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Where are they now? Grace, Tucson, Ariz.

In January 2019, Forward in Christ featured Grace, Tucson, Ariz., in an article discussing the blessings and challenges of mergers and multi-site ministries. Two small struggling congregations, Peace, Sahuarita, and Bethlehem, Benson, merged with Grace in 2014 to become a four-congregation multi-site called Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church of Southern Arizona. The merged congregation decided to focus its attention on the mission potential in Sahuarita, where there was an influx of young families.

So where are they now?

In 2020, Grace, Sahuarita, opened the doors of a new child learning center. Since then, enrollment has ballooned with 260 children being served, ranging from infants through preschool-aged children and before-and-after school care.

Ryan Heiman, pastor at Grace, says that the backing of the multi-site congregation was vital in getting this ministry off the ground. Prior to the merger, Peace only had 40 members, most over the age of 60. It didn’t have a pastor or the financial means for a multi-million dollar building program. Besides financial help, the merger brought a shift in the congregation’s culture. “They brought the church on as a mission, called a missionary, and said everything’s going to be mission minded,” says Heiman, who was called as that mission pastor in 2016.

After Heiman’s arrival, the congregation spent several years surveying the community, discovering that early childhood ministry was a desperate need. The congregation decided to relocate and build a new church and a child learning center right-sized for future growth. Grace utilized resources from WELS Home Missions, WELS Church Extension Fund, and Builders For Christ to build the new facilities.

While COVID-19 stifled the center’s enrollment when it opened in 2020—dropping numbers from 80 to 20—the center rebounded quickly once the worst of the pandemic had passed, eventually adding 10 to 20 students each week.

children's worship
Connecting learning center families with church families is an important part of Grace’s outreach efforts. Monthly events and opportunities for the children to participate in worship provide ways for interaction.

small children listening

At the start, students were almost entirely from nonmember families—many of whom didn’t have a church home. This provided a rich harvest field that the congregation had already planned for. “Our goal was not to create a ministry where the church does its thing and the early childhood ministry does its thing,” says Heiman. “Instead we’re always striving to do everything together; it’s all one mission. We not only want the kids to learn about Jesus, but we want their whole families to learn about Jesus. So we’re always trying to make connections between the church and the child learning center.”

This started with having the same name—Grace. It continued by Grace calling its teachers “missionary teachers,” highlighting the importance of their role in creating relationships with and ministering to the children and their families. Heiman himself is well known by parents and students alike, with his office located in the center’s lobby where hundreds of prospects walk by daily. He holds an orientation with every family, introducing them to what the church believes and teaches.

Regular monthly events and opportunities for the children to participate in worship provide ways for the school families to interact with church families. Some of the original members also volunteer at the center. “Our members have really bought into the mission,” says Heiman.

And the Holy Spirit has been at work. Grace, Sahuarita, has grown to 140 members, now with the average age of 42. “Most of our new faces are young families who we’re making connections with through the early childhood ministry,” says Heiman.

He continues, “I think our future is continuing to work hard at the harvest strategy—building more relationships, making more invitations. That’s really our big mission field.”

Learn more about Telling the Next Generation, a workshop that shows how to implement outreach strategies through a Lutheran elementary school or early childhood ministry.

Author: FIC
Volume: 111, Number 03
Issue: March 2024

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