Wednesday, June 8, 2016
A Few Thoughts on Ecclesiastical Supervision. . .
I write as one who has been charged and brought through both Dispute Resolution for a non-doctrinal charge and for a doctrinal charge. I have experienced the processes from the inside and not simply as an impartial observer. While I would not suggest that the process was without pain or angst, if the bylaws are followed (always a tedious but essential task to bring things to a credible conclusion), the process does work as well as any dispute resolution process can working with sinful people. I also believe that those who are charged with the responsibility of acting as Reconcilers are well-intentioned and pious people who have a heart for unity and peace among the people and parishes that make up our Synod. These are the rules by which we have chosen to operate when it comes to disputes (although there are significant differences between non-doctrinal and doctrinal issues). I am not saying that they are perfect but that they afford us the opportunity to act both with integrity and the good will of Christian character (if we will also act with integrity and Christian purpose).
One might expect that my experiences might make me wary of ecclesiastical supervision and oversight. That is not the case at all. I for one welcome the regular visitation of our parish by both the Circuit Visitor and by the District President (who is charged with this episcopal responsibility both historically and by bylaw). I believe that the regular visitation of our parishes and pastors will prevent things from escalating to the point where the dispute resolution process or more serious doctrinal review is necessary. I welcome the opportunity both to explain my practice and to confess my doctrine and I believe it is good for our people to know that their pastors and their parishes are accountable.
This is about integrity -- the integrity of the faith believed, taught, and confessed. We live in a time in which diversity threatens to stretch the fabric of our unity to the breaking point (in church, culture, and nation). Our people need to know that their pastors are held accountable. Our parishes need to know that they do not act as isolated islands but walk together in this thing we call the Synod. I am confident that the more we are known and the more we know of one another the stronger we will be as a church body, the greater the integrity of our confession both within the community of faith and outside to the world, and that this will encourage our outreach and growth in witness and even in numbers.
We already have supervision over statistics. I expect that I am not alone in being asked to report to our District Office our attendance, number of new members, adult confirmations, baptisms, etc... on a quarterly basis. If supervision of statistics is important, is not supervision of doctrine and practice even more so?
In my first parish my District President visited me at least every six months, ate in our home, spoke with my wife, and visited the leaders of my parish. Without this visitation and the resulting support, my first years would have far more difficult for me as a young pastor and for the people of my parish. I was privileged to have the wisdom, encouragement, and regular visitation of one of the best ecclesiastical supervisors in our church body. Now sainted, the man and his model of pastoral care for the pastors and parishes under his charge remain the gold standard for me and my family.
I do not wish to enter the debate over specific proposals on the how this is done but I do want to speak openly and passionately for the importance of visitation and faithful ecclesiastical supervision both of pastors and parishes. It is key to our integrity of teaching and witness, it is important for the confidence we have in each other and our trust in the pastoral judgement and parish choices made throughout the Synod, and it is vital to the overall health and vitality of our life and walk together as Synod. Do not fear this oversight and supervision. Welcome it. If you are doing things that cannot be defended according to Scripture and our Confessions, then you need to be held accountable and change. If you are doing things that are right but not popular, your people need to know that the church stands with you as pastor. If your people travel (and they do), they need to know that the parish a hundred or a thousand miles down the road believes, confesses, and teaches with one accord and that the pastor there, different in gifts, is the same in faith. Ecclesiastical supervision is no bogey man to be feared but an important but often overlooked means to assuring that we are truly one in faith and faithful in practice everywhere and that the differences in the way we work this out by congregational self-government and pastoral discretion does not become different confessions within the same church body.
Do not give into fear. Our church body and our leaders have little desire to or capability of micromanaging things from a centralized office. The desire and goal of this aspect of our life together is so that we may confidently, with integrity, and in unity stand together for the sake of those within the household of the faith and in witness to those not yet of the kingdom.