Reporter and The Lutheran Witness asked each of the three nominees for Synod president this year to answer in writing the same six questions related to their ministries and issues in the Synod — issues that are likely to surface during the LCMS convention, July 20-25 in St. Louis. Those questions and the nominees’ answers appear here and in the June-July edition of The Lutheran Witness.
The nominees are:
- the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, 51, president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (1,111 nominations received).
- the Rev. Dr. Herbert C. Mueller Jr., 60, first vice-president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (140 nominations received).
- the Rev. Dr. David P.E. Maier, 57, president of the LCMS Michigan District (126 nominations received).
Question 1: What has been your greatest joy in serving in the pastoral office?
Harrison: Jesus is the Shepherd of joy (John 15:11). He seeks the lost sheep and “lays it on His shoulders, rejoicing” (Luke 15:5)! Paul nails it: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in
your faith” (2 Cor. 1:24). My greatest joys have been shepherding lost souls into the flock; teaching and baptizing new believers; seeing a person long absent return to soak up forgiveness, love and mercy; watching a young couple light up, perceiving Christ’s purpose for their marriage; helping a troubled family confess sins and forgive each other. I’ve had the great honor of serving God’s people in their best moments and the very same people in their very worst moments, sharing every joy and sorrow from font to deathbed, through every cross — all for the sake of the consolation of Jesus. Even now it is my joy to serve as a called assistant pastor at my congregation, and though my service there is limited, to be able to preach and serve those dear folks (and to be loved by them) remains pure joy. I remain a pastor at the core of my being and in all that I do.
Mueller: God called me to pastor three congregations for a total of 15 years but now has me serving church workers and congregations through district and the Synod. My two brothers, or my son or nephew presently serving as pastors in our Synod, should really be answering this question! Yet, wherever God places us, He gives reasons for joy. Preaching Law and Gospel, teaching all that Jesus gave us, visiting, caring for people, baptizing young and old, giving out Jesus’ body and blood: All are means by which God gladdens a pastor’s heart. A district president for 16 years, I experienced the special joy of preaching and presiding for ordinations and installations (even for my own son!). It is amazing how God uses us to bring pastor and people together. Even more amazing is how the Spirit of God in His Word moves people from unbelieving skepticism to firm faith in Jesus Christ, a work of God at least as miraculous as raising the dead! But my greatest joy and hope is simply to be found in Christ myself — together with my family and those God will give — to be raised with Christ, who gave Himself that we might be His forever.
Maier: A great source of joy in the pastoral office begins in knowing my identity in Christ as a baptized, beloved child of God. I rejoice daily in Christ’s forgiveness given to me and in the personal, intimate union with Him in Baptism, which provides strength to overcome sin (Rom. 6:1–14) and to live as salt and light in a dying world (Matt. 5:13-16). My joy lies in proclaiming the Gospel to many and sharing it one-on-one; in baptizing children and adults, and witnessing their transformation from pew-sitters to involved, Holy-Spirit-gifted, “it’s-great-to-be-used-by-God” servants of the Lord, through the power and work of the Holy Spirit in the Word. It gives me joy to see people grasp grace, receiving forgiveness and strength through the price of their salvation — the body and blood of Jesus in the Sacrament. The blessing of years allows me to be grateful for each joy and hardship, aware that God sees the “big picture” and confident that He works all for my good. Having a wife and family who show me Christ’s unconditional love and who embrace the continuing adventure of faith life are a constant encouragement for joy in ministry.
Question 2: What would you see as the greatest theological challenge facing the LCMS today?
Harrison: Bearing witness to the full and free forgiveness of sins we have in Christ Jesus — together, without losing our biblical, Lutheran soul — in this increasingly hostile culture is most definitely our greatest challenge. A recent Pew Forum study pointed out that one in three Americans under the age of 30 is religiously unaffiliated. Compare that with 1 in 16 of the WWII generation! Recently, I’ve been intensely studying the slow demographic decline of the Missouri Synod over the past 40 years. It’s become obvious that the chief reason for the decline is that Americans of European decent are marrying later and having fewer children. This is a cultural fact and has had the greatest numerical impact upon the LCMS in its history. This demographic challenge has had huge ramifications on how pastors are viewed and treated, on parochial schools and in many other areas. Church planting, congregational renewal, outreach for the salvation of souls, care of families and the continued witness of a church body that gets the Gospel right are beyond vital. I say we get back to basics: Law/Gospel preaching, quality worship, active and empowered laity. In short: Witness, Mercy, Life Together. Let’s play to our strengths. Let’s be Lutheran.
