This article was originally published in LOGIA Forum 18:1 (Epiphany 2009). It is just as timely today, especially given the recent discussions here at BJS.
It is certainly not uncommon for strife to exist between pastor and people. Many factors can be involved, ranging from worship style and format to the number of times a particular shut-in member gets a home visit. Pastoral decisions regarding cohabitating couples seems to be a dangerous land mine these days. These problems are often great opportunities for communication to increase and reconciliation to flourish between the under-shepherd and the flock entrusted to him. God loves reconciliation; that’s why He sent Jesus!
Occasionally the pastor/people strife escalates. Different people react in different ways. Some get defensive while others go on the offensive. Pastors may “hole up” in their home or office or demand to be respected. People may stay away from the divine service and withhold their offerings or begin a cycle of gossip to “drum up support.” Mature church leaders may be called upon to help resolve the conflict in a God-pleasing way. In the LCMS this may lead to a contact with the circuit counselor or district president, or in rare instances a request for “formal reconciliation.” A person removed from the emotions of the issue can often provide suggestions or advice to help bring about reconciliation, even in the most difficult and stressful situations. When this happens, God be praised!
Sadly, a different trend seems to be on the rise in much of the Protestant community, especially in the LCMS. Rather than work through the sometimes long and difficult process of reconciliation, people long for a quicker fix. Rather than ask the Lord of the Harvest to provide a call for a pastor to a different part of the Kingdom, and in the mean time work toward reconciliation, the new synergism rears its ugly head. A new Christianity mixed and mingled with business methods and models carries the day. The only hope is pastoral resignation and a generous severance package. Only in this way can both pastor and people “win.” Only in this way can the healing process truly begin so that the congregation may begin a new search for a “more acceptable” replacement.
Several elected leaders in the LCMS have told me that we need to acknowledge and admit that there are times when pastor and people are simply “not a good fit.” Rather than reconciliation, the goal must be to have the pastor leave. This is a doctrinal sticky wicket. If God the Holy Spirit is the One who placed the man there through the congregation’s call, did the Holy Spirit make a mistake? Most LCMS congregations have bylaws that allow for only three reasons to remove a pastor: persistent adherence to false doctrine, scandalous lifestyle, willful neglect or inability to perform the duties of the office. When the issues don’t rise to the level of removal, resignation and severance seems like a good option. But is it? Do Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions encourage this approach? Or is the business model the answer?
When Jeremiah’s ministry “turned sour” and he was threatened with death (Jeremiah 26), how do you think he would have reacted to the offer of a “generous severance package?” When Jeremiah’s “offensive” words brought him imprisonment and “new vision” from the bottom of a cistern (Jeremiah 37 and 38), do you think he would have relished the prospect of a win/win solution? I think not. Rather, he would have been reminded of God’s great promise, “… whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord (Jer 1:7-8).
As a brother pastor I offer this very unsolicited advice to anyone who finds themselves in this type of strife and conflict. Remember that God is the one who called and placed you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. If you have erred, be an example to the flock and confess your sin; model true reconciliation to your people. Be faithful; even in the midst of a difficult situation continue to work hard, visiting and teaching and studying and preaching. If someone offers you the “opportunity” to resign and receive a severance package, be skeptical. The words, “I’m from the IRS and I’m here to help” come to mind. If you truly believe that it would be better for you to serve in a different parish, pray to the Lord of the Church and ask the appropriate church officials to circulate your name. Then use the time wisely for reconciliation and trust God’s timetable. Finally, if people persist in their ungodly demands for resignation, in this current church climate you may be wise to adopt a page from the business model for yourself: lawyer up.