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.