History of LSUS, “Three Schools Become One”

Zion Academy, Bethlehem Lutheran, and Unity Lutheran Consolidate

By Jon Mielke, Executive Counselor for Christian Education, and Superintendent, The Lutheran Schools of Indiana

Indiana District, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and By Gretchen Hollman, Lutheran South Unity School Marketing Committee and Member of Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church

Lutheran schools in Indiana are experiencing similar challenges that other Lutheran schools across the country are encountering: declining enrollments, financial struggles, changing neighborhoods, and weakening family values. Instead of succumbing to these pressures, four congregations and three schools took solid steps toward not just maintaining Lutheran education on the south side of Fort Wayne, but proactively and dramatically improving it to increase enrollment. Through courageous pastoral leadership and capable congregational support from laity and teachers, the merger of Bethlehem Lutheran School, Zion Lutheran Academy, and Unity Lutheran School came about just in time for the start of the 2009 academic year. This article describes how these congregations and schools approached the process and established a stronger, healthier Lutheran school.

Celebrating our Past

Lutheran education has always had a strong presence and a long and evolving history within the Fort Wayne community. When Zion Lutheran School began, more than 125 years ago, the congregation built the school building before the church. More than one hundred years later in the 1990s, Zion changed to a classical curriculum changing its name to Zion Lutheran Academy. Bethlehem Lutheran School was founded in 1926, also before the church, and at one point was the largest school in The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Peace and Redeemer congregations started an elementary school known as Peace-Redeemer Lutheran School in 1946. Mount Calvary Lutheran Church joined the association in 1973 and the name was changed to Unity Lutheran School. In 1982, Peace purchased an elementary school building from Fort Wayne Community Schools, consolidated from three locations and moved to this unified off-site campus. In 1977, Redeemer elected to be removed from the association, which existed through the 2008-09 school year. Hundreds of children graduated from these three schools, deeply rooted in God’s Word and prepared to share Jesus with others.

Setting the Stage

Fort Wayne, Indiana, is not a typical Lutheran environment. With a seminary, twenty-two LCMS churches within the city, a Lutheran high school and nineteen Lutheran elementary schools in the region, Fort Wayne is a Lutheran mecca of sorts. The three schools and four congregations involved in this merger are all located relatively close together on the south side of Fort Wayne. The south side of the city has experienced urban decline, and this has directly impacted the schools. Bethlehem, Zion and Unity were different from other Lutheran schools in the area due to member-to-non-member ratios hovering around fifty percent. The majority of other area Lutheran schools have much higher member ratios of eighty to ninety percent. This combination of low median household income and larger non-member student populations placed an increased financial burden on the south congregations. Zion Academy was in immediate danger of closing. Bethlehem was soon nearing this decision, and Unity was experiencing significant budget difficulties and declining enrollment.

Moving Forward

The consolidation endeavor began in October 2008 with the pastors of Bethlehem, Mount Calvary, Peace and Zion congregations meeting informally to brainstorm ideas and discuss options for merging the three schools. Support from the Indiana District Office was quickly sought. By December, a steering committee comprised of leaders from all four congregations, all three schools, the Indiana District, and representatives from Concordia Lutheran High School assembled to provide input and assistance. Those weekly discussions propelled to the top of everyone’s agenda the need for a concept paper that would outline the educational model for the school. An independent consultant would later be added to guide and direct the merger process.

Concept Paper: The Golden Opportunity

The concept paper provided a mutually agreeable instructional plan for the new school. It also provided something much greater. It gave the opportunity for leaders to rally behind the creation of a new school and in doing so, turned a financially motivated decision into a visionary model that would forecast and test the future of Lutheran education.

Current educational research advocated by leaders in education guided discussions and provided a framework for change. Instead of teaching in isolation, teachers would now be given opportunity to work in teams to share ideas and plan units that cross disciplines during the school week. Teachers would be explicit about engaging students in different modalities of learning, employing a variety of nonlinguistic representations and instructional strategies according to ability level and need. Teachers would readily engage in discussion together about the design of lessons and the variety of design templates available for use. The teachers would integrate technology into the design of the lesson whenever possible.

The concept paper embraced and endorsed the principles of the National Lutheran School Funding Academy. Pastors of Bethlehem, Peace, Mount Calvary, and Zion Lutheran Churches, the principals of Unity and Bethlehem Schools and the headmaster of Zion Lutheran Academy attended the funding academy when offered in Indiana. From the inception of the merger concept, mention was often made to adopt the concepts presented at the funding academy. Budgetary dollars are scarce. Even though the positions of a student recruiter and gift developer are temporarily on hold; marketing, leadership, and stewardship components discussed at the academy were incorporated as benchmarks for success.

The concept paper also addressed what not to change. The new school would espouse the mission and ministry of all four congregations. Steeped in a rich heritage of Lutheran education, teachers would continue to emphasize the teachings of Martin Luther, Biblical stories, Baptism, and proclaim the Gospel message with passion and joy. Based on Proverbs 22:6, teachers would seek to “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” The teachings would be distinctively Lutheran.

