Monday, May 3, 2010

A Slap of Reality...

On another forum discussing first calls, I posted my own story of disappointment and even disillusionment when I left the Seminary to meet the congregation where I was to vicar for a year and then the parish where I would first serve as Pastor.  Let me make this perfectly clear -- I am not complaining about the Pastors who went before me or the people who I met when I arrived.  What I am complaining about is that the definition of Lutheran that our Lutheran congregations have grown accustomed to and our Lutheran Pastors have accepted is a different Lutheranism than the one identified in the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  And this slap of reality has often made it hard on a young Vicar or Pastor facing a congregation very different than the congregation of his dreams or even of the expectation of the Seminary.

Those Vicars and Pastors who come from Seminary are not simply hard nosed and uncompromising types who are rigid and unbending, arrogant and condescending, difficult and uncompromising.  They are also the true believers whose heads have been filled with the Confessions, who have been formed as Pastors within the rich liturgical environs of the Seminary chapel and its musical depth, who are idealistic and energetic as people are in youth or new to a vocation or idea.  They have the highest of high expectations of people whose hearts are formed and shaped by baptismal grace and nurtured at the devotional center of the Altar and enlarged through the faithful reading and study of God's Word.  They have the unrealistic but noble expectation that the guiding principle of the Church is not what works or what feels good or what have we always done but what is good and right and true.  They have been taught that the folks in the pew want to be Lutheran, know what it means to be Lutheran, and will follow a Lutheran Pastor like a dog follows his master -- out of love and not forced obedience.

To some this is an "I am more of a Lutheran than you" that is believed to be an indicator of a problem personality.  There may be some truth to this.  But the truth is this is exactly how I was as a new Vicar on Long Island shocked to find that a parish with 1500 communicants had but one of 5 services Holy Communion and that the Sunday schedule was so tight it was a cattle call service, shortened to make up for the pitifully small rail.  Here I sat on an elevated dais teaching the catechism to 100 kids at tables, assisted by parent sargents of arms to keep order among kids who did not listen or even want to be there. Here I found a congregation where their new Pastor was unprepared for the dynamics of a congregation 7 times the size of his previous parish and a conflict between this Pastor and this congregation that grew like a weed and threatened to pull in a new, young Vicar simply trying to get through it all

This is exactly how I was as a new Pastor in upstate NY upon finding that the people were aliturgical, did not think that the name Lutheran was all that positive, that the voice of the Spirit speaking to the heart was just as reliable as Scripture, that I may be Pastor but they were elders in the Spirit and in the Lord and were going to teach me something about spiritual life and maturity, that the music was the pits, that the church building was falling down (descriptive of how well things had been cared for in other areas), and that the Church was not at the center of folk's lives but somewhere on the fringe...  I was depressed and disappointed and wondered whether it was the odd duck or the norm for congregations that called themselves Lutheran.  Above all I found myself completely alone and isolated in this circumstance (with only my wife to talk to or console me).

I will admit that I am not nearly as idealistic, energetic, and optimistic as I was then... and I will also admit that I have learned to be less Lutheran in order to make it in these parishes... to put up with things that are in conflict with who we are Confessionally -- at least over the short term -- and to hope and pray that enough teaching will change these folks...  I will admit that I am not shocked as I once was by what is said by or goes on in parishes and by Pastors of this church body and that I am less inclined to say something to folks when these shocking things are said and done in the name of God... I will admit that I am bolder on this forum than I am in District gatherings where some of what I complain about goes on or I meet the people who perpetrate these less then Lutheran liturgical identities and practices...  I will admit to this and you might say I have matured but if this is the price of maturity I am not so sure about it...


I did spend time there, getting to know these folks, teaching them, holding up Lutheran confessional identity and practice, and slowly moving them along (so that they would not identify Lutheran confessional identity with a person but with Lutheranism itself).  After 13 years there, this Parish does identify with Lutheran confession and does retain the weekly Eucharist and the liturgy as part of that identity.  But it was a hard time for me trying to live down the high expectations and facing with the slap of reality and the penultimate Lutheran question "what does this mean?"

