Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Pastoral Authority.... in short supply... use wisely

Philip Clayton has written that Pastors have lost much of the authority that was once inherent in the office.  Gone are the days when the Pastor is perhaps the most educated person in the congregation.  Gone are the days when the Pastor is the most wisely read person in the parish.  Gone are the days when the Pastor both represented and spoke for the faith and the Scriptures.  Even radio, TV, and newspapers (really all print media) have given way to ads, movies, and, of course the internet. has become for many a bigger authority on matters of faith, morality, and Christian life than the Pastor.  The whole nature of the Pastor's role has shifted from authority figure to host and his purpose moved from informing and inspiring to making the Sunday guests feel welcome and comfortable.

People in the pew no longer are merely consumers of theology.  They are connoisseurs, having developed a taste for things and shoppers seeking the best sources of supply for what they want.  In addition to this, they have become producers as well -- defining what churches should be, should say, and should do.

Richard Rohr (writing as a Roman Catholic) has suggested that we do not think ourselves into new ways of living, rather, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking. In other words, we seek theological and philosophical constructs that fit what we are doing now.  So, we can be against cohabitation in general because this is what we were taught growing up and in church, but when we find ourselves living with a partner, the values change to fit the living arrangements.

The authority of the Pastor was once seemingly endless.  Why, stories are told of Pastors consulted by farmers as to when to plant crops -- even though the Pastor was not ever a farmer nor did he possess much practical knowledge on the subject.  Now pastoral authority is a very limited quantity and it is easily expended (perhaps even completely).  This is not a "choose your battles" wisdom here but rather an acknowledgement of the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves and a warning against presuming what you may not have (or have in much quantity).

Pastoral authority must be cultivated by teaching (catechesis) but also by service.  The more people can point to as reasons why to trust the Pastor, the easier it will be for this trust to bear when values and choices conflict in the lives of those in pew.  Because the issues have changed, doctrinal purity is less relevant and less important to the religious consumer today than it once was.  Now, I do not mean to diminish the idea that part of the pastoral responsibility is to be a keeper of the faith and to make sure the faith kept is kept pure.  What I am saying is that this is often a secondary value to the lives of the folks in the pew.  It is not that they are bad.  It is simply descriptive of the shifts and changes within our culture.  So the visitor on Sunday morning is not simply listen to what is said, but how it is said, and this whole thing is filtered through the welcoming character of the greeting and the full ranges of services available to them.  Underneath it all is the even more elusive sense of happiness, contentment, and joy felt during the worship service (and, especially the sermon).  The visitor is only doing preventively what the member has already done (and continues to do especially if something happens to make them question their previous judgement about the Pastor or the parish).

The transformational quality of the church's life is, for most, a much higher value than the faithfulness or truthfulness of its confession and proclamation.  For this reason, we Pastors must be bi-lingual as well as the folks in the pews.  We must be able to speak to and speak from the current values and thinking of people but we must also be able to challenge and grow our people beyond those often shallow and self-centered values.  All of this points even more to the high value of catechesis -- constant teaching with passion and with confidence.  The sin greater than irrelevance is to be boring.  Let it not be said of us that orthodoxy has ceded the truth to the mundane, banal, and dull!   Because our pastoral authority is in short supply, an even greater burden is placed upon our passion for the sake of the Gospel and our passion in preaching the cross -- both Law and Gospel, strong doctrinal preaching.  This is not something about which we have a choice.

Just a few thoughts still spilling out from the 2012 Symposia in Ft. Wayne...


Anonymous said...

In case you missed it, pastoral
leadership is what the laity are
looking for today. The pastoral
authority was abused in the past at
parish council meetings and voters

In the previous generation the pastor
would ramrod his projects through
the congregation and let them figure
how to pay for it. Today, that model
is dead.

Anonymous said...

Jesus taught his disciples with
authority. Pastors can teach their
congregation with authority when
they are Christ-centered and Bible-
based teachers of God's Word.

Carl Vehse said...

"The authority of the Pastor was once seemingly endless."

Yes, it has been a while since American Lutherans have signed a Pledge of Subjection like the one made to Bishop Martin Stephan to obey his "ordinances, dispositions, and regulations which His Highness may make in religious as well as communal matters." (Although the BRTFSSG sodomy of the synodical constitution moved the Missouri Synod back toward that direction.)

For Missouri Saxon Lutherans the change came with the 1839 Protestation document, which was read by Pastor Walther in 1842 at his Trinity Lutheran Church congregational meeting, and continued with the Trinity Lutheran Church constitution developed in 1843 by C.F.W. Walther and Trinity Lutheran congregational voters, and Dr. C.F.W. Walther's First Presidential Address in 1848, at the second Missouri Synod convention.

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...

Because our pastoral authority is in short supply, an even greater burden is placed upon our passion for the sake of the Gospel and our passion in preached the cross.

I think this is coming at it from the wrong end.

You're talking about the perception of authority or the recognition of authority on the part of the people. I think you should be talking about the actual and real authority that Christ conveys on His ministers, whether the people recognize it or not.

That authority has been abused in the past by both pastors and laity when either group ascribed some "other" authority to the pastor, like, the authority to choose the color of the carpet, etc. Christ never gave that authority to the ministry. It was always a "human arrangement."

If a pastor is trying to sway the congregation with human arguments, then yes, there is a greater burden placed on his "passion." If, however, he is truly preaching with the authority of Christ, then the burden is no greater now than it has ever been, and the Word will be just as effective as it has always been, whether people come in acknowledging the authority of Christ in His servant or not.

Janis Williams said...

How many of us were bought up to believe in the pastor's office? That he stands in the stead of Christ?

How many of us are willing to believe it now?

How many of us are willing to allow pastors to be human and fallible? We don't want anyone making 'mistakes' with our lives!

John said...

I believe that the ram rod type pastor is still alive and well, today. Maybe they believe that they have to be such in order to appear to be in charge.

I've visited congregations where the Readings are done by the laity, and where women assist at Holy Communion. How can a pastor who will abdicate his authority on the chancel claim any authority in any other aspect of the congregation?

Anonymous said...

There are those who would not see lay reading of a lesson or lay assistants at communion (male) as any abdication of authority for the authority lies not in what people do but in the office itself.