Mueller: Our greatest theological challenge is faithfully to live in our confession of Christ and His Word. We are heirs of an incredible treasure! Our Lutheran Confessions are not over the Word of God, but we are pledged to them
unconditionally because they drive us deeper into the Word. They extol Christ alone as Savior and, properly read, also drive us out into the world to bring this good news to all who will hear. This is why I am a Lutheran! Our theology keeps us in the Word of God and does the best job of bringing the healing Gospel of Christ to hurting and broken people. There is no dichotomy between doctrine and mission. If you count yourself “confessional,” that’s great! Now get out there and “confess!” If you see yourself as “mission-driven,” wonderful! It’s the command of Christ; now be sure you are out there with the “good stuff,” the real treasure that God gives by grace alone, for the sake of Christ alone, received through faith alone in the One who died and rose for all. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Maier: Theologically, one great challenge is to “be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise” (NASB), “that ye walk circumspectly” (KJV) (Eph. 5:15). That means living joyfully with the assurance of our salvation, bringing encouragement to believers and hope to those who do not know Jesus as Savior: putting our faith into practice. At the same time, we must be keenly aware of the harmful extremes of legalism and libertinism, and the blends of Law-based religiosity that abound, and avoid them. Our Synod’s first President, C.F.W. Walther, recognized good doctrine as tantamount to a farmer having and sowing good seed: It is the only way to ensure a good harvest. Having good seed, we must sow it, demonstrating our concern for those who face a Christ-less eternity! Part of this theological challenge is spending more time finding better methods for equipping, encouraging and supporting our laity in the mission work within their neighborhoods and communities — especially as they face the rise of secularism and Islam — and less time examining the doctrinal purity and practice of others. How we relate to one another says much about our theology, our God and our relevance to the world (Cf.1 John 4:7–16).
Question 3: In an age where the Church’s confession and practice are increasingly at odds with the surrounding culture, what should be the Church’s role in the public square?
Harrison: As the first LCMS president to testify before Congress, I have definite opinions on this issue (lcms.org/?pid=1374). The Scriptures repeatedly call upon us to confess the truth of Christ and His Gospel publicly (Mark 8:27ff; Matt. 5:14ff; Rom. 10:9-10). The First Amendment guarantees not only freedom of speech but the free exercise of religion. We have the right to act publicly according to the dictates of our Christian convictions. We joined the Catholics in fighting the Health and Human Services mandates because we see a definite threat to our own health plans and because the government has no right to dictate to church-owned institutions that they must act against long-standing religious conviction. The U.S. Justice Department officials have specifically noted that cases of sexual rights (not mentioned in the Constitution) trump religious rights. We will be in the public square, bearing witness to Christ. We need to be in the public square with others, defending our right to be and to act as Christians. The Alliance Defending Freedom and the Becket Fund helped us win what The New York Times described as “the most significant Supreme Court case on religious freedom in two decades” (New York Times, Jan. 11, 2012). The fight has just begun.
Mueller: We cannot hide from today’s world. The Church must be out there with a clear witness for Christ, with mercy and care at every opportunity, fueled by a life together in the Word of God and the blessed Sacraments, where Christ unites us to Himself. Every congregation is placed right where God wants it, and it is surrounded by people who do not know Jesus or have become disconnected from Him. Synod and district support congregations in confessing Christ clearly while reaching out with passion to care for people. Witness without care falls flat. Mercy works apart from a clear witness are incomplete. And if a congregation (or Synod!) cannot live together in love, drawing from its communion with Christ, we will consume one another and have nothing left for witness and mercy.
Authentic proclamation of the cross, coupled with untiring care for people, are the ways Christ connects with the world through us. We engage our communities without compromise. We cannot participate in idolatry (1 Cor. 10:14) or allow what we say or do make it seem as though Christ is one choice equal to many others. Christ alone rose from the dead and has the keys of death and hell (Rev. 1:18).
Maier: God has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light to live in, reflect and draw others to His glorious grace. Through that saving grace, we are Great Commission people and great compassion people already in the public
square, visible in it with mercy, witness and love. The present age resembles the first two centuries in which the Church engaged the surrounding world by living in the world, not avoiding it and yet not being “of the world” (John 17:16).
Engagement has always been challenging. While not without risk, it can also lead to opportunities for the faithful presentation of the Gospel of Hope, even as my grandfather, the first “Lutheran Hour” speaker, experienced. The critical juncture for the Missouri Synod is to encourage pastors and local congregations to engage the world in winsome and helpful ways, always being prepared to give an answer for the hope that we have, yet with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). This is still our Father’s world, as we confess in the First Article of the Creed. We need to trust that the tools (weapons) with which we engage the world (the Word, prayer, etc.) are divinely powerful (2 Cor. 10:3-5).
