Monday, January 23, 2012

Calls and the Way Some of Them End...

Perhaps I should begin by admitting to a certain amount of apprehension about all the talk of calls going on in our church body. There are those who complain that some congregations are not honoring their calls or their Pastors. There are those who complain that some Pastors are not either personally suited to the nature of the pastoral ministry or are not putting the kind of effort into their calls that parishes expect. I am fairly certain that one could list a number of examples of both circumstances -- parishes abusing the "call" and Pastors (or other church workers) abusing their "call" status.

A number of years ago I was a Circuit Counselor who had to accompany a District President into a parish to tell the "called" Pastor that his ministry there was over and he needed to resign. There had not been huge conflict but there were warning lights all over the place that signaled that this man was not personally suited for the demands of dealing with people that the Pastoral Office requires. He was not a bad sort and did not deceive anyone. In fact, I always thought somebody at the Sem should have caught this and required additional training in the areas lacking or, at worst, simply told him that he did not have the gifts required for the exercise of the Pastoral Office. I credit the DP for the even handed and loving way he handled this. I suppose that there are other situations that were not handled so well and ended up in blame games, charges, and accusations. In this particular case, the man knew what was coming and a pretty good idea of why he was being asked to resign.

There were other circumstances but this was the main one that told me there needs to be a way to deal with situations like this. The worst that could happen would be a full blown set of charges at a voters assembly and the painting of one side a winner and the other a loser. The good bishop who handled this avoided this prospect which would have left indelible scars on both parish and Pastor. On the other hand, I know a couple of Pastors who made a few small mistakes here and there (like who hasn't) but who resided in congregations unwilling to forgive and who blew these little things into the giant issues that ended up leaving blood all over the parish and all over the Pastor (and his family). I think of one who went down like the captain of a sinking ship insisting it was not his fault, that this congregation be marked as the guilty party, that they be punished. He would not resign and fought it out -- insisting it was for the cause of the Ministry and not for himself. There were no winners and only losers. I can also think of another one whom I had counseled to stay and fight -- at least for a while. But this fellow was gracious and was concerned less for the office than for his family and the rest of the parish that would be caught in the crossfire. He exuded grace under pressure and wrote lovingly to the people asking their forgiveness where he had wronged them and asking them to seek him out personally that he might leave at peace with all. To this day I marvel at what he did and how he did it.

For all the rhetoric on the blogosphere and temptation to paint every circumstance with the same broad brush, I would suggest that we need to be careful here. Where I vicared, there was terrible conflict between the Pastor who had signed my vicarage application and then succumbed to cancer and his successor who came not more than 6-7 months later. And there I was caught in the crossfire. It was no one's fault and everyone's. This was a terrible match for a congregation which had not even begun to grieve the death of one Pastor and his successor who seemed somewhat blind to circumstances of the parish to whom he had said "yes, it seems good to me and to the Holy Spirit."

My first parish was also suffering the open wounds of conflict between two different groups with my predecessor in the middle of it all. I praise the goodness of God and the wisdom of those who placed me in both -- since I was not like anyone in the fray and was able to distract the folks from some of the conflict for me to have a successful vicarage and first parish (where I ended up staying nearly 13 years). I have a bit of experience with this -- perhaps just enough to make me dangerous -- but what I have learned is that there is no broad brush. Each parish and Pastor offers a certain set of characteristics and circumstances that make it hard to generalize and make it essential to wade into the troubled waters carefully. Sometimes, for no one's fault, the only answer is resignation. In others, the circumstances require that this be made a teaching moment -- even when that comes with its own cost to parish and to Pastor.

What I am saying is that it is easy to armchair quarterback the situations in these parishes and with these Pastors but more often than not we are wrong in our understandings and flawed in our determinations. For these circumstances, a good Circuit Counselor, good brothers in the Circuit, and some wise and patient parish leaders can be a Pastor's best friends and hope. Not every conflict need end with retreat or resignation but that in and of itself is not defeat. So I pray for those who minister to and those who find themselves in the kinds of situations I have attempted to describe. It may be much like finding your way through the dark -- slowly, carefully, and circumspectly, you feel your way through it. God bless all involved in those kind of situations. You need a special measure of wisdom and patience for the road ahead. May God give it to you in abundance.


Jeremy Loesch said...

Very nice.

The public ministry is the best, toughest, easiest, and hardest job in the world.

Appreciate your writings on this matter.


Anonymous said...

Every parish is made up of sinful
human beings. The spiritual maturity
of both the sinful pastor and the
sinful laity will determine their
survival. God's means of grace is
what holds a parish together, not
the charisma of the pastor or the
wallets of the lay leaders. We need
to remember that forgiveness is the
key to any lasting relationship.
Every parish has problems, yet not
every parish is mature to handle them

Terry Maher said...

About a month after I made profession of faith as a Lutheran, the pastor who had worked with us was removed from both the parish and the OHM itself by the synod (WELS).

There was a lot of strong feeling all around, but, I was impressed by two things. One, the willingness despite the confusion of both the synod and the parish to work through this. It wasn't pretty, but it worked.

Two, it bolstered my conviction in my then recent profession of faith. Where one might have thought, what kind of mess have I gotten myself into, what actually struck me is how all sides worked with each other and through the confusion like actual Christians in a body, which like any body has some functions that aren't so pleasant, rather than what I grew up with, where some damn "bishop" assigns a guy then eventually moves him and assigns a replacement and the people don't have jack to say about it.