Rotating a sanctuary 90 degrees sounds like a big project. That’s exactly what St. Mark Lutheran Church, Omaha, Nebraska, is doing, fueled by a big purpose – to connect people with Jesus.
“We want to bring the pastor closer to the people and bring the people closer together,” said Kurt Harmoney, St. Mark’s operations manager. The sanctuary, built in 1962, featured that era’s traditional long, narrow style that put worshipers as far as 90 feet from the pulpit.
“Instead of the congregation looking at the backs of heads, they’re going to see faces, bringing more community to the church,” Harmoney said of the new sanctuary, now under construction as part of a major renovation being made possible with the help of Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) loan support.
‘This is where I want to worship’
The renovation includes remodeling the sanctuary into a “fan” shape and rotating it to provide a less confusing, more welcoming entrance – an improvement spurred by visitors who often wandered around the church, wondering where to worship.
Dramatic updates also are in the works for the sanctuary’s lighting and acoustics.
The congregation brought in a lighting technician who diagnosed a major need. “He said in all his 30-some years, we had the lowest lighting he’d ever seen in a church,” said Harmoney. The new worship space will be brightened up with LED panel lights and recessed can lighting focused on the altar.
“It’s going to be vibrant – and awesome!” Harmoney said.
A sound engineer determined the pitch-perfect placement for new acoustic panels, an enhancement for Sunday worship and beyond. Children in St. Mark’s popular preschool program and students from Concordia Academy – the Concordia Lutheran Schools of Omaha located in the same complex as the church – will use the new sanctuary for chapel and school programs.
The youngsters are sure to see and hear more clearly – and so will their parents who come to St. Mark for special activities. “We hope to better connect with our day school and preschool families,” said Rev. Kevin Lentz, St. Mark senior pastor. “When they bring their children here, we hope they look around and say, ‘This is the place where I want to worship.’”
Building the Kingdom
The renovation began the day after Easter and is expected to be complete in December – hopefully in time for Christmas. One unexpected hurdle was an asbestos abatement project made more challenging by chicken wire interwoven in the ceiling plaster.
During these months of disruption, the congregation appreciates working with faith-based partners. “I can’t stress enough the importance of working with companies that are like-minded, who understand that we are a church and what we’re about,” said Harmoney.
For example, he mentioned their construction company who halted work on the day of a funeral at St. Mark out of respect for the grieving family. Likewise, the congregation values the partnership of LCEF, and working with fellow Christians like LCEF Nebraska District Vice President Nate Meier.
A Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) member himself, Meier said, “I really appreciate working with our ministries across the district and with LCEF.”
“In the past, we reviewed other [funding] options but LCEF has always been a better fit for us,” said Mike Munderloh, St. Mark’s treasurer.
A long-standing ministry partnership, the congregation had LCEF loans for a previous addition and a gym over the years. Today, along with the congregation’s capital campaign, an LCEF loan will help fund the sanctuary renovation, a priority in St. Mark’s strategic plan.
During this sanctuary renovation, the gym is utilized as space for worship. St. Mark leadership put thought into helping their members and visitors through the transition. The temporary seating in the gym is set up in a "fan" or horseshoe shape — similar to what they will experience when the new sanctuary is finished.
As construction continues, St. Mark members are seeing firsthand how their LCEF investments work for the church. Investors can see “what those dollars are actually used for — and how those dollars they’re saving — are helping build the Kingdom,” said Harmoney, who also serves as St. Mark’s LCEF advocate.
‘Doing this together’
In the future, the congregation plans to tackle additional phases of the renovation – building a new covered entrance and walkway to the church, sealing off the courtyard and adding gathering space for fellowship and coffee.
Each enhancement is driven by the congregation’s mission to connect people with Jesus.
“We want to be more welcoming, create a warmer and more personal atmosphere where we can meet people face to face and invite them to worship,” said Lentz. “We appreciate that those folks who are helping us out financially are part of the Church.”