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.


William Weedon said...

Wow. Love that and absolutely agree with it 110%. Thanks for writing it up - even for the old guys!

Pastor Walter Snyder said...

Bill, you've nailed it. I'm a first-born PK, so I know that part well. I'm actually fairly bright and paid attention to Dad's words and his attitude when he came home from long council meetings or district and synodical conventions. Somehow, I was still dumb enough to eventually fall into the parish ministry. (Actually, I was pushed; the Spirit sneaked up on me when I wasn't looking.)

Sometimes it's the best job you'll ever hate, sometimes it's hell on earth, and sometimes it's only a few miles from paradise. I pray that the new pastors, as well as my seasoned brothers in the office, will experience as much as possible of the third and that whatever comes from the other two is part of a God-given and ordered tentatio.

John Wurst said...

Amen Fr. Cwirla! Thank you.

Rev. Shane R. Cota said...

This NAILS it! I wish I had this 10 years ago. However, I probably wouldn't have listened to a word of it then. Now I know better.

Brigitte said...

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.

This matters so much. And when you hang out, don't just gloss over things quickly, actually read or pray something having heard the issues. Don't come over just to fund-raise or have dinner, actually pray something... Don't just thank me for organ playing from below, come upstairs beforehand and pray with me for the service. And when a disaster has befallen me and we are all speechless, the hymnbook and the liturgy will do fine. Just don't drop a hot potato. Pain goes on for a long time but the word of God is a salve in wounds and a powerful medicine. It must be shared one on one in the right places and at the right times. We can learn to do it for each other this way, too, and maybe for you and your family, when the time comes.

Emommy said...

I love this--right on. And thanks for including the importance of humor. When nothing can give us perspective, humor does. So we'll be using this one soon: "If Luther could survive the medieval papacy, you can survive the voters assembly." :)

Clint Hoff & Family said...


Rev. Dustin Beck said...

Thanks for this, Bill. Great read and reminder as I sit at our District Convention.

Rev. Paul L. Beisel said...

Great thoughts, and no one with an ounce of humility can argue with them. I do have one question though, and maybe the author can address it. Why does it often seem that "wise" pastors are those who have become softer or more giving on external matters and less "nit-picky" when it comes to liturgical things, or who have "learned to make exceptions at the altar" (translation: they let more slip by), and the pastors who are more cautious, who do not "choose their battles" are seen as unwise? So often, I have found, the 'devil is in the details." It's on the seemingly small decisions that pastors make on a day to day basis that the overall orthodoxy of the parish rests. Is it possible to be seen as a "wise" pastor if you don't learn to "make exceptions" and compromises, and you continue to fight every battle that is laid at your feet?

Maggie Karner said...

Perfect. You are wise beyond your years.
Maggie Karner

Todd Wilken said...


Rev. DRM said...

Finally got around to reading this--after going to the microphone too many times at my own district convention. (Anyone who knows me will say, "So what's new?") Thanks, Pastor Cwirla, for reminders, a bit of chastisement, and a strong dose of Christ-crucified-centered relief and encouragement.

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Well said, Pr. Cwirla!

I recently did something I never thought I would do: went to the mike at the District Convention. It was a matter of conscience concerning our district's support ("partnership") and financial offering to a church body that ordains women. Of course, the convention overwhelmingly didn't care about that little detail.

I've heard a lot of pastors say they avoid conventions as they are harmful to their faith. I have to agree. I found it to be a profound waste of time, money, and resources, and quite depressing to see the way we "do church." A young woman defended women's ordination as a mere cultural matter - and not only was her voice and vote equal to everyone else, nobody corrected her.

The early church never had such "councils" where any Tom, Dick, or Mary could vote and opine on such matters - and the jurisdiction became bound to such things.

Anyway, I chose to attend (or at least register) to be an elector for Synod president. But I think it would be good for me to schedule a vacation three years from now during the next district convention. With any luck, Christ will come before then and prevent the next round of abominations...

After the resurrection, we will be naked vegetarian anarchists, there will be no bureaucracy (except in hell if C.S. Lewis is right), and church conventions will be purged from our very memories along with every other sin and sorrow. Come, Lord Jesus!

WM Cwirla said...

"After the resurrection, we will be naked vegetarian anarchists..." I hope not! I was looking forward to all that fatted meat along with the fine, aged wine, all the while clothed in spotless robes. Shoot, I can get naked vegetarian anarchists in San Francisco, and believe me, that isn't "heaven."

Pastor Phil said...

Timely and absolutely wonderful article!!! Thank you!