Friday, April 11, 2008

The State of the Office of the Holy Ministry Today

The Church today is subjected to many crises, and some have plagued the faithful since its inception at Pentecost. However, each generation or era has a particular crisis that defines it more than another. One of those with which the church wrestles today is its understanding of the Office of the Holy Ministry, or the Pastoral Office as it is also referred to in Lutheran circles.

Protestants, in general, find themselves with more ambiguity and uncertainty on this issue, than do church bodies such as the Roman Catholic Church. In many Baptist, Pentecostal, and non-denominational groups it appears that the pastor is widely subjected to a "hire and fire" mentality not too different than one would find with "at will" employees in the outside world. In some cases longevity and personal charisma may shield the pastor from serious attack. However, for many their service is at the whim of a church that considers the office holder relevant only if he obeys the desires of the people and is able to produce numerical growth for the organization.

While spared much of this in our earlier history, even down to the middle of the of the last century, Lutheran pastors today find themselves in a perilous situation not unlike I have just described. Within the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, which is largely congregational in its structure (where the denomination and its leaders are mainly 'advisory'), many pastors have been dismissed by congregations for reasons far short of the usual causes traditionally used to terminate a call. The usual 'causes' would have been matters of great seriousness and failure, where damage to the office and congregation warranted such action. Sexual indiscretions and other moral failings that place the pastor as an object of reproach before the community, persistent teaching of false doctrine, unwillingness to perform the duties of the office - these were the issues that would bring a pastor down in the past. Today, it seems that for some churches the relationship between pastor and congregation is not unlike that of couples in a "no fault" divorce. They simply can't get along and one has to go. Irreconcilable differences, as we call it. No one has to be completely at fault, although the pastor will probably be identified as the primary offender. He has 'lorded it over the church' by a dictatorial leadership style. He has offended too many by a lack of tact and sensitivity.

Now it is true that there are situations where it would be healthier for a pastor to take another call or resign for the sake of the church. I am not defending those shepherds who truly have abused the authority and power of their position. And sometimes the stress of dysfunction between pastor and people is so acute that everyone is suffering. Yet my fear is that this failure of pastors is not the chief reason for the wide-spread dismissal of pastors today. My fear is that our perception of the Office is driving a new approach patterned on the world outside our walls, where the shepherd is believed to be the very hireling we once despised.

Pastors and people must work to recapture a faithful respect for this Office and the divine nature of its work. If we do not we will defeat our own efforts in the Kingdom by self-serving motives that turn the Bride of Christ into just another business competing with everyone else for our meager share in the market-place of declining values and materialistic aspirations.

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