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The Basin and Towel

with Indispensable Churches and Tending the Light

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pastors

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.

 

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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.”

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.

Caring for the Shepherds

Jeremiah 23:1-6 – “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the Lord. 2 Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the Lord. 3 “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. 4 I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing, ” declares the Lord.

This is the Old Testament reading for this coming Sunday for many of us.  It’s kind of a warning for us preachers and pastors, isn’t it?  “Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!”  Kind of makes me want to pull in my head and glance around:  “You talkin’ to me?”  Because here God is upset on behalf of His sheep.  He’s left them under the care of some shepherds, but He’s come to find out His sheep are uncared-for, they are scattered, far away, afraid, terrified, and missing.  He’s steaming, now, and will replace those shepherds with new ones who will care for His flock properly.

So what if you and I, my brothers and sisters in the ministry, are these new shepherds?  Often we wonder about whether we’ll “do the job well” so we also won’t be replaced.  But we’re not only shepherds but sheep, too.  So as we assume the task and role of shepherding God’s sheep, who tends the shepherds?  Who cares for them?  What if the shepherds themselves are uncared-for, scattered, disconnected, afraid, terrified, or even missing / AWOL?  

Does your administrative structure care for you like a shepherd cares for the flock?  Does it try to provide connection and collection, a place of peace and grace and consolation for the shepherds?  

Do the shepherds around you mostly tend each other without outside help?  Do you have a group of fellow-shepherds that care for one another, lift one another up, create and atmosphere of forgiveness and consolation among yourselves, and speak the precious Gospel to each other frequently?

Or do you mostly go it alone?  Is God’s tending enough for you?  It may well be, and certainly we want to learn to depend on Him to fill all our core longings.  I’m not saying that shepherds should look to other shepherds to fill the longings that only God can fill.  I am suggesting, though, that He provides fellow-shepherds, small groups of pastors, regional conferences, even judicatory officials as vessels of His mercy and grace for your strengthening, refreshment, and care as you go about your work as His shepherds.

Drop me a comment or send me an email to continue this conversation.

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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