Monday, December 7, 2009

Pastoral... or not

According to the dictionary, the word "pastoral" means "of shepherds or their way of life, of or about rural life, of a pastor or his duties, and several other derivations of the same... I find no definition of pastoral as meaning "nice" or "easy going" or "accepting" or "flexible" or "willing to go along." Yet often when that words is used as an adjective to describe the personality of a particular Pastor, the implication is given that this person is not rigid or ideological but tolerant, easy, and willing to compromise. I find it strange that this word has come to such a usage. In fact, I think it odd that it is used in this way.

Think of how we use the word "parental" in much the same way. When mom or dad is acting "parental" it means that they are not giving in or going along, that they are laying down the rules and sticking to them. I have heard kids in my catechism class say that one of their parents was going "parental" on them. This was not a reference to an emotional or psychological breakdown but simply that the parent (s) were sticking to things like curfews, the need to do homework, pass the grade, etc.

It is truly unfortunate when these noble terms are used to imply something less that a heart felt desire to do your best by your children and your parishioners. In fact, it is the opposite that is usually the case. When parents do not act "parental" they are abdicating their role and place as the chief teachers, protectors, and nurturers of their children. And the same is true of Pastors -- when they do not act "pastoral" they make poor choices on behalf of the people committed to their care and end up straying them from the very boundaries the shepherd is there to hold.

Is it "pastoral" to raise up the desires of the people to the level of God's truth and teaching? Is it "pastoral" to turn Sunday morning into what people want and ignore the confession and tradition of the Church about the wisdom of Word and Sacrament, liturgy and the church's song? Is it "pastoral" to borrow from those who do not share our confession or truth for the expedient cause of filling the pews?

Now some of you might think, there he goes again. He is one of those rigid Pastors who follows all the rules -- the downer who rains on all our parades. If you knew me you would know that this is not the case. In most circumstances I try to make it work -- often going against my own wants and desires. I understand that the Church is not my private playground but there are reasons and even rules for our life together. The goal and purpose of the pastoral ministry is not to make every decision or shape everything according to your personal preference but to be as faithful as you can be to the Lord for the sake of His sheep. I do not run the show but it is true that as Pastor I am now and again the voice of conscience to say to people -- no, we cannot do that and this is why...

To some it would seem that I am a rules person raining on the parade of people's wants and desires. We do not do "contemporary" worship nor do we have a menu of services and styles of music to fit every taste. We teach the catechism to all ages. We expect people to be in the Word and in worship every week. Period. Now some folks might say I have imposed my values upon the congregation in enforcing these "rules" but I would say that to not hold to these would be to betray my pastoral calling.

Now to the source of my frustration: The way Pastors are described by the Districts and their staff to congregations readying to extend a call. They are often discouraged from calling those who are not "flexible" because these bad guys will say "no" and will cause trouble. And it is true that some Pastors have caused trouble -- wherever they have gone. But there are also congregations that chew up and spit out Pastors as if they were gum. I suggest that these should not define either the call process or our perspective. I am sure that I am listed as "rigid" and "not flexible" on those Pastor Information Forms on some computer hard drive or paper file. And all because I believe that Lutheran congregations ought to worship with forms that are consistent with their Confessions and identity.... that the Church is there to teach the Word and this is not accomplished by focusing on felt needs or hosting square dancing clubs... that music is not neutral and is the servant of the Word... that those who are members of this church should know its confession and doctrine... that those who are part of this church body should endeavor to shape their practice as closely as possible to this church's standard and identity and not use every reason to depart from it or abandon it altogether... that the pulpit is for proclaiming the Law and the Gospel and not for personal opinion, storytelling, or the latest psychological banter...

This is what it means to be pastoral... and not the opposite...

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