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The Church is a Love Story

I’m always gritting my teeth when I’m reading and hearing people talking about the Church as “an organization” or suggesting that we need to “run it like a business.”  I have a hard time seeing that model in Scripture.  We’re so fascinated by the “success” models of American business that we think we have to see them in the Church, too – everything from “the pursuit of excellence” to “best practices” and beyond.

But the model of the Church that I see time and again in Scripture is the Church as the Bride of Christ.  I’ve written on this before, and probably will do so again.  But here it is from a different source.  Bearing in mind that of course the Pope is going to understand / equate the Church with the Roman Catholic Church, he is still right on target in reminding us that there is more to the Church than spreadsheets and bottom lines.

Pope Francis: The Church is a Love Story.

 

Retirement? Really?

I’m a member of a group of Lutheran pastors that meets regularly to discuss all kinds of ministry-related issues.  This morning as we were discussing “bullying in the church” we were on a side note along the question of when manipulation becomes bullying.  The subject of pastors’ behavior in retirement came up  (three of us are retired, three of us are active).

 

(Note to my non-Lutheran readers:  in our denomination, pastors are not “assigned” to congregations after their first assignment out of the seminary.  We have a “call” system and for the most part it is the decision of the pastor and – presumably – the Holy Spirit as to when and under what circumstances he leaves that call and that congregation.)

 

So one of the scenarios that we have observed in our system is that it is possible for a pastor of long tenure in a congregation to retire from the office of the pastor of that congregation yet not leave the geographic area.  Often the congregation grants him the title of “Pastor Emeritus” to honor his tenure and ministry among them.  But what is his role there after he retires?

 

Some pastors make it a practice to disappear from the congregation for as much as a year – worshiping elsewhere, taking no funerals or weddings, being out of communication almost entirely with the congregation for such a long time.  This is hard to contemplate perhaps, but it has the effect of saying to everyone “This era is at an end.  Everyone (congregation and retired pastor and incoming pastor) now needs to deal with it and move on well.”

 

Some other pastors stay in the area and participate in congregational life, but as a layman.  This is harder to do – to turn down requests for wedding or funerals for people you’ve served in love for years, but it has a similar effect as above.  It’s also hard because the people you’ve served and loved for years keep calling you “pastor” and coming up to you for advice or complaints.  Sometimes it’s just easier to take up membership in a nearby congregation (we have one man who has done this in my church, where he serves as a trusted and gentle Elder) where everyone knows he is a retired pastor but he has never been our pastor.

 

The problems arise when the retiring pastor tries to manipulate congregational life after his ministry ends.  Some pastors do that by staying around and listening to the complaints and concerns of people rather than setting boundaries and directing them to the interim/vacancy or succeeding pastor.  Some pastors try to manipulate the future with elaborate plans and schedules involving the date of their retirement relative to the date of the installation of the new pastor.  We even heard a story of a pastor who talked his congregation into calling a man to be his associate for a few years; then they switched roles and the older man became the associate and the newer one became the senior pastor; finally the older man retired but hung around acting like the Senior Pastor until the newer man left years later and continued that way several years into the ministry of the next man!

 

Having heard all these stories, here are several observations we made:

 

As with many retiring people who form their identity based on their job, the pastor whose identity is based on his role as pastor will often be depressed or discouraged and have a hard time letting go in retirement.  The best recommendation here is, as I have heard Dr. Terry Wardle of Ashland Thelogical Seminary say numerous times, “don’t base your identity on something that can be taken away.”

 

We’re often afraid to confront manipulative / bullying people in the church (including pastors) because (a) we’re afraid they may get angry and leave or (b) we think that we must suffer because Jesus suffered -and “the servant is not above the master.”  Yet although Jesus was not afraid of His own suffering, neither was He afraid to set boundaries against some folks so that they would not cause others to suffer (e.g., the little children parents brought for His blessing, the prostitute being criticized for pouring perfume on His feet).

