You Have to Know Who You Are

Nick Billardello (’10) knew he was taking a chance when he restricted his first call to Texas, where his spouse had a full-time job.

“The bishop’s office told me they didn’t know when they would have a call,” he said. That was a little more than a year ago.

Today, Billardello is the pastor of the newly formed Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Southlake, Texas, located between Dallas and Fort Worth. They became an official congregation of the ELCA on June 5, 2011, a year after their first worship service in a city park.

Their story is similar to other newly formed congregations in the ELCA. Abiding Grace is the product of a congregational split over the August 2009 churchwide vote to ordain openly gay and lesbian candidates for ministry. About 30 people who disagreed with their congregation’s decision to cut ties with the national church approached the bishop and asked if they could form a new ELCA congregation.

The bishop told the group it would take time and may be difficult, but asked Billardello if he would lead them in worship in the meantime. During this time Billardello was in the process of interviewing for a more financially sound, long-term call and had no intention of starting from scratch as a mission developer. Still, he offered to lead this small, committed group in worship.

“I saw from the beginning that this small group wasdedicated and committed to the ELCA, and would do what it takes to have a church home where God’s grace is preached weekly and freely,” he said.

When Billardello asked why they wanted to remain in the ELCA, “They said the connectedness to Lutherans around the world.”

Billardello eventually attended mission developer training and accepted a call to Abiding Grace Lutheran Church. The congregation held its first worship service as a Synodically Authorized Worshipping Community in July 2010, and eventually moved into a rented gym at a Montessori school
in Southlake.

“At the first service they said, ‘If we make enough to pay you we will’,” he recalled.

Nick Billardello presides at the table at Abiding Grace.
The members initially paid Billardello to preach on Sundays. By October of 2010 they made enough to pay him for two day work weeks, and in November he was up to three. In February 2011 the congregation was able to offer Billardello a full-time salary, which meant he could set a date for
ordination in early March. Like many of his colleagues called to churches with little – or no – budgets, Billardello opted to join his wife’s health insurance plan to save the new congregation money.

The congregation of Lutheran Mission of Seguin in Seguin, Texas, and its pastor, Tim Bauerkemper (’01), provided Abiding Grace with 120 hymnals. Billardello’s internship congregation, Calvary Lutheran of Richland Hills, printed Abiding Grace’s bulletins before they purchased their own

Abiding Grace became an official congregation of the ELCA on June 5, 2011, two years earlier than most new startups. The congregation’s current membership of 180 includes the initial group of 30, along with several people who returned to church after years away, including former Methodists,
Presbyterians and Episcopalians.

“Our goal was never to grow from other people’s flocks; these were just people who had stopped and now came back,” said Billardello.

Everything the congregation does is mission-focused, Billardello added. One month 60 members offered
landscaping services for an elderly woman and lawn care for a summer camp. In August, the members assisted a group that provides lunches for children during the summer months when school is not in session.

“We would have members invite their friends to help out and they would see that our heart is in service. It’s about giving people something to be excited about; letting people have ownership of the community,” he said.

The Montessori school closed after 26 years and Abiding Grace’s current home is now on the market. Until the final sale, the congregation has full use of the vacated school for a reasonable rent.

They meet for a Bible Study once a week at a different restaurant, introducing an array of restaurants to the members of the congregation and Abiding Grace to an array of diners. “It’s been great to watch the group grow and become more comfortable bringing their Bibles into a restaurant,” said Billardello.

“Everything we do is outward-focused. Every decision we make has to do with how we can share God’s grace with the community and how we can get it done with the least amount of expenses,” he said.