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Farmington Lutheran Church faces big transition

Prayer. Worship. Faith. Healing. Those are just some of the essentials of any church congregation. At Farmington Lutheran Church those essentials are especially important these days.

Farmington Lutheran is in transition after years of change for the congregation. A new church building. The retirement of a settled senior pastor, the departure of a long-term associate pastor. Financial and membership challenges. A series of interim pastors, the selection of a new senior pastor. And then, the resignation of that same senior pastor just shy of his one-year anniversary.

It's been a lot of change to take in. But now, church leaders say, it is time to regroup, refocus and move ahead.

"You can't move ahead unless you know where you've been," said Farmington Lutheran Church Council vice-president Sara Otterness.

So now, the congregation turns to a new interim pastor, Rev. Phil Whalen, a leader who has trained to guide congregations struggling with change, to help heal old wounds, identify new goals, and more forward.

Differing philosophies

In June, Rev. Jeff Dorman submitted his resignation to the church council, just a few weeks before his first anniversary with the congregation. The fit, Otterness said, was simply "not right."

There is a welcome period, of sorts, that comes when a new pastor joins a congregation, said church council president Scott Neurauter. Usually, it takes a few months for the members to get to know the pastor, and for him or her to get to know the members. Somewhere along the way, relationships start to bud, and trust builds. The needs of the congregation are met, and philosophies about the future blend. But that did not happen.

At first, there were a few comments by members of the congregation, a few questions raised. Over time, those comments and questions became a list of concerns the church council had to address.

"There were many areas of concern," Otterness said. "It wasn't just one thing. There were differing philosophies in ministry, a differing in understanding of the congregation, the congregation's needs and the community as a whole."

Neurauter talked with the synod and with the church council. A series of meetings were held so congregation members could give their input.

"We tried to grasp the situation before we as a council started forming an opinion," he said.

Dorman, though, submitted his resignation, ending the relationship.

"We did not request his resignation, we did not force a resignation. He chose to resign, and we wish him well where ever he goes," Otterness said.

Moving on

In the weeks since Dorman's resignation, Rev. Gary Langness has stepped in to lead the congregation. He is not a replacement pastor, nor is he even really the interim pastor. He's more of a "temporary interim," Otterness said. Langness will stay at Farmington Lutheran through the end of the month.

In September, Wahlen will come to Farmington Lutheran. How long he stays remains to be seen. Though he is not going to be a permanent fixture, his role is important in the church's future.

Wahlen is coming in as a intentional interim or "transitional pastor" Otterness said. His role in the months, and maybe even years, to come is to help the Farmington Lutheran congregation deal with the changes of the past and any hurt those changes have caused, identify goals for the future and, eventually, start making steps to achieve those goals. Looking back, that was maybe something that should have happened when former senior pastor Jim Sbertoli retired and former associate pastor Dave Mesaros left, because some members still cling to the way things used to be while they were there.

"Until everybody can deal with that and get to the same place, we can't move ahead," Otterness said.

So far, simply knowing Wahlen is coming and knowing he specializes in guiding congregations through times of transition has gone a long way to rebuild the sense of community within the church, Neurauter said.

"There's been an added sense of calmness. It feels more settled. We're not through the healing, but the process has started," he said.

It is far too soon to tell how long the process will take, or when the congregation will be ready to bring in another settled senior pastor. But for now, there is another essential happening at Farmington Lutheran: hope.