21 June 2012

Clergy Confidential

Congratulations, my dear pastors-elect! Squarely in possession of that first set of call docs to Anywhere Lutheran Church, you are one pair of quasi-episcopal hands away from joining the ranks of the clergy. Even if you are first-born parsonage born and raised, you have no idea what you are getting into or you would have already run the other way like a groom with cold feet on his wedding day.

Rick Stuckwisch asked me to write a piece as the summer ordination season begins. He ought to have known better. He’s worked with me before. Rick, I’m the one who once suggested crowd-surfing the processional cross, remember? I’ll leave the lofty “from above” view to guys much more pious, capable, and holy. I’m here to deliver the view “from below,” the kind of practical “Real-theologie” one does not get at the seminary, chiefly because the professors would be summarily fired for pouring this brand of undiluted honesty.

What follows comes from my own experience twenty years downstream from that sweltering hot August afternoon hands when officially laid on my dripping head and I became, for good and for ill, a pastor. I’m going to channel my “inner Anthony Bourdain” for this one, and give you a piece of unvarnished truth-telling, a kind of “clergy confidential” of what I wish someone would have told me twenty years ago. The comment stream is sure to be full of indignant howls of “How dare you, you Philistine!” but never mind them. This drink needs to be served straight up, no ginger-ale.

Colleagues. You are entering a byzantine caste of rogues and scoundrels the likes of which the seminary was but a foretaste of the dysfunction to come. Your fellow pastors are a motley crew of slick entrepreneurs, ambitious ladder climbers, bookish scholars, chancel prancers, monks, zealots, pietists, PKs, and “bad boys” who smoke, drink, cuss, and generally “sin boldly.” I won’t mention the ones who will wind up in prison. These are your colleagues, your comrades in arms, your brothers. Learn to get along with all of them as best you can, and learn to love them for who they are: Deeply damaged, damnable sinners justified for Jesus’ sake. Any one of them, one day, could be your district president. Don’t ever burn a single bridge.

Conventions. None of us individually is nearly as dumb as all of us put together. Conventions prove this. Ignorance loves to pool around the floor microphones. Stay away from them. Floor microphones are not trees waiting to be marked by every bulldog in the backyard. Empty your theological bladder elsewhere. Resist the urge to spout off at conventions for at least three years. Six if you can possibly contain your brilliance. Make it an apostolic dozen, and we just might invite you out for drinks. Just chill, listen, and drink in the absurdity. Your time will come. And when it does, you’ll realize that what you so desperately had to say doesn’t matter anyway, and nobody is listening.

Congregations. Let me cut to the chase: You serve the Lord, and you work for your congregation. You may not like the sound of that, and you may even be tempted to argue with me on lofty theological grounds, but the sooner you get this, the better off you are going to be.

If you understand this one little paradox, you will understand why 80% of your future colleagues are giving serious consideration to buying that B&B in Vermont, opening a dive shop in Belize, a microbrewery in Milwaukee, or simply disappearing from civilization like an Australian on a “walkabout.” Your call and ordination remind you that you serve the Lord. Your W-2 and paycheck remind you that you work for the congregation. You also answer indirectly to a variety of ecclesiastical inspectors and regulators: your district, the synod, and just about every Tom, Dick, or Harry who decides to make your business his business.

There are standards and practices for which you are answerable beyond the immediate clientele. Like Hebrew National Hotdogs, you answer to a Higher Authority. The trouble is that the words “Lord Jesus Christ” will never once appear on the signature line of your paycheck. And therein, my friend, lies the problem.

Sometimes you must toe the Gospel line. Like the doctor asked to write a bogus prescription or the butcher told to put out marginally rancid meat, you may have to tell management to take a hike when you are asked to violate Scripture and Confessions. Just be sure that’s what you are being asked to violate. I’ve seen far too many guys invoke higher principles when in fact they were simply being jerks. Being ground between a Gospel rock and an institutional hard place is never without suffering and loss, and you will pay a price. So choose your battles wisely, don’t ruffle the feathers of management unnecessarily, never forsake principle, conscience or personal integrity, compromise when you can, pray without ceasing, and be sure to drink a little wine for the sake of your stomach and the frequent ailments you are sure to have in abundance.