 

Toward the end of Moses’ ministry God took him up to the mountaintop and handed the reins over to Joshua, then removed Moses from the picture by taking his life (He did the same to Elijah).  For both Joshua and Elisha, for the people of Israel as well, the ministries of the great predecessors had definite ending points that all had to deal with together – with neither Moses nor Elisha in sight to oversee the transition.

 

Samuel, on the other hand, was “voted out of office” when the people decided they wanted a king.  While God told him that they were acting against God and not Samuel, I guess Samuel had to live with that.  But since they had rejected his leadership he couldn’t very well pretend to keep leading them, could he?  So perhaps he lived the rest of his life as a sort of pundit / prophet, commenting but not leading.  Yet I’m pretty sure that this is not the most healthy role for a retired pastor, either, as there can be a mighty fine line between “prophet” and “grump.”

 

Finally, David had in mind to build a temple for the Lord but was told “not you, but your son will build the temple.”  David was satisfied with this, though, and spent considerable effort gathering resources and materials so that Solomon wouldn’t have to waste time doing that himself.  Perhaps it is wise to make appropriate preparations for retirement, to prepare the congregation and the people for the need to face the event and the issues; but like David to understand that though you can assemble the materials, it really is the successor to whom it falls to build them into the next ministry.

 

Church and Ministry 2

See the previous post for an explanation of what prompted these reflections.

2.  Describe your understanding of the Office of the Public Ministry

If the church is the Bride of Christ, and Christ is the Bridegroom, those who stand in the Office of the Public Ministry fill the role of the Friend of the Bridegroom.  They take care of the Bride, keeping her safe and protecting her so that she is ready for the wedding.  They take care of the arrangements, the food and drink that the guests will have.  They take care of the guests, providing them with the robes of forgiveness and righteousness that they will need to celebrate this wedding properly and enjoyably.  They make sure everyone has a place and feels welcome in the celebration.

And they look forward with great anticipation to the arrival of the Bridegroom.  He has been away a long time and has entrusted all the arrangements to His Friend.  The Friend is glad of His trust, and wants everything to be good and right.  He is not afraid of losing the approval of the Bridegroom or of disappointing Him; but he is such a Friend to the Bridegroom that He cannot imagine how anyone would not want to join in the celebration.

5.   Describe your pastoral approach and practice

In addition to the basic Friend of the Bridegroom image above, my approach and practice center on the idea that the word “Pastor” means “shepherd.” It does not mean any of the following: chairman, CEO, leader, vision-caster, strategic planner, fixer, analyst, or administrator.  Each of these words carry with it a certain array of tasks to be done and skills to be exercised, but even taken all together they do not entirely comprise the calling that is named “pastor.”  Yet in the United States in this day and age many in the church tend to look outside the church for models of how to operate.  We find exciting, “successful,” and “growing” techniques and images, and turn to them because they give us a sense of accomplishment.  Yet it seems like a shepherd rarely “accomplishes” anything – he just cares for the sheep over a long period of time, without any measure of “success” or “achievement.”  But he probably doesn’t care about those kinds of things, because he just loves the sheep that are entrusted to his care.

My “approach and practice” has been growing in recent years to be much more like a “shepherd.” In the end, I’d be disappointed if people summarized my “pastoral approach and practice” by saying things like “he was a successful pastor” or ‘he knew how to run a church.”  In the end, I’d much rather that people summarized that “approach and practice” by saying things like “we caught glimpses of Jesus in him.”

Church and Ministry 1

I’m back after a hiatus doing some summer family things.  In the meantime I got a note that another District was looking for my vital information and wanted an update on something we call “The Self-Evaluation Tool.”  This is basically an FAQ form that pastors in my denomination are asked to complete so that District officials and calling congregations have an idea about some of our attitudes and opinions.  After some thought I asked my District office to send back the one they already had, because in that one I answered the questions the way I’m pretty sure congregations want to hear.

