Great Stuff Found on the Web — Romancing the “Call”

Found over on Pastor Ken Kelly’s blog, Priestly Rant:


Twice now, in the five or so years I’ve been out of the seminary, two people that I know have moved from the actual pastorate in the parish, to positions within Synod itself. There was an application process in both cases, a selection was made, and a “call” was issued specific to their new task and duties. In both cases, once the announcement was made, there were those who questioned the idea of “calling” a man into bureaucracy of the Synod. Now in fairness, I have never seen, at least in print, anyone question the “calling” of seminary faculty, and I might also add, again in fairness, that a very good friend of most of us was recently “called” to the faculty of the Fort Wayne seminary, and the congratulations would have filled even the FaceBook wall of God. If anything that it is not directly and weekly parish ministry is by default bureaucracy, why is it (so it seems) that some positions within this bureaucracy can be considered “calls” and wear laurel leaves, while others are (at best) questioned and have burning coals heaped upon them?

The logic escapes me, for it seems (if one believes in a “divine call” and experience has taught me that generally congregations do not) that God is fully capable of “calling” a man to the seminary or to a parish, but he doesn’t have the same power to “call” a man to work within Synod. In other words, to call a spade a spade, a man who accepts a “call” to work within Synod itself is generally seen as (1) a failed pastor, (2) opportunistic, (3) well connected politically, (4) a sell-out, or (5) all of the above.

Much of the angst revolves around the use of the term “pastor,” the argument being that those who have made the move are no longer engaged in “Word and Sacrament” ministry. Don’t get me wrong: I can appreciate that sentiment, but I have no earthly desire whatsoever to work within Synod itself. There are men who are actually good at that kind of work, and let’s be honest: we created the bureaucracy of Synod, we continue to support it at District Conventions (remember ULC?), so it would seem, logically, that we need men within the machinery of Synod who are sympathetic to what happens in the parish.

Are they any less a “pastor”? How many times a year does a pastor need to celebrate the Eucharist to be considered a “real” pastor? How many sermons must he preach to have a “valid” call? What of the men—and we all knew some—who were ordained right out of seminary, in a local parish, never spent a day in the parish , and were called immediately to the seminary, Admissions for example? To say nothing of those men who were “called” right out of seminary to work for a District. If a “call” carries the weight of divinity, how is it then that seminary professors for example can be fired; or a pastor in a parish “voted” out of a congregation?

Again, while I can understand the sentiment, I think it’s ridiculous to blame the man for accepting a “call,” particularly when we’ve all had a hand in creating the monster Synod has become.

For me, the problem is not that the man is still called “pastor”—and yes I know the IRS argument—and it isn’t even that he has gone to work within Synod itself, for me the problem is the danger inherent in such a move. It is also the same danger inherent in remaining in the parish.

From my perspective, going to work for Synod has a tendency to make a pastor forget where he came from so to speak. I honestly think that men go to work for Synod with the very best of intentions, but without a great deal of care, over time decisions become almost automatic; a signature on a piece of paper, an e-mail, a brief phone call, or a meeting. What gets lost in this labyrinth is that there is a real pastor and a real parish who may in fact be in real trouble; the danger is dehumanizing. I think the same applies to the seminary faculty: it isn’t that anyone (at least that I know of) disrespects them, their education, or their “call,” but often times it seems that they believe the entire world of Lutheranism is one large seminary class and it isn’t. There’s a real pastor, real people in a parish, and often real problems that people face that can’t be solved around the cafeteria table.

The reverse is also true: there is a danger inherent in being a parish pastor, and that I think is experiential egotism. “EE” is the belief that no one understands what you go through; that no one knows the particular trouble that you’ve seen; that only your experience is valid; that you are a ‘real’ pastor; and that those who aren’t actually serving in a parish—like you are—should simply shut up. I know a great deal about this disease for I often have bouts of it myself.

I do think Synod helps to foster this type of fraternal animosity, for Synod taken as a whole, has completely lost sight of what it was designed to do to begin with. It looks down its Missourian nose at the parish pastor and gives the impression that the only thing that matters is its own self-perpetuation. The logic is that anyone and everyone who goes to work for the Beast are consumed by the Beast, and I’m not sure that’s true categorically.

Of course economics also play a role; I doubt very much that Synodical salaries are in line with what the average parish pastor is paid, but that’s to be expected within a free-market type of salary system within the LCMS that is unregulated.  The only way for a parish pastor to take better care of his family or to save for his children’s college education-to say nothing of his own retirement-is to move up the ladder to a progressively larger congregation, or to go to work for Synod. The victim in all of this is the small parish.

I’ve given up on “romancing the call”; I think any divinity involved in the process is (at best) dented and tarnished; and I think that by and large it is an entirely political process, but we’ve allowed it, and the fortunate have embraced it. I suspect we all would given the chance.

