Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Ministry

Lutheran Zephyr rightly takes on a situation in which a Lutheran pastor is touted, in the recent issue of The Lutheran, as the tour leader for a pilgrimage to Las Vegas. You can find his comments here.

This issue of Lutheran pastors' remaining on the clergy roster even though they are working at jobs or in positions that have nothing to do with word-and-sacrament ministry seems to need attention. According to the Augsburg Confession -- that quaint little document that doesn't have much to say to the modern church's structure, I guess -- the Lutheran Church ordains pastors to the ministry of and to word and sacrament. That is, the sole distinguishing mark of pastors vis-a-vis "the laity" is that pastors preach the orthodox faith and minister the sacraments in a accord with the orthodox faith. And as I understand matters, this was in response to a theology of ministry that placed those who were ordained on an ontological plane higher that a mere layperson. While we do not hold a merely "functional" understanding of ministry, neither do we subscribe to any notion that work done by a pastor is holier, more professional, or any other -er than the same work performed by a layperson.

I have found that the Confession is observed as much in the breach as in the observance. We all know all kinds of people working in secular positions, who are not serving ministries of word and sacrament in any sense that makes any sense, who are nevertheless carried on the clergy roster of the ELCA as "pastors." (Note: I don't have any problem with various kinds of lay people's being including under pension plan. It's a matter of the doctrine of ordination.) We have editors at publishing houses, teachers in colleges (I guess it's OK if it's a Lutheran school, but not OK if it's a state university?), "counselors" in social service agencies, various kinds of tent-making "ministries" where there is no congregation in the worker's line of service.

So my question is what is up with that?

The Lutheran Church has never had a very clearly defined doctrine of the ministry (even aside from whether ordination is properly confirmed without a bishop's hands). But I have understood that there is, in Lutheran theology, no provision for the "indelible mark" of ordination: Once one is not preaching and presiding, one is not a pastor. (In my own case, I specifically correct anyone who says that I'm a pastor who works as a lawyer or the like. I was a pastor; I am no longer a pastor. On the other hand, I do not believe that my "derostered" status relieves me of the my ordination vows -- and this is contrary to what some say. Thus, I feel that I must be careful not to teach anything that is at odds with the dogmatic heritage of the Church. If I get to the margins, I have to acknowledge where I'm getting on thin ice.) It is no disgrace to be a "former pastor." But, to the contrary, I think there is something unseemly in (whether literally or figuratively) continuing to wear a collar when one is not ministering to a congregation by preaching and presiding (and more than once or twice a year!).

Implicated here are all those synod and Chicago bureaucrats who maintain the title "pastor" but couldn't preach their way out of a simple Gnostic trap and who wouldn't know an anaphora from a spittoon; "youth" or "associate pastors" whose job is scheduling youth events and hosting overnights or programming hook-up events for young marrieds; congregational "administrators" and "visitation pastors" whose call does not involve preaching and presiding full time. All of this causes me to laugh derisively whenever I read old Lutheran attacks on the Roman priesthood: There was nothing in the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic clergy pool that has not been taken up by the post-Reformation Lutheran corps.

Heck, Lutheran pastors' lending their names -- on an occasional basis -- to treks to Las Vegas seems small change compared to all the collars I see running around -- full time -- doing things just as secular.

Still to come: My take on the failure of Lutheran ecclesiology. (I just have to reduce the manuscript from 50 pages!)


Mystical Seeker said...

There is a converse side to the problem that you describe, namely that of an active Lutheran pastor who nonetheless was going to be dropped from the official roster because she has been pastoring at an independent Lutheran church that was kicked out of the ELCA for doing what lots of ELCA churches do now (namely, ordain an openly gay pastor), and the ELCA doesn't recognize that call, so as far as the ELCA is concerned she would lose her status as an active pastor. You can read about it here. (I don't know what has happened since that article was published, and so I don't know if she did get thrown off the roster.)

So from what you describe, there are "pastors" who don't deserve the title, and yet there is also someone who deserves the title but who is threatened with losing that title as far as the denomination is concerned.

Christopher said...

It has seemed to me that the Lutheran understanding of ordination is neither functionalist nor ontologicalist, but rather relationalist, which sets one aside (I'm thinking of Luther's wilderness scenario, for example) to preach the Word and administer the Sacrament. This relational dynamic perhaps doesn't communicate an indelible mark, but remains active so long as one is doing what one has been set aside to do. I would say, given your vows, that this relationship becomes inactive rather than altogether disappearing. I would think it important, even as one no longer rostered, to maintain some sense of public expectation to teach rightly--but then, I expect that from laity as well.

I might also add that in classic Trinitarian theology relationship and being are not separable, but Lutheranism eschewing metaphysics generally, provides for what seems to me a more dynamic rather than static understanding.

Chris Duckworth said...

Thanks for the post and the shout-out. I lean toward a more functional understanding of ministry, but I admit that my understanding is still evolving (especially considering that I am not even yet ordained).

I'm sure, however, that you would disagree with my post from nearly two years ago that argued largely for a functional understanding of ministry . . . (your comment on that post would be appreciated, if you have the time).

I'd write more, but in less than 24 hours I'm off on an airplane bound for El Salvador. I'll check back in on this post when I return. Thanks for your insights.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to publish anonymously, but I've forgotten my password, and I don't have time to wait for a new one, I'm afraid.

Well, Chris, to take you on directly: I disagree with you that I'll disagree with your post. I think I do, on one perspective, subscribe a most functionalist understanding of ordained ministry. And I think the ELCA constitution and bylaws adequately witness to a faithful Lutheran understanding of the basics of the raison d'etre of the call. I quite liked your discussion of what it means to "pastor" (although I've never much cared for the word as a verb, but it's one of the less offensive
nominalizations associated with the work).

On the other hand, there is way more to the office of presbyter and ordination than just doing a job. And that is witnessed to by the Augsburg Confession's rather high doctrine of ordained ministry. It's not the case that Lutherans designate one guy or gal to do the preaching and presiding but all could do it -- at once or individually -- if the congregation decided so. The reason is that the ordained ones (and I'll lump all three orders into this -- deacon, presbyter, and bishop -- for the sake of ease of converse) constitute a God-established structure for the preservation of the Church's faith. It is Spirit-driven office (i.e., nexus of responsibilities and functions) that is, in fact, (almost ontologically) distinct from what I do as a lawyer or my wife does as a nurse. That doesn't make it necessarily or by definition holier than other vocations (that's an issue I answer differently depending on the other person's point of view), but it surely highlights a profound difference in the eschatological significance of what the various officeholders do with their talents.

And it doesn't mean to imply that the Spirit does not work her ways through other vocations. My wife, for example, gives more spiritual care in half a day of her work with her company's population than most pastors are able to muster for close friends. And one of the Lutheran Church's finest theologians (who have a special role in preserving the truth of proclamation) teaches as a layman. (I don't think that insisting that seminary profs be ordained serves much purpose, frankly. For some it's meaningful; for others its a foolish hurdle to getting where they want to go, which is teaching.)

As I recall the old (gosh!) LCA constitution, the church was defined as the synod (my word) of congregations and pastors. That was a healthy ecclesiology, it seems to me, because it recognizes the other-than-promoter place of a pastor in the structure of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. It celebrates the "set apartness" of the clergy, something taken all too lightly by most pastors and congregations. It's not the piety or holiness or ability to BS that distinguishes a pastor, it's the weight of responsibility, the duty to stand simultaneously close to and outside a fellowship in order to bring to it the Gospel, which is always a word from outside ourselves. (We can't preach the Gospel to ourselves; it must be brought as news.) That's what it means to serve the church as a pastor.

And such a position inevitably requires submission to the discipline of the Church, to the "rules for living" that she (in any denominational configuration that one seeks to describe) prescribes, to live by her proscriptions, to be loyal to her even when one thinks that is in error -- or to leave the structure that one believes in error. And so, Mystical Seeker, I think that one of the crosses that pastors must bear, in the current situation, is to follow the Church's teaching and repeated denial of change to its practice. One doesn't have to put one's critical faculties to rest, but one doesn't take action in countervention of the clear policy of the Church, regardless of how many others are doing it and getting away with it. (Read ordination vows: They're not going to get away with it for eternity! That's part of what keeps me from expounding universalism as settled doctrine, even though I agree with Origen and Barth and von Balthasar that it is the only logical conclusion from the Gospel.)

I think the issue of discipline relates directly to what I called the Spirit-driven nature of ordination. The Spirit, of course, blows where she will. But we have been promised certain places and functions -- as if, "means" -- through which she works her mysteries. The action of the Church gathered is one of those. And bowing before that reality is the first act of preparation for the ministry of the ordained. (Yes, Chris, the same is true of all believers.) None of us has the "right" to flout Church teachings without pretty substantial grounds -- and then we must be prepared to accept the consequences, as Luther also discovered. "Right" no where enters the vocabulary of the Church.

Inevitably, the Church will determine for herself, through all too human agents, that some are "worthy" and others "unworthy" to be set aside for the work of ordained ministry. I only hope that those making the decision read Matthew 7:1-5 and take it to heart. I know that many times I have disagreed with the determinations of those in positions of authority, but for the most part, I have had to live with it (not necessarily passively, of course) -- for life in the Church requires it, I think.

I think I lost the strain of thought. I'd better back out for a while.

Mystical Seeker said...

I think that one of the crosses that pastors must bear, in the current situation, is to follow the Church's teaching and repeated denial of change to its practice. One doesn't have to put one's critical faculties to rest, but one doesn't take action in countervention of the clear policy of the Church, regardless of how many others are doing it and getting away with it.

What I am talking about is the way that a good pastor is being ground up by the ELCA bureacracy. They do not recognize her call when she decided to pastor at her current location, and I think it is ridiculous. I am simply suggesting that this provides an interesting converse example of what was described in this post, namely that the denomination recognizes as pastors those who may not be that good at it; I am pointing out an example of someone who may be losing her pastor status but who is quite good at it.

Christopher said...


I'm confused. Who is anonymous, and if so, which or both Chris's are you addressing. We must have very different understandings of what "set aside" means from the ranting comment I read through. Set aside is English for consecrate, and is quite a high understanding of ministry, as necessary for the Gospel. The connection of pastoring to Word and Sacrament was an especially important point of the Reformers, as well. I never mentioned doing a job. So again, I'm puzzled by the reaction of anonymous because he/she is reading things into my post, and I assume it is my post because of the discussion of laity later on. Moreover, I have to say the authoritarian thrust of the comment is stunning, not to mention being a nurse or a lawyer can also be Spirit-driven. Often it seems in working to maintain a high understanding of office, vocations of the laity get sideswiped thusly in my opinion. I might add that the part about clarity of structure and rules is ironic if anonymous is Lutheran, and leaves very little room for even a layperson in the end.

Christopher said...

I might also add that anonymous understanding of the church is a little too cleaned up. The realities are often more messy and those in the mess are not necessarily less faithful, something St. Augustine came to increasinly in old age as he mellowed and wrestled with Julian of Erclanum. The all or nothingingness is not the only way of being Christian as the debate between Pope St. Steven and St. Cyrpian illustrates all too well. Both rigorists and flexiblists are a part of the tradition. Thank God anonymous is not in charge of the church is all I can say.

Dwight P. said...

Brother Christopher, you've managed to confuse me. First of all, I think it's fairly obvious, at the beginning of my "rant" (your word), that it was I, Dwight the Blogger, who was responding to a remark made to me, Dwight the Blogger, by Chris, not Christopher. I thought I had signed the reply, but see that I didn't. For that I apologize. I should never write in haste: I know that.

I also think that it was fairly obvious that I began with a reaction or response to Chris' (not Christopher's) comment (since I paraphrased him directly). FYI: I don't shorten people's names or use nicknames unless I know them personally and/or know that they prefer the shortened form. Yes, I did indeed deal with lay people. How can one discuss the office of the ordained ministry without doing so?

Third, I'm confused by what you are saying. When I understand, I think you're being unfair -- as in your suggestion that I give short schrift to lay vocations. If you read my response, you see that I pay high homage to lay people who work both within and without the Church's formal structures.

In all honesty, I don't know what I said that set you off. I was apparently way less clear than I though, but frankly, I don't think you've made yourself very clear either, Brother. For what I said that is offensive, I am sincerely sorry. But I can't quite figure out what it is.

Christopher said...

Brother Dwight,

I apologize.

I found the comments you made confusing to be honest because they seemed to be addressing mystical seeker at times, my own comment about laity at others it was this line: ("Yes, Chris, the same is true of all believers.)" that led me to think you were addressing my comment throughout, and then Chris's own at others because I'd mentioned that especially when it comes to what we Piskies call core doctrine, I expect lay persons to not go around teaching Arianism or whatnot either. I think that's a reasonable expectation. On top of that folks have a tendency to foreshorten my name, so I assumed. You know what they asay about assumed, well I admit to being one in this case.

You're right, I was unfair, and realized that when I reread your comment the next morning. I'd skipped over what you actually said about the laity and God's work through our lives. You can imagine I get touchy about this because I run into clericalism a lot in seminary settings. My most favorite line was when a seminarian at the lunch table was asked to explain the difference between laity and cleryg: "Clergy take prayer life more seriously." To which, I added a strong au contraire--though a good priest of pastor must pray. Clericalism and disdain for ordination at all are flip sides of the same coin. I rather think, like William Stringfellow set out in his famed essay, that both are necessary for the Church to be the Church. At any rate I'm sorry for my unfair comment.

What set me off, is that in your previous post we seemed to share a recognition of import of ordained ministry and that this is Spirit-driven matter, not mere human invention, so misunderstanding that your comments were directed at my post, I was stunned.

Dwight P. said...

Christopher, thanks for your clarification. I regret all the lack of clarity on my part that led to our mutual confusion.

You are certainly correct that I hold a very high doctrine of the ministry of the ordained. But I even have trouble coming up with a short phrase to use in that connection, because I frankly consider all Christians to be ordained to their ministries in their Baptisms. I hope that I stand second to none in upholding the possibilities for work of the Spirit in all walks and works of life.

I define Lutheran theology in terms of an elipse, which I understand to the be the constellation of all points defined in constant relation to two fixed poles. Lutheranism has its poles or dualities -- law and gospel, faith and "works" (which I can't quite accept as a a duality, for I think they are the same thing, but never mind), and so on. In working through some particular locus of theology one may at one time emphasize on of the points that seems to draw closer to one pole than the other, but it is the dynamic (your word) or relationship among all the points that gets close to truth.

I emphasize one or the other ends of the ellipse depending on my context at the moment. Clericalism is a vile and defeating strain of practice and thought in Church practice. And I was taking that on. The issue of the special holiness of the pastor (to use the regular Lutheran term) is related only to the task she is assigned and agrees to take on -- viz., the ministry of and to Word and Sacrament(The difference of prepositions signals differences of meaning, too), the stewardship of the mysteries. It is precisely because ordained ministry has become so personality-driven that clericalism has become an issue for even high-church protestants.

But I agree with Brother William that there is no Church without either laity and clergy. That's another thing we have in common: I have enormous respect for Stringfellow, and if I were to do a Masters in Theology, I already have a thesis planned that deals with his ecclesiology. (Someday I'll blog about my one meeting with him.) The Church has her people and they include the laypeople and the clergy (widely defined now). Some of them serve the Church herself -- sometimes in "professional ways" (i.e., by preaching and presiding) and sometimes in "mundane ways" (e.g., as my wife does by chairing the congregation and her vestry in her day-to-day affairs). The primary vocation of the laity, I think (without having done much work on this), is to make Christ manifest in the world by living lives that are exemplary of the Gospel. (This is not unique to the laity, but it is the distinctive focus of their vocations.) That so many think that that means that pastors are to live holy lives and they are to just apologize every week for not is a sign of how sick the Church is.

In sum, I think the whole matter is quite a bit more complex than I can portray at any given time. That is the special witness (perhaps "metanarrative") of the Great Tradition -- that we are not isolated in time, theme, or place; rather we must read the whole narrative to get a good sense of what mean and who we are. I thank you for taking time to stick with me during my trek and effort to make sense of my own narrative.