by Matthew C. Harrison
A few years back, my mom and dad attended church for their first Sunday as LCMS snowbirds in Florida. After the service, the pastor kindly introduced my parents and noted their relationship to the president of Synod. After the service a woman came up to my mom and said. “We pray for your son every Sunday.” Just as Mom was beginning to feign humility and to thank her, the woman said, “Is there some problem?” Ha! I told my mom that next time she should say, “Yes there is a problem! He’s got L-C-M-S, and it’s incurable!”
I think the most humbling thing I’ve experienced in the past 8½ years as Synod president is the prayers of so many thousands of churches and faithful people — not only in the United States, but around the world. And I realize this has little to do with me as Matt Harrison. Rather, they all care about this wonderful gift we all share — The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. There have been times — some of those times very challenging — when I’ve actually sensed that I was being carried along in this office by the prayers of the countless faithful.
Pastors often ask me, “What’s it like being president of Synod?” I often respond, “It’s exactly like your job, only the voters’ assembly is a lot larger!”
I approach this job as I’ve approached every job the Lord has given me in my years of ministry — as a pastor. I am a pastor to the depth of my being. To get through the schooling to become a pastor, I worked many different jobs — processing pork by-products (messy!), detasseling seed corn, painting houses, welding, graduate assistant at the seminary and others. Through all of this, I never really ever wanted any other job than to be a pastor.
There are certain basics to being a pastor. To be sure, my calling as president of Synod is not mandated by the Bible. The pastoral office in the congregation is. It is not of the essence of the church that we have a president, or district presidents or circuit visitors. It is, however, for the well-being of the church. Luther and Walther repeat that over and over, and the Synod constitution is based on this truth.
Nevertheless, I perform a pastoral function very much like that of a parish pastor. I am responsible to see that the leaders, institutions and congregations of the Synod stay true to the Bible, as confessed in our Book of Concord. It’s my sacred vocation to see to it that we are who we say we are. This is not easy at times. We have good (not perfect) processes that must be followed.
No pastor can make everybody happy all the time. Neither can I. Every pastor deals with a variety of situations, trying faithfully and kindly to apply the Word of God just as needed in the situation. Every pastor has to deal with rough edges in his congregation, things that need to improve according to the Bible. Every pastor has to wisely determine a course of action, often waiting for God’s timing. Every pastor wants to avoid legalism or a harsh approach to delicate issues that often require finesse. One of my favorite mottos is: “People follow conviction, not coercion.” Every pastor has to deal with situations where some may uncharitably judge the situation without knowing the facts.
Pastors stay true to the Bible and proclaim the sole, saving grace of Jesus in the context of the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). By God’s grace, I intend to do that until the day I lay at the foot of an altar in a casket. Pastors know that “the freedom of the Christian” under the Gospel is one of the most beautiful teachings of the Bible (“For freedom Christ has set us free” [Gal. 5:1]). Pastors know that the Law drives us to Jesus, that the Law is important and that the Law shows us the parameters of the Christian life. But at the end of the day, we are finally Gospel people, people of forgiveness. Pastors know that the church is made up of shepherd and sheep. Pastors are to lay down their lives for the sheep as Jesus did. Pastors know that laypeople are spiritual priests, equipped to speak Christ in their contexts, to pray for all and to serve their neighbors. Pastors know that it’s impossible for the congregation to exist without the manifold gifts of leadership, business, finance, organization, mercy and love of the people. This is the life I lead daily. The Synod at every level — congregations, districts, Synod — would quickly dissolve without our faithful laity.
Pastors are not perfect. Neither am I. That perfection was reserved for Jesus. I’m a sinner. I learned many years ago as a parish pastor that there is almost always something in a difficult situation that I can apologize for. After all, I’m not Jesus. I don’t have all the answers.
Over the years I’ve had the responsibility for enormous amounts of money entrusted to the church for mercy through LCMS World Relief and Human Care, and we’ve cared for millions, together. I’ve had the daunting responsibility for international mission and missionaries. I’ve had the joyous but sometimes challenging responsibility of leading the district presidents. For every incident where I’ve publicly called for fidelity in a given public situation, I’ve done it 100 times privately. I’ve learned a lot. I take responsibility where I have fallen short. And I praise the faithful brothers and sisters who, in so many capacities, surround me daily to carry out the mission of the church. They have been and remain amazing.
So finally, I’m a pastor. I rejoice for all the wonderful pastors, teachers, missionaries and laypeople who are, even now, sharing Jesus in the far flung corners of the world — at home and abroad. The more my work has humbled me and taught me not to take stock in my own abilities and wisdom, the more I seek and want only to be bound together with my Savior, Jesus. I want to know only of His sacred wounds, His death, His resurrection for me. I want only to know His cross. He’s the Great Shepherd. Worm that I am, I desire only the privilege, undeserved, to serve Him. I want only to proclaim Jesus. Only Jesus.
— Pastor Harrison