James Kirschenmann was a pastor’s kid who spent five years of his childhood at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church—College Hill, on the outskirts of downtown St. Louis. It was a turbulent time in the neighborhood, filled with much racial tension.
But something about his time there from 1963-68 left a lasting impression on Kirschenmann, eventually leading him to seek a second career in the pastoral ministry after working in data communications for most of his life.
“I always felt like I had unfinished business at St. Paul’s,” said Kirschenmann, 60, who is serving his Concordia Seminary vicarage at the church this year. “I can’t exactly put my finger on it.”
If all goes as planned, Kirschenmann will become the inner-city, struggling church’s first permanent pastor in 18 years. His call will be bivocational since St. Paul’s is unable to afford the salary of a full-time pastor. He will work part time as a pastor at St. Paul’s and part time as an independent computer consultant.
Rev. Dave Andrus, St. Paul’s mission pastor, said Kirschenmann and his wife, Katherine, have brought much-needed stability to the church. “His living in the parsonage, living in the community, is huge,” Andrus said. “He’s not only living there, but choosing to and wanting to. It demonstrates to church members and the community that he has a heart and a compassion for the community. That goes a long way. If a clergyman is willing to do something most people won’t, that says something about that man’s god: God has not abandoned this community; one of His representatives is living here.”
Working it out
A native of Omaha, Neb., and the youngest of five children, Kirschenmann felt called to pastoral ministry in high school. Instead he chose a career in computers, primarily because of doctrinal and political struggles within The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod during the 1970s. God’s call eventually brought him to the Seminary
in 2012 when he enrolled in the Master of Divinity program.
As part of his Seminary education, Kirschenmann started serving as a fieldworker at St. Paul’s in 2013.
He and his wife fell in love with the congregation. Despite its struggles, “we felt like it was home,” he said.
The church, located in one of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, has seen an average of 18 worshipers weekly in the last decade. Attendance finally seems on the uptick. In the last year, average Sunday attendance has increased to about 35 adults and 10 to 15 children.
“God is working this all out,” Kirschenmann said. “It’s not something I’m doing. He’s bringing all the resources to bear on it.”
‘They love it here’
On a recent Tuesday night at St. Paul’s, children filter into the basement for a weekly Bible study. One year earlier, the Bible study had four children from the neighborhood attending. Now, about 20 children attend.
For some of the children, the church has become one of the more stable parts of their lives. One girl has moved six times in the last eight months. Most of the children are growing up in single-parent households. Others live in multigenerational, multifamily households. For Kirschenmann and others who live in the neighborhood, the sound of gunshots is a more than weekly occurrence.
On this night, one 5-year-old girl runs to the door shortly after being dropped off, crying for her mom. It’s only her second time to be here. In between setting out the pencils and activity sheets and cuing a video on Moses, Kirschenmann walks over in his red Converse sneakers to the crying girl. He leans down to the girl, talks to her softly and gives her a hug. Before long, she runs off to play. All is well.
After a prayer and worship time, Kirschenmann leads one group of older children through a lesson from Exodus 3. “Who are we supposed to tell people God is?” he asks.
“I am who I am,” one girl answers.
“I think you got it,” Kirschenmann tells her.
Volunteer Felita Moore, who lives across the street from St. Paul’s, has been bringing her three children, ages 11 to 13, to the Bible study for a year. She’s appreciative of Kirschenmann and his wife.
“He’s done a great job with the kids in the community,” Moore said. “They love it here. They’re bringing a lot of change to the community.”
St. Paul’s is trying to reach the families — and the neighborhood — by showing the love of Christ to the children.
Volunteers like Teri Rose, whose great-great-grandfather was a charter member of St. Paul’s in 1872, have helped
keep the church open and serving the community through the years. But, she said, volunteers can’t do everything.
“Having Jim here has made a huge difference,” Rose said. “It’s about building relationships.”
Kirschenmann said he has made many neighborhood connections from his front or back porch as people walk by.
“They’re welcoming us,” he said. “Not only that, but they’re starting to look at the things they can do for the kids and inviting us to be a part of that. It can seem daunting at times, but somehow, God is directing things so it’s being fed to us at a time when we can deal with it at just the right time. This is what I’m made for.”
Melanie Ave is the communications manager at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.