The Father Mulcahy Syndrome

In the TV show M*A*S*H, Fr. Mulcahy wonders if he really is useful in his pastoral/priestly duties, compared to “Hawkeye” and “Trapper” and the rest of the talented surgeons of the 4077.

In one episode, in order to feel useful, Fr. Mulcahy volunteers for a dangerous task. The Korean War era helicopters could only take two wounded soldiers at a time, one on each side of the helicopter.  When there was only one wounded, the pilot would use a dummy for balance.  The pilot did not have a dummy.  Fr. Mulcahy volunteered as such.  Colonel Potter was not pleased. Mulcahy explained his feelings of inferiority as a priest.  Hawkeye and the other surgeons tried to comfort Fr. Mulcahy that he was indeed useful.

I forget how that episode was resolved. In the show, one rarely sees him saying Mass or even talking about it or preaching.  He does hear confessions but usually for the humor in it.  He never evangelizes the Korean villagers. He never baptizes.  He does counsel and given the time of the sitcom, pastor as therapist was quite popular in many denominations.

In Jaroslav Pelikan’s  Bach Among the Theologians, he described the  Enlightenment (aufklarung), in Germany.  The Enlightenment was also a philosophical and theological assault on confessional orthodox Lutheranism which the philosophes considered to be non-rationalistic, impractical and superstitious.   The Enlightenment was the beginning of the “culture wars”.   Many pastors accepted the critique by changing from teaching doctrine and presiding and the like in order to adapt to the  zeitgeist of the ‘new’ age of Enlightenment, as Pelikan described it:

A recent study of the theological curriculum and clerical morale in eighteenth-century Germany has assembled a vast amount of documentary and anecdotal evidence about what it aptly terms “clerical utilitarianism’ and the pressure that this utilitarian Rationalism put upon the church and the clergy to justify themselves before the forum of usefulness and practicality. “Preaching, the administration of the sacraments, and pastoral care were not sufficient to legitimate the ministry. Ministers were pressed into service as Volkslehrer and even teachers in elementary school, with emphasis on practical crafts like cobbling and blacksmithing, childrearing and home economics. The pulpit itself had to meet these criteria, and we have sermons for Palm Sunday that deal with the danger of tearing branches from trees just when the sap has begun to rise. Whatever did not point a practical moral lesson could be dismissed, for the way the pastor could make himself useful was “by helping the farmer to follow a better plan of life, by replacing superstitious quack medicines with truly effective remedies, and by giving prompt aid to those suffering from external lesions or wounds.”  He could provide paralegal advice as well as pars-agricultural and paramedical assistance.

This may seem almost quaint to us, even humorous, but there really is nothing funny about it.  I do not know enough of the history to trace this “clerical utilitarianism” in the ensuing centuries to our day. It seems to be with us in another virulent form as we try to grow the church, build the kingdom in response to declining numbers and the assault of the post-Enlightenment omnicompetencies and immoralities. Preaching, teaching, administering the Sacraments, counsel and conversation, prayer are simply not enough. Many pastors feel the need to be “useful”.  I know the feeling. As a pastor I think many a minister suffer from the  Father Mulcahy Syndrome.  Pastor and something else: therapist, CEO, church growth guru, social activist, community organizer,  and the like and then the pastor can assuage his conscience that he is indeed “useful”. These vocations have been and are vigorously promoted by denominational headquarters.

The clerical utilitarianism, or the Father Mulcahy Syndrome is alive and well. It is reflected in the question put to me by at least two call committees: “Pastor, how will you grow our church?”  Like I had some tricks up my sleeve to work ministerial magic or divine power.  Denominational offices churn out all sorts of “models of ministry” to “grow the Church”.  It is all quite “ecumenical”. They are all well intentioned in their unchecked righteousness to “build the Church”, i.e. get new members.  We don’t want to ‘worship’ 200 but 2,000 on a Sunday. Twelve is out…let alone 2 or 3.

The Lord’s promise to Peter and the disciples is clear: I will build My Church. (St. Matthew 16: 17).  Each of the baptized are like living stones, being built, passive tense,  into a “spiritual house” (1 Peter 2: 5)  So pastors don’t have do anything?  Once when asked that question, how I would “grow the church”, I had at the ready the text, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth”(1 Corinithians 3: 6).   So, pastors do not have do anything?  Quite the opposite:  The Lord and His Church calls pastors to preach and teach the Word of God, Scripture and Sacrament, so that sin deluged sinners are soaked in His forgiving Word.  Satis est. It is enough. And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. (The Augsburg Confession, Article XIV).

The Word of God is enough in the pulpit, at the Altar, in the classroom, in the hospital room, at the coffin, in the conference room and living room, on the street…and all of those times and places are the battle line of the Kingdom breaking in through the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  There the prowling lion seeks someone to devour.  This is labor enough as a pastor will tell you, but it is not a self-chosen work to ‘save the church’, as fellow Americans work themselves into a froth, “saving the earth” or “saving the nation”. From The Formula of Concord, The Epitome, Article VI, The Third Function of the Law:

On account of this Old Adam, who inheres in people’s intellect, will, and all their powers, it is necessary for the law of God constantly to light their way lest in their merely human devotion they undertake self-decreed and self-chosen acts of serving God. This is further necessary lest the Old Adam go his own self-willed way.

We do not have to save the Church. We simply can not.   Jesus Christ has and His calling is for His Church to get the Word out.  Putting such expectations of saving a church and a congregation is inviting nervous breakdowns all around:  on the pastor, the church council, the congregation.

In terms of this world, yes, I think pastors are useless. The pastor will begin to think that doctrine, prayer, Sacraments have their place but we have to do something, as if the Word will not accomplish that which the Lord purposes for it.  Our pastor feels the need to be useful.  This is a sore temptation to want to feel “useful”.  The world of sin, death and the power of the devil of course thinks the Word and the servants of the Word are useless. Of course!  The devil has no use for Word and Sacraments, for Jesus Christ! The thing is that the devil knows the Enemy’s Word is quite practical, for seeding and nurturing of faith and the fruit of faith, love, His light in the darkness. The devil wants us to be driven by our own plans, not the definite plan of salvation in Jesus Christ (Acts 2: 24). He wants us to succumb to “clerical utilitarianism”!   When I succumb to the Father Mulcahy syndrome, then I am like Father Mulcahy wanting to be a real sweet guy who wouldn’t hurt a fly and play the piano in o-club, liked by everyone, everyone patting me on the back, Good job, Pastor. Or I want to be,

“Faster than a speeding prayer! More powerful than sin itself! Able to leap tall steeples in a single bound! “Look! Up in the sky!” “It’s a man!” “It’s an angel!” “It’s Superpastor!”… Yes, it’s Superpastor, strange visitor from Missouri or Indiana…”

Either way, it is despair or pride, but not faith.

Your pastor needs prayer and encouragement to do the one thing needful, the good portion that will not be taken away:  preaching and teaching the Word written, spoken and incarnate (see St. Luke 10:41-42) so with Mary and all the baptized saints in Christ, and many others yet to be reborn in Baptism, be fed the Bread of Life.

About Pastor Mark Schroeder

I am currently the Pastor at Concordia Lutheran Mission, authorized by Good Shepherd Lutheran, Roanoke, Virginia. I have been an AELC then an ELCA pastor since my Ordination April 24, 1983 until leaving the ELCA and being accepted by Colloquy, June 1, 2010. My wife is Natalie and we have three children, Luke, Talitha and Abraham.


The Father Mulcahy Syndrome — 13 Comments

  1. Amen. That the pastor’s “only” use is preaching the gospel is like saying water’s “only” use is to keep us alive.

    BTW, just on a tangent, I do remember one M*A*S*H* episode where Mulcahey got himself drunk before preaching a sermon about not drinking wine. Have to admit it was pretty funny! 😀

  2. @J. Dean #1 I remember the temperance sermon as well and yes it was funny. I think the text was Leviticus 10: 9 about not drinking before going into the Tent of Meeting, i.e. before liturgy! btw: I think that is only episode which we see Fr. M. vested!

  3. Rev. Schroeder’s initial article is referring to the M*A*S*H episode (Season 7, Episode 13), “An Eye For a Tooth.” The title comes from the main plot of the episode, which is a series of retaliatory pranks played on each other by the show’s main (and overacting) characters.

    Father Mulcahy is involved in the secondary plot after Col. Potter tells him he has been passed over (again) for a promotion. Mulcahy is disappointed but philosophical about it. With others involved in pranks, Mulcahy volunteers to accompany a helicopter pilot in picking up a seriously wounded soldier. The dummy normally used as a helicopter counterweight had been taken by B.J. and Hawkeye and used as a practical joke on Margaret, who rips the stuffed dummy apart in anger over the prank. Afterwards, Potter promises Mulcahy to see his promotion gets approved the next time. After all their pranks, the rest become friends again for the next week’s episode. Fade to commercial.

  4. Pastor S., I am thankful that you preach, teach, administer the sacraments faithfully every week, right where you are…and talk to that son of mine sometimes!

