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.
After Jesus, Peter, James and John came down from the Mount of Transfiguration,
14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. 16 “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.
17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.” Mark 9:14-17
I know – the same argument as today, probably. Did the boy really have a demon, or did he have epilepsy? First of all, come on! Julius Caesar had epilepsy, or something like it, and the Romans all knew it was a disease and not a demon almost a century before this account. So, let’s take Mark’s word for it that it was a demon (and the Holy Spirit as a corroborating witness, remember).
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s focus on that father. That poor guy and his son! Who know how old the son was at this point, but he had had the demon since he was little. The family had probably gone out of their minds trying to find ways to help him. If they had lived in our day, they would have gone to one specialist after another, both medical and psychological. They would have tried a variety of drugs, treatments, and behavioral therapies, all to no avail. I suspect that this family had been drained of their resources over the years, financially, emotionally, spiritually – and that the boy himself had (as said of another patient of Jesus) “suffered much at the hands of many physicians.”
Now maybe this father comes to Jesus and the disciples in desperation. This will be their last chance. He’s run out of options, and has nowhere else to turn. Trembling with fear and his last ounce of hope, he comes to where he’s heard Jesus is – only to find that He’s out of the office for the day! He’s up on the mountain with some of the disciples! The best he can do for his son is hope that the disciples can do something for him – but they can’t.
Can you imagine this father’s heart at the end of that day? Can you imagine the tears falling from his eyes as he holds his precious son to keep him from being hurt as he falls in another convulsion? Can you imagine his sorrow and anguish that even this last hope has been empty and futile? Can you imagine his anger and resentment at the crowd that stands around, impassively and objectively arguing about whether or not the boy has a demon after all, totally ignorant of the toll this has taken on his whole family’s life?
And then, just as he’s about to pick up his son and take him home, along comes Jesus and Peter and James and John, fresh from the top of the mountain. Jesus asks, What’s going on? The father tells him. Jesus sighs, and commands the demon to come out. The demon thrashes the boy around some, but comes out as commanded. Everybody can see that the demon has come out and the boy is well. The father can take him home!
Can you imagine the father’s heart now breaking not for sorrow, but for joy? Can you imagine the father’s heart not breaking for emptiness, but exploding because it is full of thanksgiving and hope and praise? Can you imagine the father leaping and skipping and running home, hand in hand with this healthy son, healthy for the first time in years? Maybe planning to surprise Mother at the door – maybe planning a big party for all the neighbors later – maybe planning already the outings they’ll go on, the sports they’ll play, the adventures they’ll have together, the fun and the love as father and son from now on.
But – what about the “unbelieving generation” comment of Jesus in verse 19? What’s that all about? I suppose it could be a sigh of disgust, maybe, that some people take so long to come to Jesus. Like they see Him like their last resort rather than their first recourse.
Of course, we pastors know what that’s like, don’t we? People come to us and say things like, “Pastor, the wife and I have decided to get a divorce. We’ve signed the papers, and we thought you should know.” We nod, and inwardly groan and wonder why they didn’t come to us earlier in the process?
But truth be told, I do the same thing with Jesus. He’s often farther down on my “To Call” list than He ought to be, and often when I do reach out to Him it’s only after I’ve reached out to several others.
And yet that’s not where I’m really headed with this post. Go back for a moment to the paragraph in italics above. Whether they call us “Father” or not, we pastors often have the kind of relationship with the people Jesus gives to us that causes our hearts to ache for them. Whether they are our blood children or adopted children or our spiritual children, haven’t there been times when their lives and their situations pierce your own heart like a sword? Times when you’ve felt like the Prodigal Father trembling with anticipation that today might be the day the lost son is finally found? Times when perhaps, as someone’s pastor, you’ve thought “if I could be in that hospital bed / Alzheimer’s unit / jail cell instead of you”?
This story touches me at that place in my heart, and I want nothing more than to bring all these children to Jesus for Him to cast out whatever is possessing them so that we can run and play and celebrate His love forever – and Jesus and me with them.
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.”
A post from The Formational Pastor
Ephesians 2:11-12 / RCL Proper 11, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 22 2012
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men) — 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Let’s talk about the Core Longing of Belonging today, shall we? Paul reminds the Ephesians (and us) that there was a time when we did not belong to the people of God – and such “not belonging” meant we were without hope, too. But in Jesus Christ God has eliminated every barrier to our belonging to Him. He has totally filled that Core Longing through His Son.
