Best Practices for “Ministry”? Report from Rev. Brian Flamme

photo (5)The “Best Practices for Ministry” description is brief on the convention website. “A FREE conference encouraging pastors, church workers and lay people as we reach out with the Gospel of Christ.  For those who love: the local church, the unchurched, the LCMS.” They also say that they’re “Bible-Based, Gospel-Centered, Mission-Driven, & Future-Oriented.”

That sums up the official information. It’s no secret, however, that this has become a popular destination for members of the Missouri Synod who are “missionally” minded. Why not? The well-organized conference is teeming with professional speakers at every turn, helpful volunteers, and delicious cookies.

But this place isn’t about the externals. Spiritual things are happening. Here a deeper understanding of “ministry” is cultivated and reinforced. It quickly becomes apparent that there is not one ministry. Ministries are everywhere and they potentially belong to anyone who has a heart for it. These ministries are the fundamental activity of the church. It’s an externally oriented movement that continually adapts to the world’s circumstances so it can draw outsiders into a visible assembly of people who experience God. This is the church. Ministries are what it does. Why? Because the world is in crisis, and church’s ministries are its last hope. How does this work? Outsiders are brought in through relationships which are initiated through these ministries. Whatever the method of outreach, it’s about making a personal connections with people in a dying world. Once they’re in the door, they have an opportunity to deepen and grow into a new, experience laden, relationship with God.

Out in the Synod that they so love, there’s opposition from the “confessionals” who challenge the very biblical basis for such a model. But here at “Best Practices” they’ll find reprieve from the nagging attacks that ceaselessly spring from the lips of the doctrine lovers and orthodoxy hounds. Sure, doctrine is important, but not all that necessary to talk about, especially when it comes to practical things, like outreach and ministries. Here they’re empowered and equipped to return to their congregations with renewed zeal and vision. There’s advice form one worker to the next on how to implement the latest changes of governance to facilitate the pastor’s role as a leader. They’ll learn how to disciple their followers and cultivate them into leaders so they too can establish and operate various ministries. The laying on of hands is common. Prayers are offered. Applause often reverberates through the gymnasium after a powerfully moving message and prayer. If I recall, there were nearly 1500 attendees. The sheer number of like-minded church workers offered the consolation that they’re not alone. Far from it. They are vast. They might even be growing.

The language and themes that permeated from one room to the next revolved around empowerment, equipping, affirmation, and discipleship. In Bill Woolsey’s plenary session on “Giving Away Authority and How that Blesses Leadership,” they learned that authority cannot be appealed to, it must instead be given away to equip others, like the younger millennials, for ministry. “Start new, reach new.” Right? What that might say about those who appeal to the authority of God’s Word and the confessions, I’m not sure, but it doesn’t sound good.

I’m a typical Fort Wayne grad. I’ve drunk from the streams of our confessional theology and delight in orthodoxy which is Jesus’ doctrine. Thus, much of the conference’s language and argumentation eluded me. This is a problem because I’m often in conversation with fellow pastors who use this wildly different ecclesial vocabulary. Church and ministry simply do not mean the same things between us. But these languages are not two equally valid options for articulating the same thing. One rests on the foundation of Scripture and the confessions. The other you can find in business seminars and the self-help section of the bookstore. The laity need to know this. They have to know that leadership principles and tips on interpersonal relationships are not to be equated with the Gospel, the holy ministry, or faithful pastoral practice.  I came and heckled with Twitter, if you can call tweeting heckling. I thought it would be good if both the pastors and laity saw that the permeating themes of the conference are not approved by everyone in the Synod. Far from it.

The tweets didn’t last long. One of the organizers explained that my use of their hashtag was harmful. It necessarily tied the reputation of the conference to many and various opinions of the speakers. The thought is that the conference was free to just about anybody, anyone could come and present, so it’s not fair to tag the conference in direct connection with the teaching of its presenters. Thinking back on it, I could have stood my ground and argued that nobody owns hashtags. They’re a way to identify your comments in relation to a place or idea. Nevertheless, the damage had already been done. Feelings were hurt and the good vibes of solidarity and peace were shaken.

Someone explained to me that the reason so many attendees were upset with my comments was because they were there to be “rejuvenated and renewed.” By calling attention to problems with the conference and its presenters, it made it hard for these church workers to relax. After thinking about this comment, I became incredibly sad. I realized that many of these church workers, pastors, and laity had been fed program after program to implement by these folks in the past, but with limited to no results. Who do you blame when you come up short? They beat themselves up and head back out to Phoenix. Then they hear about the new, statistically proven program that grows congregations, and the next popular movement that’s bringing the most people into the church. When they hear this, they’re invited to jump on to the cusp of the wave of relevance. They’re equipped with more tools, more visions, and PowerPoint after PowerPoint of diagrams that show them how everything they’ve been doing wrong and the new plan to fix it.

This is bondage to the Law. Pastors especially, who have suffered under their congregations’ criticism and feel the pain of losing member after member to secular society, come here to reload the magic bullets that are supposed the solve the numbers and money problem. This inevitably leads to a desire to change their behaviors and attitudes, reworking their own personality to become a better leader. It will also mean reorganizing whoever they have left in the pews to do the work of ministry for them, probably because they’ve proven themselves insufficient in making enough personal relationships to grow the church. Either way, by coming back to this conference, their consciences are being soothed with a false hope, a hope found in the ingenuity and strength of men.

These pastors and church workers need to hear that Satan is raging against them. That he’s snatching one member after another from their congregations. The church is going to be assaulted by new winds of false doctrine and the cleverly devised myths of culture. Yes, the Lord has promised that his Church shall endure (Matt. 16:18), but that doesn’t mean that she’ll not suffer.

When our churches suffer from loss of any type, this is the time for examination and repentance. Under the glare of God’s Law we’ll see all our good intentions and efforts at outreach have been laced with pride and vanity from the start. Terror and sorrow are soon to follow for the person who does not harden himself against the truth. But now what? Where do we find help? Do we wander the path of the Law, by seeking out new programs and visions to implement?

No. This is the time for the Gospel. These pastors need to hear that they have come up short, but that Jesus’ promise of mercy has not abandoned them. True rejuvenation begins with absolution found at an orthodox altar. Repentance, not restructuring, the Lord’s promises, not new programs are what’s needed. It’s only from this starting point that both pastors and laity can relearn both the identity and the purpose of the Christian church. Upon this rock of atonement, forgiveness, and grace, they’ll learn that the church is not a fluid movement that defined by leaders and followers. The church is a rock, a holy institution of Christ where there the ministry of Law and Gospel preaching never changes. Yes the circumstances in the world change, but the Jesus’ own instituting words are never abandoned for the sake of relevance. There’s more than ample opportunity to talk about edifying practices, but this is pure poison if Jesus’ doctrine and institutions are not retained. The pastor must find his consolation in the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, not the newest path to success that he can implement through his own works.

While many of these sectionals would be fine as a secular seminar on interpersonal communication and business advice, I’m afraid that their place in the church corrupts and changes the very language that should be used to describe and think about the body of Christ. Orthodoxy, after all, is a conformity of language, a familiar pattern of expressing the faith that would be recognizable to both Christ’s apostles who first preached the Scriptures and our Lutheran fathers who confessed them.

The best practices were established by Jesus, his preaching and sacraments which impart forgiveness and life, and these never change.



Best Practices for “Ministry”? Report from Rev. Brian Flamme — 26 Comments

  1. But we shouldn’t fret, right? According to the COP’s last Statement of Assurance, we’re in great hands. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to see here. TRUST US……………………

    •We remain committed to the authority of the inspired, inerrant Scriptures as the only source and norm for our doctrine and practice and the Lutheran Confessions as a true exposition of the Scriptures. That commitment includes our solid affirmation of our Synod’s stances on such Biblical teachings as these:

    •We pledge our on-going due diligence in maintaining sound doctrine and practice in our respective districts.
    •We promise to abide by and uphold the Synod’s bylaws guiding ecclesiastical discipline.
    •Along the way of doctrinal supervision, we will continue to seek restoration and repentance in a process which honors our synod’s constitution and bylaws.

    Responding to concerns in the Synod regarding the present process of ecclesiastical supervision and discipline, we, the members of the Council of Presidents, unanimously affirm the following:

    •The doctrinal integrity of our Council of Presidents as we carry out our role of ecclesiastical supervision;
    Gee, I wonder if any member of the COP attended this event? I wonder if the COP is diligently addressing what was presented at this event?

    Me thinks the COP has no idea what the word “Assurance” means.

  2. Great post.

    Would someone good with photo shop please put a fully vested Rottweiler carrying a copy of the BOC out here. We need an official orthodoxy hound I think. 😉

  3. A very fitting post, especially in response to something I’m currently dealing with. I’ve said this to our district staff as well as others who will listen– the very least I can expect from the powers that be in our synod is to uphold the pastoral office especially in our anything goes/church growth/”missional” world — When I was serving in South Korea, Chaplain Greg Williamson was guest preaching for the recently installed pastor at ILC and he pointed to their pastor and simply told the congregation — “This is your pastor, follow him as He follows Christ!” Amen!