I’m OK with a man being “called” to work for Synod-just don’t forget where you came from…that’s all.

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 — Romancing the “Call” — 112 Comments

  1. @Matthew Mills #50: “In today’s LC-MS we have ordained pastors being called into administrative positions w/ no structured Word and Sacrament ministry duties.”

    This is correct. First, ordained pastors or other ordained members of the synod are not being “called” (with a Divine Call) into administrative positions within the synod or district (e.g., SP, DP). Second, these administrative executive positions are part of the synodical polity of the Missouri Synod; they are not part of the Office of Public Ministry, as it may exist in some episcopal polity.

    The synodical constitution states the synod is an advisory body, and a doctrinal statement was passed at the 1883 Missouri Synod convention that stated the polity of Synod is essentially and principally congregational (not episcopal!) in nature. To be synodical or district president a man must be an ordained member of the synod, not an ordained member with a current Divine Call as pastor to a congregation. The SP’s or DP’s responsibilities are not congruent with being a pastor of a congregation.

    In his paper,The Lord, The Keys, The Church,” under the section “The Genius of LCMS Polity,” Rev. Joel Baseley clearly points out this separation between the office of the SP/DP and the office of a pastor. (pp. 42-43):

    Since Synodical structures are secondary safeguards to the church, or the congregations, and the primal and central authority of Christ and his office must be located in the local congregations, it is obvious that there can be no action impinging on the Office of the Keys that is isolated from the local congregation.

    Some have used this fact as a reason to propose that DP’s [or the SP] ought to be practicing pastors in their districts, that is, serving a local congregation. For many this is an intriguing possibility. And the principle stated just above could be rallied to that position. But I believe that is mistaken.

    The functions of Synod over and against the congregation have been carefully distinguished, and that distinction is both helpful and clarifying….

    The responsibility for the Office of the Keys is placed were it belongs. The structures of Synod thus take on a proper, secondary, servant’s role of applying the Word of God and its standards in doctrine and life, when the congregation has failed to do so. But then, the responsibility for what to do with that failure, pointed out by the backup system, goes back to where it belongs; back to the local congregation.

    A synodical or district president supervises pastors and congregations because they are synodical members. The synodical or district president is not “a pastor to the pastors”; nor is a , is the SP or DP an “archbishop” of every Missouri Synod congregation in the synod or district.

    Thus, while a SP or DP may also hold a Divine Call as a pastor to a member congregation, and carry out specified duties as the pastor at the church, these duties under the Divine Call are separate from the duties of being a SP or DP.

  2. @Matthew Mills #50: “I think that this is unprecedented for most of the 2,000 year sweep of the history of Christ’s church… So how did we get to a place where none of the cloud of witnesses we claim to be following ever stood before?”

    First, the Synod is not a church but a humanly established corporation of churches.

    Second, Carl Mundinger wrote a book detailing the history and basis of the polity (government) in the Missouri Synod; the book coincidentally is called Government in the Missouri Synod (CPH, 1947). Despite Wilhelm Loehe’s erroneous claim that the Missouri Synod organization was “amerikanische Poebelherrschaft,” Prof. Mundinger pointed out (p. 209):

    Any democratic political theories which the founders of the Missouri Synod might have entertained, they did not get them from America, but from the same source from which they derived their theology and church polity, viz., from the writings of Martin Luther.

    Third, Holy Scripture gave no prescribed polity in which the cloud of witness must stand for us to copy. Thus, in Christian liberty, the founders of the Missouri Synod were free to develop what Martin Luther and, later, Carl Mundinger, described in their writings.

  3. Rick, is it your contention that LCMS structure and governance is what Martin Luther had in mind when he spoke about such issues?

  4. Carl Vehse @ #1,

    “Second, these administrative executive positions are part of the synodical polity of the Missouri Synod; they are not part of the Office of Public Ministry, as it may exist in some episcopal polity.”

    This gets to the heart of the matter. Missouri has chosen this polity. It comes with some policy issues like not remaining incumbent of the OHM if a parrish call is not maintained. If you can’t do the policy, don’t do the polity. 🙂

  5. @Rev. Paul T. McCain #3,

    Paul, my previous post, which quoted from Carl Mundinger’s Government in the Missouri Synod, made no such contention. What I did contend is that “the founders of the Missouri Synod were free to develop what Martin Luther and, later, Carl Mundinger, described in their writings.”

    This contention is evident from Mundinger’s first sentence in his first paragraph in his first chapter of his book:

    “The historical investigator will not get very far in his research of the Missouri Synod without coming upon the fact that Luther and his writings played a very important role in the formation of Missourian church polity.”

