It is nice to know that people want a pastor who is friendly or outgoing or has a sense of humor or does a good job of balancing family and occupation. Who would not want a pastor with all of these qualities? It is nice to know that people want their pastor to be a good preacher, a good teacher, and a team player. Again, who does not want such a pastor? The thing missing in all of this is whether or not the people want their pastor to be thoroughly Lutheran -- to know, support, and advocate for Lutheran doctrine and practice. It would seem to me that if I had a choice between a pastor who could tell a good joke or preach like Billy Graham or be Lutheran in the pulpit and at the altar, I would choose one who was Lutheran where it matters most. I am not sure that we have catechized our people well enough so that this would be their first choice, however. Of course, one of the problems lies with a congregation that views the new pastor as either the savior who will fix what is wrong (and to their liking) or some interloper who has come to invent mischief.
It seems to me that there ought to be only two questions when a congregation faces the prospect of calling a new pastor. Do we want change or don't we? In other words, do we believe that our doctrine, practice, preaching, teaching, and pastoral care are solidly Lutheran and we want this to continue (or, perhaps, even get better) or are their problems that need to be fixed? That is probably the biggest question and all the rest are hardly worth asking. If we had a pastor who was solidly Lutheran in the pulpit, at the rail, teaching, and in pastoral practice, then it ought to be a done deal that we want this to continue. After all, we are Lutheran, and Missouri Synod at that. Of course, there are always improvements to be made. No pastor is perfect. I am the least of those called pastor and should be considered exemplary by no one. Yet, it has been my endeavor to be fully Lutheran in doctrine and practice within the faithful parameters of our Synod -- not in the sense of minimums but in the fullness of what this means. Positions and practices which are thoroughly Lutheran but not quite uniform across the Synod are the things I have insisted we must take and we must do. Examples? Private confession, weekly Eucharist, closed communion, solid ongoing and lifelong catechesis, striving for our best for His glory in all we do... Many Lutheran pastors might see private confession or a weekly Eucharist as hills on which they were not prepared to die. I made them the mountains that tested our conviction to be Lutheran. We lost some folks over these things. They were raised in a Lutheran congregation in which such things were not talked about, much less taught and advocated. Okay. They left. But they could not leave having said that I was not as Lutheran as I could be. Why would any congregation that had seen decades of advocacy for such a fuller Lutheran teaching and practice call or even have on the call list the name of a pastor who advocated for Lutheran lite? Continuity is beneficial for the parish as well as for the ministry.
If a congregation has problems, then perhaps change is what must be sought and the pastor as agent of that change should be considered. Note what I am not saying. I am not advocating for a more Lutheran lite approach no matter how much the folks in the pews may want it. This is not an issue of taste but of confession. That said, there are times when the congregation needs particular skills from its pastor. If the tenure of the previous pastor was touched by conflict or dispute (again, not a doctrinal conflict or dispute in which a Lutheran lite position was advocated by either pastor or people), the vacancy is a time to discern what is needed to help the parish coalesce and regroup toward the goal of twin markers of Lutheran identity and practice in the most excellent way they can. Maybe there are issues that must be identified and marked for the agenda. Maybe there are issues in the community that are creating specialized challenges. Maybe the congregation has experienced decline. There are a host of things that could be identified here. If change needs to be made, the people need to know this as they consider whom they will call and the one called needs to know that this issue is here. Example? I knew of a pastor whose previous pastor had left under the cloud of sexual abuse and infidelity but nothing of this was considered by the parish as it sought to call or even disclosed to the pastor they called. This is no time to be silent.
Neither of the two parishes I have served were without conflict. In fact, my vicarage congregation was not without its problems. I knew nothing of them before coming but found out about them quickly. My vicarage congregation was very large but their longtime pastor had just died of cancer not long before I was placed there. They called someone to fill an opening but did not deal with their own grief or the circumstances in the parish and it was not good either for them or for the man whom they called. I was in the middle and was not happy there either. They needed an agent of change not to reinvent the parish but to lead them through a painful and difficult loss. My first parish out of seminary was divided between bronze age Missourians (those whose theology and practice was shaped by their life within an LCMS congregation in the 1930s-40s) and charismatic folks. Both agreed to call from the seminary because they were sure the seminary would send them a pastor just like them. Instead, they got a chanting, Eucharistic vestment wearing pastor neither of them expected. I immediately united the congregation in the conviction that I was was the wrong guy for the wrong place. God had other plans, as He usually does. Instead of choosing between the two forms of Lutheranism I found, I spent thirteen years of catechetical preaching and teaching (including the Augsburg Confession). In the end we grew and did not decline and reversed a history of financial chaos. Those so sure I was the wrong guy actually shed tears for us when we left to come here. My present parish had a history of conflict, hired an expensive conflict mediator, and still was filled with hurt, anger, and division. It had lain stagnant in a city growing quickly around them. They called others before me and were declined and called me as a name on a piece of paper. God had plans for this mistake and I have been here ever since (now in my thirtieth year). Again they needed change -- not a new idea but to learn again what it means to be Lutheran -- Lutheran as a positive force. Our financial problems improved, we added on needed space, we added staff, we developed new ministries, and we saw the congregation grow -- and we did it together.
It was not me but it was a core of lay leaders, the support of good district people, and the desire on the part of their pastor to be intentionally Lutheran that created the helpful change that strengthened and showed much fruit in numbers and in service to both parishes. Some of the struggles in the early years might have been avoided if somebody had simply asked and they wrestled with the basic question of whether they needed change or continuity. When the day comes and I leave by retirement, call, or casket, it will be the same question: change or continuity? The goal of both is the same -- to keep the focus of God's people on Christ and His gifts. Vacancies can be mine fields when the whole thing might explode as old conflicts reignite and new disputes appear -- their threat is the same. To take the focus of God's people away from Christ and His gifts. The goal of every call process ought to be the same. To keep the focus of God's people on Christ and His gifts. Deo volente, this will ensure that every time of pastoral change will not be an occasion for trouble and an opportunity to remember who we are, whose we are, and why we are as the people of God.