Saturday, August 25, 2012

What of seelsorge?

A million years ago when I was in seminary (beware of any sentence that begins thusly), there was much talk about seelsorge (care of the souls).  Indeed, the primary role and function of the Pastor is as seelsorger (carer of the souls).  It was all good stuff, mind you.  Lofty sounding.  Idealistic.  Theoretical.  I marveled at the discussion of the work of the Pastor characterized by seelsorge.  It was impressive to an impressionable young man.  But I have to admit, the glow was tarnished by the realities of church administration. 

As I worked the ancient mimeograph with more ink on my fingers than on the paper, I began to wonder what or if this seelsorge actually takes place.  As I emptied giant garbage cans collecting water from a terrible roof leak, I felt growing anger between the presumed spiritual duties to the soul and the practical stuff of making sure the furnace did not drown.  As I stood on the roof assisting an 80 something old man installing plexiglass over leaking translucent fiberglass panels designed to bathe the chancel in indirect light, I knew I was there to care for his soul but it was his life that I felt needed to be guarded most of all at that moment.

Every Pastor has those moments of awakening when the grand theory of seelsorge meets the dirty reality of parish administration.  It is not pretty and we try to hide the truth of it from aspiring candidates for the Office of the Ministry but it cannot be hidden for long.  There are those who have other paid staff to handle such things and the rare congregation where the lay have taken full ownership of this part of the parish life but most, dare I say nearly all Pastors find themselves in the thick of it more than they feel appropriate or salutary.

In the midst of all of this, we find ourselves now charged not merely with the care of the souls or the administration of the parish, we are also responsible for making sure marriages are happy and healthy, lives are full and rewarding, people are happy, satisfied and achieve their dreams/success, and children reach their full potential without too many screw ups.  At least that is how it sounds by what passes for preaching in so many non-denominational settings (clue in Joel Osteen) and not a few Lutheran look alikes.

I just listened to one such sermon critiqued on one Lutheran radio channel.  The title was something about how to have an affair (in this case with your spouse).  According to the opening banter, it was preceded by a PG-13 sermon on lighting the sexual fire with your spouse.  Glad I missed that one.  After the sermon the band played on about how important it was to lift the lid on the toilet seat -- nothing says love like bathroom manners, now does it.  But it is true that many marriages end it divorse (half, they say) and this guy said a third of those divorces were caused by extra-marital relationships.  Lord knows, the need is urgent.  His words were not terrible -- not Gospel but not terrible - but the folks could have just read the recommended book (The Five Loves) and gotten all they needed there.  And the snark would say, "But would they have read it?"  Probably not.

Seelsorge is not primarily concerned with better marriages.  Neither is it so concerned with achieving earthly success or happiness.  It is not a quick fix for wayward kids, either.  Seelsorege is about the soul.  I wonder if we have not forgotten about that.  We don't hear much talk about the soul.  We hear some talk about salvation (or being saved) but we Lutherans don't feel comfortable with that American vocabulary (well, most of us don't).  We do like to talk about justification but even that gets old when the same outline is preached week after week after week.  We could talk about santificataion but that offends with its expectation of repentance and new life.  Yet the care of the soul is the first mission of the sermon (the Word -- both verbal and visible).

It is not that we ignore marriage, family, the individual, and such.  But, as I was taught by a wise Pastor, we do not do counseling -- we give adivce from the Word of God, we hear confession, we absolve, we comfort the afflicted, and we afflict the comfortable.  It will surely result in improvements in life and relationships but these are fruits and not the goal of the means of grace.  We pray but no parish expects to pay a man to pray for them.  They expect real work and since most of the Pastoral duties are not "real work" we tend to busy ourselves more with those things that people consider "work" and worth compensation (running the parish like a finely oiled machine).

This I do as I must but this is not what I became a Pastor ro do.  The call documents still list the primary duties of the Pastor in terms of seelsorge.  Preach, teach, administer the sacraments and the keys, admonish the erring, bury the dead, comfort the grieving, offer supplications and petitions on behalf of the peope, etc... You know what these documents say.  They say less words than the typical pastoral job description but they say more weight and truth than these modern nods to good business practice.

I find I do my best to make the administration stuff get done so that I can get to the seelsorge stuff.  For some Pastors, perhaps, it is the opposite.  And therein lies the discernment of the pastoral temperment that is part of the Church's assessment and judgment of God's call which is affirmed by the ordination and its conferral of the authority of the means of grace.  Even the Augustana and its article on the Ministry has at its core seelsorge:  To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching [predigamt in German -- not merely preaching but the whole of the Pastoral Office and its authority of the means of grace], giving the Gospel and the sacraments.  Unfortunately, today we do not connect the life of the soul and its health with the means of grace.  We don't even think of it much.  We are all about spiritual dimensions to earthly lives but few of us would really trade spiritual peace for earthly health, happiness, and success.  Maybe out of guilt for such earthly preoccupation and pursuits we talk the talk of spirituality, I do not know.  But this has certainly had an impact upon the role and life of the Pastor in the lives of his people and his parish.  That cannot be denied.

It strikes me that the institutional part of our life tends to see successful Pastors more in terms of earthly goals and criteria.  If a Pastor can make a congregation grow, has good numbers to show for his efforts, and the community identifies him as a genuine mover and shaker, he moves up the food chain.  Those Pastors who focus on seelsorge are often called good Pastors but at the very same time institutional voices whisper about their suitability more for small and largely rural congregattions where they still like that sort of thing.  I might be wrong about this but I doubt it.  Perhaps this is one of the biggest differences between the typical graduate of Ft. Wayne and St. Louis.  The CTS grads are both attracted to and seek out the seelsorge about which they have heard for years in school  the CS grads are both attracted to missional stuff that puts the congregation on the cutting edge of technology, church growth ideas, and social impact upon community and the unchurched.  I might be wrong about this but I doubt it.

Well, you have heard enough of my rambling for the moment... so I will end it there... in the middle of things... which is an apt description of the nature of my Pastoral work.  In medias res....


Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding unrealistic, I see the seelsorge dimension of my ministry as the only really important part. The rest can be done by anybody, often better than I do it. It is the care of souls, the moving people along the pathway to heaven that is my principle concern. Nothing else is really my major concern.

Fr. D
Anglican Priest

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a cheapshot to hype
the Fort Wayne Grads as caretakers
of our souls and denigrate St. Louis
Grads for lack of the same.

Perhaps the Koinonia Project was
meant for clergy clowns like you.

Lutheran Lurker said...

I don't think it was a cheap shot at all. If you talk to folks around the Synod, the complaint against Ft Wayne grads is that they are too focused upon the people inside the church and the point made about St. L grads is that they are more open to folks, ideas, and new ways of reaching those outside the church. For some, the description of the Ft Wayne grads is a cut against them and for others the description of the St L grads is a cut against them -- it depends upon the perspective of the person making the judgment. Besides the good Pastor simply said it was his perception.