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Easter brings fresh start to struggling Teaneck Lutheran Church

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St. Paul’s Lutheran Church was once one of the largest Lutheran congregations in New Jersey. For decades, throngs of worshipers filled the pews of its sprawling church complex in Teaneck every Sunday.

But over the years, the century-old congregation began to dwindle. By 2019, membership numbers that had once numbered in the hundreds had fallen to just over 100. St. Paul’s colossal brick house on Church Street, with its stained glass windows and elegant spire, was rapidly decaying.

“People stopped going to church and we had nobody in our Sunday school anymore,” recalls Elizabeth Lowe, president of the church board. “The old building had a leaky roof and we didn’t have the capital to fix it. We decided to move on.”

Three years ago, the congregation sold the old church to a nonprofit, and St. Paul was homeless.

It’s a familiar story of decline at a time when older parishioners are dying and a younger, less religious generation is not stepping in to replace them. Months of COVID-related closures have left some churches closed for good.

Yet as Christians gather to celebrate Christ’s resurrection at Easter, St. Paul’s struggling flock hope to write their own story of renewal. For the first time in three years this Sunday, parishioners will mark the feast in a real church – a new home on Slocum Avenue in Ridgefield. Services will be led by an inclusive pastor who strives to breathe new life into the community.

“This church has had quite an interesting journey,” said Reverend Patt Kauffman, a latecomer to ministry whose career has taken its own turns.

“There were people saying, ‘St. Paul is going to close.’ But people here said “Not so fast. We’re not done yet. The holy spirit still empowers us to get the job done,” said Kauffman, who speaks with a warmth and vigor that belies his 70 years.

Reverend Patt Kauffman greets parishioners at St. Paul's Lutheran Church.

“Celebrating the Resurrection”

The reconstituted church is still under construction. In recent weeks, only a few dozen people have shown up for Sunday masses. But the congregation has worked hard to spread the word, and Kauffman hopes many will show up this weekend “to see our new space. [and] celebrate the resurrection that is St. Paul’s Church and be the community we were called to be.

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Monica Zeigler of Hackensack, who joined the church 10 years ago, described the church as a “warm community” that “never passes judgment”.

She sees a rejuvenation in the new red brick and white wood church in Ridgefield, with its crimson door. New faces have appeared at services in recent weeks, she noted enthusiastically.

St. Paul members Monica Zeigler, left, and Janice Tavares gather outside the church after services March 20, 2022. Zeigler, of Hackensack, described the church as a "warm community" It is "never judgement."

“More people are interested,” she said. “Our outreach is better than before. We are on our way back to a new adventure.”

The sale of the building left the congregation with a small, traveling herd. The church moved from one temporary home to another for a year. Then, in 2020, COVID almost delivered the deathblow.

To comply with pandemic restrictions, the remaining subscribers organized services online or in parking lots. Fewer than 10 people showed up on some Sundays.

Now visitors stop to visit the new church.

Recovery strategy

St. Paul hosts Friday night dinners and special events such as Blessings for Animals, where a professional photographer took pictures of pets with their human companions. There’s Jazz in the Spirit, which combines worship and musical performance.

The church also opened its doors to a Korean church, the Morning Star Fellowship, which also operates out of the Slocum building. The two congregations meet occasionally for programming.

“The two pastors are walking around Ridgefield together saying they are pastors in the same church. It’s mind-blowing,” Lowe said. “We hope some of the younger ones will join us.”

Recently, the church opened a food pantry and a meals-on-wheels program. For Lent, St. Paul raised funds for Ukrainian refugees and Americans rebuilding after tornadoes.

Kauffman hopes anyone who takes a look will see all that St. Paul has to offer and choose to stay.

Members of St. Paul's Lutheran Church, including Robert Jacoby, Monica Zeigler, Barbara Bernstengel, Sharla DeLawter and Reverend Patt Kauffman chat after services.

“What is unique about us is our acceptance and affirmation of all people. We are diverse. The church is gay, straight, black and brown. Thirty percent of us are LGBTQ. We welcome all the world,” said the pastor, who is African American. “We don’t just host, we actually affirm. We have people of all abilities in leadership roles.”

The church has always been inclusive, she says, but in recent years it has become more diverse, with a range of skin tones filling the benches.

In an effort to make everyone comfortable, Kauffman tries to keep services short, around an hour, and she invites people to use whatever restrooms they deem appropriate based on their gender identification. Congregants can even bring dogs – as long as they don’t bite, the pastor said.

When a local LGBTQ group was looking for a venue for their annual drag ball, Kauffman opened the church doors and showed up to the party with a big smile. “Everyone wore a costume. It was a lot of fun!” she says.

His message: ‘radical love’

On a recent Sunday, Kauffman preached at three small services spaced throughout the day. Dressed in a white office dress and a purple stole, she delivered a message of “radical love” and forgiveness from the top of the pulpit. The Almighty, she says, “loves us extravagantly, recklessly and abundantly”.

Reverend Kauffman, a latecomer to ministry whose career took its own turns, joined the church in late 2018.

The new pastor grew up Patt Beckles in a non-religious family in Brooklyn who she said didn’t go to church. At 14, she was curious about spirituality and started visiting a Lutheran church with a friend who was “amazed that I wanted to attend”, she said with a laugh. She immediately felt at ease and was struck by the warmth of the pastor who welcomed her without judgement.

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She never imagined becoming a pastor, instead assuming that she would marry one. After marrying a Jewish man, “it dawned on me that maybe I am the one who is destined for the ministry.”

In her mid-40s, while living in Orange County, New York, and working as a church choir director, she decided to enroll in seminary.

She is a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary, from Columbia University in New York in 2002 and served in congregations in Rockland, Westchester and Orange counties. Most recently, she served as a hospital chaplain in Port Jervis, New York, and filled various churches when local pastors were absent.

In late 2018, she served as supply pastor at St. Paul and was “impressed by their enthusiasm, warmth, and outreach. I wanted to be a part of it.”

Apparently, the feeling was mutual. Church leaders asked her if she would make the partnership permanent.

Today, Kauffman is thrilled with her career and her church – despite his recent struggles.

“People thought we were dead,” she said. “But we will rise from the ashes and do more.”

Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @deenayellin