Pressure Points with Dr. Bruce Hartung

Q: The congregation I serve is fairly small, with about 125 worshiping on a typical Sunday.  Only a few of our more established members desire to hold a congregational office.  As a result, several newer members are being pushed forward to fill the vacancies.  Although it is commendable that the newer folks are willing to serve, the fact is, they are quite new not only to our congregation but also to the Missouri Synod.  In one case, a proposed leader is new to the faith itself, having just been baptized and confirmed as an adult some weeks ago. 

I think these people should spend more time with us and gain some seasoning before taking on leadership roles (1 Tim. 3:6).  Still, they do seem eager to serve, and we do have vacant spots in our governance. 

Complicating matters is the fact that our church is experiencing a little conflict, and the new people being pushed forward are being touted by a particular side of the conflict.  Obviously there is a lot going on here, but my question really does focus on just one thing: Should we accept people for leadership who are so new to the parish, the Synod, or even to the faith?

A: You are on target in appealing to Saint Paul’s first letter to Saint Timothy.  Although the discussion in that passage of Scripture concerns the office of Hartung, Bruceoverseer or bishop, the advice given might well be applied to other kinds of leadership issues in the church as well.  “Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6).  Also appropriate: “Let these [deacons] first be proved” (3:10a) or “tested.”

I think you are wise to show such thoughtfulness in this regard. When faced with a serious need to fill leadership openings in the congregation, it is tempting to rush to fill these openings with people who, though willing and eager to serve, have precious little experience with the faith, the church, or congregational leadership.  I encourage both you and the leadership of your parish to resist this temptation.  What follows are two observations in support of such resistance.

First, it is important to bear in mind the vulnerability that people new to the faith may have when placed early into leadership.  Saint Paul mentions the vulnerability of pride.  I would add the vulnerability of getting too close too fast to the “warts” of church life. 

You say your church has “a little conflict.”   To expose a person new to the faith, or even new to The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, to such inner-organizational turmoil can place great stress on him or her.  And, frankly, I have little patience with those in the background who “push forward” such people.  They do not realize the fragility of a new believer.  People new to the faith or to the Synod need time to gain a firm foundation, to put on the whole armor of God, to grow up in the knowledge and fear of God.  It is for this reason, for instance, that our seminaries require a man to be a Lutheran for two years before he can even enter the seminary.  And then there are at least four years of training before a call is issued. The principle is clear: Give people time to stabilize, learn, grow, and mature before moving them into leadership.

Second, on a purely human level, it is generally understood that the first task of anyone entering a new organization, culture, or even church or parish, is to get to know how things are and to form relationships with the people who are there.  For people to be placed into leadership positions without having significant experience in learning the proverbial “lay of the land” is dangerous both to the leader and to the organization.

A healthier approach is first to nurture new people in the faith, giving them an opportunity to grow into leadership.

Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is associate professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and can be reached at hartungb@csl.edu.

Posted Sept. 30, 2005

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