Andrea and Arnie Koenig devoted 43 years of their lives to an ELCA congregation in the rural town of Hutchinson, Minn.
The Koenigs felt genuine anguish when their congregation voted to leave the ELCA in May 2010, partly in response to the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly decisions.
For support, the Koenigs met with others from the congregation who also sought to remain in the ELCA. Together they began exploring the possibility of starting a new ELCA worshiping community.
A “Service of Hope” was held on the lawn of the Koenig’s farm in July. More than 100 people attended the service. Soon afterward, the group planned a second service held at a city park. At that point, it became quite clear that a new ELCA mission start was possible.
Two months later, River of Hope Lutheran Church was born. Members are now holding worship indoors thanks to Vineyard United Methodist Church in Hutchinson, which opened its doors to welcome the budding congregation.
A grant from the ELCA Southwestern Minnesota Synod enabled River of Hope to become a “congregation under development” in November.
Although members of River of Hope are still trying to establish who they are as a congregation, one thing is certain: All are welcome. And that’s been their goal from the start.
“We did want everyone to feel welcome,” says Andrea. Once members began finding others who felt the same way, it became easier to move forward. “All of the people involved were so full of enthusiasm and love for one another.”
Part of their outreach plan includes welcoming people who are looking for “friendship, peace, spirituality, fellowship and a great place to worship.”
“Personal invitations are a huge part of River of Hope’s success, if we dare call River of Hope a success yet,” says Andrea. Her husband, Arnie, agrees, adding that River of Hope “can be a place for the ones who never felt at home somewhere else.”
On Friendship Sunday, nearly every member brought someone to worship.
“We are often asking ourselves, ‘Who is not here? Who is not being reached out to in this town full of churches’?” says Laura Aase, River of Hope’s pastor and mission developer. She was called to serve the congregation in January.
Finding hope in the midst of crisis
Tom Heyd served as interim pastor at River of Hope before Laura’s call to the congregation. His last sermon at River of Hope was a turning point for the congregation.
“How is it that you left bitterness and betrayal behind and came together in hope and peace, love and joy? How could such broken hearts be so wonderfully healed?” Tom asks.
He told the congregation, “You were intoxicated by the Holy Spirit, filled with new wine and destined by God for his glorious purposes.”
And members of River of Hope agree with Tom. They deeply believe that God is up to something good in Hutchinson, Minn.