Definition Document

With the continued assistance of a local consulting firm, True North Strategic Advisors, the steering committee wrote and presented a definition document to parents and congregational members. It outlined basic tenets for governance, finances, curriculum, facilities, staffing, enrollment and marketing. A list of “shared values” emerged and formed the basis of agreement for a new Lutheran South Association. These values are:

† Vibrant Christian education in a Lutheran context

† Significant, life-changing impact on students and their families

† Commitment to diversity

† Growing enrollment

† Implementation of leading-edge teaching methodologies

† Strong community presence on the south side of Fort Wayne

† Cooperation among Lutheran congregations

† Affordable education of superior quality on the south side of Fort Wayne

In separate informational open houses, congregational members and parents were given opportunity to ask questions and discuss the definition document.

The Result

In separate congregational meetings, each congregation voted in favor of the merger in unanimous votes. The new school was named Lutheran South Unity School. Election of the Board of Directors occurred in late March 2009. Three members of each of the four congregations comprised the newly appointed Board of Directors, which was charged with translating the agreement’s outline into a functioning school. During the summer, the constitution and by-laws were reviewed, revised and approved by all four congregations. The new school opened in August for the 2009-10 academic year with an enrollment of 205. The Board of Directors is currently completing the application and accompanying documentation to obtain Recognized Service Organization (RSO) status.

Keys to Success and Overcoming Hurdles

School mergers in the Fort Wayne area have been tried many times in the past. Some were successful; many have failed. What were the largest hurdles that needed to be overcome? What are the key reasons for the success of this merger?

Instruments of God

The overarching reason for success was the work of the Holy Spirit. The natural tendency was toward parochialism and isolation. With the Holy Spirit’s help, the pastors approached discussions with decisiveness, humility and cooperation. Intense lay leadership and countless hours of work brought the merger to fruition in ten short months. Above all, prayer was the foundation for all decisions and discussions. When the discussions became tense and emotions frayed, time was taken in prayer to ask the Lord’s guidance.

Outside Expertise

Leadership from the Indiana District provided encouragement, educational expertise and pioneer thinking. Assistance from an independent strategic advisory firm, funded by the Lutheran Foundation, organized the consolidation process and monitored adherence to a tight schedule.

Open and Carefully Crafted Communication

The steering committee communicated information to members and parents on a timely basis with an emphasis on a unified presentation of thought and substantial content. Voting members were allowed time to ask questions, and the steering committee’s agreement to present information together avoided rumor pitfalls. Information to the greater Fort Wayne community was also carefully managed.


The site chosen for the new school was on an independent campus that was not directly on the site of any of the four congregations. A new name was chosen as a compromise so that all entities felt a sense of ownership of the school. This new name was critical in the breaking down of long-held individual school identities in order to build a common identity.

Staff Selection

Inevitably and regrettably not all staff were able to be retained. The staffing subcommittee diligently negotiated a staff selection process that everyone could support. This most difficult hurdle was overcome with a tiered selection approach that honored divine calls.

Merger Experience

Unity Lutheran School representatives from Mount Calvary and Peace Lutheran Churches provided experience and insight into the operation of a merged school after having already operated a joint inter-parish school for years.

Emphasis on the Positive

Lutheran South Unity School brought the best of all four congregations and three schools together. Financial issues were transformed into an exciting opportunity to develop a new model of a leading-edge school. The reason for the merger changed from a necessity to a golden opportunity.

Excellent Education

A significant key to the success of the merger is the new instructional concept. Lutheran South Unity School is blending educational “best practices” with a solid Lutheran foundation and a spirit of cooperation that will serve as a model for the future. The instructional concept encourages teachers to develop lessons and thematic units in teams and incorporate instructional strategies and techniques that have a higher degree of certainty to impact student achievement. Teachers are excited to uphold those traditional techniques while employing leading-edge strategies and techniques when appropriate.

Funding became available through a grant to contract a curriculum coach for one year. The coach observes classrooms and provides feedback that is immediate, timely, and accurate based on the daily instruction occurring in the classrooms. The coach also partners with the teachers in the design of lessons and models those instructional strategies and techniques that are designed to achieve success at each student’s individual level.

Acknowledgements --- The writers would like to thank the following people for their significant contributions to the merger process:

Rev. Jeffrey Geisler, Senior Pastor of Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne

Rev. Steve Ensley, Associate Pastor of Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne

Rev. Donald Porter, Interim Pastor of Mount Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne

Rev. Paul Spira, Pastor of Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne

Rev. Douglas Punke, Senior Pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne

Rev. Ronald Stephens, Associate Pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne

Rev. Richard Lammert, member of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Technical Services and Systems Librarian, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne

Dr. Cliff Dietrich, Chairman of Lutheran South Association, member of Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church

Ronald Gehring, Attorney at Law, Chairman of the merger Steering Committee, member of Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church

Chris Goeglein, Managing Principal, True North Strategic Advisors, LLC, Fort Wayne

Phil Amt, Retired Principal, Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran School