Thursday, September 22, 2011

When Bureaucrats Attack - a few thoughts on ULC and the Real Mission of the Church

University Lutheran Chapel - soon to be a parking lot?

"Developing missional leaders in congregations and schools."
   - the mission statement of the Minnesota South District

The shocking and appalling behavior of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod's Minnesota South District in selling the campus of a vibrant church in a naked land- and money-grab should serve as a reminder of what the Church's purpose is.  It should also reiterate what our priority is as the Body of Christ.  It should also serve as a warning to each and every congregation of the LCMS of the nature of bureaucracy and the dangers it holds to the Real Mission of the Church as a whole and of individual parishes.

The purpose of the Church, carried out in individual churches, is to deliver the forgiveness of sins won for the world by the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through His chosen means: word and sacrament.

In so doing, we have communion with one another and communion with God.  And we Christians can then live out our lives as forgiven sinners by working together - preachers and hearers - to serve the mission of bringing this good news to our neighbors.  To be truly "missional" is to invite the world to join us in being "sacramental."  It is done by the Lord's chosen means, not by the world's entertainments.

In any such endeavor, there will always be a certain amount of necessary paperwork and bureaucracy.  Coordinating efforts in training pastors and supporting missionaries has created a need for a structure that binds together congregations - and all structures require management.  Traditionally, church management has been run by churchmen - ordained pastors who continue to serve at altars and pulpits in the ordained ministry while exercising what scripture calls "episkope" - oversight.

And as Lutherans, we have learned from our own original history as a distinct communion and confession what happens when a church body's leadership loses touch with the ministry of word and sacrament, and has its head turned by the lure of power and money.  Power corrupts, and in the Church, it takes the focus off the Gospel and puts that focus on preserving, or even enriching, the bureaucracy.

Left unchecked, such church bureaucracies become antichrist - existing not for the sake of the Gospel but for the sake of money and power itself - and in some cases, setting itself up over and against the Gospel.  This is why there is such a thing as Lutheran Christianity at all.

This shift in priority is a danger to Lutherans as much as to any communion within the church catholic.  Lutherans who hold power in church bodies are sinners as much as any medieval Roman pope.  This is why it is an act of mercy to oversee the overseers lest they lose touch with what the Church is supposed to be doing.

We need to constantly remember why the Church exists and what her purpose is.  The bureaucracy of the Church exists to serve the congregations - not vice versa.  We need to remind ourselves - and our district offices - of this reality.  And any church bureaucrat who dismisses such concerns need only be told three words: University. Lutheran. Chapel.

What is happening in Minnesota can happen anywhere.  Granted, the financial arrangement of University Lutheran Chapel is not typical of congregations in the LCMS.  However, in our polity, there are times when district presidents (and their staffs) exercise a great deal of power - over congregations, pastors, and lay church workers.

There is a tendency in the nature of bureaucracy - whether in the secular or ecclesiastical world - to seek to preserve the bureaucracy.  When this impulse is at odds with the larger overall mission of the Church (word and sacrament ministry), we see such abominations as the betrayal of University Lutheran Chapel.  At its best, church bureaucracy is at a bare minimum, existing with frugality, to actually help local congregations and their leadership (lay and clergy) to be about their Father's business.  But when the bureaucracy becomes "too big for its britches" and when individual bureaucrats are more concerned about their own jobs and preserving their own office buildings instead of parochial ministries and buildings, when they become the guardians of cubicles and parking spaces instead of the stewards of altars and pulpits - that is when we see bureaucrats acting like mobster land-sharks instead of servants of the servants of the Word.

What does this do to the faith of individuals?  We Lutherans teach that the church is a "sanctuary" - a sacred space made holy by the very Presence of Christ in our midst - especially at our altars where Christ is miraculously and physically present for us.  And bureaucrats in our own church body are proposing to bulldoze this holy space into something befitting the world: a parking lot, strip mall, or apartment complex, to desecrate a holy altar - for money.  And not to mention, so that their own jobs are preserved.  What kind of a faith is that?  In all of the bureaucratic ink: resolutions, task forces, meeting minutes, etc. is there any language ministering to people whose faith will no doubt be shaken by this?  What kind of a faith do we proclaim when the powerful and mighty in positions of leadership circle like vultures over the exposed bodies of the Body of Christ?

Left unchecked, such monstrous bureaucracies - acting like parasites - will suck the lifeblood out of the host and eventually destroy themselves.  They are like a cancer that will eventually kill the person and itself in its selfish recklessness.

The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod has recently voted to restructure itself.  Maybe this is a good first step.  Perhaps we need to remind our synodical and district officials why they have jobs - to support, not to destroy - the local congregations and pastors who together engage in the Real Mission of the Church: to deliver the forgiveness of sins won for the world by the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through His chosen means: word and sacrament.

Maybe that should be the district's mission statement.

In any case, the Minnesota South District has made a mockery of its own mission statement - such as it is.  The real mission statement of any unchecked bureaucracy is to support, sustain, and expand the bureaucracy.  In that light, the Minnesota South District is doing a fabulous job.

In the larger context, what has become of the purpose of the synodical structures to support missionaries and seminaries when overseas missionaries must actually raise their own salaries and when seminaries must fund nearly every dollar themselves?  Did our forbears create a synodical apparatus simply for the sake of synodical bureaucracy?  I believe the actions of the Minnesota South District is a barometer of just how badly we have lost our way as a synod.

Please keep the Rev. David Kind, his faithful congregation, and their fruitful cross-centered outreach ministry in your prayers.  Maybe a miracle will happen.  Maybe someone will admit to the grave sin of putting greenbacks ahead of the Gospel, and maybe there will be an internal change of heart and an external change in policy.  Or maybe a lesser miracle will happen and the congregation will be able to pay the district's "protection money."  But lest the parasite destroy its host, let us pray to the real Host upon whose body all sinners feed, seeking protection against our sinful nature's shocking ability to cannibalize on itself.  Let us find a way to rein in the power of those who wield it recklessly, and let us pray that the ministry of word and sacrament may go out unhindered by our own church bureaucracies

Let us pray that the congregations may be secure in their work of proclaiming the Gospel and administering the sacraments - which is, after all, the Real Mission of the Church.

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