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
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.
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
† 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Ronald Gehring, Attorney at Law, Chairman of the merger Steering Committee, member of Peace Evangelical
Chris Goeglein, Managing Principal, True North Strategic Advisors, LLC, Fort Wayne
Phil Amt, Retired Principal, Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran School