Couple Carries Togetherness Into Church Pastorate

They Take Turns Preaching At Church

October 09, 1991|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff writer

MANCHESTER — Matthew S. and Norma Schenning share their lives and their careers.

They don't always share their ideas for sermons. They are willing,but time and hectic schedules get in the way.

The couple divide pastoral duties at Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran and alternate preaching and presiding at weekly services.

"I don't know what he will talk about this Sunday," said Norma Thursday.

"Neither do I," replied her husband with a smile. "It's too early inthe week yet."

The Schennings have been "enjoying each other's presence" as husband and wife for 15 years. They have raised four sons while earning degrees and becoming ordained Lutheran ministers.

"Team ministry was our dream right from the beginning of our relationship," she said of their work the past two years at Immanuel.

They met in 1974 while co-chairing an ecumenical Bible school in South Baltimore.

Matt was studying to become a Catholic priest. Norma, a divorced mother, was struggling to raise her four sons alone and workingas the church secretary at Salem Lutheran Church.

"We met, fell in love and I jumped denominational tracks," said Matt. "I left the Catholic Church for the woman I love."

Their union was not without problems, however. Matt said it took many years to mend the alienationthe marriage caused within his family.

"I was raised a Roman Catholic, and my mother was an Irish immigrant," he said. "It took years before we worked things out, and she accepted our marriage."

Before Matt's mother died, she told Norma the marriage was the best thing to happen to him. The couple also cared for Matt's father during his final illness.

Matt may have abandoned his quest for the priesthood, but he never lost sight of his goal to be a minister.

He transferred the credits he had accumulated at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, and, in September 1977, began studying at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pa.

Following a year of study and a year of internship, he was ordained. Then, it was Norma's turn.

WhileMatt ministered to his first parish in Talbot County, Norma completed her bachelor's degree in psychology at Salisbury State. Then, she, too, became a seminarian at Gettysburg.

The Lutheran Church began ordaining women in 1970. In 1986, after four years at Gettysburg, Norma joined their number.

"I always loved the church, but, with no role models, I never dreamed I would be a minister," she said, adding women are still "breaking ground" in her church.

She and her husband were pastors at neighboring parishes near the Carroll-Baltimore county border before coming to Immanuel and "fulfilling our dream."

"As a team, we are able to touch more people's lives," said Matt. "Women can relate to Norma's experiences as a mother who went through a divorce and often share their problems with her in a way they could not with a man."

Counseling is Norma's strong suit, said her husband. She can draw on her training and experiences to help others. She said she had such good response to a parenting course last year that she is preparing to expand it and teach again this year.

While she works with the worship, music and education committees, Matt focuses on outreach programs and evangelism.

"We want to sensitize the congregation to the people in our community who need to hear the good news of the gospel," he said.

Many people, searching for a church, have come to Immanuel.

"We have had success integrating people intothe life of the church," said Matt. "We encourage them to get involved and find a spot for themselves."

The strategy works. More than 100 people have joined the 230-year-old parish in the past year, swelling its congregation to 620.

"We are running out of room," said Norma. "But, that's a good problem."

Immanuel often opens its doorsto neighboring churches, too. St. Bartholomew's Catholic Church frequently borrows Immanuel's building for holiday services. Its pastor, the Rev. Martin Demek, and Matt are friends and former schoolmates.

Last Christmas, Catholics filed out of Immanuel after Mass, thanking the Schennings for sharing with them.

Matt, who is the evangelism consultant on the Ecumenism Committee of the Maryland-Delaware Synod, has a strong commitment to the movement wherein churches work together, recognizing each other's traditions.

Every Monday, the Schennings get away -- a few miles down the road to Millers, where they own a five-acre farm and three horses. Norma's parents live there and help care for the animals.

Some people wouldn't call farm work an escape, said Norma, but the Schennings find it a great change of pace.

They both also enjoy writing and recently co-authored a chapter of "Surviving in the Ministry," a book published last year by the Paulist Press.

"One of the blessings of our team ministry is that we can be a model to other couples," said Matt. "We have survived becausewe love each other."

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