Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Brother pastor, I’ve got your back


Brother pastor, I want you to know that I’ve got your back.  My first move will always be to believe you and to believe in you.  When I hear accusations against you, my first assumption will be that they are not true.  I will not speak publicly about accusations as if they were true.

I say this because I know what it is like out there in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  It’s open season on pastors, and especially on pastors who want to practice what the Scriptures say and what the Book of Concord confesses.  I know that the seminary does an outstanding job of teaching you what God’s Word says.  I know that it does an excellent job in teaching you to love Lutheran theology.  I know that it instills in you a deep sense of responsibility for your service to Christ’s Church as you serve in his Office of the Holy Ministry.

When you were ordained and installed, and in each installation since, you believed what the Scriptures say about the Office and its responsibilities. You knew that Paul had said, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood (Acts 20:28). You knew that that Peter wrote, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3).  And so you knew that God had placed you to care for that congregation.  God had placed you, and therefore you were keeping watch over those for whom you “will have to give an account” before him (Heb 13:17).

You believed what your ordination vows say: that the Old and New Testaments are the inspired Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice; that the Ecumenical Creeds are faithful testimonies to the truth of the Holy Scriptures; that the Book of Concord is a true exposition of Holy Scripture and a correct exhibition of the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Lutheran Service Book Agenda, 166-167).

Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” It is found the Small Catechism’s Table of Duties and in the installation rite of a pastor (Lutheran Service Book Agenda, 180).  And so you believed the congregation when it answered “We will, with the help of God,” to the question, “Will you receive him, show him that love, honor and obedience in the Lord that you owe to the shepherd and teacher placed over you by your Lord Jesus Christ, and will you support him by your gifts and pray for him always that in his labors he may retain a cheerful spirit, and that his ministry among you may be abundantly blessed” (Lutheran Service Book Agenda, 180).

But I also know the reality.  There are congregations that don’t believe Lutheran theology all that deeply.  Some congregations would rather operate in the way of American evangelicalism.  Some congregations would rather sing “Shine, Jesus shine” than sing the Gloria in excelsis and the Sanctus. Some congregations don’t want to practice closed communion, even though it is the biblical and the official stance of our synod – especially when it involves their ELCA family member.  Some congregations don’t want to practice pastoral discipline towards those who are living together outside of marriage – especially when it involves their son or daughter. Some congregations have powerful forces who know it is their church.  Pastors come and pastors go but the congregational leaders are really in charge and they don’t need to follow anyone. There are alligators in the water.

Awhile back under the previous synodical administration there were a series of conferences about the ministry entitled “Who’s in charge.”  You had already learned the answer to that question for the LCMS.  The congregation is in charge.  In a congregational polity, they write your pay check and therefore they are in charge.  They are in charge because you learn very quickly that from the district president’s perspective the pastor is expendable.  You can always get another one.  Congregations can’t be replaced.  Therefore the congregation can do almost anything because no one is going to remove it from synod.

And so here’s how it works.  Influential congregation members decide for any number of reasons that they don’t want you as pastor.  The reasons are not legitimate. But that doesn’t matter.  They begin to work in the congregation to stir up criticism and resentment.  They look for any opportunity to take offense at you.  They make life uncomfortable by refusing to give you a raise and by lowering your health care coverage.

If this doesn’t get rid of you fast enough, they start to contact your circuit counselor and district president.  They are still operating in the church and so they couch their accusations in the form of: “He doesn’t have good people skills.”; “He’s lazy.”; “He’s too rigid.”  The circuit counselor and district president may share the same beliefs as the congregation.  They may not want to be biblical and Lutheran in practice, and so they are only too happy to take its side.  There is talk of “syndical reconcilers” and the like, but the die has been cast.

Finally, the congregation just declares that after such and such a date, it will no longer pay you.  Perhaps the leaders have met with the district president and out of “Christian love” they have agreed to give you a six month “severance package.”  You learn that your divine call means nothing because the congregation writes the checks and the district doesn’t want to lose the congregation.

Now I have to be honest with you.  This is not my situation. By God’s grace I am blessed with a congregation that has a long history of loving, supporting and respecting the pastor.  I am in a circuit where the congregations and pastors want to be Lutheran.  I have a solid and supporting circuit counselor (in fact for the last six years they’ve tried to get me to be circuit counselor).  I am in a district that wants to be Lutheran and have been blessed with former and present district presidents who are everything for which a Lutheran pastor could ask. But I have seen so many brothers – so many brothers who were not lazy and did not have bad people skills – mistreated in this way.  They were good men – faithful pastors who were operating under the assumption they were supposed to be Lutheran pastors. I am grieved that the LCMS allows her pastors to be abused in this way.

My first move will always be to believe you and to believe in you.  When I hear accusations against you, my first assumption will be that they are not true.  That doesn’t mean that I will ignore the evidence that arises to support the accusations.  I am a fallen sinner and you are too.  I know that there are pastors out there who are lazy; who do have problems dealing with people; who do make big mistakes.  If you see that in me, I expect you to come to me privately and talk to me.  I need to hear the Law.  I promise that if I see it in you, I will do the same.

Because of what the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions say about the Office of the Holy Ministry, there are occasions when you or I may need to be removed.  This is necessary when there is immoral conduct such as fornication, adultery, sexual abuse or theft.  It must happen when there is false doctrine and a refusal to admit this and repent.  It will be necessary if you or I abandon the responsibilities for which we have been called (and the standard of proof on this must be exceptionally high – this is not to be a tool for removing faithful pastors). Where there is clear and unambiguous evidence this must happen.   

What I won’t do is speak publicly about accusations as if they were true when there is no such evidence.  I won’t do it because the greatest threat to the ministry of the LCMS is not lazy pastors or pastors with bad people skills or pastors who make mistakes.  The greatest threat is a general denial of the Office of the Holy Ministry and what it means for the way God deals with the congregation and the way congregations need to relate to their pastor.  I won’t speak in a way that supports this denial.  Brother  pastor, I’ve got your back.









24 comments:

  1. Beautiful. Nothing so beautiful as truth. Thank you.

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  2. Mark, thanks so much for this much needed letter. I appreciate your tone and the spirit in which it is offered. Keep up the good work.

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  3. just learned of another brother treated this way. May God have mercy upon him, his family, and upon his attackers.

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  4. "There are congregations that don’t believe Lutheran theology all that deeply."

    There are pastors that don’t believe Lutheran theology all that deeply. SERIOUSLY.

    There are pastors who are VERY liturgical and want no part of "Shine, Jesus Shine" but also want no part of closed communion. There are pastors who think a quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions is not what makes someone "confessional". There are very conservative, very liturgical pastors who say things like "I don't see myself as Lutheran". There are pastors who think "alligator" is the proper description for anyone who disagrees with anything they do. There are very liturgical pastors who think a traditional view of creation is just "American evangelicalism" and best left to the "wackos".

    I know all of this from firsthand experience. And while you may say those pastors are wrong, they would then turn around and say you're wrong. Just like the non-litrugical pastors, and the moderates, and the liberals, and the church growthers would all say everyone else is wrong too.

    Good thing pastors have each other's back.

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  5. L Brown, I must confess that I have never met pastors who fit your description. There is variety out there in Lutheranism. However, I don't think it is as confused a situation as you describe.

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  6. I echo Brother William, this is a beautiful, inspiring, and bracing blog post Br. Mark. We are indebted to you. Thank you!
    - Jay

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  7. Thanks for the great words. This is how we come together and learn to trust and respect each other. (Thanks for posting your train pictures and videos on FB as well!).

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  8. Thank you, pastor. Thank you for standing up and boldly confessing the truth. Thank you for allowing God to witness through you. Thank you!

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  9. Thank you. These are things that have been on my mind for a long time. The creation of the blog last month provided the forum to share them when prompted by recent events.

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  10. Will the Koinonia Project also educate members of LCMS congregations? Laymen need to learn what is historically and authentically Lutheran, why it is Lutheran, and why it is incompatible with evangelicalism.

    For example, everything about the church architecture for this LCMS congregation (building was constructed in 2011) is described in painstaking detail. Retro church buildings are cool:

    http://risensaviorlcms.org/brochures/RSLC%20Architecture%20brochure%20a.pdf

    Retro is cool:

    http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20130216/ISSUE01/302169976/the-next-thing-for-our-digital-age-pinball

    People yearn for an earlier, simpler time. If pinball machines can make a comeback, then so could the theology of Old Missouri.

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  11. While I have tried to remain away from the Lutheran blog world, this was linked on a friends page, and I wondered what my old classmate Mark was up to. Hope you are sticking with the Latin. Anyway, well said, Mark.

    I try to stay out of the Lutheran blog world, this is one case where I am going to fail to be successful. Mea maxima culpa.

    I was only a year in my first parish when I got slammed by some members because I refused to participate in an ecumenical prayer service in commemoration of a tornado that had ripped through town a decade earlier. I wondered if that first tornado was a bad as the one that ensured because I had the audacity to follow our Synodical teaching especially when I retired LCMS pastor in my congregation was also against me.

    Fortunately, that episode blew over, as tornado are prone to do. I guess the congregation forgave me for being a Lutheran. But I remember clearly the relief I felt through many supportive colleages, many of whom are probably reading this. In particular I remember when Bob Zagore called (on the phone) and said, "I am in your corner." Not exactly, "I've got your back" but close enough.

    There were many times, too, when I had opportunity to return the favor to others. I have done so, but I have never done enough. Even a box of food to a struggling brother who was within a reasonable distance was a great opportunity to help.

    Still, it must be remembered that sympathy and support are two different things entirely. Sympathy and expressions of sympathy are easy to give. Support takes more that words. It takes sacrifice. And while I know it will not be appreciated that I be the messenger of this news, that is what Lutherans really stink at. I mean, on a cosmic scale. You may be outraged about Meyer's ranting minute, but blogging about it and telling some guy you probably don't know that you have his back is not enough. How exactly do you have his back, when you don't know what his front looks like. Real love is more than a theory.

    To those brothers who are wounded, hurt, betrayed and filled with bitterness I suggest you go visit a Roman Catholic Priest. He will love you, he will find help for you in concrete ways, and he won't try to convert you. It seems we suck at recognizing mission opportunities more than you do.

    If you need more than sympathy, if you need real support, look up the Catholics. All you'll get from your fellow Lutherans is a fleshless symphathy. And if you have trouble finding that help, look me up.

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    1. Dan- that is incredibly unfair. I know that I have had real support from brothers in the holy office and I am quite sure there are many who could testify to the same. That many have been let down and left hanging is also certainly a fact, for which repentance is called for and real forgiveness. The answer for the confessional Lutheran is not to turn to the Church of Rome or her priests, but to the real and known faithful brethren of our confession who will give real and lasting gifts freely. Such men exist. Surburg is one. If anyone out there is in need you can look me up too. I can name men in every district that I would not hesitate to be pastor to my family. And if I can't be there I can certainly find someone close who can be.

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  12. Daniel, The blog was not addressed to an individual. It expresses how I treat all pastors. I don't think your advice will work out that great. From what I have seen those Roman Catholic priests are rather hard to find these days - they are in extremely short supply. I hear that it has something to do with forcing celibacy upon those who want to serve as clergy. Maybe Rome will eventually take its lead from Peter and change her mind on that one. Thanks for your concern. Like Ben, I have no concern about finding brothers I can count on within this fellowship.

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  13. Boy, and Amen, brother. I am soo tired of people playing fast and loose with each others' and their pastors' reputations. I also am struck by how often it seems that people are interested in "nailing" their pastor with some charge rather than, if it has any truth to it, being willing to accept his repentance. There is no reason for anyone to "dig in their heels" and refuse to repent to (and forgive!) one another. Let the Church in all respects learn to practice what she confesses/teaches.

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  14. Thank you for the post. Taking Pr. Weedon's advice from his blog, I especially read it as a currently serving circuit counselor. As to "looking up the Catholics" for the support that is seen lacking in our Lutheran circles, I agree with the comment following that the seeming advice was "incredibly unfair." I know of many brother pastors who have been very supportive, and like the author of the post I am also blessed to have that support in my circuit and parish.

