by Rev. Dr. Dale Sattgast
Tend the flock of God that is in your charge (1 Peter 5:2a). Recently, every congregation of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod was supposed to return its annual statistical report. Most often, the pastor takes the responsibility for making certain that specific information is gathered and the report is sent. The report notes such things as the total baptized and confirmed membership of a congregation, the average attendance in worship, Bible class, Sunday school and other important statistics.
One statistic not included on the report is the number of people who are members of the congregation but who have moved away. Perhaps that should be included.
Nearly every congregation has some away members. In some congregations, the number is small. In other congregations, those who live in other communities and in other states make up a sizeable percentage of the total membership.
Reasons vary why people who have moved havent transferred their membership. For some, their move has been recent. They are adjusting to a new job, a new home, a new community. They also are looking for a new church home where they can be nourished faithfully and regularly through God’s Word and Sacraments and where they can enjoy the fellowship of other brothers and sisters in the faith. Perhaps they are exploring a couple of congregations–hopefully congregations of the LCMS but they havent yet decided. But they will make their decision in a matter of weeks or months.
For others, their move has not been recent. Some have been gone from their home congregation for years or even decades and have not yet transferred to a sister congregation in the LCMS nor affiliated with a congregation of any other denomination. Some attend the divine services of other congregations. Others don’t.
That often gives rise to the question: What about those who are away?
Thats a good question. Hopefully its asked not with the intention just of cleaning up the church records, but with a serious concern for the spiritual welfare of those who are living away.
There is a reason that God has given the Third Commandment, Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy, and why Luther explained that we should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. It is through God’s Word of Law that we are called to see our sins and repent of them. It is through Gods Word of grace and the Gospel that we are called to Christ as our Savior and receive His blood-bought, cross-earned, grave-shattering forgiveness and salvation. Through His Word and Sacraments, our faith continually is nourished and we are strengthened for living as God’s people.
The writer to the Hebrews encouraged the early Christians against neglecting to meet together in worship and fellowship (Heb. 10:25) and against drifting away from their faith and from what they had learned (2:1). Those words of encouragement are still important and emphasize the necessity of staying connected to our Triune God and Savior, to His Word, to the Church, which is the Body of Christ, and to other Christian believers. Thats important no matter where we live.
Your pastor has been called to be the pastor of all of the members of your congregation whether they are local or live away. At his installation, your pastor heard the responsibility that he is to tend the flock of God that is in your charge.
As your pastor takes his responsibility seriously, he will pray for all members of the congregation. He will do his best to get to know all of the members–local and awayand to be their faithful shepherd. But he also will discover that for those who live away, his task is much more difficult.
One of his important pastoral responsibilities is to encourage those who are out of college or the military and who have settled in new communities to find a new church homehopefully LCMSwhere they regularly will be fed and nourished with God’s Word and Sacraments.
Each of you can help your pastor. Continue to remember in your prayers those who live away. If someone is a member of your family or someone you have known well, encourage that person to find a faithful congregation and become part of the Body of Christ in that place. When your pastor is doing his duty to encourage those who are away to transfer, give him your support and encouragement. Thats part of his work of tending his flock and caring for the needs of the sheep who are away but are still in his care until they come under the care of another faithful pastor.
About the Author: The Rev. Dr. Dale Sattgast is president of the LCMS South Dakota District.