Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Peril (& Myth) of Pastoral Prerogative

As I have often said, after our new building was complete, a parishioner came up to me while we were staring into the nave of our new building, following a worship service, and said, "Well, you finally got the  building you wanted."  Ahhhhh, well, no.  "What makes you think this was the building I wanted?" responding with another question.  "Well, ahhh, I mean, you were on the committee, you were a leader in the whole thing, and you seemed to know more about it than all of us.  I was not complaining.  The building is beautiful.  But, well, aren't you happy now that you have what you want?"

In the long conversation that ensued, I had to cool my temper a bit and keep telling myself to respond thoughtfully and gently.  This was not my building and it was not built to please me.  The architect and his committee met for hours with every leader and individual church member and the whole voters assembly -- on several occasions -- to ascertain what the people were looking for.  The architect took the budget, the many diverse desires of the people, and a sense of Lutheran identity in worship and practice and came up with the plan we now have as a building.  It is wider than it is long but still reverberant.  It is filled with light from clerestory, rose, and Trinity stained glass windows.  It is warm in color and tones.  It is a very nice building.  But it is not MY building.

If you knew me you would know that I prefer buildings which are long and narrow, very high ceilings, stone walls, and on the dark side both in light, color, and tone.  If this building were built for me, it would have looked very different.  That is not to say that I have not worked to make it as worshipful, as consistent with Lutheran integrity of theology, confession, and practice as possible.  That is not to say that I did not encourage ideas from artists working with us to paint the canvas of the structure with rich symbols and treats for the eye.  That is not to say I did not work to obtain a pipe organ when it was available and within our budget.  That is not to say I did not foment for liturgical hangings (paraments and banners) that would synthesize the traditional and yet modern sense of the building with the identifications of season and Sunday that belong to the church year.  That is not to say I did not fight for kneelers to be installed so that those who wish might (while those who choose not to kneel, are not forced to comply -- so that neither side would choose an option that would prevent the other).  That is not to say I did not work with the building committee to make sure we got as much bang for the buck as was possible.  That is also not to say I did not make mistakes, have serious errors of judgment, and did not sweat the whole darn thing.  I did.  But the force behind it was not a building of my desire or choosing.

Sadly, it is a common belief in the pews that what Pastor's do is shaped by their personal desires and wants, that the Office they hold gives them the prerogative to shape the congregation by their own personality and tastes, and that this is one of the perks of the Office that makes up for some of the, well, non-perks.  Sadly, it is a common belief because most of these folks have been in parishes where the clergy did just that -- shape things not by theological identity, confession or faithfulness but by personal desire and taste.  Sadly, it is true that parishes often become mirrors of the personality of their Pastors (not always in a positive way because there is something laudable in the Pastor worth emulating but in the negative way of displaying all his own weaknesses).

Sadly, it is the way we figure things work in the world, so that is also the way they must work when it comes to the parish.  We think this about worship "style," hymn and musical preferences, and a host of other issues that have become battlefields within the life of the modern church.  So it is assumed by folks in the pew that Pastors who chant, like it and this is why they do it.  That Pastors who move them to weekly Eucharist, like it and this is why they do it.  That Pastors who wear more vestments, like it, and this is why they wear them.  Etc...  So it is equally true that when Pastors change, folks expect that everything else changes with him (liturgy, hymns and music, vestments, Eucharist, chanting, etc.).  It has become a common and damningly true fact that Pastors work to shape a congregation to fit what they want, then leave to turn another parish into a mirror of themselves and the guys who follow them are there to undo what has been done as they work to stamp the image of themselves upon the congregation.  And the people in the pew are caught in the crossfire.

Let me first say that I abhor this whole idea.  I have worked and taught so that none of the changes I have made are reflections of my personal preference or desire or personality.  I chant because chanting is presumed and expected in the liturgical tradition and hymnals of our church body.  Speaking is the odd option -- not singing.  Personally, I prefer a service where I am completely passive and absorb it all (priest, preacher, choir, etc.).  But it is not about me.  So the worship service of this parish is about who we are as Lutheran Christians.  I love the daily offices (sans sermon, by the way) but our confessions insist that we celebrate the mass every Lord's Day and whenever our people desire it.  The weekly Eucharist is not because of me but because of our confessional Lutheran identity.  I would prefer a monastic habit of simple black cassock or so but our confessions insist that we respect the church usages of the past and have not abandoned them and our theology insists that vestments identify the Pastor with the Christ he represents and not himself as an individual.  So I wear the traditional vestments of the Church, which Lutherans have always worn (though not necessarily as a majority in most places).  It is not about me.  It is about the Office of Pastor, the liturgical and practical identity consistent with our Confessions, and about, ultimately, Christ and His means of grace that are behind it all.

It is also not about people in the pew.  That is why we do not offer a smorgasbord of different worship "styles" to fit everyone's personality and taste.  We are here because God says we belong -- we belong to Him in Christ and He has declared us His own in baptism and declared us worthy to stand before Him and serve Him, receiving His gifts and then responding by the power of the Spirit.  We are not here because it fits us or we feel at home here.  This is our home because Christ was incarnate, live obediently, died sacrificially, and rose victoriously that the scattered and exiled might be brought back to God's House to be and live as His family, His body, the Church, and witness this miracle of grace and mercy to the world.