Question 4: Lack of funding for seminary education and the work of missionaries abroad continues to present many obstacles to proclaiming the Gospel worldwide. What can be done to remedy this?
Harrison: This is the LCMS’ moment. This past triennium, we have experienced burgeoning international relationships. Huge churches, such as Mekane Yesus of Ethiopia (more than 6.1 million members), are seeking us out with increasing frequency. Aghast at the loss of biblical teaching in liberal Lutheran churches, they want our partnership and especially theological assistance in training pastors.
There are tremendous ramifications in the U.S. with immigrant communities related to Lutheran churches abroad! Mission and theological education are linked. The funding model for getting new missionaries in the field (60 sent this triennium!) and keeping them there works. Presidents Rast and Meyer are doing a fabulous job of keeping the sems in good fiscal order. The bulk of student indebtedness comes from the undergraduate level. The Synod raises $1.5 million a year for seminary education through the Joint Seminary Fund. The Global Seminary Initiative (GSI) for future international leaders is beginning to pump in dollars. It’s time for dramatic action. This convention must authorize a campaign toward fully endowing the seminaries. Theological education is our greatest LCMS mission asset. Let’s be bold in setting it on a firm foundation for mission, now and well into the future.
Mueller: Our first order is to repent — to repent of our indifference to the needs of people and our slowness to believe that the Word of God truly works! Receiving His forgiveness, Christ calls us then to pray: “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few, therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Matt 9:37-38). Why? Because Christ has promised to hear! And as we continue to pray, we will find that God intends to use us to support those workers He wants to send, and perhaps He also intends to send you and me! This also points to the need to visit and strengthen our congregations in God’s Word. Healthy congregations reach out. Healthy congregations support missions (and seminaries!) beyond themselves. Healthy congregations help people see we are “baptized for this moment!” And God is working it in many ways and places across the Synod. People fed in the Word see the “fields white unto the harvest” (John 4:35), see the opportunities the world is presenting us to bring Christ-centered Lutheran theology. We seek to plant and revitalize distinctively Lutheran congregations, congregations that live out what we confess. Why? That’s where the comfort is for hurting and broken people: in Christ alone.
Maier: The work of our missionaries overseas should increasingly be a walking alongside of and partnering with indigenous people and less of a colonizing, a taking over and expecting others to act like us. It is important to have confidence in the power of the Word and the work of the Holy Spirit within each culture (Cf. Paul in Acts 17:13-34). Strategic planning for funding mission work must be done with our overseas partners and not apart from them or in a demeaning way. By God’s grace, self-sufficient resourcing supplemented by others’ gifts will do much for the continuing spread of the Gospel.
The question regarding our seminaries engages everyone involved (seminaries, students, parishes). While maintaining our theology, academic excellence and heritage, we must be good stewards of the time and resources God has given and prayerfully, carefully consider alternative, more economical methods of delivery and new models of accomplishing ministry. I know that our congregations would appreciate and support a greater focus on their future pastor’s engagement with the congregation and community as well as on academic formation. We should not fear the future because God is with us. God’s work done in God’s way will not lack God’s resources.
Question 5: LCMS day schools have faced many challenges during the recent economic downturn. In 2011-12, our Lutheran schools faced a net decline of 29 closings while only 12 new schools were opened. In your view, what is the future of Lutheran schools in the overall picture of the LCMS?
Harrison: Education is part of the DNA of the Missouri Synod. We’ve done it from the beginning, and we’re good at it. We are blessed abundantly with early-childhood centers, grade schools, high schools, colleges and universities and seminaries. There are opportunities and challenges. Overall, American public education is not thriving, and we offer a positive alternative. The charter-school movement in public-school systems has taken a toll on our schools (e.g., in south Los Angeles). Vouchers have brought opportunities to our schools in Milwaukee and now in the state of Indiana, but not without risks. Our grade schools and high schools produce a huge percentage of our church workers, and they have a powerful, lifelong impact upon thousands of laity. Opportunities are great, but the landscape has and continues to change rapidly. To survive and thrive, our schools must strive for measurable academic excellence, be boldly Christian and Lutheran to remain our strongest mission assets, welcome the ethnic diversity that is America today, be at the forefront in technology and excel at new funding models. If a grade school like Unity Lutheran can thrive in inner-city East St. Louis, our schools can thrive anywhere!
