Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Dismissing pastors, CRM and congregational polity

As the 2013 convention of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod approaches, there have been a number of posts on the internet regarding the problem of pastors who find themselves on CRM status.  Pastor Philip Hoppe has written an excellent piece about this entitled The Reality of Dismissed yet not Defrocked Pastors. He is honest in acknowledging that not every pastor on CRM should be in the parish as a pastor.  In other cases (more often the case in my own observations of events), the individual is a very good pastor who has been the victim of our synod's refusal to confront sin and practice what we claim to confess about the Office of the Holy Ministry.  

Pastor Hoppe succinctly and accurately summarizes the problem about CRM when he writes: 

 "We cannot dismiss a pastor 'lovingly' to seek another call when such a call will never come.  We must ask and determine the answer to this question, 'Is the man fit for the office or not?'  If so, he is not dismissed.  Issues are worked through.  Sin is confessed and absolved.  But the man called remains.  If not, he is removed from the clergy roster.  He is rendered aid in moving on to another suitable vocation.

 In this way we deal honestly and faithfully with the pastor.  He knows exactly where he stands and what the Church has deemed him fit to do in the Kingdom.  It deals with any sin he needs to confess.  It makes us able to help in his areas of weakness.

 Secondly, it is also the faithful way to deal with the congregation involved and its members.  We so often let congregations chew up pastor after pastor because sin and false understandings are never ultimately addressed.  We often never speak truth to them because we fear that they will react in a way that effects us, the district, or the synod in a negative way.  In this way, congregations spiritual dysfunction become habitual throughout the generations.  And this is not only bad for future pastors but it is also dangerous for the spiritual life of those persisting in unrepentant sin."

 As he suggests in his post, I pray that the convention can devise ways for men on CRM status to receive calls.  He is absolutely correct in his post about the way things should work.  Yet in the second paragraph of the quote above we see the reason why it is unlikely that it ever will.  The reason is that we have a congregational polity.  As I wrote in my post Brother Pastor, I've Got Your Back:

"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 'synodical 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."

In our congregational polity, the only true tool that a district president has in dealing with a congregation who acts this way is the “nuclear option” of having the congregation removed from synod.  However, the reality is that this is not something district presidents will do for a number of reasons. Just as a parish pastor wants to gain members and not lose them, they want to gain congregations and not lose them – especially not as a result of their own action.  The very practice of requiring periodic re-election of district presidents provides a powerful disincentive.  Our congregational polity in synod provides only one blunt tool to the most faithful of district presidents as he deals with situations that can be extremely complex – sin has a way of twisting things up (I write this as someone who has such a district president). Faithful districts presidents bear the burden of having responsibility, but little real authority with which to act upon those responsibilities when dealing with congregations.

We need to raise these issues and talk about them, just as Pastor Hoppe has done in his outstanding post; just as I did in my earlier post. At the same time, we also need to understand that living in the land of American individualism, we are what we are as a synod - we are congregationalists at heart and this reality will always trump doctrine we claim to confess.  All too often, it is the idol we place before Christ and his Word. 



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  3. Paul, It certainly is. The three you list require honesty, effort and a willingness to take actions that are costly to the institution.

  4. Maybe it would be helpful if a congregation which dismissed a pastor would lose their vote on their DP for one upcoming election. In a small way it might change the motivating pressures.