Neighborhood spotlight: Leading through changing times
Walter Schlenner, of Jim Thorpe, sits in the sanctuary of St. John’s Lutheran Church in the borough heights. Schlenner has served on church council for nearly three decades, an accomplishment the congregation celebrated in a ceremony last weekend. DANIELLE DERRICKSON/TIMES NEWS
A lot can happen in the course of 30 years.
At least, for a Lutheran church located in the heart of Jim Thorpe Heights, the past three decades have proved a time of rapid change. Since the late 1980s, the parish has been headed by a handful of different reverends, the church had its roof replaced, its air conditioning installed and its kitchen renovated.
And through it all, Walter Schlenner stuck around, overseeing every change, transition and new beginning as council president of St. John’s Lutheran Church on South Avenue.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” he said. “People don’t realize how much it costs to run a church.”
In his own life, time sparked change for Schlenner, too. When his employment at Bethlehem Steel ended with the factory’s closure, the lifelong Jim Thorpe resident moved on to the auto parts industry before eventually taking a position in transportation, which he retired from earlier this month.
“I enjoyed every part of it. Believe me, I did,” Schlenner, 68, said.
“When you make a transition from one to the other, it is hard in a way,” he admitted. “But then when you have a family, and you have two young kids, you have to make a decision. … You have to make up your mind if you want to go in a different direction.”
Before coming on to the ranks at St. John’s, Schlenner also spent 28 years as a Catholic. He took a position on council at St. John’s in 1987, around the same time he joined the faith.
There have been tough times. And just like most churches operating in the 21st century, St. John’s has to fight to keep its doors open.
In 2013, data from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America showed that in comparison to 1990, in 2010, children’s enrollment in Sunday school had dropped 61%. Between those same years, overall membership for churches also fell by about 20%, the organization reported.
To combat a shrinking congregation, Schlenner said the church’s Sunday school has been instrumental. The program, like St. John’s many other ministries, gives the church a wide reach into the community.
“It’s probably one of the best ones in the county itself,” Schlenner said of the Sunday school. “And then you also have the choir. They’re small, but they’re mighty. You have men’s ministry … they help a lot, too.”
In fact, Schlenner said, it’s contributions made by the 240-person congregation as a whole that makes St. John’s what it is today.
“What people do in this church, how they reach out to different people in the community,” he said, “it is amazing. They would do anything for anybody.”
The congregation honored Schlenner’s long tenure as a church leader last weekend at the end of their Saturday service.
At the short ceremony’s outset, the Rev. Peter Muhr banged a wooden gavel against a podium, commanding the audience’s attention. Holding it up, he said that hammer was a tool St. John’s Council had found little use for over the past few years.
“This gavel,” Muhr said, “never in my experience has it been used, although it resides in the church office all this time.”
“That’s because of the nature of your church council, and the leadership of one man for 30 years,” the reverend added.
Despite hearing his praises sung by nearly every person in attendance last weekend, Schlenner emphasized one point: that St. John’s is bigger than him.
“I always say it’s not one person,” he said. “It’s everyone that’s involved with the church. That’s the thing that counts.”
To learn more about St. John’s Lutheran Church and its programs, visit www.stjohnsinjimthorpe.org.