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Community-oriented change in the works at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Bellingham

The members of St. John’s Lutheran in Bellingham hope the church will do better in the future by doing more good things for the community now.

Membership at St. John’s has been fairly steady the past decade but has shrunk from its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, said Cara Tanis, the church’s new pastor since April. Membership at St. John’s totals about 100 people, with 50 to 60 usually showing up for Sunday morning service, she said. Many of its members are getting on in years.

“We have people of all ages, but it tends to be an older congregation,” Tanis said.

That’s one reason church members were willing to consider a new focus after their previous pastor stepped down last January after eight years. St. John’s also is entering its 125th anniversary as a church in Bellingham, a landmark that calls for contemplation of the future as well as celebration of the past.

“It’s a matter of what are we going to do at this point?” Tanis said.

St. John’s member Jack Petree said the congregation voted unanimously to hire a pastor adept at what he calls “transformational ministry.”

“That means we have committed to radical change in what the congregation is all about,” Petree said in an email. “A congregation that is probably one of Bellingham’s most elderly, in terms of average age, has decided to remake itself over the next year.”

Tanis, 43, grew up in Minnesota but learned to appreciate the Northwest when she attended Lutheran Bible Institute in Issaquah. She returned to Minnesota to attend Luther Seminary in St. Paul. After serving a church in North Dakota, she and her husband lived in California, North Carolina and then Okinawa while he served as a Navy chaplain. They now live in Anacortes so she can commute to Bellingham while he serves as a chaplain at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

She works two-thirds time at St. John’s, which fits the church’s budget and gives her time for her husband and their 6-year-old daughter.

While ministering to congregation members will remain a focus for Tanis, St. John’s members have discussed ways to reach out to the broader community, with some changes already taking hold.

For example, the church has begun making its building more available for use by other groups. Bellingham’s Ukrainian Russian Orthodox church uses the building for weekly Bible and language study. An Al-Anon group also meets at the church, as do Sons of Norway members, who recently sold their own building. St. John’s accepts donations to offset the cost of operating its building, but doesn’t charge a rental fee.

“That is part of the hospitality that we want to be offering to our community,” Tanis said.

The church has traditionally offered coffee, cookies and restrooms to people gathering to march in the Ski to Sea Parade, but wants to do more for the community, Tanis said. Ideas include playing a more supportive role in the annual Sunnyland Stomp art event, in neighborhood associations, and possibly hosting a community barbecue to mark the church’s anniversary.

There’s discussion about having Tanis spend half of her work hours on community outreach. The decision hasn’t been made, but it’s indicative of the new mindset at St. John’s.

The push for change reflects, in part, broader changes in the role of religion in communities, Tanis said. With more people questioning the relevance of religion, the era of churches imposing change from above is fading, she said. That’s why she and the members of St. John’s are talking among themselves and with others about how they can help in the community.

“We’re not there yet,” Tanis said. “We’re still in the midst of the dreaming process.”

It’s a more humble approach,she said, and an incremental one, too.

“It’s OK to try things that fail,” Tanis said, “but it’s not OK to not try.”