A sense of humor helps. Pastors with good senses of humor, not to mention an appreciation for irony, are not necessarily more successful, but they are a lot more fun to be around and seem to be less prone to career destructive behaviors. And the institutional beast doesn’t know what to do with Gospel-crazed pastors who don’t take themselves, or their careers, terribly seriously. You have been, after all, declared forensically dead in your Baptism. The nice thing about being dead is that you have nothing to lose. This prompted Luther, who knew a thing or two about dealing with difficult management, to pen the line: “Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife. Let these all be gone. They yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth.” You’re dead to Sin and Self but alive to God in Christ. At the end of the day, the kingdom yours remaineth too. If Luther could survive the medieval papacy, you can survive the voters assembly.

Liturgy. How do I say this nicely? I can’t. Don’t mess with the liturgy! It’s not yours, it’s ours. The churches all together. Community property. You have the books, and you hopefully know what to do with your hands. Now learn to do the liturgy - naturally, reverently, respectfully, with a due sense of awe, wonder, and mystery. We don’t need the Rituale Romanum any more than we need Jesus Palooza. Do the liturgy you’ve been given. Do it without faux friendliness, fake accents, goofy gestures, and anything that would make a kid say, “Hey, what’s with that funny guy up there in the white dress?” Pretend that the people actually came to meet Jesus not you. I know most protestants, and even many Lutherans, come for the preacher, but pretend anyway. Maybe they’ll catch on one day, probably after you’re dead and gone.

People. People fatigue me. It’s not that I don’t like people; I actually do. Quite a lot. Maybe too much. But like a few beers on a warm summer afternoon, a round of meet and greet leaves me ready for a good, long nap. I’m an off-the-charts introvert in the Myers-Briggs world. It’s the way I’m wired; I make no apologies.

You’ve probably heard it a hundred times, but I’ll make it a hundred and one. Know your people. Visit them. Spend time with them. Listen to them. Do pastoral anthropology on them. Hang out with them in their homes and gardens, their businesses, barns, and garages. I won’t use that awful “relational” word the bureaucrats like to toss around, but like it or not, believe it or not, want it or not, pastoral ministry is a people business.

Consider Jesus - eating, drinking and generally hanging out with pious pharisees, greasy tax collectors, hot off the street hookers, and riff-raff of all shapes and varieties. He didn’t trust people, but He sure hung around with them. Rant, fume, and theologize about this all you want. Go and bury yourself and your dysfunctional personality under a pile of brocaded vestments, dusty books, a computer screen or theological presuppositions. But your people won’t trust you with the big stuff - their terminal illnesses their infidelities and divorces, their daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy or their son’s coming out of the closet at family Christmas - if you haven’t been around for the little stuff.

This is where I have screwed up most royally. To be sure, I’ve burned more bridges than Patton on the march to Bastogne. I’ve pontificated at far too many microphones, far too soon, for far too long. I’ve alienated, angered, agitated, and generally pissed off quite a few people. But if I could undo just one thing, if I could retract just one sin of omission, it would be this: I would know my people better. This kind of pastoral work, what the old masters called Seelsorge, takes enormous amounts of time, patience, energy, endless phone calls, wasted trips, and stubborn persistence. There is no substitute for it.

OK, enough. Probably too much.  This article is beginning to rival the length of one of Stuckwisch’s tomes, and I have editors stalking me for projects whose deadlines are so long past they need to be tracked by carbon dating. It’s time to wrap up.

Had I known twenty-six years ago what I know today, had I known what the state of the church, society, and my own fragile, dysfunctional psyche would be, I probably would not have ditched a lucrative albeit morose career in chemistry to run off to the seminary. I had no idea what I was getting into.

However, knowing what I now know after twenty years of pastoring a congregation in my local patch of Anywhere, USA, all the remarkable saints I’ve come to know, all the heartaches, headaches, and bellyaches, all the heroes and villains, all the sermons preached, Suppers distributed, Baptisms administered, confessions heard, classes taught, weddings and funerals officiated, and people pastored more or less, I would not have things any other way.