    This chapter conveniently is called, “Luther’s Concept of Church Government.” Mundinger later states (p. 6):

    “This much is certain, the student of Luther’s writings on church polity must constantly ask himself these questions: When did Luther say this? Where did he say it? What were the circumstances in the case? As a general rule, the ideals of church government that were formed during the period from 1519 to 1525 had to be recast and in part discarded because of the experience gained through the visitations made from 1525 to 1528. The visitors found conditions in individual parishes that forced Luther to change his entire church polity.”

    Mundinger goes on to explain Luther’s polity changes in Chapter 1 (with abundant footnotes). The application of Luther’s polity concepts to individual Missouri Saxon congregations is discussed in Chapter 5, “Emerging Forms of Church Polity,” and then application to the founding of the Missouri Synod is discussed in Chapter 6, “Crystallization of Governmental Forms the Organization of the Missourri Synod.” Did I mention that Mundinger likes footnotes?

    There is too much to present here, but CPH sells Mundinger’s book, Government in the Missouri Synod.

    Email or call CPH to order; tell their publisher Carl Vehse sent you! Maybe he’ll include along with the book a link to C.F.W. Walther’s “The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation Independent of the State.”

  6. @Carl Vehse #1

    @Carl Vehse #2
    Novelty is a bad thing. (There I’ve said it.) Whether the source of that novelty is a group of post-modern pastors using their Christian freedom to replace altars w/ drum sets, rewriting the creeds weekly to be more relevant etc., or a group of otherwise sound 19th century pastors using their Christian freedom to change the historical polity of Christ’s bride the Church, novelty is bad. The Lutheran Reformation was an intensely conservative movement focused on removing the medieval novelties that were at odds w/ the Christian religion, not a movement led by libertines willing to change anything that couldn’t be proven to be scripturally mandated.

    This whole discussion of call vs. ordination vs. Office of the Holy Ministry strikes me as very new, and I suspect it started because Modern Christians have used our “Christian unity” to divide up what had been treated as one thing for 18-19 centuries. (If I’m wrong, then give me some references where I can find people that didn’t know North America existed talking about this subject.) We could keep swinging the meat-axe until we’ve worked out a new branch of ecclesiology consistent w/ Scriptures and our confessions (which seems to be the intent of this thread), but my answer would be, let’s just put these things back together, and pretend we never asked the question.

    I’m disinclined to dispute LC-MS constitutional matters w/ you, but to the extent that church polity IS adiaphora, I’d push to bring ours more in line w/ historical Apostolic Christian practice, and our Confessions’ insistence: “that it is our greatest wish to maintain church-polity and the grades in the Church [old church-regulations and the government of bishops], even though they have been made by human authority [provided the bishops allow our doctrine and receive our priests]. For we know that church discipline was instituted by the Fathers, in the manner laid down in the ancient canons, with a good and useful intention.” (Apology XIV)

    Are you saying that our polity can’t be changed?

    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  7. @Matthew Mills #50
    I think you have asked all the right and pertinent questions. I especially agree with you that we should not dare continue to try to severe the call from ordination. It does strike me as odd as well that there never seemed to be a question throughout most of the Church’s history as to what a call was and entailed. It was Word and Sacrament Ministry. Now we try to shoe-horn a lot of things under this claiming they fit the definition, but I’m not buying it. (For instance in the Hosanna-Tabor case the appeals court said that based on our own definition of a call and Word and Sacrament ministry the teacher in question did not even meet the criteria to be considered for a call precisely because Word and Sacrament are not a teachers primary duties! I found it fascinating that the secular courts called us out on that and used our own terms and definitions to do so!) I understand our current polity in the LCMS but think we out to not be above re-thinking it and trying to move towards a more historical and Biblical understanding and practice.

  8. People are often times afraid of losing power. Read “will to power” and you’ll see how it is something which many Christians adhere to, even though it’s entirely bogus.

    We are called to humble ourselves. It’s often too tall of an order.

  9. @Matthew Mills #6: “Novelty is a bad thing.”

    This is a overgeneralization. Furthermore, there is no single “historical polity of Christ’s bride the Church” to change or prescribe.

    In the midst of lamenting about the 19th-century split between Walther and Loehe, Hermann Sasse [We Confess the Church, trans. Norman Nagel, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986, pp. 71-72] notes rightly:

    “Christ gave His church no such law prescribing one right organization, government, and polity (de constituenda ecclesia). Any way of organizing things may do, so long as the means of grace are going on and are not frustrated….

    “It is truly remarkable how modern historical research into the beginnings of the way the church was organized has confirmed Luther’s exegetical insight that the New Testament tells of no specific single way of organizing the church, and so no such single way can be canonized. As in the history of the liturgy so also in the history of the church’s organization, the beginning was marked not by uniformity but by diversity.”

