The Call Process in the LCMS

Because very few people (even within the LCMS) understand how the call process works, especially for first calls, I thought I would try and explain how it works for those who are interested.

What it most definitely is not is a send-out-resumes, interview, get-a-job process. Some church bodies work that way. It is also not a top-down, we’ll-tell-you-where-you’re-going process–although the first call can seem that way.

As far as I know, the LCMS (that’s Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, if you are unfamiliar with it) process is unique, although perhaps the Wisconsin Synod and the ELCA are similar.

Overall, any congregation can call any rostered pastor. There are different ways of getting names, but generally, if the guy is rostered, you can call him. In that way, it’s very congregational. In the LCMS, the district presidents are, from my experience, pretty involved in the call process of congregations in their districts.

The first call (like mine) is in some ways an exception to this rule, but in some other ways not. We, as first year candidates for the Ministry, are placed or assigned. One guy, a Presbyterian, said to me, “I didn’t know Lutherans were so episcopal in their process.” But in important ways, it is not at all episcopal in that sense. We are placed, but in the LCMS the congregations delegate to the district presidents (collectively called the Council of Presidents, which, if you’ve ever been to a call service, “act as the Board of Assignments for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod”) their right to call a pastor. So a congregation chooses to be part of the process of placing new pastors by telling their district president that they would like a candidate. The seminaries gather the information on the candidates (through multiple interviews) and on the congregations who will be calling candidates. The placement director “pre-slots” candidates at congregations along with the representative of the CoP. Through that process, which takes months, finally candidates are placed in congregations. However, when the placing is done, it is the congregations who have called the pastor.

What makes the congregation’s call different than, say, a Baptist or non-denominational congregation’s, is that the congregation (ideally, at least) is not really “hiring” the pastor, and neither can the congregation “fire” the pastor. While it is a call from the congregation, it is also, and ultimately, a Divine Call from God to serve His people in that place. Thus, it is God who (through means, as always) calls His pastors from one place to another.

Some people ask how long I “have to stay there.” (They ask this more often when they find out I’m going to Northern Minnesota.) It is indefinite. Since none of us knows the mind of God, it is impossible to predict how long He will keep me there.

Another issue some people have is with the fact that the placement people at the seminary and the district presidents have control over where the candidates go. It seems cold and calculating, I suppose, that it is not only through prayer and “waiting on the Spirit.” I know that they do pray about the placement process, and I’m sure that “mistakes” are made in that sometimes the candidate does not “fit” with the congregation to which he is called. But shall we really be so bold as to suggest that God does not know what He is doing, even when there is a bad fit? Perhaps God has something to teach the congregation or the pastor, or both. I sometimes think people with this objection would be happier if the placement director would spend two hours praying over each candidate’s file, put a map on the wall, and throw a Spirit-guided dart at the map.

But Lutherans believe that God works through means. If He didn’t, what in the world would sinful men be doing in the Holy Ministry at all?  For that matter, what would you be doing in the Church?  And would there be fewer means if I decided where I went? As if I could discern God’s will for me better than these experienced men? In fact, I would probably be more likely to let my or my wife’s personal preferences get in the way of where God would send me. Isaiah’s “Here I am, send me” is the appropriate response, not Moses’ “what if’s.”

Is the process perfect? Not likely. We’re all sinners, right? Let’s just say that I trust the experienced men of the placement committee more than I trust myself to be impartial in my own placement. It’s either a Divine Call or a human hiring. Which would you prefer? I’ll take the former (even if it is to Northern Minnesota).


Loehe on Preaching

[from pp. 396-397 of The Minister’s Prayer, edited by John Doberstein (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986)]

In preaching, the church does not aim to support the holy Word by human art, but the chief matter is not to hinder its power and operation and not to impose upon the Word any kind or manner of operation which does not befit it….

