By David L. Strand
Sometimes, meetings of the Synod’s Council of Presidents (COP) cover so much ground on a myriad of topics that no single item stands out as the top order of business. But no matter what a COP agenda may hold, one area always gets priority — the spiritual, and not just in the form of morning devotions but in sizable blocks of time given to theological study.
Such was the case at the council’s Sept. 20-24 meeting in St. Louis.
On its first full day, the COP spent the heart of the morning continuing to refine a paper on the Office of the Public Ministry, with Montana District President Rev. Terry Forke moderating a discussion ranging from sacerdotalism (an elevated view, many would say, of the pastoral office) to what one district president called “the other ditch” (a too-low opinion of the same).
“There is a growing feeling in the Synod that only pastors can really forgive sin,” said the Rev. Dr. Robert Newton, president of the California-Nevada-Hawaii District. “This is adding a piece to the Gospel that only hurts the Gospel.”
Synod President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison added, “Every Christian has the right to speak the Gospel and forgive his neighbor.”
Pastors, it seemed generally agreed, while administering the means of grace, do not provide them; it is Christ who gives them to His Church. Nor do pastors make these gifts efficacious; it is Christ through His Word and Sacraments Who does.
That being said, not everyone has the vocation of publicly preaching, teaching and administering the sacraments. This is clearly the pastor’s role. There is a pastoral office, and not just anybody can fill it.
This led to talk of the validity of pastoral calls that don’t work out. Were the calls themselves flawed? No. Problems arise when those called don’t do what they’re supposed to do or when congregations make it hard for called pastors to do their jobs.
In the end, one district president offered, the key is to organize — regularize — the pastoral office “in the most decent, orderly and agreed-upon way to enable the pure Word of God to reach the ends of the earth.”
Koinonia and blamelessness
On another morning, the Rev. Dr. Steve Mueller, chairman of the theology department at Concordia University, Irvine, Calif., and dean of Christ College there, led a discussion on koinonia, the “life together” portion of the Synod’s Witness, Mercy, Life Together emphasis.
As the word implies, said Mueller, koinonia — fellowship, communion and life together — is not a solo act. Humanity was meant to live in relationships. It wasn’t good for Adam to be alone, and it isn’t good for us, either. And just because we may have been in touch — as Mueller himself had been that morning — with 100 friends on Facebook, such superficial contact doesn’t amount to “life together,” and we can still feel cut off.
In fact, as sinners, we were cut off, said Mueller, but “God felt our isolation and, showing His love for us, came to us anyway” in the person of Christ. “Life together is found in our risen Lord restoring the relationship we had broken with God.”
So, again, “you won’t find genuine koinonia looking in the mirror,” Mueller said. “You’ll find it only by looking outward, for real koinonia seeks to serve others.”
In the context of their leadership role, Mueller told the COP, “You know of many broken situations. But you don’t stand alone. God and the church are with you, united in Baptism, confession and praise with our eyes fixed on Jesus.”
The Rev. Dr. Jeff Gibbs, professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, spoke on the theme of “Above Reproach,” as in a pastor’s reputation being above reproach in the eyes of the public (1 Tim. 3:1-7).
Pastors can sin, he said, and they can repent and be forgiven, but there’s still the public perception of it.
“There is a difference,” agreed Sixth Vice-President Rev. Dr. Robert Kuhn, “between forgiveness and eligibility” to continue in the pastoral office.
Things are different today, said Gibbs. Everything’s “much more mobile.” When a pastor makes a misstep, say, in his marriage relationship, “the public knowledge of it is quick and widespread.”
“There are standards of conduct for pastors,” he said. “There is such a thing as Christian virtue and character, and pastors are called to be examples” of this.
One would think that reinstatement is a possibility, Gibbs continued — that a pastor could regain the status of being above reproach and blameless. But “such matters would have to be judged with great care,” he added, citing a comparison made by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Scharlemann to a layperson being restored to the position of church treasurer after he had been caught embezzling funds.