  5. @Pastor Mark Schroeder #2 ,

    Cpl. Klinger (who often dresses as a woman, trying to get a Section 8 discharge) gives Fr. Mulcahy a little too much whiskey to calm him down before he gives his temperance sermon on the 1974 M*A*S*H episode, “Alcoholics Unanimous,” after Major Burns orders everyone to attend.

    Father Mulcahy: You’re the only one who ever comes to my Sunday services. You’re a very religious man.
    Klinger: I’m really an atheist, but it gives me a chance to wear my white gloves.

    Father Mulcahy (very tipsy): Friends, let me tell you something, however compulsory it may be. There’s no film. I’m live. Now, back to where we were when you last heard from me. It was with Leviticus on the tenth, I believe. Drink thee not, nor thee, thou sons, lest ye die. Nor congregate at the corner tabernacle. I’d like to take a short sabbatical…or a cup of coffee. Or, I wonder, is there a doctor in the house? [passes out]

  6. One of the greatest quotes, Herman Sasse once wrote:
    “The humble preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the simple Sacraments are the greatest things that can happen in the world. For in these things the hidden reign of Christ is consummated. He himself is present in these means of grace, and the bearer of the ministry of the church actually stands in the stead of Christ. That certainly puts an end to any clerical conceit. We are nothing. He is everything. And that means that the terrible sin of pessimism, which is the pastor’s greatest temptation, is finished with as well. It is nothing but doubt and unbelief, for Christ the Lord is just as present in His means of grace today as He was in the sixteenth or the first century. And ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ [Matt. 28:18] is just as much His today as it was when He first spoke that promise to the apostles. And it remains so into all eternity. Do we still believe this?” ((Hermann Sasse, “The Lutheran Doctrine of the Office of the Ministry”, in The Lonely Way: II, St. Louis: CPH, 1992, pg. 139.))

  7. Here I thought you were going to cite Season 5 Episode 8 (“Mulcahy’s War”) where a soldier with “shell shock” refuses to talk to Father Mulcahy because he doesn’t understand what it’s like to be in combat. The Padre hijacks Radar to go up to a forward aide station to transport a wounded soldier, and on the way back, has to perform an emergency tracheotomy with his Tom Mix pocket knife while being shelled by the enemy.

  8. Now that the M*A*S*H TV show tie-in has been discussed, it seems reasonable to note another upcoming major product tie-in.

    Pastors who are desperate for a “super idea” for an upcoming sermon to perk up summer church attendance may want to check out the sermon notes, “Jesus – The Original Superhero,” by Dr. Craig Detweiler, Ministry Resources (Slogan: “The stuff you use – to fill the pews!”).

    The “S” stands for… um… jeSus?

    Oh!! And if you need some help with the associated Bible Class, Concordia Publishing House has made available for FREE, a downloadable one-session Bible Study on God’s Strength called “The Real Man of Steel” (Text: Philippians 2:5–11), by Rev. Charles Lehmann. The Bible study also includes a Participant Worksheet.

    Liturgical Jesus- Man of Steel vestment sold separately.

  9. Lutherans are a bunch of whacked out sectarians. Let us become the church catholic once again and occupy our time celebrating the mass, teaching God’s word, and ministering to our people. That’s what we do.

  10. The “whacked out sectarians” are Lufauxrans.

    Real Lutherans make up the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is not the church catholic, that is the one holy Christian (or catholic) Church outside of which there is no salvation; however the Evangelical Lutheran Church has never separated from the same but acknowledges the one holy Christian or catholic (invisible) Church alone. (Walther’s Thesis XI on the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the True Visible Church of God on Earth)

    A true visible Church in the absolute sense is that only in which God’s Word is preached right and the holy Sacraments are administered in accordance with the Gospel. (Thesis VIII)

    The Evangelical Lutheran Church has all the essential marks of the true visible Church of God on earth as they are found in no other known communion, and therefore it needs no reformation in doctrine. (Thesis XXV)

  11. There are essential duties, nonessential duties, and gifts. (Romans 12:6-8, 1 Peter 4:10) A doctor must have health expertise, should have some administrative skill, and may have a special way with children. A pastor must preach the Word, should have some administrative skill, and may have a passion for he lost, or a talent for organizational leadership, etc.

    It can be helpful to recognize a pastor’s particular gifts and discuss how they might be used to God’s glory in a particular congregation. But yes, unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. (Ps. 127:1)

  12. At least we can all come together for our love of M*A*S*H! But really, who doesn’t love the 4077?

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