In the meantime I’ve been thinking about answering these questions in different ways.  I suspect that the answers that congregations want to hear are not the answers that I really believe in many cases, but I’m also pretty sure that congregations are not used to thinking in terms of the answers I really believe.  So while the District has the form, here are some of the questions and what I’m really believing these days:

 

1.   Describe your understanding of the church and its mission, especially regarding outreach to the lost.

 

Before we talk about the church and its mission, let’s talk about the nature and identity of the church.  The church is the bride of Christ, dearly and deeply beloved by Him to such an extent that He gave His life for her, to make her His own bride, holy and blameless in His sight.  So the church is the Spouse of Christ, Redeemed and made Holy in His precious blood.  Her joy and delight is to praise and proclaim the Bridegroom to all, whether they will listen or not.  She rejoices when those who hear join Her at the wedding feast; she is saddened when those who hear decline the invitation.  She praises and proclaims the Bridegroom to all so that they may join her in her joy.

The church that urges outreach to “the lost” because “they will be lost if we don’t evangelize them” is not communicating a sense of urgency, but manipulating believers by shaming them.

The church that urges outreach to “the lost” because it’s numbers are declining is lying to “the lost” because it really doesn’t care whether they are “lost” or “saved” as long as they can bring more money / people / members to the church.

Finally, the church that urges outreach to “the lost” denigrates and marginalizes them the same way the Elder Brother denigrated and marginalized the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, calling him “This YOUR son” rather than “This MY brother.”  We need instead to love them as brothers and sisters who may not have received the invitation of the Bride to the Wedding Feast or responded to her delight.

Do we really matter?

An Indispensable Churches Post

As you read the section below the first time, consider first “the church” as “the Christian church in its broadest, most all-encompassing definition.”

Then read the section a second time, considering “the church” as “any randomly chosen local congregation regardless of size, location, or influence.”

Finally, read the section a third time, considering “the church” as “the congregation I am personally currently involved in.”

Now ask yourself, What does it seem like God is saying to me through the words of these brothers?  How might I like to respond to Him?  and How might I like my congregation to respond to Him?

Naether Memorial Chapel; Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu, India

From a Christian point of view, the world needs the church, not to help the world run more smoothly or to make the world a better and safer place for Christians to live.  Rather, the world needs the church because, without the church, the world does not know who it is.  The only way for the world to know that it is being redeemed is for the church to point to the Redeemer by being a redeemed people.  The way for the world to know that it needs redeeming, that it is broken and fallen, is for the church to enable the world to strike hard against something which is an alternative to what the world offers.

Unfortunately, an accommodationist church, so intent on running errands for the world, is giving the world less and less in which to disbelieve.  Atheism slips into the church where God really does not matter, as we go about building bigger and bigger congregations (church administration), confirming people’s self-esteem (worship), enabling people to adjust to their anxieties brought on by their materialism (pastoral care), and making Christ a worthy subject for poetic reflection (preaching).  At every turn the church must ask itself, Does it really make any difference, in our life together, in what we do, that in Jesus Christ God is reconciling the world to himself?

– Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989.  pages 94-95

The Sermon on the Mount

An Indispensable Churches post

The Christian claim is that life is better lived in the church because the church, according to our story, just happens to be true.  The church is the only community formed around the truth, which is Jesus, Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life.  Only on the basis of his story, which reveals to us who we are and what has happened in the world, is true community possible. (page 77)

In a world like ours, it is tempting to seek community, any community, as a good in itself.  . . .  (page 77)

The Sermon [on the Mount, Matthew 5-7] implies that it is as isolated individuals that we lack the ethical and theological resources to be faithful disciples.  The Christian ethical question is not the conventional Enlightenment question, How in the world can ordinary people like us live a heroic life like that?  The question is, What sort of community would be required to support an ethic of nonviolence, marital fidelity, forgiveness, and hope such as the one sketched by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount?  (page 80)

– Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens(Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989)

Naether Memorial Chapel; Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu, India

We happened to be reading the “eye for an eye” part of the Sermon on the Mount last Sunday in Bible class, and commenting on how difficult it is for us to live the kind of life Jesus describes in those verses.  But we’re not alone – everyone struggles with the “love your enemies” words of Jesus.  We do the Christian quick-step around them with re-interpretations (“He didn’t really mean love in the same sense that you love . . . “).  We make exceptions (“I can love my enemies in general; but not that one in particular”).  We’re so hopelessly in love with the lex talionis because each of us has so idolized our individual selves that for Jesus to say things like “But I tell you . . . ” drives a knife right through the heart of our self-importance.  And yet we want to call ourselves Christians, too, and claim to follow Jesus.  The rock is firm, the hard place is hard, and we are caught firmly in the middle, unable to escape by ourselves.

Then come Hauerwas and Willimon (above), who tell us that it is precisely because I cannot escape by myself that I need the church, the community of believers, the communio sanctorum.  It is only in that context and in that community that I can be faithful to the words of Jesus.  It is only in the church, surrounded by other believers current and past, that I learn the truth about forgiveness, marital fidelity, and all the other things Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount.  We both know we won’t learn any of it in the world.  We both know that not just any community is up to the task, no matter how ethical it tries to be.  Only the church, the body of Christ, is uniquely designed by Jesus Himself to feed and nourish and nurture its members so that together we grow into the temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells.

I need the church that is the body of Christ all over the world – in India, in the USA, in Europe, wherever there is another believer.  I need that believer.  I need the church that is the denomination I belong to, and the denominations I see around me.  I need the church that is the body of Christ assembled in the building in which I preach, as well as those assembled in other similar buildings in our community.  I need the church that is the huge one in the big city, and I need the church that is the tiny one on the ridge overlooking the village of used-to-be.  I need them all – and so do you – because each and every one of them teaches me how to live the “But I tell you . . . ”  I confess that I am a poor, miserable sinner.  I rejoice that Jesus has forgiven my sins!  But I need the Church Indispensable to teach me to be the disciple He calls me to be.

And I think you do to.

An Indispensable Church

An Indispensable Churches Post

The white frame church sits on a low ridge above the little village.  It’s been on that ridge for over 100 years, looking over the comings and goings of the village and its people.  And there have been plenty of comings and goings here in this pleasant village in southeastern Ohio.  At one time this was a busy place, the home of miners and farmers that would come to this church every Sunday by the hundreds.  Weddings and funerals, baptisms and celebrations and farewells were held here time and again as the people came and went from the area.

These days the strip mines are closed and farming is harder than ever.  The population in the area is way less than it used to be.  Even for the 100th anniversary of this congregation, hundreds of people did not show up, though the celebration was wonderful and fun.  They haven’t been able to afford a full-time pastor for a lot of years, so other congregations in their district have shared their pastors with them.  On Sunday mornings twice a month the congregation meets in the morning to worship, using sermons provided by one of those pastors.  On Sunday afternoons the other Sundays of the month one of those “shared” pastors makes the two-hour trip to worship with them, bring the Good News of Jesus to them, and celebrate Holy Communion in their worship service.   Sometimes he stays to have dinner at somebody’s home. Less than two dozen people come to these services, some of them struggling with the infirmities of age.  Hospitalized members are usually cared for by the pastor of a Lutheran church in the next county.

But babies are born and baptized here.  Young people are confirmed, then married.  Twice a month the saints of God in this place celebrate Holy Communion.  In the summertimes the congregation has opened its building to servant-event groups coming into southeastern Ohio to do mission / service projects in the Appalachian foothills.  Sister congregations have sent Vacation Bible School teams there as well as other service project teams.  (For all the financial people:  this congregation has a higher annual per capital giving amount than the majority of its sister congregations in the district, though it is one of the smallest.)