Mueller: Our schools, from early childhood to university, are a great blessing and a big responsibility. What better way to pass on the faith than to teach children all day five days a week! Yet those responsible for our schools (and ultimately that’s all of us) face difficult challenges in our present economy. One of my siblings serves as a Lutheran school teacher/principal. In my opinion, she has just about the toughest job in Synod today. Principals work long hours and endure difficult conditions, often for low pay, all for the sake of bringing Christ into the lives of the children and parents in their schools. Whatever we can do to build up, strengthen and encourage these unsung heroes is essential. Respect them, together with all our teachers and staff. Provide them the ongoing education they need to keep their skills sharp. Recognize them for the gifts of God they are. Provide them the best, not the leftovers. Work with them. Pray for them and for all our teachers and commissioned ministers. Help every family see the importance of Christian education for the future!
Maier: My Lutheran day-school education was a blessed and formative experience for me, my wife (a trained LCMS teacher) and our four children. While each situation is unique, the following is what I’ve observed and learned:
- God has given the task of raising and educating children to their parents. We must commend this choice of partnering with a Lutheran day school, encouraging involvement, responsibility and support of our schools by parents, grandparents, friends and others. Scholarships, if needed, can be considered for the children of responsible parents and guardians.
- Churches and schools need to be wise stewards of the resources God has given them. A refusal to consider tuition, or reduce staff when there is significant decrease in enrollment, might be poor stewardship. Practical solutions, such as combined classrooms, also provide an excellent education.
- A wrong emphasis on congregational autonomy — the right of self-governance — has hindered healthy ministry by encouraging “separateness.” Geographically close congregations must at least consider supporting joint schools for their vitality and viability.
These topics and others arising due to our rapidly changing times (i.e., the possibility of government taxing formerly tax-exempt institutions and their property) must be discussed openly and honestly.
Question 6: If you could change one thing about the LCMS, what would it be?
Harrison: My folks have been wintering in Florida. The first Sunday there, the pastor kindly introduced them. After church, a well-meaning woman came up to my mother and said, “We pray for your son every Sunday.” Just as Mom was ready to thank her, the woman continued, “Is there some problem?” We howled in laughter! One change? Perhaps 600 circuits committed to planting a new church or mercy ministry, particularly in areas of the country where our churches are scarce. A dramatic increase of missionaries before 2017. Pastors and church workers treasured more highly. Growing unity and continued peace in the Synod. I’d love to see our pastorate grow in collegiality, pulling each other toward unity and excellence in every way. Sems fully endowed. Laity aggressively involved in the mission.
But one thing? What one thing does Jesus note when it comes to the mission of the Gospel? Pray! “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Matt. 9:38). May the Lord Jesus drive us all to our knees, that we pray for the salvation of souls and for each other. “Pray for us, that God may open a door for the word” (Col. 4:2-3).
Mueller: Even while there are many things that must not change — God’s Word, our confession and practices based on that Word, etc. — we made significant adjustments at the 2010 convention in how we structure the work of the national Synod. We are still living into those changes. At the president’s direction, we have been working to develop what we call the Koinonia Project, designed to work toward resolution of some of those issues that cause dissension among us. This effort needs to grow into the future. See lcms.org/?pid=1041 for more information. One simple change I would make is in a title: Change “circuit counselor” back to “circuit visitor.” Counselors wait for people to come to them. Visitors, well, they visit. We need to develop evangelical visitation more effectively from the president on down. Where it is going well, we need to lift it up. Where improvement is needed, we need to encourage it. Effective visitation under God’s Word can build toward unity for the sake of the mission. We are accountable to Christ and to one another. Whatever hard decisions are in your future, in your congregation’s future, we can face them with Christ-given courage. God gives His gifts freely and liberally!
We are “baptized for this moment!” In closing, I give thanks to God for the pleasure of serving with President Matthew Harrison and his staff. God is so rich with His blessing!
Maier: I see a church that believes and embraces all the truths of God’s Word (Matt. 28:20), especially trusting that the Gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16), a power that breaks the hardest substance known to man: the sin-encrusted heart. The Gospel is a transforming power that needs to be not merely contended for, but shared in love. God’s people would engage the world from the heart of the Gospel message, “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (2 Peter 1:3), a hope this world desperately needs. Emphasizing Jesus’ continuing work of mission and mercy (Matt. 20:26-28) as offered by the body of Christ, pastors and people together (the priesthood of all believers) would diligently demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit in all relationships. We would rejoice as we discover, use and become energized by the Holy Spirit, employing His many gifts to serve in our churches, communities and the world, thus earning the privilege of sharing the Gospel message. Finally, I see God’s people fully committed to spending daily time in His presence, connected to Him, reading His Word and humbly praying to Him.