Not all may know that there is a terrible truth that a new Pastor awakens to when he makes it into his first call... a period of depression because the rich and deep liturgical life he knew is gone and what is left in its place is Sunday morning with all its warts.... a period of sober awareness when you find out people may not necessarily want to be the Lutherans the Confessions speak of and are quite comfortable being the Lutheranism they defined (with some of it rooted less in Dr. Martin and more in Wesley, Calvin, Osteen, and Warren)...  It is not that we blame anyone for this as much as we lament that we cannot count on a Lutheran confessional and liturgical identity and these must be taught a new (as if they had never been).

I am NOT defending arrogance or pride or justifying unloving practice of those Pastors who place principle before people in all cases... but what I am admitting, and I believe that you would as well, is that real life in the parish is very distant from the life in the parish which is presumed from the liturgical life and theological setting of a seminary... so just maybe some of the guys (and some from Ft Wayne) that people complain about on this forum are going through what I went through (more than 32 years ago)... That said, I am glad I am not starting over and I pray even more fervently for those who come out of Seminary with or after me... the standards are high, the goals serious, and the effort needed great.  Look beyond the reality to gather a sense of what God can and will do... Look beyond the disappointment to the opportunity... but talk to your fellow Pastors about this... it is a a common experience...and keep the high ideals even as you work to implant them in the lives of your people... working in love and with love for the flock over which the Lord has made you a Bishop....

6 comments:

George and Colleen said...

Thank you, Pr. Peters. I feel some of your pain. Actually a lot of it. I'm finishing my first year on Long Island, and... well. enough about me.

Where was your vicarage on LI?

George

Christopher Gillespie said...

I'm with Pr. Kirkup. I'll be installed later this summer and will take your words to heart.

Pastor Peters said...

Vicared at St. John's in Sayville, 1978-79...

Dixie said...

Pastor, I don't think this is just a Lutheran phenomenon. I hear some of the same things from my presbytera. At seminary services aren't just scheduled for Sunday, the chapel calls daily and the chanting is next to divine. Theology was such a focus and interest to her and father and to the people around them in the seminary; the primary interest, the topic of discussion at the coffee house. Everyone attended Orthros because it was the "theology du jour".

But the seminary experience did not follow them into real parish life. No one comes for Orthros, the chanting in the parish is far, far, from beautiful--seriously, a major talent void in our little community, and those in the pews don't know their theology or have an Orthodox phrenoma. Most in the community would rather make spanakopita and baklava for fundraising than come to services during the week.

I realize that your point was specific to Lutheran congregations not being Lutheran but I think this particular discrepancy (seminary life vs. real life) cuts deeper and in other directions as well. I can imagine what a shock and disappointment this might cause but I suspect there is good to also be had from such an experience.

Robbie F. said...

Brother, I hear you. I was blessed with an all-but-ideal vicarage - under a pastor who had already spent 30 years catechizing his congregation to embrace liturgical & doctrinal Lutheranism. So my baptism by fire didn't come till my first parish, where I succeeded 2 consecutive pastors who were spiritually destroyed by the congregation's aggressive resistance to the pastoral ministry (1 of my predecessors is now Eastern Orthodox; the other has now been driven out of at least 3 parishes). I got nailed exactly the same way & took a call to a saltwater district where 1.5 years of conflict with 2 individuals on the church council led to 6 years, and counting, out of the parish. I am as disillusioned as it is possible to be. AND YET I STILL WANT TO DO THIS WITH ALL MY HEART. Go figure.

George and Colleen said...

Pr. Peters,

Sayville indeed!?

I now live in a house owned by St. John's, and serve the other St. John's -- in Holbrook.

George

ps. All God's blessings to you Chris!