Sunday, August 21, 2011

North American Lutheranism's Dark Secret

Pastor Peters has given us an insight into one of American Lutheranism's biggest problems - one that is hardly ever broached in polite company: pastors (usually young pastors) who leave Lutheranism because Lutheranism (at least as we know it here in North America) has largely forgotten what Lutheran Christianity really is.

You can  read more here.

This is a big problem.  It is shockingly common.  Many of our brightest and best North American pastors have left their pastorates and/or Lutheranism distraught that what we confess on paper is so often at odds with what happens in our churches.  A lot of men I went to seminary with are now laymen or pastors in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Anglican communions.  It grieves me, and I am saddened every time I hear of another defection.  If we truly do confess the Book of Concord, those other options are not options at all.  I don't condone their leaving, and I have to confess that I feel a little betrayed by such defections.  But by the same token, there have been pastors and their families (and a good number of them) subjected to the kind of abuse that is simply scandalous and shameful - things that ought not even be named among Christians.  I would even call it sadistic in some cases.  I believe there have been marriages saved by pastors leaving their calls and even walking away from Lutheranism.  How sad is that?

Tragically, if we would just practice what we preach and allow our preachers to practice what we confess (as Lutherans), this hemorrhage would not be happening.  We would also perhaps not see the high level of pastors suffering from depression.  I do think the tide is turning and younger pastors are making a difference - especially given the superlative job done by our seminaries in instilling an authentically Lutheran ethos among our pastors.  But in the mean time, a lot of good men and their families are being ground up like sausage.

We North American Lutherans have a lot of soul searching to do.  It has been our burden for as long as Lutherans have been coming to America wanting to fit in with our Protestant neighbors.  Meanwhile, I would encourage faithful pastors and their wives and children to hang in there if they can.  But if staying put means suffering from depression, having to go on drugs, and feeling like they are living a lie because their confession and practice are in a state of dissonance beyond what they can bear, who am I to blame a man and his family for leaving?  Rather than judging them, maybe we should recommit ourselves to be genuinely Lutheran in doctrine and practice. Instead of railing against their  specks, maybe we should be addressing our own planks?

And there is the rub.  For that is easier said than done.  Lord, have mercy!


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I think this is one of the things the Seminary does a poor, poor job at -- and this is preparing students to confront the reality that most of the parishes new students are sent to will be... how to put this... ones that are not overly healthy. Ones that will require plenty of time and patience before they begin to even start to grow towards the ideal.

We don't prepare people for the disappointment, disdain, and brush offs they will receive, especially for trying to teach rightly. Then, you have someone from denomination X that treats them nicely, kindly, tells them how insightful they are, and points to nice lovely safe landing place Y over here.

As Chris Rock once said, "I ain't saying that it's right, but I understand."

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Eric:

I think you make a good point, but it is a double-edged sword.

The seminary teaches us Lutheran doctrine and Lutheran practice - and I think we can all gripe here and there, but they do a superlative job overall (in my opinion anyway). They could make things "easier" for us by watering all that down and lowering expectations, by being less Lutheran and teaching us how to do contemporary worship, make use of dancing girls, and how to best throw the Lord's blood in the garbage. Instead, they teach us such things are wrong and steer us away from such things that are actually fairly common in our parishes.

That is the catch-22.

I think they need to better prepare us "to confront the reality" by instilling in us an ethic of prayer, of the cross, and of sharing one another's burdens, in preparing us psychologically and in spiritual warfare.

What is unhealthy (again, in my opinion as this is, after all, my blog) is our structure and polity. There is too much democracy, and if 51% of the congregation votes to have cowboy services or dancing girls or monthly eucharist or lay "communion," that will happen over the pastor's objection, in spite of his scandalized conscience, and regardless of his seminary training and called status as the congregation's shepherd. I also believe the district presidents have way too much power in our system than is healthy, and since they too must stand for elections, they are also sorely tempted to feed into the democratic impulse to the detriment of pastors - who are as often as not, thrown under the bus along with their wives and children.

Since this is the "vox populi" world we live in, there isn't a lot the seminaries can do other than seek out men (and their families) with very thick skin, and do their very best to scare people away from seminary so that only the most unflappable men remain. The weeding out process should be brutal. Otherwise, we are setting men up to be shocked and appalled and driven to despair.

The seminaries should also stress the need for having marketable skills other than being a pastor. It might even be a good thing to require seminary candidates to to have a few years of work experience and a proven alternative career before setting foot in a seminary. I think on the whole (there are exceptions, of course), men who are older are going to be better prepared than men who graduate at age 26 and are thrown into the arena.

