By Amanda Hatfield
VIERA -- Within the past several years, Space Coast residents have felt the effects of a struggling economy.
Businesses that once thrived have boarded up their windows and turned out the lights one last time. Some homeowners have felt the strain and, sadly, many have had no choice but to face foreclosure.
Churches and houses of worship are no exception to these trying times.
Two churches, however, have come up with a way to avoid closing their doors for good.
Grace Lutheran Church of Melbourne Beach and Advent Lutheran Church of Suntree will merge this summer in order to keep their congregations alive and the word of God flowing.
"Advent and Grace have a long history together," said Pastor David Jahn of Advent Lutheran Church. "When Advent was first getting started, Grace was the much larger, thriving congregation and was a great help to Advent in the beginning of its ministry."
As the Suntree-Viera area began to boom, members of the Grace Lutheran Church began to move to the area, thus transferring to Advent Lutheran Church.
As time moved forward and Brevard began to feel the crunch after the space program shut down, Grace Lutheran Church also felt the strain.
"I had lunch with Beth Oakley, a long-time friend of our family and a leader at Grace. She described the many and deep difficulties the congregation was facing," Pastor Jahn said.
Wanting to help his good friend and a church that he was part of for so long, Pastor Jahn suggested a merger between the two congregations.
Despite his good intentions, Pastor Jahn's idea remained a suggestion for a year until last May.
"I was contacted by the president of Grace's congregation, Ed Mussler, and we arranged for myself and Sister Michelle Collins, Advent's director of faith formation, to meet with Grace's congregation council," Pastor Jahn said.
During their visit, Pastor Jahn and Sister Collins quickly discovered what their fellow congregation was facing.
"They were only several months away from having to close the doors, so I laid out a plan for a merger," Pastor Jahn said. "This meant that Advent and Grace would become one congregation, operating in two different locations."
With a great amount of hope, Pastor Jahn and Sister Collins convinced Grace's council that, by joining the two congregations, the once-thriving church would return to its outpost for mission and a strong witness for the Gospel.
Grace's council voted unanimously to merge with Advent, with the congregation following suit shortly thereafter.
Advent, however, fell two votes shy of approving the merger.
"After an in-depth campaign to explain the merger as a comprehensive five-year plan, Advent overwhelmingly approved the merger with Grace on Jan. 27," Pastor Jahn said.
By merging the two congregations, Grace and Advent will work more efficiently.
"Today, Grace has no paid staff and few financial resources to put toward turning things around. When merged with Advent, Grace will have a full staff and significant financial resources," Pastor Jahn said. "Instead of duplicating cost for office equipment, staff, printing and so-on, they will be shared - one council and set of committees, one set of planning teams and materials being used in two different locations."
Another strong advantage to the merger between Grace and Advent is what Pastor Jahn refers to as a "DNA change."
Pastor Jahn explained that when a congregation has been struggling to keep its doors open, people can become hopeless and tired. By merging with a much larger congregation, filled with energy and Spirit-infused leadership, they are transformed.
"The disadvantage is that we don't know what we don't know," said Pastor Jahn. "Every case of two congregations merging is different and there are bound to be some surprises."
There are also more changes to be made as Grace and Advent merge.
Pastor Marie Duquette will be the primary presence at Grace, spending 75 percent of her time there and the other 25 percent will be spent at Advent. Pastor Jahn will do the inverse.
On June 9 at 3 p.m., Pastor Duquette will be installed at Advent, with her first Sunday at Grace being on June 16.
"We are very excited to see the hope, vision, energy and enthusiasm coming to the folks at Grace Lutheran in Melbourne Beach," said Pastor Jahn. "The opportunity to help and share the blessings God has given to us has been energizing for the folks from Advent, as well. We are a congregation which welcomes everyone to share in God's love and grace."
Pastor Jahn's excitement for the future is palpable in the air.
"I guess you can tell I am very fired up about what God is doing in our midst," he said.