Leading Renewal, Doubly So

Katrina Foster re-ups in Gansett and Bridge
The Rev. Katrina Foster at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett in January Morgan McGivern

    As the Rev. Katrina Foster entered the sanctuary at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett on Sunday afternoon, a joyous applause rained down. With her three-year contract set to expire at month’s end, the congregation, and that of Incarnation Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton, where she is also the pastor, had just voted on whether or not to retain Ms. Foster as their pastor.

    If there was any concern, her supporters needn’t have worried. The vote was unanimous: Ms. Foster will remain with both churches on an open-ended basis.

    The decision followed brief remarks by Ms. Foster in which she thanked the congregants for their love and support over the last three years. Then came several expressions of support, from congregants of both churches, for Ms. Foster’s continued ministry. “We at Incarnation wanted to make sure you were at home with us,” said one. “We’re very pleased that you want to stay with us.”

    Gerry Mooney, co-manager of the recently occupied affordable housing complex for senior citizens at St. Michael’s, praised Ms. Foster for her tireless efforts to shepherd that project to completion. “I don’t think it would have happened without her,” he said.

    Along with that effort, Ms. Foster has led a transformation at both churches, palpably energizing her flock. On Monday, after a morning workout and on a short break between appointments, that energy was unmistakable as she simultaneously ate lunch, scanned headlines on a smartphone, and held a typically wide-ranging conversation sprinkled with Biblical verse.

    “When my predecessor took a new call in the D.C. area, Incarnation’s membership had shrunk dramatically, and St. Michael’s wasn’t growing,” she said. On a camping trip to Hither Hills State Park in Montauk with Pamela Kallimanis, her wife, and their daughter, Zoia, she learned that both churches were pastorally vacant. Ms. Kallimanis, she said, “handed me the phone and said, ‘Call.’ I did.”

    This new calling followed some eventful years. In 2007, she had risked defrocking in an effort to change the Lutheran Church’s policies toward same-sex relationships. Over 16 years at Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Bronx, she transformed a congregation in decline through music and community outreach.

    She assumed pastoral duties at St. Michael’s and Incarnation on July 1, 2010. “We went through the building of housing, we got money in the bank, and in that process, the ministries have grown, our membership has grown, our profile and presence in the community have grown, and we’ve been involved in a lot more community interest and ministry,” she said.

    With the sale of property for the affordable housing complex, she said, “one of the things we did was create a benevolent account of $200,000.” It was further decided that, each year, the congregation would give away 70 percent of the interest the account generates, and add the remainder to the principal. “The thinking is that, in seven to eight years, we hope to give away what would have been [50 percent of the benevolent account], but until Jesus comes back, we will give away thousands every year, on top of the tithe we give every year.”

    This year, the congregation will donate $17,500 to charities including the East Hampton Food Pantry, the Wounded Warrior Project, Maureen’s Haven, the Seafarers and International House, a New York-based Lutheran mission for seafarers and sojourners, and ReconcilingWorks, which advocates the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Lutherans in all aspects of the church.

    “We’re developing a culture of generosity and abundance,” Ms. Foster said. An example of this culture translating into action is seen in the monthly tithing testimony delivered by a congregant.

    “My giving is in response to what God has given me,” said Marge Harvey, a congregant who lives in Montauk. “St. Michael’s has been very important in my life all these years I’ve been living on the East End. The church can’t exist without our physical and monetary support. That’s why I tithe.”

    “We have everything we need, we just need to learn every day to put it to God’s service,” Ms. Foster said on the topic of money and financial stewardship. “That’s really not pie in the sky: At my congregation in the Bronx, in a community where the average income was less than $21,000, 65 percent of the membership tithed. Not because they were rich, but because their faith was greater than their financial worship.”

    As she has cultivated this culture of abundance, the congregations are themselves growing. St. Michael’s, said Susan Rossi, one of three that joined the church as new members on Sunday, “is the most welcoming place I’ve ever been.” Ms. Rossi, who grew up a Roman Catholic, is gay (“which is not the reason I go to this church,” she said), and her wife is Jewish.

    “The world is not just gay people, just like it’s not just straight people,” Ms. Rossi said. “I wanted to belong to a group, and I found that group at St. Michael’s. There isn’t a person there that did not welcome me and my wife with open arms. Neither of us knew anything about Lutherans, but we look forward to going to church with people from all walks of life, just like the real world. It’s the first place I’ve felt so much warmth and acceptance. So I was eager to become a member.”

    Like the funds multiplying in the benevolent account, “New members are how you get new members,” Ms. Foster said. “People usually love their churches, and it’s infectious. That’s how a church grows, and it’s fun. Church can be fun without being shallow. It can be fun and substantive.”