With hymnals and handkerchiefs in hand, 41 of the 74 members of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Rockville celebrated their last service together Sunday.
At the close of the service, their pastor, the Rev. Charles Rampp, removed the lighted candles from the altar and called two former acolytes to take them. He did the same with the altar Bible, the bronze vases filled with yellow flowers, the communion set and other articles until the altar was bare.
Finally, Rampp, still wearing his robes, climbed a step ladder and removed the five-foot wooden cross from above the altar where it had been for 11 years.
After a final prayer outside the church, the worshipers were ready to form the caravan to their new home, St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, another small church with 164 members about four miles down the road in Derwood.
Eleven years after being founded as a mission church, the small congregation decided to close the church doors and join the neighboring church where Rampp has served as interim pastor since September.
After arriving at St. Luke, the displaced congregation placed their altar pieces on St. Luke's altar, Rampp hung the wooden cross over top of the new cross and with a short ceremony of prayers and welcome, the two congregations became one.
"It's sad," said Carol Brunzell, a member of Shepherd of the Valley for five years. "It's nice to be here , but we put so much work into the other church. A lot of work on the grounds we did ourselves. To see the plants still blooming when we left was really sad."
"The bottom line was money," said Rampp, who was called as pastor of Shepherd of the Valley Church five years ago. "We didn't grow, we were unable to replace persons who moved away, and I don't mean to another church, but Geneva, Arabia, Switzerland. And there was a falling off of interest on the part of members too."
"Attendance declined gradually. I spent more time at the church working on that than anything else," said Rampp. "If it takes all our effort to stay alive, is that a reason to exist? We should be trying to do something for somebody else rather than just be here.
"We couldn't pay the mortgage," said Rampp, a large man with graying hair and beard. "We had a 12-member council study the budget and growth patterns for four or five years. They studied to see if we should continue. The congregation voted 27 to 1 to join this congregation.
"This is not a big church, either," Rampp said. "Put the two congregations together and you have fewer than 400. They still have the same smallness. And this is a family church, too. The two families will become one."