Great Stuff found on the Web — Clergy Confidential

Found on Four and Twenty Blackbirds:


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.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Great Stuff found on the Web — Clergy Confidential — 22 Comments

  1. As a lay person it is good to read rants like these, full of honesty and self evaluation.

  2. Rev. Cwirla opines: “A sense of humor helps.”

    It is obvious that Rev. Cwirla really does ‘practice what he preaches’ when he leads off his article: “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.”

    Hahahahaha… What a hoot! Really!! After all, a “pastor-elect” is like being “pregnant-elect.” And “quasi-episcopal hands” (Yuk,yuk,yuk!) – like there’s a seminary course, “Episcopal hand-laying 101.”

    I mean, it is obvious to any confessional Lutheran on either side of the pulpit, that the doctrinal position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Missouri Synod, as exposited in C.F.W. Walther’s Kirche und Amt is that the Divine Call makes a man a pastor, not the ordination. As every catechumen memorizes from Thesis VI on the Ministry:

    “The ministry of preaching is conferred by God through the congregation, as holder of all church power, or of the keys, and by its call, as prescribed by God. The ordination of those called, with the laying on of hands, is not by divine institution but is an apostolic church ordinance and merely a public, solemn confirmation of the call.”

    “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.”

    Bwahahaha!! ROTFL!! Oh, Rev. Cwirla, you’re a riot!! What a hilarious Loeheist impersonation! You should do that parody act again at the next district convention talent show; the delegates will get a big laugh out of it.

  3. Preaching at an ordination in May 1967 Dr. Arthur Carl Piepkorn said to the ordinand: “You will not always thank us for what we do to you today.” Callow youth that I then was, I had no idea what he was talking about but 44 years in the ministry have shown me what he meant! I also remember one day in seminary when a professor said that Lutherans in the 19th century were involved in disputes about Kirche und Amt/Church and Ministry, and that so it has continued to the present day. In such disputes synodical tradition surely cannot trump the teaching of the Lutheran Confessions: the Confessions see the “Divine Call” as including ordination. Holding Dr. Walther in the greatest reverence and esteem does not preclude examining his conclusions in the light both of Holy Scripture and the Confessions. He of all people would certainly want us to do that very thing! Dr. Nagel’s splendid article, “The Divine Call in CFW Walther’s Die Rechte Gestalt,” convincingly demonstrates that Dr. Walther’s position was not quite the view that has been handed down in synodical tradition. He points out that there has been a tendency to confuse Call and election (by the congregation), election being but one part of the Call which culminates in ordination. It seems to me that Dr. Nagel’s article is must reading for a better understanding of Walther’s thought. There are also ecclesiological issues here which Dr. Sasse wonderfully clarified in his writings, notably in his Letter on Ministry and Congregation. In his splendid book “The Church and Her Fellowship, Ministry, and Governance” Kurt Marquart also has a wonderfully helpful discussion of Call and Ordination which sheds light on these questions. As far as I know, no Lutheran – not even the late Dr. Piepkorn – has ever denied that the ceremony of the laying on of hands is strictly speaking an adiaphoron in the sense that there is no explicit divine command for this ceremony. I in fact remember how horrified I was when, at the opening service of the 1963 school year at the Saint Louis Seminary, the then district president neglected to lay hands on an ordinand. At the reception following the service Dr. Piepkorn carefully explained that the ordination was valid but that it did not fully conform to the teaching of the Confessions. The Church is commanded by her Lord to confer the pastoral office on suitable men: ordination in that sense exists by divine command. You might say that the “that” of ordination is jure divino, the “how” of ordination is jure humano. The historical evidence is irrefutable that the “rite vocatus” of AC XIV includes ordination. The Papal Confutation understood it so and Melanchthon’s Apology provides the clear evidence that the disagreement was not about ordination but about the necessity of episcopal ordination. And when a man is once “rite vocatus,” “called and ordained,” he is called not only as pastor of a specific congregation but as pastor in the one Church of God. The local Church is the Church in the full sense of that word: the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in that place. And because it is the one Church of God in that place, its pastoral office is in fact the pastoral office of the whole Church of God – not simply a local arrangement. All the ordination rites of our Synod reflect this understanding as does long-standing practice: pastors once “rite vocatus” have always continued to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments even when they are retired or no longer serve a particular local congregation, e.g. when they serve as professors or district presidents. Installation simply designates where a pastor is to carry out his ministry. To be sure no one can be ordained unless he is called to a specific place: that is not only the Lutheran understanding but, as the ancient canon law shows, the practice of the Church from earliest times. “Absolute” ordination with no “title,” no place to serve, has always been viewed as a serious abuse.