This congregation is small, and getting smaller.  We don’t know how long it will last, or what it’s future will be.  The kids that grow up there, get married and move away, so it keeps getting smaller.  Is it dying?  Is it on the verge?  Shall we do something to encourage the few who are still “hanging on” there to follow others westward or southward 30-40 miles to the next nearest congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod?  Or shall we think again about whether this is one of those Indispensable Churches

It’s Indispensable because of its location – one of only two LCMS churches in an entire quadrant of the State of Ohio (almost 20 0f the 88).  It’s Indispensable because of the opportunities it offers others to be of service.  It’s Indispensable because it offers sister congregations opportunities to expand their ideas of ministry and fellowship beyond their own walls and embrace the saints of God in this little village.  It’s Indispensable because it offers those congregations opportunities to share their pastors with these saints, and it offers the pastors opportunities to see their own ministries as wider than the communities to which God has called them.  It’s Indispensable because the Word and the Sacrament are there, and so is Christ.  It’s Indispensable because the people of God gathered in this place are the temple of the Holy Spirit in this little village in the hills of southeastern Ohio.  If someone ever asks, “where might I go to find the Holy Spirit’s temple here in Pleasant City, Ohio?”  people could point to the white frame church up on the north ridge.  It’s Indispensable because it is named Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, and together with St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church on the south ridge the saints of God in Pleasant City have these visible reminders that the Triune God who loves them, who redeemed them, who sanctifies them, and the angels that He assigns to protect them, are watching over them always.

Do churches “need” to die sometimes?

An Indispensable Churches post.

Here’s a blog I ran across the other day.  Please read it before you go on.

Sometimes, churches need to ‘die’ | AlanRudnick.org.

So let’s think about some of the things Rudnick says in this post:

(1)  Rudnick seems to say that two defining characteristics of a “dead” church seem to be that the building’s doors are closed and that the membership has been disbanded.  But just a few years ago the Cleveland (Ohio) Catholic Diocese closed several churches and told the congregation members that they would have to relocate to other churches.  Many of these members protested all the way to the Vatican, and this summer some of those churches are reopening with great joy and celebration by the returning members.  Of course, this may simply illustrate the possibility that a congregation isn’t really dead until its own members say it’s dead – despite the analysis and even decree of something like “the wider church.”

(2)  If a congregation completely disbands so that its members are assimilated into other congregations, and if the building is reopened by a new ministry, how can this be called a “restart” or a “resurrection”?  In a more extreme example, if the building is sold so that a completely different denomination can begin a ministry there, that may clearly not be a “restart.”  But if the original denomination continues to own the building and implants a new ministry there, do we do that ministry a disservice by calling it a “restart” or “resurrection” rather than something entirely new and different?  In calling it a “restart” do we (unintentionally) burden it with ghosts of the past that may end up hampering its efforts to be truly new?

(3)  Rudnick asserts “that living churches have a life-cycle, too.”  I’ve heard this before, frequently accompanied by the “observation” that the life-cycle of a congregation resembles the life-cycle of a person in terms of time as well as in terms of stages.  But I think this may be a particularly American attitude that fails to take at least two matters into account.  The first is that the church in Scripture is compared to the human body only metaphorically, but identified with the body of Christ.  Might we not then infer that since the resurrected body of Christ is characterized as immortal, perfected, glorified, and eternal, so also is the church – even when there aren’t enough “members” to pay the bills to keep the building open?  The second is the observation that some churches have existed and even thrived in Europe, portions of Asia, and even Africa for centuries, well beyond the life-cycle of the normal human life span.  Village churches that have been around for hundreds of years.  Cathedrals in which the faithful have gathered to worship for a thousand years.  Sanctuaries in Jerusalem and Rome and Damascus and other places where Christian congregations have been in continuous existence since perhaps the time of the disciples.