“The battle against the flesh will never cease,” Gibbs said, encouraging his audience to “live in a full, broad, constant knowing of the truth of Jesus, to whom the Spirit bears witness.” There is great comfort in the realization that we are small, he concluded. “Jesus is big, but we are small,” and we have “rest and smallness in the greatness of Christ.”
‘Wheelhouse’ and ONM updates
Presentations of a more business bent were heard from several quarters.
Rich Robertson, president of Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF), unveiled plans, pending his board’s October approval and that of government regulators, to open an LCMS-focused credit union to benefit the church’s districts, congregations, and individual and other potential members.
This idea is “within our wheelhouse,” Robertson said. It speaks to our core competencies and our financial partnership with the Synod, “so it’s a nice extension [of what we already do].”
Surveys involving some 6,600 LCMS people along with a number of focus groups within the Synod revealed strong support — 70 percent — for such a credit union, which Robertson described as a member-owned, not-for-profit, cooperative institution offering home, auto, small-business and consolidation loans and, on the “depository” side, checking and savings accounts and CDs. Eventually the credit union, yet unnamed, could partner with, say, Visa, in offering credit cards.
This will be a “great tool” for the church to use in connecting with its people, Robertson said, citing such “touch points” as lower-cost checking accounts for congregations and other entities, a means for promoting a stewardship lifestyle within families, and the satisfaction members will have in knowing that their insured deposits help sustain programs designed to support other LCMS members and ministries.
Beyond that, Robertson said, the credit union will “enable mortgage licensing in all 50 states for LCMS rostered church workers.” Currently, the LCEF can offer such mortgages in just 16 states.
On another subject, Robertson provided an update on the LCEF’s Pastoral Education Lending Program, which helps qualified pastors consolidate their student loans at the attractive interest rate of 3.25 percent (adjusted annually for up to 10 years based on cost of funds). Pastors can borrow this money themselves, or their congregations can borrow it on their behalf. Robertson said he hopes to “roll this [program] out to all rostered church workers” in the near future.
The Rev. Bart Day, executive director of the Office of National Mission (ONM), gave an update on the work of his department.
“It took the last triennium” — during which the ONM was born — “to figure out our role and purpose,” he said. “We’ve been tearing down silos and getting people to collaborate.” And now the July 2013 convention “has given us greater clarity on what we are to do.”
Under the theme “Strong Faith, Fervent Love,” the ONM works with districts in planting, sustaining and revitalizing congregations and schools in urban/inner-city, rural/small town, and suburban settings.
We’re going to deliver on this, Day said, in close partnership with the districts, “by expanding theological education in the parish and home and by acting upon the other mission priorities of the church.”
After noting that urban and campus ministry, along with youth work, offer especially “big potential,” Day yielded the floor to others connected with his department.
Maggie Karner, director of LCMS Life Ministries, said she’s never seen such hostility toward the pro-life movement. “Our opponents have a state-by-state strategy,” she said. To combat this, “we need better networking in our districts and congregations, and Jim Lamb agrees” (the Rev. Dr. James Lamb being the executive director of Lutherans For Life, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization based in Nevada, Iowa).
Toward the goal of better networking, Karner encouraged the district presidents to appoint a “district life coordinator in every district” to bolster communication efforts. Nine districts already have such coordinators (“hubs of information” Karner called them), “but we need to beef it up to help disseminate information in a two-way direction.”
Karner also touted a new booklet, a “lay-friendly primer,” called Mercy at Life’s End by the Rev. John Pless of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. It’s available for $2 from Concordia Publishing House.
The Rev. Heath Curtis, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Worden, Ill., now also serving as stewardship coordinator for the ONM, spoke pointedly to the notion that “stewardship is a pastor’s job.”
Some parishes “are reluctant to do stewardship,” he said, “and some pastors see it as gimmicky or un-Lutheran or manipulative.” But the fact is, “it’s part of a pastor’s theological task to teach stewardship.”
