Sunday, June 12, 2022

How long. . .

In politics the clamor for term limits remains -- except, of course, for your senior elected official who knows how to bring home the bacon for his or her constituents.  He or she can stay but the rest should leave and not let the door hit them on the way out.  For whatever reason, elections are seldom seen as the means to limit terms -- at least that is how elections were conceived when our country first began its grand experiment in democracy.  Yet it seems more true than ever that illness, death, or a high paying job offer are more likely to turn out someone elected than the voters themselves.  So how this applies to other vocations?

In most vocations, age and experience are not seen as problems or causes to depart the work force.  We value those who have the wisdom of life and whose academic instruction has been aided and abetted by their work.  The one thing working against older workers is the cost to the employer.  When you are at the top of your productivity, you are also generally at the top of the pay scale and some employers think that it is better to get rid of one high cost employee even if you have to hire two younger and cheaper workers to replace them.  Now that the work force is tight and inflation high, many seniors are returning to the work force out of necessity, boredom, and the employers need and want them back.  We see it everywhere -- from fast food to executive suites.

In the Church, the question of how long a pastor should serve remains sensitive and controversial.  There are some parishes in which a pastor pushing 55 is literally on the way out.  Then there are other parishes who know that the supply of pastors is shrinking and the older pastor's stock has gone up.  The sheer number of our own LCMS parishes looking for part-time pastors has created a market for the man who is retired but bored or with too much energy to do nothing.  We will surely see this trend continue.  As our health and life improve, what is there to stop and why should a pastor end his years of credible service simply because he hits a magic age number?

There is also a number of other questions related to how long.  How long should a pastor remain in one parish.  Rome once specified that a priest served for an indeterminate amount of time, then added a 6 year term, and, for some, the Bishop spins the wheel and moves them around at will.  In Lutheranism it has been a mixed bag.  Some parishes traded in clergy like car buyers eyeing all the bells and whistles of the next, new model.  Others saw their pastors remain for a decade or more.  Still others found their pastors the same faithful shepherd from a first call to the last one before retirement.  I have a friend who spent his whole 44 year active life as a pastor in one parish.  For me, it has been mixed.  I spent my first nearly 13 years in the parish where I was placed from seminary and I have been in my current parish for nearly 30 years.  I guess you can see why that question has been on my mind.

It seems to me that unlike politics or business, the parish thrives from stability.  I abhor the idea that a parish must relearn worship and faith every time a new pastor shows up.  It ought to be a slow progression and smooth transition and not an abrupt change -- unless, of course, conflict and problems force such a change.  Pastors would do well not to run from parish to parish and to stay and weather the storms.  It is hard for the pastor and his family but it is better in the long run for all.

My mentor, Pastor Charles Evanson of Redeemer, Ft. Wayne, IN, had a rocky beginning.  From his installation in 1975 (I was there) to the early 1990s, he very nearly had his call rescinded no less than twice and the efforts remained in the background of his service there for most of his tenure.  How unlikely for a man who was unassuming, patient, and kind!  But he stayed through it all -- at some personal cost to himself and his family -- but the fruit was the parish endured.  Their current pastor often says that Redeemer would not be in existence today without that strong but quiet and steady leadership of Pastor Evanson.  How true it is!

For myself, both parishes I have served and even my vicarage have been in troubled congregations without a certain future.  It was and is my privilege to be with them in some of their worst moments and to help them celebrate the goodness of the Lord that resulted in both being stable, growing, and rich environments for faith and life in Christ.  At some point I will give up the daily grind but the most urgent thing ahead for me now is to secure a smooth transition for the pastor who will follow me, the associate pastor who will assist him, and the many structures of the congregation that need routine maintenance and renewal in order to be fully ready to meet the days to come.  My only goal is to see that our focus now on Christ and His gifts remains the focus when the musical chairs get played and both lay leaders and pastors change.  While there is always room for improvement, the gains come from building upon strengths and not from tearing things down.  That is my goal and purpose -- stability for the parish even when the people and pastors come and go!  It ought to be the goal and purpose of every pastor.  Keep the focus on Christ and His gifts.  Longer pastorates help establish this within the hearts, minds, and lives of the people of a congregation better than shorter.  Smooth transitions are better than abrupt ones.  Careful planning and deliberate steps are better than sudden, unrehearsed moves.  That is why I am still here and that is the focus of my work today and every day.

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