Marys & Marthas

pulpitThat’s the title on the cover of the September 2016 edition of The Lutheran Witness, a monthly publication of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Although a number of articles in that periodical are worthy of note, today I focus on the one titled “Women Pastors?”

While time and space do not permit a lengthy review of the article in its entirety, I’ll address briefly the one sentence subtitle of the article: “Christ calls suitable men to teach, while women hear and receive the Gospel with humble joy.” That sentence is rephrased a bit and repeated toward the end of the article: “Men teach and give. Women hear and receive.”

The article deals specifically with the topic of women serving in the pastoral office, which is not permitted in our church. However, the impression might be given that in all circumstances the rubric of men teaching and women merely receiving the Word of God applies to all situations and circumstances. Not so, according to Holy Scripture. A couple examples should suffice.

Luke 2 announces the birth of Jesus and tells also of a prophetess named Anna, an 84 year-old woman who had been a widow for many years. “She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

It seems clear from this section of Holy Scripture that Anna not only heard and received the good news of the birth of Christ, she also spoke that good news to many, in the temple.

Another biblical reference has always intrigued me. Acts 2 tells the story of the reception of the Holy Spirit by many who were gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Pentecost. After they were filled with the Holy Spirit, they began “to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Some who heard this miraculous speaking accused the speakers of inebriation.

But Peter put that perception to rest by announcing that because it was only 9:00 a.m., it was too early for them to be drunk. I’ll make no further comment on that explanation.

Peter continued: “This [what they saw happening] is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.'”

It sounds to me like Holy Scripture is saying, at least in these two instances, that women may and should do more than simply “hear and receive the Gospel with humble joy.”

The 66th Regular LCMS Convention

LCMS ConventionIn its 169 year history, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has held 65 regular conventions. This weekend marks the beginning of the 66th in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Three former national presidents upon whom the honorary title of President Emeritus has been bestowed are still living. Dr. Ralph Bohlmann, Dr. Robert Kuhn and yours truly were invited to send a written greeting to convention delegates. Here is the text of my greeting:

Dear Delegates and Guests, Sisters and Brothers in Christ:

As this 66th Regular Convention of the LCMS begins, I offer words of greeting, encouragement and challenge as you determine at least a portion of the future direction of our beloved Synod.

More than half a century ago the LCMS was recognized as a dynamic, evangelical leader in the United States religious community. Cutting edge endeavors like The Lutheran Hour, This is the Life, Each One Reach One, etc., emanated from a conviction that we had a message to share with the world and that doing so required more than just paying a pastor to mount the pulpit, proclaim the Word of God and praying he would succeed.

Today, some congregations experience health, growth and vitality. Others, perhaps including yours, are uncertain about the future, in many cases less than one generation away from congregational extinction.

A Synod is only as healthy as the congregations that comprise it. Recent decades have seen a steady decline in congregational membership and in dollars contributed for national and international mission and ministry through Synod headquarters in St. Louis. Institutions, including religious ones, are no longer highly respected and trusted.

In this world of complexity and confusion, it is more imperative than ever that the simple, clear, certain hope that is ours in Christ be communicated as widely and broadly, as sincerely and sensitively, as clearly and courageously as possible. We are called to proclaim the great news that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not counting our trespasses against us.”  (2 Cor. 5:19)

We do so Upon this Rock, the statement of faith uttered by Peter, a man whose stalwart commitment to Christ was marred only by his notable failures. We, too, as sinful human beings, are called to repent, to confess and to rejoice in the assurance of forgiveness of sin, life and salvation through Christ our Lord.

May that assurance fill your hearts and direct your thoughts and decisions these days.

Dealing with Church Bullies

Church PewsLast week I shared an article by Thom Rainer identifying nine traits of church bullies. This week’s Perspectives focus is another article from the same author, who now moves “from descriptive to prescriptive.” Highlights of his article are below. To view the entire article, go to http://thomrainer.com/2015/04/nine-ways-deal-church-bullies/

How do we deal with church bullies? How do we prevent bullying? Here are nine suggestions:

  1. Fight bullying with the power of prayer. The most common targets of church bullies are the pastor and church staff. Ask humbly for people to pray for them daily.
  1. Seek to have an Acts 6 group in the church. Check out the manner in which the Jerusalem church dealt with murmuring and complaining.
  1. Have a high expectation church.Higher expectation churches tend to be more unified, more Great Commission focused, more biblically defined, and more servant oriented. High expectation churches don’t offer an environment conducive to bullying.
  1. Encourage members to speak and stand up to church bullies.Bullying thrives in a church where the majority remains in silent fear of church bullies. Bullies tend to back down when confronted by strong people in the church.
  1. Make certain the polity of the church does not become a useful instrument to church bullies.Many churches have ambiguous structures and lines of accountability. Bullies take advantage of the ambiguity and interpret things according to their nefarious needs.
  1. Be willing to exercise church discipline.Church discipline is a forgotten essential of many churches. Bullies need to know there are consequences for their actions, and church discipline may be one of them.
  1. Have a healthy process to put the best-qualified persons in positions of leadership in the church.Bullies often are able to push around less qualified people who have found themselves in positions of leadership.
  1. Have a healthy process to hire church staff. A unified church staff is a major roadblock for a church bully.
  1. Encourage a celebratory environment in the church.Joyous churches deter bullies. They like somber and divided churches.

Church bullying is more widespread than we often like to admit. Actually, last week’s article was forwarded to more people than any Perspectives article in a long time. That’s an indication that the article hit home with many of my readers, who very likely have encountered a church bully.

As stated last week, I encourage you to remember that church bullies, like you and like me, are “poor, miserable sinners” for whom Christ died. They, too, are in need of the forgiving and life changing grace of God.

Accordingly, our goal should not simply be to “run off” church bullies from our congregation, but to seek and pursue ways of helping bullies become blessings! That will not always work. Yet while such an endeavor is easier said than done, it’s certainly a worthy effort to consider!

Nine Traits of Church Bullies

Arms Crossed ManThat’s the title of an article by Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). Highlights of the article are printed below. For the entire article, go to http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/252237-9-traits-church-bullies.html.

Church bullies are common in many churches. They wreak havoc and create dissension. They typically must have an “enemy” in the church, because they aren’t happy unless they are fighting a battle. They tend to maneuver to get an official leadership position in the church, such as chairman of the elders or deacons or treasurer. But they may have bully power without any official position.

Church bullies have always been around. But they seem to be doing their work more furiously today than in recent history. Perhaps this look at nine traits of church bullies can help us recognize them before they do too much damage.

  1. They do not recognize themselves as bullies. To the contrary, they see themselves as necessary heroes sent to save the church from [it]self.
  1. They have personal and self-serving agendas. They have determined what “their” church should look like. Any person or ministry or program that is contrary to their perceived ideal church must be eliminated.
  1. They seek to form power alliances with weak members in the church. Weaker church staff members and church members will succumb to their forceful personalities.
  1. They tend to have intense and emotional personalities. These bullies use the intensity of their personalities to get their way.
  1. They are famous for saying “people are saying.” They love to gather tidbits of information and shape it to their own agendas.
  1. They find their greatest opportunities in low-expectation churches. Many of the church members have an entitlement view of church membership. They seek to get their own needs and preferences fulfilled. They won’t trouble themselves to confront and deal with church bullies.
  1. They are allowed to bully because church members will not stand up to them. While the bully brings great pain to pastors and other church leaders, the hurt is greater because most church members stood silent and let it happen.
  1. They create chaos and wreak havoc. A church bully always has his next mission. While he or she may take a brief break from one bullying mission to the next, they are not content unless they are exerting the full force of their manipulative behavior.
  1. They often move to other churches after they have done their damage. Whether they are forced out or simply get bored, they will move to other churches with the same bullying mission. Some bullies have wreaked havoc in three or more churches.

Church bullying is epidemic in congregations. Next week we’ll explore the topic of preventing church bullying. In the meantime, join me in remembering that church bullies, like you and like me, are “poor, miserable sinners” in need of the forgiving and life changing grace of God.

Thank God for his grace in Christ our Lord!

The Papal Visit

Pope Francis at UNPope Francis has concluded his visit to America, which in some ways seemed longer than the six days he actually spent in our country. The reception he received in the cities on his itinerary was warm and enthusiastic. His pastoral touch was obvious, as he paused en route to touch and bless individuals, particularly children with special needs, their families and caregivers.

While comments could be made about each of the pope’s speeches, I’ll share here a few thoughts about Saturday’s 90-minute worship service at Saints Peter and Paul Basilica in Philadelphia. It was carried live, in its entirety, on Fox News and a couple other national networks.

Watching such a service brings to mind more similarities between Catholicism and Lutheranism. Both are fundamentally liturgical and sacramental. Clergy vestments, Scripture readings, homily, hymns sung by congregation and choir to organ and orchestra accompaniment are quite familiar. Seminarians later visited briefly by the pope sang the familiar “Lift High the Cross.”

Yet some of the differences between the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations were also obvious, including a somewhat appealing use of incense and the repeated veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It’s obvious that Catholics still pray to Mary and consider her holy and a perpetual virgin. They often and properly identified her as the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, thankfully making generous reference to his work of redemption on Calvary’s cross.

The publicity, news and TV coverage received by the Catholic Church last week was worth millions and likely will catalyze, at least temporarily, a resurgence of interest in Catholicism. The negative image of the church resulting from sexual abuse scandals of the past may perhaps be somewhat mitigated by this pope’s messages and non-self-aggrandizing sense of humility.

That humility was emphasized, intentionally, in simple yet significant ways. One of the most visible was his ground transportation in the U.S., provided not in a limousine or even a Chevrolet Suburban, but sometimes in the Popemobile, at other times in a much smaller Fiat. By the way, the Vatican vehicle registration plate for the Popemobile and all official Vatican vehicles, begins with the letters “SCV” (an acronym of the Latin Status Civitatis Vaticanae “Vatican City State”) followed by the vehicle fleet number. In this case the plate read SCV-1.

Summarily, Pope Francis should feel very good about his visit to the U.S. And so should the Roman Catholic Church. The visibility and news coverage received by both provided publicity beyond the hopes, not to mention the dreams, of the rest of Christendom.

I pray that the result of this papal visit will be fruitful for the kingdom. As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, perhaps even our own church will experience resurgence from the apathetic atrophy in which we seem to be stuck. Time will tell. Lord, help us!

Ecclesiastical Pet Peeves

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Because of the great response to last week’s article Grammatical Pet Peeves I thought I might as well continue the general topic. So this week’s focus is Ecclesiastical Pet Peeves.

Essentially, I’m writing this week about matters that are distracting or otherwise detrimental to the Christian worship experience. I pray and trust these comments will be read and received in the same spirit of constructive but non-judgmental criticism in which they are offered.

Here are a few of my Ecclesiastical Pet Peeves:

Outside and in the parking lot:

  • Un-mowed grass, un-trimmed bushes, outdated church sign, poorly maintained facilities
  • Non-existent or unclear directions for visiting, elderly or physically challenged worshipers to convenient parking spots
  • Poorly marked parking spaces or spaces too narrow for the average vehicle
  • No parking lot attendants to provide information and assistance, especially for seniors and in times of inclement weather

In the worship service:

  • Absence of friendly, outgoing, well-groomed, trained greeters to welcome worshipers
  • Lack of properly trained ushers to assist latecomers in finding a seat in the sanctuary or to invite latecomers to wait in the narthex until a natural and appropriate time to enter
  • Printed orders of confession of sin that put what may not be accurately self-descriptive words in the mouths of worshipers
  • Responsive readings that are pedantic and unrelated to the life experience of worshipers expected to speak those words
  • Selection of hymns or songs that are very difficult, if not nearly impossible to sing
  • Projecting on a screen the words of unfamiliar hymns or songs without the musical score
  • Requiring worshipers to stand and sit, stand and sit, repetitively or unnecessarily—three times in one worship service should be sufficient
  • Requiring worshipers to stand during a several minute prayer or for an unusually lengthy Scripture reading, even if it is the gospel lesson for the day—I can listen or pray to our Lord with greater devotion while remaining comfortably seated than if having to stand again after being seated only moments or sometimes even seconds earlier

In speaking or preaching:

  • Absence of a friendly word of welcome by the pastor or other church leader that briefly explains the reason for worship and the central theme of the day’s worship service
  • Reading of Scripture lessons by the pastor or other person without clear and distinct pronunciation or without the emotion demanded by the text itself
  • Service leaders who pay little if any attention to personal appearance
    • Shoes freshly shined
    • Hair neatly trimmed
    • Face cleanly shaved or, if you insist, beard/goatee/mustache neatly trimmed—Note to clergy and other public worship leaders: Compare the most recent photo of the motorcycle shooting participants in Waco or Mexican drug cartel leaders with a photo of the Fortune 500 CEOs or all but nine of the 44 U.S. presidents and see which group you most nearly resemble—I’m just sayin’ …
  • Lack of explanation regarding the reason and purpose for gathering of offerings
  • Non-existent practice of explaining in simple, evangelical and understandable words the reason for the sacrament of Holy Communion and what the Bible says about proper reception of this wonderful means of God’s grace
  • Speaking or preaching in a manner that makes it difficult for people of all ages to hear and understand what is being said
    • Slow down, you speak too fast
    • Speed it up, you talk too slow
    • Speak up, don’t whisper, we can’t hear you, you’re speaking to a crowd, not an individual
    • Speak naturally, lose the pulpit tone

That’s enough for now. I’m fairly certain this list omits some personal peeves that you could readily add. I’m also fairly certain some will agree and others will disagree with what I’ve written. I’m always interested in hearing what you think about stuff I write, even when it’s not possible for me to reply to all the responses, suggestions, criticisms and adulations I receive.

One final thought in the interest of full disclosure. It’s right and proper for you to know that at one point or another in my own ministry it’s very likely that I fanned the flame by participating in some of these peevish matters myself and sometimes that happens still today. Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!

What’s the bottom line? If you’re in charge of anything ecclesiastical, pay close attention to what goes on around you and do what you can to make the worship experience as worshipful and meaningful as possible. Even when that happens Satan will try to disturb and distract.

People assemble to worship our Lord in spirit and in truth. Do everything you can as an ecclesiastical leader to help that happen!

Best Practices for Ministry

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 10.04.00 PMThat’s the name of the “free conference” taking place this week in Phoenix. It’s called “free” because there’s no registration fee. In addition, no honoraria or expenses are paid to the speakers and presenters, who serve for free. Attendees pay their own expenses for transportation and lodging. The host congregation provides free meals for the duration of the conference.

All this is made possible by the sponsoring congregation, Christ Church Lutheran in Phoenix and Senior Pastor Jeff Schrank. Jeff served for a number of years with me on the LCMS Board of Directors. He’s a humble, bold and courageous man doing a great job of ministry in Phoenix.

This is the conference’s fourth year. The first year about 500 attended. This year 1500 are registered. What’s the attraction? A few things come to mind:

  • It’s “A FREE conference for those who love the local church, the unchurched and the LCMS.”
  • It’s in Phoenix in February and it’s cold in many other parts of the country!
  • It meets a need not met in the same way anywhere else in the LCMS.
  • It includes a healthy mixture of lay, commissioned and ordained participants.
  • It offers practical info on what works with transparency on what doesn’t work in parish ministry.
  • It combines ministry ideas with spiritually refreshing worship and fellowship.
  • It’s a gathering of folks who are finding joy in ministry and folks who seek such joy.

BPM Conference Coordinator Nancy Barton says about conference speakers: “Best Practices for Ministry conference does not happen without all these incredible people. I am grateful for all those who share their God given gifts with the church free of charge. This is an act of grace and service, and I trust the person and work of the Holy Spirit to equip the church to do it well.”

Kudos to Pastor Jeff Schrank, the staff and members of Christ Church Lutheran, the volunteer presenters and all participants in this exciting conference! The spirit of camaraderie, cohesiveness and Christ-centeredness is contagious!

My topic this year is “Quo Vadis, LCMS?” Subtitle: “Wine/Women/Worship/Witness/Warfare: Helping a church born and raised in 19th and 20th century culture passionately engage with the Gospel a 21st century culture indifferent and even hostile to Christianity.” I look forward to time together with many wonderful folks!

Installation Reflections

Church windowInstallations are on my mind these days. This past Sunday I preached for the installation of our new associate pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Walburg, Texas. Kevin Hintze will be serving with senior pastor John Davenport and the other wonderful members of our church and school staff. It’s a great team of dedicated servants of the Lord!

Last Monday, September 8, was the 13th anniversary of my initial installation as 12th president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Only three days later the events of 9/11 occurred. It was a difficult time for both our nation and our church body. Our nation rallied against the evil behind the 9/11 attacks. Our church leaders did what leaders do. We led!

While some, mostly pastors, were not pleased, the overwhelming majority of people and pastors in our national church body expressed thanks and support for our public response. As a matter of fact, the LCMS Council of Presidents unanimously adopted a widely read and broadly applauded full page ad in U.S.A. Today. The text of that ad is printed below my signature.

Today is the 10th anniversary of the day I was installed to my second term as president of the LCMS. The three years between those two installations were difficult ones. Yet they also provided multiple opportunities for publicly demonstrating the love of Christ for people whose lives were wrecked and ruined by the atrocities of 9/11.

The primary difficulty was not that some disagreed with decisions I had made. It was the vitriolic manner in which their disagreement was expressed. That included personal attacks, name calling, mischaracterization and refusal to acknowledge that my decisions were in accord with the position of the LCMS, expressed in convention resolutions at the 2001 national convention. My decisions were ultimately upheld by those responsible for the system of appeals then in place.

Leaders always disappoint someone. If they’re doing nothing, some think they should be doing something. If they’re doing something, some think they should be doing something else.

Installations are all about the beginning of a relationship between the one being installed and the organization, institution or other entity that has called, hired or otherwise engaged the one being installed. All the installations in my life have been both meaningful and memorable!