  4. Rick, why didn’t you become a pastor like your father and at least one of your brothers did?

  5. Not Loeheist. Nagelite. Straight out of “Holy Ministry” Concordia Seminary 1991 with Norman Nagel. And since when are we memorizing the theses of Kirche und Amt in catechism class? I’m happy if they remember the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father, the three sacraments, the Table of Duties, and Daily Prayer.

  6. Again, a person becomes a pastor by means of a Divine Call, not by any laying on of hands (pseudo-episcopal or otherwise).

    “Rick, why didn’t you become a pastor like your father and at least one of your brothers did?”

    Perhaps, as they watched me grow up, my grandfather, father, brother, and several uncles, who were pastors, had their prayers answered.

    “And since when are we memorizing the theses of Kirche und Amt in catechism class?”

    Well, not necessarily in German, of course. But one should not set the confirmand bar too low. Anyway the theses of Kirche und Amt are congruent with Holy Scripture and the Confessions, so it’s not like there would be any novel or conflicting doctrine for a catechcumen to learn.

  7. You know, there’s a term for this: ALOCD. Advanced Loehe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Seriously, look it up. I wonder if it’s contagious?

    Don’t make me go all Foxworthy on you.

    “If you think that your ‘I do’ has got to come before your ‘Let’s do it’, you might be a Loehist.”

    I’d rather be branded a Loehist than a Pietist. But I’d rather be neither. But whatever it is I am, I’d at least like to know what “it” means.

  8. By the way, my going speaking rate is $500 plus air, lodging, and meals including bar tab, in case Vehse wants to book me.

  9. In comes Carl with his pet rant to mess up another topic.

    On topic: Knowing your members personally and being with them in their daily lives regularly is key, as was mentioned. I found also that a regular schedule of praying individually for each member is also central and also Biblical. Contrary to the church growth mantra, we are not ranchers. We are still shepherds called to know our sheep so that we can care for them.

    All your scholarship and doctrinal correctness are finally applied to the members for whom you are responsible before the throne of God. And, of course, to reach others who individually need the grace of God.

  10. @Richard Lewer #12: “In comes Carl with his pet rant to mess up another topic.”

    Rev. Lewer, you are listed as a member of the LCMS. What part of the official and orthodox position of the Missouri Synod for the past 160 years, which I quoted in connection to the first two sentences of Rev. Cwirla’s topic article, do you consider to be a “pet rant”?

  11. Rick, why didn’t you become a pastor like your father and at least one of your brothers did?

  12. Is Carl Vehse’s name actually “Rick”? That would be really cool. I’ve never been much of a Vehse fan since he quoted all that Spener crap.

  13. Carl,

    The article was not about ordination. It was about advice on being a pastor with a humorous twist to make some good points.

    But – to a hammer everything is a nail.

  14. @William M. Cwirla #15 : “I’ve never been much of a Vehse fan since he quoted all that Spener crap.”

    Thank God that C.F.W. Walther was able to overcome such an attitude as he reexamined Vehse’s Protest document during his illness in 1841 and was able to admit at the Altenburg Debate: “Without this [Protest] document — I now confess it with a living conviction — we might have for a long time pursued our way of error, from which we now have made our escape. I confess this with an even greater sense of shame, because I first appeared so ungrateful toward this precious gift of God.”

    More detail on Vehse’s use of Spener and other Lutherans can be seen in posts #28 and #30 in the July 10, 2008 BJS thread, “Hyper-Euro/Sacerdotalist and Hyper-Waltherian Insights Needed”

  15. @Richard Lewer #17: “The article was not about ordination.”

    While not the only topic in the article, ordination was discussed in the first and third paragraph. My earlier comments in #4 addressed those discussions.

  16. Gentlemen – get back to the topic of the post. I think we have had a few too many posts go this direction already in the last few days. Back on the topic of being a pastor and Rev. Cwirla’s wonderful advice for new and old pastors.

  17. “But – to a hammer everything is a nail.” – And to a nut, everything’s a bolt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.