I get tired of explaining this but in the end I wonder if this is not one of the most important things that needs to be explained over and over again.  Congregations are not the mirrors of their Pastors and worship is not the mirror of our personal taste or preference and music is not primarily an expression of our feelings.  It is all about Christ -- the Christ whom the Pastors represent to their people so that they might represent Him to the world.... the Christ who bids us come and feeds us upon His Word and Sacraments and imparts the Spirit who teaches us to respond with the Amen of faith... the Christ whose story is our song and whose Word are the words of our liturgy... and the Christ who is the center of the building, erected not as a memorial to Him but as a working temple in which He dwells through Word and Sacrament and equips us to become the people we were declared to be in our baptism....


Anonymous said...

How many parishes have pastors who
chant the liturgy? How many pastors
have the natural ability to chant
the liturgy without drawing attention
to themselves? How many parishes
would insist that the pastor chant
the liturgy when he is issued a
divine call to their parish?

Just asking some questions and do not
know if the answers are available.

Rev Keith Reeder said...

Very well said, Pr. Peters.

I've encountered the same thing.

I am convinced that people assume everything goes according to Pastor's preference because the idea that there is something bigger and more profound than our personal or collective preference is foreign to them. I even get the sense that those who angrily protest against closed Communion are angry because they think their pastor enjoys barring visitors from the rail.

Ironically, most of the recent changes in many of our congregations (such as clergy chanting and the introduction of the chasuble) require absolutely no change in the piety of the laity. Yet some will still object because they simply don't like it and have no desire to be taught.

Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

One of the pastoral leadership styles
that works is consensus building.
This means that the laity are on
board every step of the way in
major decision making in the parish.
Our congregation voted 93% in favor
of a building program for a new
sanctuary and parish hall. The laity
understood it was their idea and not
the pastor's. The Lord truly blessed
this effort as the finances were
given with a generous heart.

Pastor Peters said...

I grew up in a very low church Lutheran parish on the prairie and my pastors chanted because the hymnal (1941) expected it. It was not that the people insisted or they like it -- the chant notes were there and they sang them. What is the big deal about that? At least that is how I was introduced to chanting... It is not about ability (have you heard some of the Popes chant?) but the way it is done. In college I was taught, the Pastor speaks, the people speak; the Pastor sings, the people sing. Am I the only one who wonders why when the Pastor SAYS "The Lord be with you" the people SING "And also with you/And with thy spirit?"

Anonymous said...

I am a LCMS person who has lived
in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois during
my 65 years on this earth. I have
never attended a Divine Service
where the liturgy was chanted by the
pastor. Am I missing something, we
still had Word and Sacrament.

Paul said...

In my 53 years of life (mostly in the LCMS) and almost 25 years in Holy Ministry, I have seen many different things pass for Lutheran. The most difficult question to answer is "Why?" do we not have unity in practice? Part of the answer is the curse of American individualism, seen already in the last verse of Judges. Another part is lack of love for our fellow forgiven sinners. Ministry is what I have been given to do by the grace of God. Until we recover the spirit of St. Paul who said, "I pass on to you what I received..." we will be worthy of lament. Kyrie eleison!

Anonymous said...

A professor told me that chanting
was big in the Middle Ages because of
the acoustics of the cathedrals.
They had no 2lst century sound
system to amplify their speaking
voice so they chanted in order to be
heard. Today, that is no longer
a problem, so there is no necessity
for chanting in the Divine Service.

Anonymous said...

So I guess we can dispense with all the calls to sing to the Lord in the Psalms or sing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs (Paul)? Funny, because chanting took place throughout Christian history and the most significant advance in chant (Gregorian) was forumlated in the seventh century (well before the Middle Ages). Honestly, how does chant get singled out as the theme of this little post? Is chanting such a raw nerve among some Lutherans? I just don't get it.

John said...

The only versicle that is chanted that I found in The Order of the Holy Communion, page 15 of TLH is The Gloria in Excelsis, which I remember our pastor chanting. This was the only versicle that he chanted. This observation is from 1952 - 1982, same hymnal, same pastor.

John said...

Please do not dismiss the possibility, Rev Peters that the parishioner who spoke with you had previously experienced a pastor who out of ignorance, or purposely imposed his will upon the congregation.

It does happen.

Pastor Peters said...

Read the General Rubrics of the 1941 Hymnal or look at the CPH book of the 1941 liturgy published for Pastors to lead the service with all the chant notes...

Anonymous said...

The perceived pastoral prerogative extends well beyond the practice of chanting. The use of various settings of the Divine Service (as we have in LSB), the use or not of the lectionary, hymn selections, which vestments are worn, and the like, could also be included, and I think you did.

While I don't have the extensive pastoral experience of many of the respondents on this list, I have learned that information and communication are good things. Careful, gentle, pastoral, evangelical explanations are key - as you, Pastor Peters, noted in the opening paragraphs of your post. Even though your blood boils as you fielded question after question, you were also opening up the riches the Church's history.

And, there will be those who will never like chanting, those for whom more than alb and stole are considered flamboyant, those who will never be happy with hymn selections unless How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace are sung every Sunday, and pastors who will only wear the chasuble on special occasions (that's me - I get really hot, even though I like wearing it). It won't matter how much explaining is done, things will just be this way.

Excellent post, by the way.

Pastor Kevin Jennings