The Lutheran Bishop of New Jersey: Rethink what it means to be church | faith matters


Two years after COVID changed our lives, places of worship are assessing what we’ve learned and how we’ve changed.

“COVID has caused our congregations to rethink what it means to be a church,” said Lutheran Bishop Tracie Bartholomew. “COVID has allowed us to experiment with new ways of forming community and reminding ourselves of the importance of a phone call or a note to someone we haven’t seen in a while.”

She recounted how her congregations mourned together and also became creative in gathering outdoors. And how generosity has increased – both in terms of financial donations and in-kind donations to food pantries.

These are blessings in these difficult times.

March is Women’s History Month, so it was nice to reconnect with Bartholomew, one of New Jersey’s most notable church leaders.

In 2013, Bartholomew made Lutheran church history by becoming the first woman to lead the entire Synod of New Jersey. Two years later, she stood in the sanctuary of the Church of Saint-Henri in Bayonne, alongside the late Bishop Thomas Donato, their pastor, and remade history: a Catholic bishop and a Lutheran bishop standing side by side next to.

I wrote about this service, and that night I interviewed Julia Hrynkiewicz, a 13-year-old parishioner, who noted that the Lutheran bishop was a woman.

“That’s pretty cool,” Julia told me. “It’s different and I like it.”

About 200 other parishioners and residents of Bayonne did the same that night. It was a powerful image to see Bartholomew and Donato lead the “Seven Last Words of Christ” together during Lent. I admired Donato, a fellow student at Holy Rosary School in Jersey City, alumnus, for his courage to show us what can happen one day.

What Catholics lack, however, Lutherans benefited from under Bartholomew’s leadership. She was re-elected for her second six-year term in 2019 and there is no term limit.

She has a big challenge every day: The NJ Synod is made up of 157 congregations across the state. Cross Roads Camp and Retreat Center in Port Murray is an outdoor ministry offering year-round summer camps and retreats, a joint ministry with the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. New Jersey Lutheran Social Ministries provide housing and other social services in the state. The total number of their baptized members is about 45,000 people of all ethnic, racial, economic and educational categories represented in their congregations.

Bartholomew is very committed to social justice.

“We live our faith in ordinary ways – by being a good neighbor, by showing love and mercy to others, by advocating for just policies for all who call New Jersey home, by working to eradicate racism under all its forms, promoting peace and avoiding violence, standing with those who are persecuted, including our LGBTQ+ neighbors, and forgiving those who have done wrong,” she said.

This position is one of the reasons Reverend Danielle McCleary, a native of Virginia, accepted the pastorate of St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Secaucus, where she now serves.

For Barthélemy, it’s more than a cult.

“We proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed,” she said. “We do this in our weekly worship services and in the way we are connected to our neighborhoods across the state.”

Congregations tend to be smaller, bringing people together. That’s true in churches in Hudson County, according to Rev. Maristela Freiberg, synod director for evangelistic mission and assistant to the bishop.

There are three missions groups in Hudson County with 16 churches led by full-time and part-time called pastors and transitional congregations. Nothing structural has changed since COVID, Freiberg said. Each Lutheran church calls and appoints its own pastor, which is a unique process established by its founder, the Reverend Martin Luther.

Bartholomew noted some of the challenges their church communities face.

“Individualism pervades our society and makes us believe that we need nothing more than our own intellect or wealth,” she lamented. She also mentioned consumerism making us believe we can buy happiness and the fact that “political grudge separates us from each other.” These factors disappoint her when she notices them in church life, “especially at a time when I expect people to come together,” she said.

A difficult decision is for a church to close.

“We work with them to develop a legacy plan to determine how their assets will benefit ongoing ministries,” she said.

And these resources can be found in urban parishes, such as Hudson, which offer many outreach programs. Freiberg mentioned local food for vulnerable populations, a food pantry and lunchtime ministries, such as that of St. Matthew Trinity in Hoboken. They also offer citizenship and ESL courses.

Batholomew’s greatest joy: “Every day is different – ​​there is always a new challenge, a new story of God’s love in action, a new opportunity to share the gospel,” she said. And she inspires everyone to do the same.

Reverend Alexander Santora is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph, 400 Willow Ave., Hoboken, NJ 07030. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @padrehoboken.


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