[A] true preacher will not try to recommend the truth by imparting his faith and experience; that would be only to recommend himself; rather does he seek to bring his people to say with the Samaritans: “Now we believe, not because of thy saying; for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.” …

[The pastor’s] watchwords are not Awake and the like, but those words of Scripture which refer to the gradual, silent growth of the divine mustard-seed.  His insistence and compulsion are not the insistence and compulsion of human impatience, but a patient waiting on the Word.  He gladly waits, knowing that precious fruits do not grow in a night.  And he waits upon all his sheep, for he knows that the Lord has his own hour, his own haste, but also his own delays.


Call Day

Finally, after five years (including my STM year), the day has come.  Just a few hours until I receive my call into the Office of the Holy Ministry.

A fitting meditation for today, as well as for all vocations in this world, is Dr. Joel Biermann’s sermon given yesterday in the chapel.  Go here, launch itunesU, and the sermon is number 81.

If you’re interested in watching or hearing the call service tonight at 7, you can find the link for that here.

Please pray for all the candidates from both seminaries (Ft. Wayne had its service last night) as they prepare for the ministry at the places to which God has called them.


Michael Moore has Values!

The scariest quote I’ve seen in recent days comes from Michael Moore in the pages of the May 3-17 issue of Rolling Stone.  In the midst of a bunch of interviews largely lamenting the passing of the sixties generation–Tom Wolfe and Bob Dylan among the exceptions–Michael Moore is quoted as saying, “The good news is people have not given up on the values of the Sixties.”

He doesn’t say what those values are, but they seem to include protesting and being anti-government.  But let’s name some more: free love, er, sex; drugs; hippies; sex; hippies; “freedom”; “free” speech; Charles Manson; hippies….

Yep, good thing people haven’t given up on those.


Turning Back the Tide?

I’m not too optimistic about turning a culture of death into a culture of life.  But perhaps we had a glimmer of hope today.  The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to uphold the 2003 partial-birth (what else could it be called?) abortion ban.  If nothing else, the re-election of George Bush in 2004 had this consequence, that a previously legal form of infanticide was ruled illegal.

The responses were predictable: this is just the beginning of the “all-out assault” on Roe v. Wade; it chips away at abortion rights; many more restrictions are coming. 

Nothing rational gets past the blinders of the pro-death crowd.  

It doesn’t matter what the actual procedure is like.  It doesn’t matter that revulsion is the appropriate response to a description of the procedure.  It doesn’t matter that any sane person’s stomach churns at even MSNBC’s semi-sanitized version: 

The procedure at issue involves partially removing the fetus intact from a woman’s uterus, then crushing or cutting its skull to complete the abortion.

It also escapes the notice of these, what shall we call them? fundamentalistic? proponents of a woman’s right to murder her own children that the same moves they argue against now are identical to the moves they used in 1973.  Witness the argument of Planned (Obsolescence of) Parenthood’s Eve Gartner:

“This ruling flies in the face of 30 years of Supreme Court precedent and the best interest of women’s health and safety. … This ruling tells women that politicians, not doctors, will make their health care decisions for them.”

And Justice Ginsberg:

“Today’s decision is alarming,” Ginsburg wrote in dissent for the court’s liberal bloc. She said the ruling “refuses to take … seriously” previous Supreme Court decisions on abortion.

Ginsburg said the latest decision “tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.”

What about the politicians who signed this hideousness into law 34 years ago?  What about the federal intervention 34 years ago?  Oh that’s right.  Logic has nothing to do with it.  Reason has long since left the brains of abortion’s apologists.  All that’s left is the single-minded conviction that nothing even appear to interfere with a woman’s “right” to “choose.”  Fine.  Let’s compromise: you can choose to kill your child, and we’ll choose to put you in jail for it.  That’s how the free choice to do something wrong usually works.  But women are apparently exempt from the law that covers other,  lesser humans.  

