it easier to get in and out of the building.
- I appreciate the glass that invites us into the sanctuary. It says to everyone, “You are welcome here.”
- I appreciate that, since our church is named after a river, there’s an emphasis on the River of Life.
In the drawings, the river flows from the cross and down the center aisle to the baptismal font.
- I appreciate the efforts to create a movable wall in the Lounge. Too many people find narrow hallways and doors into the coffee area to be a barrier. We want to open up the space and invite folks in.
- I appreciate the efforts that have been made to provide a quieter space in the library. In the original design, the library was open. But after hearing feedback from library users, the current design has a glass door. Hopefully the space by the main entrance will make the library visible and engaging.
- I appreciate that we’re planning on several mid-size gathering areas. The chapel is one of them. It will be available seven days a week, including extra seating for worship.
- I appreciate that we have a mission component tied to our renovation project. It’s easy to get self-focused when working on a building, so our plan is to dedicate a tithe of the money raised to share in God’s work in the world.
That’s a list of some things I appreciate. There may be other things that appeal to you. So, is everyone in agreement about these and other plans? I wish I could say yes, but such is the nature of building projects.
It wasn’t the case in my previous congregations either. That said, the Building Leadership Team has been working hard to listen carefully and to modify plans along the way. I commend them for their efforts. Eventually, however, we as a congregation have to make choices. And hopefully they are ones we all can come to embrace.
The Women of the ELCA are studying the book of Esther this summer. In case you don’t know, Esther tells the story of the scattered Jewish community in the Persian Empire. As fate would have it, a Jewish girl loses her parents. She is raised by an uncle named Mordecai. Eventually Esther becomes queen. She learns of a plot to kill the Jews in the land. At Mordecai’s urging, Esther uses her position in the king’s court, and her love for her people, to embolden her to act. In the middle of her discernment, Mordecai suggests to Esther that perhaps God has placed her in the king’s court “for such a time as this.”
I’ve always found that phrase – for such a time as this – to be deeply compelling. Certainly our situation doesn’t rise to level of Esther’s. But perhaps the phrase is a gentle reminder that we too have moments when decisions need to be made. And sometimes those moments are of much consequence. Indeed, Zumbro has been in Rochester since 1865. We’ve been in three locations, active in passing on faith, and doing the work God has given us to do.
We have decided to stay where we are. We are a downtown church, ever ready to lean more fully into our identity and to explore more fully our future. We want our facility to be a platform for mission and ministry going forward. And by faith we follow God’s lead for such a time as this.
See you in church!
Pastor Vern Christopherson