The Rev. Steve Hilgeman is working himself out of job at St. James Lutheran Church.
Hilgeman is the interim pastor there replacing the Rev. Kathleen Yates who retired in July. Appointed by the bishop of the four-state Southeast Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Hilgeman took over at St. James Aug. 1. It didn’t require much adjustment.
“When you walk in this place for the first time, you already feel at home,’’ Hilgeman said.
The Lutheran faith is not one of the larger denominations in the South as evidenced by the fact that there are four states in the synod. By contrast, there are enough Lutherans in Minnesota that Minneapolis alone has two synods.
Hilgeman said he will carry out the normal work of a pastor including preaching and counseling, but he will also devote time to helping the small congregation formulate its “call document.” That is basically a profile of the church that can be matched with the profiles of available pastors, Hilgeman said.
Before he was ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 2013, Hilgeman had taught English, sold insurance at a Lutheran agency and worked for 13 years as the administrator of an agency that served people with developmental disabilities in Ohio. Lutheran Church of the Redeemer on Wilmington Island outside Savannah chose Hilgeman as its pastor because of his abilities as a preacher and administrator.
The bishop assigned him to St. James as interim pastor for six months “give or take,’’ he said. But Hilgeman will not be the permanent pastor at St. James.
“I’m not allowed to put my name in for consideration. My purpose is not to create a permanent job for myself,’’ he said.
Meanwhile, he drives an hour and 10 minutes from Savannah to Brunswick on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays and does at least one Zoom meeting each week.
The congregation will vote Sunday on a six-member committee to compose the call document so that it can ensure that a pastor’s strengths meet its ministry goals. Both will detail their stances on social justice, social ministry, administration, preaching, teaching, leadership, pastoral care and counseling among other ministerial categories.
The Chicago-based denomination hands down “expressions” of ministry, and it’s up to individual congregations to decide whether to accept them. Through those expressions, there are now gay or lesbian bishops, pastors and members in Lutheran churches around the country.
“You can have individual congregations that say, ‘We don’t accept that. We’re not there yet,’’’ Hilgeman said.
But five years ago, the St. James congregation became a ministry through of reconciling in Christ with the LGBT community, Hilgeman said.
As a result, same-gendered marriages can be performed in the church and gays and lesbians are welcomed into the congregation, he said. To his knowledge, the church has only one same sex marriage couple, two men.
“The LGBT community has a place to come where they are loved and accepted for who they are,’’ he said.
Hilgeman said he believes that scripture teaches people are created by God to be as we are and that science shows that people don’t choose be become gay and lesbian.
God made animals and then Eve because he didn’t want Adam to be alone, Hilgeman said, and some are born to find companionship with others of the same gender.
“All people are beautifully and wonderfully made,’’ he said.
Also, when some cities became sanctuary cities, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said its churches could be become sanctuary churches. His former church, Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, said it would not become a sanctuary church because of the legality, he said.
Hilgeman said he believes in preaching the gospel of Christ no matter how uncomfortable it makes those who hear it.
“The word of God convicts us, but in the next breath you hear forgiveness, grace and mercy,’’ he said.
He believes that is the sort of pastor St. James will choose.
He also said that the small congregation is fully dedicated to outreach. Before COVID-19, 40 to 45 people attended regularly, but now the number has dropped into the 20s. The church has in-person services, but everyone wears masks and recently every other row was roped off for social distancing.
Any pastor who chooses to lead that score of people will have to be just as dedicated to outreach, Hilgeman said.
“What this church does really well is they have a dozen outreach programs. They go into the community and do a lot,’’ he said.
The members need a pastor who will help with the existing programs and help develop new ones as the congregation desires, Hilgeman said.
As he helps St. James develop its profile, Hilgeman said wants his own pastor’s profile to lead to another permanent assignment.
“I hope to get a permanent call in Savannah,’’ he said. “Again, it has to be a good match.”