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  15. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It's important to see a model of how we should treat our pastors (or anyone else in the faith, for that matter) in responding to gossip, rumors, or other criticisms. And it's especially nice to know that the pastors in our synod would offer support to one another. After all, we are all in the same (human) boat.

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  16. You have made many valid points in your article. The question is what will we do about it? Pastors who leave their parishes are put onto this status called CRM. It seems to mean "Cannot Return to the Ministry". It is easy to bemoan the fact that congregations can turn on their pastors but what are we going to do about it? You wrote that District Presidents believe the pastor can be replaced but not the church but what are we going to do about it?
    Have you ever listened to the stories of those on CRM? Mostly, they feel abandoned by the church they love, treated as lepers by other pastors, and the feel as they were a wounded soldier left in the jungles to die alone. By the way, "poor people skills" is congregation code for "He did not do what we told him to do". (Yes, it is true that some men lack the social skills but they are few and far between.) “Lazy” is also code word for “He did not do what we wanted him to do”.
    If I maybe so bold, have you ever talked to those on CRM to get an idea of what happens to them? Do you know what happens to a man on CRM? Besides the loss of self-respect and being abandoned by other pastors and the church, most of the time, he has no degree to get "another job". He ends up working anywhere barely getting by. His wife, if he has one, has to go to work full time. Soon, their savings are gone and most likely, they have no health care. One surgery and they are financially sunk. All the time, there are the constant comments by "church people" that he is in this situation because he did not trust the Lord enough or his faith was weak.
    What are we going to do about those on CRM? Should we form another commission to look into it? The problem is not only with the congregations; the problem is that pastors do not have each other’s back. There is no solution to that because only in an ideal world would pastors pressure their District Presidents to support pastors in trouble and to find calls for those on CRM. After all, congregations send in the money that the District Office depends on for their salaries. In the meantime, we watch another pastor fall from the ranks with a knife in his back, and we march on and are thankful that it was not us---this time.

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  17. Mark, this is an outstanding post. You have echoed my own thoughts and feelings toward my brothers in office. Thank you for being or voice today.

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  18. Excellent post, Mark. Well and truly spoken.

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  19. I am one layman who confesses that I have been part of the problem, particularly when I pridefully held the unscriptural office of "elder."

    May God prevent me from ever again oppressing my pastor. May He grant me faith, energy and courage to support my pastor unfailingly. I need not lord anything over him because I know he will someday be called to account for how he obeyed the One who sent him. My only job is to joyfully receive the gifts that Christ gives me through his service.

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  20. Regarding the theme throughout that pastors can be replaced, not congregations, this is so terribly true in the sense in which it was written. I stood beside my pastor as a Deacon in a Baptist Church as the ruling families cruelly mistreated him for failing to meet their needs and bow to their leadership.

    But be sure of this, congregations as a whole (Authentic Christians are protected by their own righteousness - Ezekiel 14:14-20), CAN be abandoned by God. Indeed they ARE abandoned anywhere and anytime they ask Him to take second place. What is a Body without the Holy Spirit? A corpse. Though God may use even dead bodies to accomplish His redemptive purposes...though He might even resurrect a Body that repents...dead is dead. Choose Life!

    All Authentic Christians are united in essential doctrine. Everything else is open for vigorous discussion as believers together strive for Truth. Whoever we attribute the quote to (Augustine, Wesley, someone else?), there is wisdom in the words, "IN ESSENTIALS UNITY, IN NON-ESSENTIALS LIBERTY, IN ALL THINGS CHARITY."

    Only open sin made sure in the presence of two or more witnesses (more is better!), or a departure from essential doctrine warrants strong rebuke - for clergy or laity. Your pastor is not, indeed cannot be, Jesus for you. He is sent by God to help you find Jesus and protect you in that search from a world full of ravenous wolves and one very angry roaring lion - all seeking to devour you before you find Him.

    There is no tougher job on the face of the earth. When a man (or woman)chooses the role of pastor or teacher, they get Satan's attention. The deceiver hates those made in the Image of God, but in particular those who openly and actively oppose him.

    God richly bless and keep you pastors! I STAND WITH YOU!

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