When two local Lutheran churches merge and the pastors leave for other assignments, who takes over in the interim? How about an interim pastor?

That's exactly what happened when the Atonement Lutheran Church in West Valley City and St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Kearns merged last March, bringing together 295 members.It was agreed that both pastors - The Rev. William R. Hazard of Atonement and The Rev. Larry Closter of St. Paul's - would seek other calls. Since that time, The Rev. Hazard has received a call in Bakersfield, Calif.; and The Rev. Closter has become a chaplain in the military.

Filling in as interim pastor at the newly organized St. Matthew's Lutheran Church has been Pastor Harvey Leuning, formerly a pastor in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Pastor Leuning just happened to be living in Salt Lake at the time of the merger while his wife was earning a doctorate at the University of Utah. But his stay is only temporary. He and his wife will be returning to Sioux Falls in a year or two.

"We are very fortunate to have Pastor Leuning as our interim pastor," says Elmae Johnson, a former member of the Atonement Lutheran Church and a new member of the St. Matthew's Lutheran Church.

"Well, it has been wonderful being here," Pastor Leuning said in response to such praise. "This is one of the warmest, friendliest congregations I have ever had."

Pastor Leuning will continue on an interim basis for several more months until a new pastor has been selected.

The new pastor will have his work cut out for him. Among other things, he will supervise the construction of a new church building.

Land has already been purchased at 5253 S. 27th West, land owned by the national church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Pastor Leuning said they will pay for it once they sell the old Atonement Lutheran Church.

St. Paul's Lutheran Church has been sold already. Additional money for the new property and church will be raised by a capital fund drive among the members of the congregation. In the meantime, the construction of the new church will be financed by the national church body in the form of a loan.

"In our church, we encourage members to seriously consider `proportionate giving,"' Pastor Leuning said.

Mrs. Johnson added that the main drive for financial assistance is held each fall. "We have made a commitment to give of our time, talents, and treasures to the ministry. So no specific amount is mandated. What members commit to give is an expression of their faith."

The merger of these two churches followed the merger in January of the national American Lutheran Church and the national Lutheran Church in America to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In fact, the Atonement Lutheran Church was a member of ALC and St. Paul's, of LCA. So the national merger was timely.

There were several reasons for the merger of the two Salt Lake churches.

First, it was better economically. The two congregations were suffering and felt that a merger could improve their position in that part of the Salt Lake Valley.

Second, the church no longer wants to consider itself a caretaker ministry. The new pastor will be called as a mission developer and will be involved along with his congregation in a mission outreach program.

As a result of the merger, lay leadership is more dynamic and the congregation is more committed.