Welcome to our summer series, “Interview with a Pastor.” This series will highlight some of the pastors and churches in Project Thrive as we journey together toward the final year of the Thriving Congregations Initiative. We are grateful for the pastors as they lead their churches toward a thriving, hopeful future!

The Rev. Joel Emerson is the pastor at Memorial Lutheran Church (ELCA) as well as another Lutheran church in southern Kentucky. Memorial sits along Riverside Drive in East Nashville. Their worship reflects traditional Lutheran high church style with the added benefit of musical talent that much larger churches would cherish having. Memorial is the smallest of the churches in the cohort and were hit especially hard by pandemic losses. Their spirit shines in their care for each other and their musical initiatives with children.

The goal of Project Thrive is to help our churches thrive in their context. In your opinion, you believe your church is thriving and in what ways?

Sadly, our church is not thriving. We are existing, but not thriving. In some ways, the small group we have love and care for one another, which is a success for us, but COVID has really affected the church in ways that we may not overcome. I am grateful for the lifecycle of this church and the hope is still there that we may revitalize. The obstacles are great, but the church holds no anger toward the reality and are doing their best. 

Has your definition of thriving changed through this process? If so, how?

No, I think that word has a meaning we understand. Our people are grasping and hoping for growth, as you are always a couple of families from stability, but the definition has not changed and I don’t think we are there. 

Do you think the nature of your church either has changed or will change in the future?

I think the big change that may be coming is a metamorphosis from a worshipping congregation into something else. We are able to do that kind of thinking and planning [going from a worship space to ministry of a different sort]. 

What has been a valuable lesson you have learned as your church has participated in this process?

The answer to number 3 is the big one. We are capable of self-reflection which is important in a change process. How to move beyond that is the issue. Maybe the lesson is if we cannot move beyond that we have some challenges ahead. 

What part of the process has been most helpful?

The relationship with our coaches has been very important. He has made a serious effort to help us. The pastoral coach has been very helpful to me personally and may continue that relationship even after the grant ends. It’s all about the fit, and when it comes to coaching/counseling, the fit makes the difference. 

What do you want to celebrate? 

I don’t have a good answer for that. If we end up having to close, we want to celebrate the ministry and history of the church and finishing strong. The property is an excellent asset, so we want to steward that well.