The apostle Paul once wrote to a young pastor named Timothy: “He who desires the office of bishop, desires a noble task.” Even when viewed “from below,” this remains most certainly true.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

20 June 2012


Ecclesia semper reformanda est - I don't know who coined that phrase, but it's ever so true. And always has been - see Galatians. In this sense, there has never been a golden age and we should not be disheartened by the mess our little patch of the una sancta finds herself in. The Missouri Synod is indeed by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed: the worship wars, Seminary Lite (SMP), a few charismatics here, a few would be women-ordainers there, usw.

So where to begin? What should Confessional Lutherans be focusing on in Missouri? I appreciate the work that folks like the ACELC are doing - but we need focus. You can't move on all fronts at once. We need an issue that captures the attention of all Confessional Lutherans and one that is theological (not political), clearly based in the Scriptures and the Confessions, and as objective and black and white as possible.

It just so happens that we have this issue: Missouri's 1989 revision of the Augsburg Confession sans Article XIV (it is the shortest article, so it's a small revision, right?). "Lay ministry" - the intentional, "licensed," and ongoing practice of having men who have not been called to and placed in the Office of the Ministry administer the Sacraments and preach the Word in our parishes. This is simply contrary to the Scriptures, contrary to the Confessions, and contrary to all the practice of historic Christianity.

If Confessionals cannot unite to undo this wrong, then what is the point of being Confessional? Let us make 2013 the Year of AC XIV.

Gottesdienst is getting the ball rolling with a one day conference on AC XIV and Lay Ministry in Kearney, Nebraska, on July 25th. While the whole Synod is affected by this problem, the Great Plains and the Northwest are the epicenters. Pastors, lay people, district officials, and the lay ministers themselves are invited and encouraged to attend.

Especially if you are in Nebraska or Kansas, please make plans to attend. If you know folks in those areas, tell them to attend. If you are for or against the Missouri Synod's present practice, come and join us to study this issue. Here is the full conference information:

AC XIV and Lay Ministry
Zion Lutheran Church, Kearney, NE

9:00 - Registration (Coffee and rolls)

9:30 - Matins
10:00 - Presentation and breaks
12-1:30 - Lunch (at local establishments of your choice)
1:45 - 3:00 - Panel Discussion
3:00 - Gemuetlichkeit

Registration fee: None. The offering at Matins will defray Zion's costs. 
To register email Rev. Micah Gaunt mgaunt2000 at yahoo dot com.


06 June 2012

Military Chaplains

Fr. Stuckwisch asked me to reflect on the special challenges, duties, blessings, and opportunities of the military chaplaincy especially in view of the kind of pastoral care involved. I was so honored to receive this request. As I told Fr. Stuckwisch, although I served in the United States Navy for 21 years, I was never a Chaplain. I was an enlisted man. I said I would write reflecting on my experience from the enlisted point of view while adding to this note a reflection of the work of a Chaplain from the perspective of the Preaching Office.

As with all things meet, right, and salutary, let's begin by examining the second part of this request; the blessings and opportunities of the Chaplain. From my experiences, the blessings and opportunities to serve in the US Military as a Chaplain are very similar to the blessings and opportunities of the preaching office in the local parish.

Chaplains lead the troops in prayer services. They experience the birth of babies. They get to celebrate with the troops when a wedding anniversary rolls around. They get to cry with the bereaved during a funeral. They rejoice while leading the troops in worship. Chaplains get to comfort the young and old when the soldier, sailor, airmen, or marine doesn't received that much anticipated promotion. I believe someone more qualified than myself, someone like Chaplain Captain Daniel Gard or Chaplain Captain Michael Frese, would be able to give a more in-depth reflection on the duties of the Chaplaincy.

When it comes to the special challenges a Chaplain faces, I can only imagine how long the list would be. I believe the first thing that would come to mind, especially in the US Navy, is that there aren't enough Chaplains to serve the sailors.

When I was in the Navy, I served at the PENTAGON in Washington, D.C. Later, I served aboard the USS Coronado and then Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron THREE. During my days in Washington, I lived like most of the young people in the Church today; I didn't go to Church. I was way to busy with work (at least that was my excuse). Unlike duty at sea, when a sailor serves on shore duty, he/she normally finds a local parish and goes to Church. I don't think I ever saw a Chaplain during my years in Washington D.C.

