The Danger of Ministry: Norway, Wittenberg, Haiti, by Klemet Preus

January 26th, 2010 Post by

About four years ago my wife and I vacationed in Norway, the home of my ancestors. In the course of that visit we stopped at about 15 churches, all of them older than our great nation. We wanted to see what types of Christian customs may have characterized the church in that corner of the world centuries ago. Most of the church buildings we visited were called Stavkirker (stave churches) because of their unique wood frame construction.  

At one church we were fortunate to find a guide who had made it her business to research fully the church building which she oversaw. I asked questions and she answered them so completely that we ended up talking for about an hour.

Of all the idiosyncrasies of that old wood church in Norway the one that intrigued me most were little windows about three inches by six inches in the chancel of the church.   They were typically cut right out of the wood and served no good purpose that I could see since they were too small and too close to the floor for any appreciable light.

“What is the function of these tiny windows,” I queried. “They let in bugs and cold air. Why have them?”

“These were used by the priest or pastor during communion,” she answered. “He would take the host and then the cup and hand the sacrament to the lepers who would be standing right outside of the church listening.”

“But weren’t the pastors ever afraid that they might catch the leprosy?”

Her answer was pretty emphatic, “They are pastors. They give the sacrament. It’s their calling.” It was as if the question was a bad one.

I pushed the issue. “But certainly it did cross their minds that this was a dangerous thing. They knew leprosy was contagious or they would not have kept the lepers outside during the services.”

She smiled and I got the impression she had answered this before. “What was in their mind I do not know. But I know what was in their heart. It has always been the responsibility of the church’s pastors to bless people whose suffering requires it. I imagine that the people thought that there was danger involved. The pastors only thought about what needed to be done.”

At that moment I was very pleased to be a Christian pastor. I thought of other pastors who had risked something to bless their people; Philip Nicolai and Paul Gerhard who risked disease from the plague to bless their people and bury their dead, the apostle Paul who risked persecution and death to bless his people and visit them with the gospel, Martin Luther who risked death simply so that he could write and teach, Dietrich Bonheoffer who risked death so that the gospel could have free course in his nation.

Now lately I have thought of Matt Harrison and his team who have gone to an unstable place in order to bless people whose suffering requires it. I have kept in my prayers those Christian workers. What is in their mind I do not know. But I know what is in their hearts. I am only pleased that they know what needs to be done. Love, kindness and mercy need to be given.

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  1. elnathan the younger
    January 26th, 2010 at 16:25 | #1

    Truly, a great article – would that all pastors could read this.

  2. Martin R. Noland
    January 26th, 2010 at 16:38 | #2

    Dear Pastor Preus,

    Thank you for this thoughtful and inspiring post!

    Your article reminds me of the saying of our Lord, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty!’” (Luke 17:10).

    When pastors do their duty, heedless of the risk to their health, reputation, happiness, etc., then they preach to their people the very best sermon possible on Christian vocation, the table of duties, and true sanctification. The pastor who does his duty, mindless of the consequences, gives real comfort and encouragement to the husband or wife who has to tolerate an impossible spouse or child, to the soldiers and policemen who put their life in the line of fire, and to all who labor faithfully.

    We thank God that he has given to our church many leaders who do their duty, heedless of the consequences to their health, reputation, happiness, etc. Pastor Harrison and his team (Al Collver, Carlos Hernandez, Glen Merritt, are a great example of such faithful service. What people dont’ realize is that our LCMS Human Relief staff go into “danger zones” all the time! I don’t know how they do it.

    Many of our LCMS missionaries deserve the same recognition for their faithful, and often unheralded, service. I think especially of the brave missionary wives who raise children and families in the “third world” in conditions that would drive the rest of us to distraction!

    Many of our LCMS officers and professors deserve the same recognition and thanks for their dutiful service! I especially want to recognize our LCMS Treasurer, Tom Kuchta, and our LCMS Secretary, Ray Hartwig, whom I know have done yeoman’s service in difficult times. Almost all of our seminary professors deserve the same thanks and recognition, especially for those who recently retired early so that their younger colleagues would not be terminated.

    There are some people, however, who inhabit the LCMS public sphere, who are infected by what Luther called “kenodoxia” (tr. “vainglory,” see Luther’s Works 27:97-105). Luther observes regarding such persons “they imagine that godliness is a means of gain and that the ministry of the Word was committed to them to make them famous” (ibid., 99). Even though they know how to simulate the fruits of the Spirit, and appear to be anything but “kenodoxia,” Luther says that everything they do is designed to gain more respect and praise among men than others have (ibid., 99). These are the people who bring our synod, officers, and staff into poor repute.

    I hope and pray for better days in our synod. In the meantime, I am encouraged by folks like Pastors Harrison and Hernandez that give visible witness to the Christian’s duty!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  3. January 26th, 2010 at 18:26 | #3

    Here are some impressive images of Stavkirker to see. Some more “stave churches” with descriptions are shown here.

    Regarding the communing of lepers in Norway, the Merck Manual notes: “Casual and short-term contact do not seem to spread the disease. Leprosy cannot be contracted by simply touching someone with the disease, as is commonly believed. Health care workers often work for many years with people who have leprosy without contracting the disease. … About 95% of people who are exposed to Mycobacterium leprae do not develop leprosy because their immune system fights off the infection.” Similarly there is only a small risk for infection of priests communing people with the black plague; it is not spread by person-to-person contact, but from the bite of an infected flea or rodent.

    It is true that until the late 19th century, people knew nothing about germ theory and disease transmission vectors, so the priests were indeed ‘going on faith’ that God would protect them. And perhaps they may also have observed (subconsciously in a Bayesian manner) that communing and praying with the sick and dying by priests in the past made them no more susceptible to becoming infected with such diseases than others nearby.

    Of course there are plenty of examples where pastors and chaplains did knowingly risk their lives to provide Word and Sacrament to the needy, sick and dying, and in locations with people violently opposed to Christianity. There are cases where missionaries have been murdered, or in the past where they and their families have died from endemic diseases in foreign countries. And given the social instability in Haiti, and the reoccurring earthquakes, along with a variety of infectious diseases present in such disasters, the pastors, medical teams, and other aid workers on site do take on increased risks to their own health and safety, for which they need our prayers… and deserve our thanks!

    As for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the risk he took, which ultimately cost him his life, was in joining a (unsuccessful) conspiracy to assassinate Adolph Hitler. There were many Lutherans pastors who were jailed, beaten, or executed because of their preaching of the Gospel and their vocal opposition to Nazi German policies.

  4. January 26th, 2010 at 21:51 | #4


    I recommend reading on the life of Father Damian– a Catholic priest who took care of the leper colony in Hawaii and gave his life for them, becoming a leper himself.

    That honorable papist knows that a priest must be intrepid. A lesson that even Confessionals will appreciate.

  5. January 27th, 2010 at 00:33 | #5

    Amen, Klem and others.

    Historians, is it not true that there was a time in the history of the church when pastors who removed themselves (or their families) from harm’s way during times of plague, or other duress, were branded unfaithful shepherds? They were to be avoided, right? In the same vein, our Lord Himself speaks of mere hirelings who care nothing for the sheep. — John 10.

    To be ever commended and encouraged are those faithful men who do endure great difficulty despite some “sheep” who refuse to acknowledge the faithfulness of their shepherds, AND who endure despite those who harass those same faithful shepherds with models of “success” taken directly from the culture and the business world.

    Much needed: leadership at every level which is thoroughly pastoral in every dealing.

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