Under God’s sky: The North Atlantic District

Donald L. Tollefson

The North Atlantic District stretches along the eastern seaboard of our nation, from North Carolina up the coast to Maine and into the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Within its borders rest two national capitals—Ottawa and Washington, D.C.—and large cities—Charlotte, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. It was known as the Colonial Conference of the Michigan District before being granted status as a district in 1983—one of the youngest of the 12 districts.


The first seeds of our district were sown when a call came from some concerned Lutherans imploring help to hold onto and strengthen their scriptural and confessional roots. Pastor Leonard Koeninger, on leave from his congregation in Lansing, Michigan, conducted the first WELS worship service on the East Coast in March 1963. By the fall of that year, in the shadow of our nation’s capital, Walter Beckmann was installed as mission pastor at Grace, Falls Church, Virginia. It became the first of a string of mission congregations planted in the mid-Atlantic region of the Colonial Conference. Twenty years later when the district was formed, he was called to serve as district president (1983–2004) of this newly formed district.


The planting of the first WELS congregation in Virginia led to others. Prior to the planting of these congregations, a WELS family who had moved into New Jersey considered their options when the nearest church of their fellowship was in Ohio. They debated: Compromise or pray? Thankfully, they chose the latter and were elated when a WELS church within a day’s driving distance got its start in Virginia. They made the 200-mile trip frequently. Soon the pastor from Virginia was making the trip to New Jersey. It wasn’t long before another congregation was planted. Others began to spring up, branching out along the coastal states in New Jersey (East Brunswick), Pennsylvania (King of Prussia), Maryland (Baltimore), Connecticut (South Windsor), Virginia (Virginia Beach), and Massachusetts (Pittsfield). Like circuit riders, the early pastors of the Colonial Conference were willing to drive long hours, navigating East Coast traffic, in order to serve gatherings of concerned confessional believers. The Lord used that willingness and that concern to plant congregations where his saving Word would be proclaimed and grow.

The 1970s and ’80s were decades of rapid growth. More than half of the congregations in the district serving God’s people with the gospel today sprang up in those years.

In those years the door was also opened to serve souls to the country to our north—Canada. St Paul in Ottawa, Ontario, organized in 1874 as a member of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, numbered some seven hundred communicants. Led by their scriptural and confessional convictions, the congregation along with its pastor, Thomas Pfotenhauer, applied for membership in WELS. They were welcomed as a member congregation in 1970 and were used by God to assist in the planting and growth of several sister congregations in the Ottawa Valley and beyond.


Ministering on the East Coast presents challenges. The mobility of the population as well as the high costs of operating a ministry are factors to be faced. And the independent mindset of the original 13 colonies seems to be alive and well. Of those states listed as the ten least religious in the United States today, six are in New England. It presents a challenge. But then, when has the church been without a challenge?

Challenges also bring blessings. The Lord has blessed the efforts of serving and seeking souls with the gospel of Jesus. Hope in Toronto ministers well to several cultures. Falls Church, Virginia, and Woodside, Queens, New York, minister to the Spanish-speaking population in their neighborhoods. On the horizon, outreach among the growing Korean population is showing promise. Several of our congregations serve Asian students, attracted to colleges and universities up and down the East Coast. Illumine, a ministry to college students, is an active part of the ministry in Ottawa, Ontario. Opportunities and untold blessings come when serving military families and members at various facilities—Fort Drum, US Military Academy, Groton Submarine Base, McGuire Air Force Base, US Naval Academy, Fort Belvoir, Quantico, Fort Lee, Langley AFB, Norfolk, Camp Lejeune, and Fort Bragg.

Not every church planting on the East Coast survives. Several have been absorbed into other congregations; several were restarted and begun with renewed vigor; several are no more. While it saddens us to see plantings not blossom as we had hoped, it gives us a firmer resolve not to let such setbacks discourage us. We find strength in God’s promises to move forward in order to share his Word that it may bear rich fruit.

And the Lord continues to bless the proclamation of his gospel. A congregational restart in Sterling, Virginia, is producing fruit. Preschools, such as Precious Lambs in

Raleigh, North Carolina, give hope for the future. Woodbridge, Virginia, is given renewed vigor with the blessings of a new worship facility that is being filled with worshipers. A new mission congregation in Watertown, New York, is just getting off the ground.

This young mission, like every one of our congregations on the East Coast, is supported by the generous prayers and gifts of God’s people. The support of others will help the congregations of the North Atlantic District sink their roots in the rich soil of God’s Word so that they might produce fruit. The Lord has promised he will not let his Word return empty but will accomplish what he desires. We take him at his Word!

Donald Tollefson, pastor at Immanuel, Long Valley, New Jersey, is president of the North Atlantic District.

This is the tenth article in a 12-part series on the WELS districts.



District president: Pastor Donald L. Tollefson
Congregations: 45
Mission churches: 6
Baptized members: 6,479
Communicant members: 4,860
Early childhood ministries: 3
Lutheran elementary schools: 2
Area Lutheran high schools: 0



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Author: Donald L. Tollefson
Volume 101, Number 10
Issue: October 2014

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