“Many pastors don’t know stewardship or how to teach it,” said the Rev. Dan Gilbert, president of the Northern Illinois District. “They don’t see the joy in generosity; they see it as a burden instead.”
Curtis, who is being assisted by the Rev. Nathan Meador, pastor of St. John Lutheran Church, Plymouth, Wis., outlined “a two-prong approach for building up stewardship” across the Synod.
The first is an ONM-sponsored National Stewardship Leadership Conference in May 2014 involving up to four pastors from each district.
The second is to have these men in place as “local leaders” in stewardship — catalysts for bringing other pastors and lay leaders together “to talk about [Christian stewardship] and encourage reluctant congregations to get going,” said Curtis, who sought to assure the district presidents that such efforts would not disrupt but rather complement the work of existing district stewardship executives and committees.
Summarizing, Day said, “We just want to engage … pastors theologically and help show them that stewardship is Lutheran.”
The Rev. Marcus Zill, LCMS campus pastor at the University of Wyoming and coordinator of LCMS Campus Ministry, said he and his coordination team (fellow full-time campus pastors) are “trying to build bridges with the various constituency groups” involved in campus ministry.
“We are developing a network,” he said, pointing to the unveiling of the “LCMS U” brand at last January’s “UNWRAPPED” conference.
“Our young people have a need for fellowship,” Zill said, “and they are hearkening to our slogan of ‘College is tough. You need Jesus. We will help.’”
The Synod now boasts 157 campus-ministry chapters.
On the horizon for LCMS campus ministry are more conferences and a “bigger, bolder presence on lcms.org,” said Zill, reminding the COP that the “LCMS U” brand is not campus ministry but rather showcases it. “Real campus ministry takes place locally,” he said.
Wrapping up his department’s presentation, Day said the ONM needs 10 districts to help pilot the overall revitalization process for LCMS congregations, schools and church workers.
The Rev. Jock Ficken, executive director of the Pastoral Leadership Institute (PLI), a leadership-training program for pastors, explained how the mission of PLI has morphed from its original goal — helping to train the next generation of pastors to run large parishes — to a new one: “training pastors, their wives and key leaders to put the mission of the church into the hands of ordinary people.”
There is the “harsh reality,” Ficken said, “of people in our communities not caring about what we’re doing. How do we engage this mission field?”
He spoke specifically of Generation Y, the so-called Millennials (those born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s), many of whom “have closed the door with the church and said they’re not coming back.
“This presses us into changing our approach,” he said. “We need to find the sweet spot of being present in the community and knowing when to make our proclamation.”
The Rev. Dr. Glen Thomas, executive director of LCMS Pastoral Education, gave an update on the Seminary Admission Task Force, which makes recommendations on strengthening such things as the interviewing and screening process of would-be seminarians.
Meanwhile, said Thomas, turning to the subject of interpersonal skills, “the ability of future pastors to relate to people remains very important.”
The Synod’s director of Social Ministry Organizations, Deaconess Dorothy Krans, speaking in her role as a member of the LCMS Disabilities Task Force, promoted disability awareness in the sense of the church ministering with the disabled rather than to them.
She announced plans for an April 2014 Lutheran Services in America Disability Network conference in Omaha, the thrust of which will focus on resources for congregations to use in doing outreach ministry with the disabled and their families.
Krans shared a number of such resources in a notebook distributed to the members of the COP.
‘The Big Gray Zone’
Recent years especially have seen the Synod publicly active in issues of morality and religious freedom, including the defense of traditional marriage and concern about the U.S. Health and Human Services’ mandate compelling employers to pay for abortifacient birth control.
Addressing these issues and others was Alan Sears, head of Alliance Defending Freedom, a para-church legal organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Sears told the COP that “the greatest threat to religious freedom today is the threat to the right of conscience.”
He cited several examples of Christians being charged with sexual-orientation discrimination for refusing to compromise their values.
It’s getting to the point “where you can’t say no,” said Sears, referring to the New Mexico wedding photographer who politely refused to shoot the commitment service of a lesbian couple and got fined as a result. “The New Mexico Supreme Court called it the ‘price of citizenship,’ ” Sears said. “It said, ‘You have to do this.’”