There is no more time for argument.  There is only time to do what’s right.  Finally some Supreme Court justices (five out of nine ain’t bad) recognized that.  Kyrie eleison.  Maranatha!



“Religion Without Truth”

Stanley Fish is not a Christian, but he understands the claims of Christianity better than some Christians.

Discussing the recent Time piece on teaching the Bible, he writes:

Stephen Prothero of Boston University, who is cited several times by [author David] Van Biema, describes the project and the claim attached to it succinctly: “The academic study of religion provides a kind of middle space. … It takes the biblical truth claims seriously and yet brackets them for purposes of classroom discussion.” But that’s like studying the justice system and bracketing the question of justice. (How do you take something seriously by putting it on the shelf?)

The truth claims of a religion — at least of religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam — are not incidental to its identity; they are its identity.

He points out the foolishness of pretending that the Scriptures can be encountered as neutral objects to be studied:

Of course, the “one true God” stuff is what the secular project runs away from, or “brackets.” It counsels respect for all religions and calls upon us to celebrate their diversity. But religion’s truth claims don’t want your respect. They want your belief and, finally, your soul. They are jealous claims. Thou shalt have no other God before me.

I don’t think Fish believes that the Scriptures themselves are dangerous; rather, he thinks that it is ridiculous to teach something without taking it as seriously as it takes itself.  “But if you’re going to cut the heart out of something, why teach it at all?”  

The Scriptures are dangerous because the Spirit is dangerous; He moves whither He wills.  It’s always dangerous to encounter the Word.  It is a double-edged sword.  It cannot be wielded as if it were a toy.  If you don’t know what you’re doing (and even if you think you do), you might cut yourself open on it.  Beware the thought that you have control over the Scriptures, as in, you can just “teach them,” or simply “hear them,” or merely “read them.”   If you think you can thump the Bible, be careful or it might thump you.  You are not in control.  The Scriptures are not for your use.  You are for God’s use through them.  They read you.  They grasp you. 

“They want your belief and, finally, your soul. They are jealous claims. Thou shalt have no other God before me.”


The Issue, Part II

[Read the first part here.]

Why do all, or nearly all, of our (Lutheran–but a very convincing case can be made that the mainline denominations are simply further along the degeneration caused by a Law/Gospel polarity) problems stem from the central issue of failing properly to distinguish Law and Gospel? 

Think about your conversations on closed communion, women’s ordination, or any other issue where you (if you are orthodox) say something ought not to be done.  What does your conversation partner respond, sooner or later, depending on how much American Lutheranism they’ve absorbed?  “You can’t say ‘no’ to that.  That’s the Law.  We live in the Gospel.  You can’t exclude people from the Table–that’s Law.  You can’t say women can’t be ordained–that’s Law.  You can’t tell me not to use this heretical song in my service–that’s Law.  You can’t tell me to give money for the congregation and the poor–that’s Law.  You can’t tell me not to divorce my wife–that’s Law.  You can’t tell me not to have sex with my girlfriend–that’s Law.”  Etc., etc., etc.  In all of these things, Law is bad and Gospel is good.  Anything that sounds like Law–let’s be clear: is Law–is ruled out and you’re left muttering something incoherent because you know that we’re supposed to be under the Gospel and not the Law.  At this point, you’ve got absolutely no retort if you’ve been fully indoctrinated with the Law vs. Gospel paradigm.  They’ve won that and every other argument.  Why do you think it is that the heretical parties in all mainline denominations have been so successful?  It’s not because they’re more numerous.  It’s because they have “the Gospel” on their side, and all you’ve got is that stale, old Law.  The Law is not nice.  It’s not polite.  It’s not “open and accepting.”  Who wants to be on the side of the Law? 

