After 30 years in the pulpit, Utt steps down

Posted: February 15, 2013

The Winchester Star

The Rev. Jim Utt leads a Sunday service at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Winchester. He submitted his retirement letter Dec. 31, with plans to retire May 19. The colors at left are a reflection of the stained glass on the window between the sanctuary and vestibule. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

Winchester — The Rev. Jim Utt, 63, is ready for another chapter in his life.

That is why he submitted his retirement letter Dec. 31 to Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Winchester, listing his last day as May 19.

After 30 years as pastor of the downtown church, he said he loves the congregation, but it is time for a change.

“It is not usual to stay this long at one church,” said Utt, with six to seven years the norm. “I’m the exception.” He is also the longest tenured minister serving in the city.

A 1972 graduate of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, he received a master’s of divinity degree in 1976 from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., and a doctorate of ministry in 1996 from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

Utt wanted to come to a congregation that could grow and accepted the local position in 1983 at the age of 33. “There was a strong projection of growth for this area and that excited me.”

He felt he could introduce “new things that would be attractive,” and he knew of the history of the congregation’s generosity and willingness to grow.

“I felt I could do all the parish ministry I wanted to do,” he said.

His list of accomplishments includes increasing younger members for a more balanced congregation, adding to the physical plant of the church (which now owns four buildings downtown, totaling 35,000 square feet), and developing a staff of eight.

Lifelong member of the church Mary Miller Froehlich of Frederick County also lists growth among his accomplishments.

“He has helped the congregation to develop plans to grow and remain strong,” she said. “He believes the members are ‘ministers’.”

Staying downtown

In the 1980s, the church faced a decision and turning point for the congregation of whether to move out of the downtown area as other churches were doing.

“I wanted nothing to do with that,” Utt said. “Grace is a historical congregation in a historical town, right in the center of it. The ministry should be downtown.”

The church dates to the 1700s, and a stone wall from the original building remains in Mount Hebron Cemetery at the top of Boscawen Street.

The decision was made in 1989 to stay put and “serious long range planning took place,” Utt said.

Even though they lost some members, the church forged ahead with a Heritage for the Future Plan.

“It was definitely the right decision,” Froehlich said. “Our congregation has always been proud of its heritage. The fact that we relocated in the 1840s just a few blocks from the original site gave us the space we needed to be a significant witness to the Gospel right in the middle of Winchester.”

Grace Lutheran has always been able to grow its facilities and go out to the community from its location at 26 W. Boscawen St., she added. “It is a wonderful place to be.”

Buildings near the church were purchased in 1989 and 2001 so the church could grow within the downtown area. In addition, a major renovation of the sanctuary took place in 1994.

The church expanded to 350 seats in the sanctuary, two fellowship halls, and the continuation of the 50-year-old preschool for 3- to 5-year-olds, Utt said.

In addition, the church has grown in the number of younger members, Utt said. “It is more balanced than when I came. Then, 60 percent of the church was 55 or older and now it is a third of each age group.”

To attain this balance, he and church members knocked on doors, visited, and followed up with people who came to worship.

“Those who came often invited more people,” he said.

From 1983 through 2012, worship attendance has grown from an average of 237 to 281 weekly; baptized membership from 760 to 875, according to Utt. “All of this is during a time when attendance in weekly worship and membership in congregations have declined in our culture.”

He includes some statistics that he said gives a fuller story of his years of service for the congregation and community — 2,354 sermons, 3,830 home visits, 4,589 hospital visits, 488 prospective member visits, 428 baptisms, 425 funerals, and 244 weddings, as well as 1,829 new members received.

Co-pastor

About 14 years ago, a co-pastor organization became part of the church.

While Utt is the senior pastor, he said, both ministers are considered co-pastors.

“There are different responsibilities,” he said, but stresses they are equal as preaching, teaching, administering the sacraments and more.

The Rev. Martha Sims has served with Utt for about 11 years and is his second co-pastor.

“Jim is a good partner in ministry, and he definitely treats me like a partner,” she said. “We share equally in preaching and leadership.”

There are no other cases of this type of leadership in Winchester, she said, but there are about four in Lutheran churches in Virginia.

An advantage she sees for the sharing is in the event of retirement both pastors will not leave.

“Often when the senior pastor leaves, the associate will also go,” she said. “The congregation is often surprised when this happens.”

In addition, an interim will not be needed at Grace while a search is conducted for Utt’s replacement, she said. “We have very talented lay people who are offering to step up and help.”

The Congregation Council, elected leaders of the church, will assist in finding a new co-pastor, she said. “They will conduct a ministry profile of what we need, but it won’t start until the pastor retires — an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) policy.”

The present time should be used to give thanks, she said. “I will miss the camaraderie and partnership. We talk things through and support each other during times of tragedy and death. He has such a dynamic personality we can’t help but miss him.”

She describes him as wise, intelligent and compassionate. “Jim has a strong sense of call of the gospel to the wider community.”

That call has taken him into helping develop and sustain various ministries throughout the community, including the Free Medical Clinic, Faith in Action, Child Advocacy, C-CAP, and WATTS. In addition, he has been instrumental in the organizing and development of the Downtown Clergy Fellowship.

“I felt I could make a difference in the congregation as well as the community,” he said. “I had the freedom and platform to do this at Grace.”

A break in the church

In 2009, Grace lost about 20 to 25 families due to a stance the ELCA took recognizing persons in a same-gender relationship as capable of being ordained in the ministry if they were in a lifelong monogamous relationship, he said.

“This became controversial,” he said. “It was a sad time for the congregation. People we loved and loved us left Grace.”

The church did not leave the synod due to this decision — 80 percent of the congregation did not want to leave, he said.

“Those who left are good loving Christian people,” he said. “We continue to love them as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Future plans

Utt is retiring from active ordained parish ministry, but not from the church, he said. He plans to be involved as a supply ministry for churches who do not have a minister or for ministers on vacation. Plus, he would help the bishop if needed.

He and his wife, Susan, will continue to live in Winchester but not worship at Grace. “That would not be fair. We will stay out of the congregation. It is time for a new vision.”

Fly fishing and art classes are in his future. “Grace has been good to me,” he said.

In addition, the bishop has asked him to write a history of the Virginia Synod for the last 25 years. “It will be a labor of love for the synod that has been good to me,” he said.

Froehlich describes his leaving as a good friend moving away. “We will make new relationships with a new pastor, but we will always remember our friendship with Jim Utt.”

— Contact F.C. Lowe at flowe@winchesterstar.com