A Promise

In the aftermath of this recent tragedy, the 2.6million members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod express our love, care and concern for the tens of thousands of people whose lives have been drastically altered by the sudden loss of their loved ones and friends.

David, in Psalm 23, looked to God and took comfort in His protecting presence in times of great personal and national distress:

“The Lord is my shepherd…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

Jesus, to whom the Scriptures refer as our Good Shepherd, said in the gospel of John words that are particularly powerful at this moment in time:

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  

That Good Shepherd understands suffering and death. His own death and resurrection give hope to us all. He grants those who trust in Him forgiveness of sin and everlasting life.

In these days of great personal grief and national mourning, our source of comfort, hope and strength is the same as that expressed by St. Paul:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Your friends and neighbors of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod open to you our hearts and our churches in this time of human grief, suffering, fear and uncertainty. We invite you, along with us, to cling to the comfort, hope and strength in God’s promise that He will never leave you nor forsake you.

The Last Gasps

Credit:  C. Mackowiak

Credit: C. Mackowiak

 

 

Last week I read an article titled The 10 Last Gasps of a Dying Church by Brian Dodd. Click on this link to read the entire article: http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/175170-brian-dodd-last-gasps-of-a-dying-church.html. Here are some excerpts:

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If you don’t like changeyou’re going to like irrelevance even less.” Those are the words of General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, who [was recently] in the news because of the VA scandal.

There are few things as sad as watching a once great church grow old, become irrelevant and slowly die. What is worse is that they either don’t know they’re dying, or they simply don’t care as long as those remaining are happy. Sadly, I have witnessed this more times than I wish to count. In addition, I have attended this type of church before.

Here is what I have noticed about many of these churches—at a pivotal point, a decision was made to continue doing ministry the way they always have rather than alter their approach to reach a changing community or the next generation. After months of committee meetings and off-line conversations, the church finally utters The 10 Last Words of Dying Churches—“We’ve never done it that way before. We’re not changing.”

Those 10 powerful words subsequently have a ripple effect that lasts generations.

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Statistics a few years ago showed that 51% of Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregations had worship attendance of fewer than 100 per week. Of 5,860 congregations reporting, 1,335 had 49 or fewer and another 1,659 had between 50 and 100 in attendance.

There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong with small congregations, especially those who face demographic circumstances beyond their control. Nor is there anything particularly virtuous about larger ones. Most congregations I know simply find no joy in becoming smaller.

Whether large, small or midsize, congregations with dwindling worship attendance and their leaders are well advised to reflect prayerfully on the reasons for the shrinkage and to determine a strategy, without in any way mitigating the Gospel, for reversing the trend. Doing so sooner rather than later may help avoid the realities that might otherwise lead to last gasps.

Denominational Suicide

Credit: Joanna Myszak

Credit: Joanna Myszak

Here are excerpts from a recent article by George Bullard titled Is Your Denomination Slowly Committing Suicide?

Many denominations are slowly committing suicide. Suicide is not an intentional destination. It is, however, the unintended consequence of their collective actions over multiple years.

Denominational movements reach a point that they institutionalize. They do this because it is fashionable, to create organizations that will guarantee their survival, in response to requests from parts of the constituency that they provide more programs and management, to complete their rebellion against other Christian groups they do not want to emulate, because focusing on institutional things keeps them busy and gains them greater status and notoriety, and because the opportunity was available to them.

Eventually, they become hooked, and even if they wanted to quit, many cannot or are in denial of the fact that they are killing themselves. Here are seven ways their suicide is becoming increasingly inevitable. These are not the only ways, but they are effective ways of committing suicide.

First, they lose their first love, which is congregations.

Second, they fail to create and sustain a congregational multiplication movement that launches a number of new congregations each year.

Third, culturally, if not officially, denominations formalize education requirements.

Fourth, officially they formalize and perhaps centralize the ordination of ministers.

Fifth, understanding and hearing the voice of God and the presence of the Holy Spirit is misplaced.

Sixth, when denominational headquarters does not understand the difference between a strategic framework and a strategy, it may be committing suicide.

Seventh, when denominations regularly restructure, their focus is usually on rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.

It is suicide. It is slow. It is sure. Many denominations seem unable to stop themselves, and it is devastating.

To read the entire article, go to http://www.abpnews.com/blog/leadership/is-your-denomination-slowly-committing-suicide-2014-05-29/#.U7XWpLHql9A

Frankly, I agree with some of these more than others and might add a few of my own some day. Articles like this may seem sensational or irrelevant to some. To others, the words of Jesus ring loudly and clearly: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matt. 11:15)