He described the state of marriage in America as “the Big Gray Zone.” As a republic, he said, “America had more than 230 years of certainty on what marriage meant. But now we have the Supreme Court of the United States telling us the government cannot define it anymore.” And “no one knows how this is going to play out.”
He spoke of “organized lawlessness” in several states where attorneys general won’t defend their own laws. But he also said, despite the darkness of the hour, he sees America’s brightest days ahead, and he thanked the Synod for the joy it gives him “to see the stalwart nature of your church body.”
The Synod president’s reports to the COP are halved, the first hour being on topics he presents, the second a closed session for private give-and-take between him and other COP members.
For his first hour at this meeting, President Harrison asked the Rev. Dr. Albert Collver, the Synod’s director of Church Relations and an assistant to Harrison, to provide an overview of partner churches and other LCMS relationships overseas.
Collver took the COP on a virtual tour from Lithuania (site of the August International Lutheran Council conference on persecution and martyrdom in the church) to India (where our partner church has struggles within itself) to Ethiopia (where the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, using LCMS-produced curriculum, hopes to train 12,000 pastors in the next five years) to Madagascar (where the Malagasy Lutheran Church is poised to vote on seeking fellowship with the LCMS).
Closer to home, Collver described the growing comity between the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church (WELS) and the LCMS, noting that at its recent convention, the WELS referred to the Synod’s delegation as “our brothers in Christ” and resolved to seek further conversations with the LCMS.
Collver stressed the importance of LCMS congregations involved in foreign missions working in more coordinated fashion with the Synod’s Office of International Mission. It’s hard for a congregation, or even a cluster of congregations, “to have the capacity to sustain a mission project beyond four or five years,” he said.
Finally, Collver drew attention to an invitation from the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council to the International Lutheran Council (of which Collver is executive secretary) to attend a November meeting in Vatican City “to talk about future opportunities.”
Placements, vacancies, etc.
Council of Presidents business involves a lot of numbers, but behind the numbers are highly valued people.
In reviewing the 160 LCMS commissioned ministers receiving interim approval to begin their ministries, the district presidents took turns reading aloud the names, vocations, schools graduated from, and call placements of each candidate. Then they prayed for them.
The COP also approved placement of 15 pastoral candidates and 28 vicars — after district presidents read the list of those being placed in their districts. Prayer also was offered to the Lord of the church to bless and guide these men in their first calls and vicarages.
Synod Secretary Rev. Dr. Raymond Hartwig, recapping the Synod’s first electronic presidential election (which, in another first, took place prior to the church’s triennial convention this past July), said 78 percent of the possible 8,201 electors voted in the election. This was the highest percentage ever recorded by Election America, which handled the election for the Synod.
One district president got a laugh when reporting that “some of my delegates said having the election before the convention made things more peaceful, less anxious, less apocalyptic.”
The COP whittled down slates of candidates to fill three openings on the Synod’s Commission on Constitutional Matters — two seats for clergy and one for a lawyer — and submitted its recommendations to Harrison. The president reviewed the slates with his Praesidium and made his choices, which the COP ratified. They are the Rev. Larry Peters, Clarksville, Tenn.; the Rev. John Sias, Colstrip, Mont.; and Thomas Dedrick, Platte, S.D.
Concerning pastoral vacancies in the church, COP Secretary Rev. Dr. Chris Wicher, president of the Eastern District, gave the following tallies: sole-pastor vacancies — 278, senior-pastor vacancies — 43, associate- and assistant-pastor vacancies — 61. The total, 382, is nearly 60 vacancies fewer than last April.
Also, Wicher confirmed that since April, there have been 26 new congregational starts and five closings.
“It’s always good,” said COP Chairman Rev. Dr. Larry Stoterau, president of the Pacific Southwest District, “to see more starts than closings.”
David L. Strand is executive director of LCMS Communications.