+ Robert Wurst said...

The seminary can't teach what the seminary doesn't know. Face it, they are wonderful guys but they are (mostly) insulated from what pastors do. It isn't their fault. It is the nature of the system. Too, the sem doesn't weed out guys because that costs them money.

We all have experience with these difficulties. Some days, I have no idea why I am still in this synod. But our Lord is good and gracious.

A friend told me a bit of wisdom that he got from a wise sem prof(!), "You will rue the day you put your faith in the church." I think we have too often sought our joy in the church, the things we can see, rather than in the Lord. That leads to deep and bitter disappointment. Better to be realistic about what we will find in the church and to find our joy in the Lord and His gifts.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I think Rob probably hits closer to what I was driving at -- that there is a divide, a break between the Seminaries and the parish life. I think having profs have to take a quarter or semester serving in the parish every so often (swap with a pastor who can teach class for a bit on a working sabbatical) would be quite beneficial.

I agree that they need to be more up front with the "ethic" of prayer and of the cross... but I would be happier if they we are bit more blunt on professing "why" that is needed -- much of that ethic is not about making better changes, but learning to approach even the burdens of the ministry with patience and kindness -- indeed, all the fruits of the Spirit.

Add to the fact that becoming a Pastor for most guys mean that suddenly you stop getting to "hear" sermons and preaching, hear that external word hit you (yes, I know we preach to ourselves as well, but there is a difference - same reason we are encouraged to have a Father Confessor).

It's a lonely way. Hmmm, maybe someone should write a book.

The Exiled said...

The seminary never has done a very good job of telling the truth of what life is like out there. First, most don't know, and spent only a few years out there. Second, think about it, if they were honest in what awaited a perspective student, how many guys would sign up?

The flip side of the coin is that there is a lack of teaching a congregation what is expected of them and how they should treat their pastors. Raise your hand if you can remember where your sem classmates got their first call to, only to see someone else get that same call three or four years later. (We called those calls 'retreads'.) As long as the parishes are allowed to abuse their pastors and their families without any type of consequence, why change?

Hmmmm . . . Abuse of clergy. I wonder if lawsuits could be filed against certain congregations that have a long history of abusing their pastors? The church at large usually knew what was happening and let it continue. The church kept sending pastors to abusive congregations . . .

Anyone know a good lawyer to take on this one?

Rev. Paul L. Beisel said...

One of the best classes I had in Pastoral Practice was PP Forum with Rev. Tom Olson. Talk about preparing us for the rejection and indifference that is out there.

Sems are schools and are imperfect and we probably can't expect them to be perfect training ground for pastors. I think that what is not so good is when the sems train us to be a certain type of pastor, and then get mad when we go out and do that, and get burned for it. They get us for trying to do the Lutheran thing.

Nevertheless, I dearly love many of my sem profs and hold them in the highest regard. They work their butts off at that place, and have about as little time for their families as I do. On top of it all, consider the pressure they are under! They are the ones forming and shaping the minds and hearts of future pastors. I don't know that I could bear up under that kind of pressure very long. Yikes!

Good post by Peters though.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Rob:

Having spent 24 days in Russia with our mutual friend Rev. Dan Johnson - who has been in the same parish for 18 years - I think there would be real value in having a guy like him teach for a semester or a year. Maybe a sabbatical for both pastors and professors to swap out would be of great benefit to all.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Paul:

Well said!

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Exiled:

The state will not get involved in this (it's a church/state matter). This is a problem for the church that can't be fixed by lawyers and lawsuits. Our structure virtually ensures that pastors will be caught in the pincers between antagonists in the congregation and the COP.

The only thing that will fix this is a change in the culture. People cannot be compelled into respecting their pastors.

You are right that pastors are routinely abused, though. Especially the guys with big families. They are utterly helpless, and how often we hear about congregations messing with their insurance and parsonage, slashing salaries, etc. Until the culture changes, this will continue. There are also some DPs out there who will stand behind their pastors.

Terry Maher said...

There is indeed no excuse for the abuses you mention. None.

But -- leaving the OHM is one thing, leaving the Lutheran faith is quite another. There is absolutely no sense whatsobloodyever in reacting to a poor job of living the Confessions by going where they are not even confessed at all.

Indeed, if we truly do confess the Book of Concord, those other options are not options at all. For pastors and us butts in the pews alike. Come what may. Hier steh ich. End of story. And if it's not end of story, then it is I who did not truly confess the Book of Concord, not anyone else's lack thereof.