What words do you want to use to describe what God has done to meet that longing? “No longer two, but one” means that you who belong to God cannot be counted separately anymore. “One body” means that you are united to all the others who belong to Him, you draw life from each other and give life to each other through mutual encouragement and forgiveness in Jesus’ Name. “He preached peace” not only means that He announced peace, but since His Word has creative power He also created peace between you and all believers, as He did between you and God. “You are fellow citizens with God’s people” with all the rights and privileges we accord to citizens – and you know how the political debate rages over immigration these days. No such debate over your status! “You are members of God’s household.” Not just a next-door-neighbor citizen, but a member of God’s family, with a seat at His dinner table and a place always in His house and home. “Being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit,” so that if those who are not citizens of God’s Kingdom and outside His family, who are still far away from Him and separated from Him should be looking for directions to Him, for guidance to Jerusalem, for the presence of the Temple where God truly dwells among His people, they need look no farther than to you and the believers around you.
I’m reading the RCL lessons for this coming Sunday – Ezekiel 2:1-5 and Mark 6:1-13 – and notice a similar theme. Ezekiel is called by the Lord to preach specifically to people whom the Lord knows (and so does Ezekiel) are not about to listen to him; when Jesus goes to Nazareth to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to them, they refuse to listen to Him as well. In fact, Mark notes that their unbelief was so stubborn that Jesus could not perform any miracles there.
Sometimes in our pastoral work we can feel like we’re just bashing our head against a brick wall. Our preaching isn’t having an effect. Nobody is listening to our suggestions. Despite our best efforts, the congregation isn’t growing. We think we are doing everything we possibly can, but nothing seems to be happening.
Some twenty years ago or so some consultants did a study of congregations in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod that concluded that the chief reason that congregations in our church don’t grow in numbers is because the pastors of those congregations spend their time doing wrong tasks. Their prescription was that the pastors should change and do right tasks, and the churches would grow. We’ve been fighting about that prescription ever since.
Should the pastor take the blame if the church doesn’t grow? Should he blame the congregation, and say that they’re as stubborn as the people Ezekiel was sent to? Should they together blame their surrounding demographic?
After years of wrestling with these questions, and coming up to this Sunday’s readings, I’m ready to say that we never should have been asking these questions in the first place. Blame-casting really only wounds rather than helps the person or group on whom the blame falls; but beyond that, these Scriptures show us that our focus on these questions was way off base in the first place.
More basic to the understanding of the pastoral task is the pastor’s identity. The people of Nazareth asked of Jesus, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother Mary?” and on and on. Of course He was – but that’s not all He was. He also was the Son of God. His identity was not defined solely by the people of Nazareth, or by His human parents, but more importantly by His heavenly Father. And pastors, preachers, our identity is not defined solely by the congregations we serve, or by the perceptions of people around us, but more importantly by our own Heavenly Father. Our identity is not “preacher” or “pastor” or “church grower”; our identity is “beloved child of the Heavenly Father.” He has loved us with an everlasting love, and because of His great love for us in Jesus He has no condemnation for us ever, even if we fail in the pastoral ministry.
Overlay on top of identity the pastor’s call. God specifically called Ezekiel to a ministry that they both knew would be difficult. They both knew the people would be stubborn, unresponsive, and recalcitrant. The both knew that Ezekiel’s ministry would probably not be “successful” by human standards. But Ezekiel’s call was to preach the word of God to them regardless of the results – as Paul might say, “in season and out of season.” And, pastors, your call may not be to plant a church or lead a megachurch or have an easy ministry. It might just be the call of God for you to go to stubborn, unresponsive, recalcitrant people and preach the love of God to them without acknowledgement or appreciation or even effect. I don’t know what your call is – some days I’m still trying to discern mine.
What I do know is this – I know that you are a child of God for the sake of His Son Jesus. I do know that His call to you is unique, like Ezekiel’s was. God probably did not call you into “the ministry” – it’s more likely that He called you into a particular ministry at a particular time in a particular place for a particular reason. And He has given you the Holy Spirit to help you carry out that call. Rather than discerning your best course of action according to consultants and advisors, you and I are doubtless way better off seeking to discern the call that God has for us, and faithfully discharge the duties of that call regardless of the earthly results.