    In his book, Carl Mundinger includes (p. 15f) some advice from Martin Luther about church government (such advice probably should be taken light-heartedly until some definite context is available):

    Before our Gospel came, no one knew how to preach about civil government and say what what a good thing it was. Now that we have praised and exalted the government through our Gospel, the princes want to be above God and above His Word. They want to command what we are to believe.” [1534, W.A. 51, 246, 4]

    “We must destroy the Consistorium (Wir mussen das Consistorium szerreissen). Under no circumstances dare we permit the lawyers and the popes in high places. The lawyers with their lawsuits dare not be tolerated in the Church. They are bringing the Pope back.” [W.A. 6, 344]

    “This whole discussion of call vs. ordination vs. Office of the Holy Ministry strikes me as very new”

    It’s not clear what “whole discussion” you are referring to. If you are talking about the Missouri Synod’s understanding of the doctrine of church and ministry as contained in Kirche und Amt, it has been the Missouri Synod’s official position since 1852 because it is not new but indeed congruent with Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.

  10. @Carl Vehse #9
    You might want to read your Sasse quote all the way to the bottom of the section:
    “A bishop may be entrusted with the task of seeing to the running of a great diocese. But the meaning of such an assignment can only consist in this, that he thereby gives room and support to the church’s ministry. His actual office is the office of pastor, also when he is a pastor for pastors. By human arrangement he may have the work of superintendency. By divine mandate he has solely the office of preaching the forgiveness and justification of sinners for Christ’s sake.”

    What is new is splitting the office of the holy ministry into an administrative and a word & sacrament branch.

  11. @Matthew Mills #10: “What is new is splitting the office of the holy ministry into an administrative and a word & sacrament branch.”

    The Sasse quote given in #10 was selectively extracted out of context of not only the chapter and section it was in, but the paragraph and preceding sentences (p. 71):

    “How the congregation organizes itself, for this no prescriptions are given, just as there are none for how the church’s ministry is to be organized. The apostles came to recognize that it would be helpful for their ministry if they were relieved of the work of caring for the poor and attending to money matters. So the office of deacons was created as an auxiliary office. But the church was the church already before this office was created. So the church can at any time creat auxiliary offices to meet the needs of the time. Examples of this in the history of the church are the office of episcopate, or superintendency, or any other offices, whatever they may be called. But all these offices have their right of existence only insofar as they serve the one great office of the preaching of the Gospel and the administering of the sacraments.” [Emphasis added]

    Sasse goes on for the rest of the chapter discussing what is important and will remain for the Ministry and Congregation (the title of the chapter) and what has changed and may change more in the future (pp. 82-83):

    “It [taking the ministry and congregation seriously] would also mean the end of the notion that what the Confessions say of church government is fulfilled by having a clever–alas, all too clever–central church bureaucracy running things not by the Word but by force (non verbo, sed vi).

    “All of this must pass away and will pass away, just as church government by princes as summi episcopi disappeared overnight. But the holy ministry, preaching repentance and forgiveness, and the congregation of the faithful. who in faith are justified sinners–that will remain. The future may involve forms which we today do not know about, but which the Lord of the church is preparing amid the thousandfold suffering of contemporary Christianity.”

  12. @Carl Vehse #11
    Sasse’s conclusion (and the entire point of the whole piece) was that Church and ministry belong together as an organic whole, and that the attempts of both Walther and Loehe to put one over the other, or derive one from the other, were examples of Lutheran theologians (who should have known better) grandiosely missing the entire point. If one of us is cherry-picking quotes, it’s probably the one using bits of this excellent article to advance the arguments of one of these Pastors against the other in order to support “Missouri Synod’s official position since 1852” rather than the man saying (w/ the Sainted Dr. Sasse): stop trying to divide the office of the Holy Ministry from the Church or the call from ordination, these things belong together.

    Though it’s a very convenient straw-man, I’m not saying that an Episcopal polity was ordained by God or necessary for proper Word and Sacrament ministry, only that it was the desire of the reformers to retain it, and that adiaphora doesn’t mean “unimportant” or “without theological consequences.” What I’m saying is that by changing a polity that didn’t require changing (for any overriding theological reason) we opened a can of worms that we didn’t need to open, and rather than fighting over which pastors do and do not have real calls, it would be more Apostolic to make sure they all have unequivocal calls to Word and Sacrament Ministry.

    Now, as I said above, I think that could be done w/in our current polity by encouraging our Synodical and District leadership to follow the examples of Pastors Harrison and Walther to stay in Word and Sacrament ministry rather than leave it. It could also be done by modifying our polity to require our Synodical and District leadership to follow the examples of Pastors Harrison and Walther to stay in Word and Sacrament ministry rather than leave it, or by totally changing our polity and buying a bunch of funny hats. I’m not fussed by any of these options, because Sasse was right, it’s the office and not the polity that matters.
    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

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.