(4)  Rudnick suggests that some churches may need to “die a death of institutionalism in order that it be resurrected into a Christ-centered faith community with a new calling.”  To this I heartily agree!  Over time it seems that many congregations “lose their first love” and devolve into a bounded-set mentality, drawing boundary lines and defining who’s in and who’s not.  How much better would it be if they could forget about the boundaries, focus on Christ and center all their activity on Him – their worship, their spiritual growth, their ministries to others?

(5)  Rudnick asks “Why must we insist that churches cannot change or be reborn into new life?”  I ask “MUST they change or be reborn into new life?”  Are there sufficient and necessary reasons why churches in Europe have lasted for centuries?  Are there important reasons why a world in swirling confusion needs the consistency the church can provide?  Granted, stubbornness and reluctance are not sufficient reasons to avoid change; but the traditions of liturgy, Sacraments, prayer, spiritual direction, art and architecture, community and many other aspects of the church have been anchors to its people and its community through wars, plagues, destructions, turmoils, prosperity, health, and everything life brings.

Let me summarize:  There is more to the life of a church than a building and a membership roster.  There are also memories, traditions, and history.  Most importantly, each church is the body of Christ not only for the local communio sanctorum, but also in  the local community of believers and unbelievers, sinners and saints, redeemed and unsaved.  Do churches sometimes need to die?  Not without taking all these into consideration.

Cause and Effect

An Indispensable Churches Post

One of the public policy discussions in the education arena these days centers on the issue of teacher pay.  It seems as though some people are of the opinion that for too long teachers have been paid like other union members, with a pay scale based on seniority.  These people would have a teacher’s pay adjustments based rather on the test scores of their students.  The reasoning seems to be that this is the most accurate metric of the teacher’s effectiveness.  So the argument goes like this:  good test scores are the result of good teaching, poor test scores are the result of poor teaching.  Simple enough.  So if you have a whole class of students who score low on a standardized test relative to some other class, it’s obviously the fault of the teacher.  Never mind the possibility that a myriad of other factors (parental support, capabilities of the students, amount of funding, “test-anxiety,” etc.) can influence the test scores of students.  The rationale here is that if the students perform poorly the direct cause must be poor teaching.  So let’s blame it on the teacher and tell them they have to change or leave.

One of the gaping chasms in the way we deal with one another in love in the church is that pastors are often treated the same way as these teachers.  Whatever metric you may want to use, if the church doesn’t measure up to that metric it’s the pastor’s fault.  Low attendance?  The pastor’s fault.  Low giving?  The pastor’s fault.  Inactive youth group?  You guessed it.  And on and on.  And this isn’t always coming from disappointed members of the congregation (although occasionally it does).  Sometimes this comes from judicatories as they look at congregations that “need to be revitalized / transformed” and the consultants that they send in to help.  Why isn’t the congregation living up to the metric the judicatory likes to use?  Because the pastor is not conducting the ministry the right way.  Because he needs to improve his leadership skills.  Because he isn’t . . .  / because she doesn’t . . .  / because they won’t . . . .

But this reasoning assumes a direct link between the pastor’s ministry and the ability of the congregation to meet a metric imposed upon it from the outside.  This reasoning fails to take into account a myriad of other influences.  This reasoning grossly fails to take into account the degree of opposition to both the pastor and the congregation by the dread enemy of all God’s faithful people.  And this reasoning isn’t reasoning at all – it’s blaming, a sin started by Adam in the Garden of Eden and one that we have never been able to shake.

What blaming does not do is this:  effectively call a “sinful” person to repentance.  What blaming does instead is this:  effectively drive a wedge of suspicion, mistrust, and resentment where there should be love and peace and fellowship.  Jesus is the one who made the church perfect with His blood; we cannot make it perfect by blaming one another for ineffectiveness.  What we can do is love one another as Christ has commanded us to do, as He has done for us, and leave it at that.

Everything else is just spreadsheets.

 

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