However, when I was ordered to the USS Coronado, the needs of this young man changed drastically. I was still homesick. I was lonely. I missed my wife. I missed my parents and family. I was scared about not being able to function at the expected levels for the rank I held. The list of issues was long and distinguished. Add to all this, I had no Chaplain to talk to. My ship wasn't large enough to have a Chaplain assigned to us. The nearest Chaplain was on the Carrier and who knew where she was. The Lord did bless me with someone to help during difficult days; He gave me my Chief!

After I was onboard for a couple of months, I got to know the Radio Gang and I found another blessing from the Lord. His name was RM2 Frank Hammond. He was the only other Christian in my department. WOW! I found someone I could read the Bible with and pray with during those long lonely days at sea.

Could I have used a Chaplain on the USS Coronado? ABSOLUTELY! Just like the pastor in a local congregation, The Chaplain can bring peace and comfort to the soul lost in the world. The Chaplain can calm the nerves of one stressed by battle and fatigue. The Chaplain can put their arm around the lonely with words of encouragement when the crew is busy tearing you down for silly mistake(s).

I remember, the year was 1986, and the USS Coronado was now home-ported in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I had the in-port watch in Radio. The courier brought the evening traffic to the ship just before dinner was served. I received the package and began to sort the messages for routing and distribution.

I was half way through the big pile of messages and I noticed the ship received a Red Cross message.

This type of message is easy to spot because of its special formatting. Every radioman in the service empathizes with his shipmates every time a Red Cross message is received. Nobody likes getting news that a family member is sick or has died.

As I reviewed the messaged, I noticed that my father's name was listed on the message as the originator. I kept reading. The message was sent to tell me that my Grandmother Yates died. I was in shock. I was just home a month ago and visited with her in the hospital. I remember thinking this can't be. This is a mistake. I remember learning in school that the worst thing that can ever happen to a radioman is to receive his own Red Cross message. The worst thing ever just became my present day reality.

Where was the Chaplain? Where was the Chief? Where was my friend Frank? I had no one. Every one was on liberty. We had no Chaplain. I was alone. I was mad to say the least. I was full of rage. I've never felt that kind of pain before. Fortunately, my Chief remembered he forgot to do something for the Captain before he left for the day and so he returned to the ship. He came up to Radio to see how everything was going.

Chief saw my frustration and sadness, He inquired what happened. I handed him the message. He comforted me and called down to berthing for a replacement for the watch. He took me down to the Chief's mess and told me everything was going to be alright. He instructed me to go and pack my things. You're going home, he said.

I remember going down to my bunk and began packing my things. I also remember praying to the Lord and thanking Him for my Chief. The Lord may not have given me a Chaplain but He did give to me a source of comfort and solace.

Since I've been a pastor in The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, I've inquired of the US Navy Chaplains Office about going to serve the men and women onboard the ships. I even told them I would do it for free. The response was that Chaplain had to serve full time or in the Reserves and I was ineligible.

There are so many men and women out there in the military that need the Word of God. There is a great need for them, whether on shore duty, at sea, or in combat. These young people need Chaplains. I thank the Lord daily for the men, and regret to say, women, who serve the soldiers, airmen, seamen, and marines daily to bring them the comfort of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In closing, I wish to thank those Chaplains that I do know. First, Chaplain Captain Daniel Gard. He was my Chaplain in the Reserves for two years before I retired. He brought me much comfort during my final years of service when I was struggling with duty, family, and school.

To my friend Chaplain Captain Michael Frese. I haven't known my brother for many years but I remember the talks we had while I was in seminary. He brought me comfort and strengthened me during those days of learning. He now does the same for our troops.

Finally, Chaplain Captain John Wolrabe (Retired) who encouraged me to write a book about the healing God gave me and my congregation after two years of antagonism.

Let us pray.

O Almighty God, Your Son, Jesus Christ, gave to His holy Apostles many excellent gifts and commanded them earnestly to feed His flock. Make all pastors and chaplains diligent to preach Your holy Word and the people obedient to follow it, that together they may receive the crown of everlasting glory, through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Ghost, One God, now and forever. Amen.

We preach Christ crucified!