And it’s the Law–God’s Law–that has become the problem, and the sinner is off the hook.  You see, we had it backwards in the ’70s.  We knew they couldn’t mess with the Bible.  We did not realize that it is only the proper distinction between Law and Gospel that will prevent the Bible from being lost.  If we had told them to get lost with their Law/Gospel reductionism, we would have been more likely to have kept the Scriptures as the prophetic and apostolic witnesses to Christ, and we also could have retained a strong foundation with which to fight anti-Christian attacks on the Office of the Holy Ministry and the Lord’s Supper. 

Thus, if we do not return to a Scriptural, Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel, the altars will be open, the ministry will be open, marriage will be no more (that one’s pretty much gone anyway), and Christians will (continue to) live like pagans.  Those are the consequences.  Will we stem the tide soon enough?  Only God knows.  Perhaps the Gospel will, as Luther predicted (rightly) of Germany, move on from Missouri.


The Issue

The other day, Pr. Petersen asked what the next big issue would be in the LCMS.  On what would future generations, he wondered, look back and ask, “What could they have been thinking?”  He proposed infant communion. 

I am opposed to that practice for a few reasons.  One, I think that it is impossible for infants to recognize the Body of the Lord in the Supper.  Most of the arguments seem to revolve around paralleling the reception of the Supper by an infant to reception of baptism.  But Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not the same.  We should not start from the premise that they are both “sacraments” and then elucidate the similarities.  We should treat them as what they are in themselves–related, to be sure, but not the same.  I am, however, in favor of a lowering of the age of first communion. 

But that’s not the point of this post.  I do not think infant communion will be the major issue of my or my children’s generation.  Whatever we decide about that particular practice pales in comparison to the faultline that is buried under the LCMS currently.  We’re simply waiting for the Big One to shake the whole thing to pieces.  Some other issues that people listed were women’s ordination and (closed) communion practice.  These are symptoms of what I think actually will be the issue, if the LCMS will survive as a vehicle of the Gospel.  (Churches survive past their usefulness all the time; it’s whether they remain Christian that’s important.) 

What will be the issue?  It will be Law and Gospel.  You would think that a church body which has as a primary text Walther’s  Proper Distinction would have no problem distinguishing them.  And yet, I see nearly all of our current problems and disagreements stemming from a fundamental failure to distinguish Law and Gospel correctly.  You can trace this problem back prior to Seminex.  We seem to have thought that kicking out those ungodly Bible-deniers would solve the problem.  I contend that we won a battle, but ultimately lost the war (or we will lose if we do not figure this out).

Here’s the issue as clearly as I can articulate it:  Simplistically, the Scriptures contain Law and Gospel.  The Gospel–that sinners are forgiven for Jesus’ sake–is, as everyone knows, an unquestionable good.  The Law is what condemns us (sinners) before God.  Therefore, in Christ, the Gospel overcomes the Law’s verdict about us.  Without much alteration, this outline became the Gospel overcomes the Law.  The dialogue became a polarity: Law vs. Gospel.  Thus my professors in college could utter nonsense like “God’s Gospel contradicts God’s Law.”  Even “the Gospel trumps the Law” is incorrect.  All of this makes the Law the problem.  It is the Law versus the Gospel.  Which side are you on?

Which is stupid.  I’m on God’s side.  Both are God’s Words.  The Gospel doesn’t trump the Law, as if there were some inner battle going on in God between His Law–which, in the reductionist’s schema, eventually stops being God’s at all–and His Gospel.  What happened to the sinner?  Basically irrelevant.  No, the Law kills the sinner and the Gospel raises him to life.  They work on the sinner, not each other.  Let’s put it clearly for the sake of the reductionists: Law=good; sinner=bad.

The Gospel is what puts us into the same relationship with the Father that the Son has.  In fact, here’s something to really get your reductionistic Lutheran knickers in a knot: it is the Gospel, not the Law, that will pass away at the eschaton.  We will rejoice fully in the Law for eternity, because the Law, broadly understood, is simply how God set things up.  It is how God made things to work in the beginning, and it is life in right relationship with God for which we were made and for which we wait in eager expectation.