Pressure Points (October)

With Dr. Bruce Hartung

Q:  What is a pastor to do or say when his congregational leaders want absolutely nothing to do with doctrine? … I try to explain that LCMS doctrine is not my personal opinion. … I am at a loss what to teach, since they think all doctrine is wrong and that I don’t know anything apart from doctrine.  If I try to teach directly from Scripture, … I am still suspect, as another statement made was “I don’t need anyone to tell me what the Bible says.” 

Can you give this mentally exhausted, pain-wracked, deeply compassionate, wannabe servant of the Word — desperate for an answer — a few words of encouragement?

A: I hope there will be some encouragement as well as a challenge in this column.  You have been in my thoughts and prayers since I received your communicaHartung, Brucetion some time ago.

At the recent theological symposium on the campus of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Dr. Robert Putnam, a noted political and social scientist, offered the following observation (as filtered through my ears), based on his research on religious life in the United States: in individualistic America, centered more on activities that tend to be more solitary and less community-based, people increasingly mold their own values, stories, and even religious thought based on their own individual way of looking at things, rather than based on either the historical interpretations of the religious community or the authority of religious leaders. 

As an example, Dr. Putnam documented the likelihood that people were more ready to change their religious views to coincide with their political views than to change their political views to coincide with their religious views.

I eagerly await the publication of his book where all this is documented (but his Bowling Alone and Better Together books are good reads already).

I offer the observation from Dr. Putnam because I think it speaks to your concern, since your general experience may be more embedded in our culture than it may seem at first blush.  If so, your struggle is one that many of us might share in one way or another.

Basically, speaking in very broad terms, people often want to make their own decisions.  Authority, even pastoral authority, is not automatic.  Sometimes people want a definitive answer from the pastor, but often people, including your parishioners, are likely looking for something else in their relationships with their pastor or, specifically, with you.

I believe that it is not possible to teach people without having a positive learning alliance with them.  People who are emotionally moving away from a pastor are really not open to being taught, nor are pastors who are emotionally moving away from parishioners open to being taught by them. 

A beginning solution is to build or rebuild the relationship so that mutual learning can occur.  One does this by understanding that mutual trust has somehow been eroded, likely on both sides, and that mutual trust needs to be re-established.  This occurs in prayer and repentance, beginning with us who are in leadership.

In a calm environment with one or two people at a time, you might say something to congregational leaders like,  “I know that we have been going through struggles between us and I’d like to work this out.  I am aware that I have missed the mark with you in some ways.  I’d like you to teach me how what
I have been doing is a problem for you.”

Blessed by the Holy Spirit and at the foot of the cross, you begin to communicate that your interest is to work at your Body of Christ relationships.  I am convinced that it takes the Holy Spirit to help us be calm in the midst of such storms and to be open to learning.

I also hope that you have a support system of people — especially a spiritual director or another pastor — who can be helpful to you as you reflect about yourself and your ministry.  This has obviously been a very difficult time.

Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.  He can be reached at

Posted Sept. 27, 2007

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