  4. Thank you for your “fair and balanced” and evangelical review of this conference. Above all, thanks for the Gospel.

  5. Good article,

    And if you need rejuvenation, check out a “possible” help, Concordia Seminary is offer free Sabbatical time in May (got an email from them). Now I may go, and sit in the little chapel with the Triune Cross, that is where my batteries always get recharged as I sit on my knees and read some Scripture in silence.

    I have to get back there…and go to Kaldi’s too.

  6. Thank you for your report! Since this is within driving distance of my congregation, the BOD voted to pay to send someone to it (we are in between pastors and we want to grow). I expressed wariness of the conference since Bill Woosley was a plenary speaker. Happily no one volunteered to go. I don’t want any other “best practices” besides God’s, Word and
    Our area in So Cal has an upcoming catechism convocation on April 18 ( at Grace Lutheran LCMS San Diego. Pastors John Bombaro and Al Espinosa are speaking. Should be much better!!

  7. Rev. Flamme,

    I’m afraid you don’t recognize the tectonic cultural shift and punctuated evolutionary jump that happened January 1, 2001. Humans transitioned from vocal communication to telepathy, we commute by transporters, the Federation reorganized all social structures, third and fourth genders emerged, we recreate in holodecks, the integration of organic and artificial life was perfected, time-travel was achieved, and reality became nothing more than the exoskeleton for the virtual reality of the matrix (wow, that dress is really red).

    You talk as though humans still drive gas-engine cars, are members of local PTAs, have neighborhood barbeques, talk to their neighbors, need Jesus, His Word, baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, catechizing,, or are served by the presence and ministry of a pastor when their life is wrecked and ruined, when they suffer, when their conscience damns them, or when they draw near death alone and afraid in an institutionally cold nursing home.

    Didn’t you get the memo??

    Grand slam post, pastor! Thank you.

  8. So the organizers disliked the conference hashtag being connected with its speakers since just about anybody could drop in and deliver a riff? Presumably that means that Pr. Flamme should expect a place at the podium next year. #positivetheology

  9. Wow.

    The website for Best Practices for Ministry has the slogan “Bible-based, Gospel-centered, mission-driven, and future-oriented.”

    The website slogan for the defunct liberal Jesus First Leadership organization was “For Gospel-centered, mission-driven, and future-oriented leadership in the LCMS.” (You’ll find a list of supporters here).

    I remember when JF slandered Dr. Hartwig at the 2007 convention trying to get their own candidate elected. They apologized for their error after the delegates had already gone home.

  10. Meanwhile, this is required for vicarage/internship which is required for pastoral certification…

    Pre-Vicarage/Internship: “Social and Interpersonal Skills”

    Social skills as a pastor or deaconess are essential. Communication difficulties can be avoided by conducting yourself in a respectable manner. From grooming/dress to personal hygiene to good oral/written communication, (professor’s name) will help you cultivate some vital skills for relating with people in a congregational setting.

  11. Also, I think a good addition to this post would be a list of speakers and their topics and more specific criticisms. 🙂 What’s a throw down without names?

  12. @Randy Yovanovich #2

    Here’s my take on the so-called Statement of Assurance.

    Blogged Assurance
    (Parody to the tune of “Blessed Assurance”)

    1. Blog-ged assurance, statement divine!
    The CoP says that everything’s fine.
    We’re in agreement! We walk as one,
    Sipping our Mai Tais in Southern sun.
    (refrain) This is our statement! Hear what we say!
    We lead the Synod! We’re a-okay!
    This is our statement! Hear what we say!
    We lead the Synod! We’re a-okay!

    2. Blog-ged assurance! What we say goes!
    Heretics teaching right under our nose
    Can teach for decades, nothing to fear,
    While faithful men get kicked in the rear.
    (refrain) This is our statement! Hear what we say!
    We lead the Synod! We’re a-okay!
    This is our statement! Hear what we say!
    We lead the Synod! We’re a-okay!

    3. Blog-ged assurance! What’s all the fuss?
    Better think twice before questioning us!
    We here affirm the integrity
    And oversight of the CoP.
    (refrain) This is our statement! Hear what we say!
    We lead the Synod! We’re a-okay!
    This is our statement! Hear what we say!
    We lead the Synod! We’re a-okay!

  13. @Tim Schenks #16

    The website for Best Practices for Ministry has the slogan “Bible-based, Gospel-centered, mission-driven, and future-oriented.”
    The website slogan for the defunct liberal Jesus First Leadership organization was “For Gospel-centered, mission-driven, and future-oriented leadership in the LCMS.” (You’ll find a list of supporters here).<a

    No surprise. They don’t “go away” and “retirement” won’t solve it because they are cloning at these “conferences” (and perhaps one of the seminaries).

    Lord, have mercy on the faithful!
    [And bring the opportunists to repentance.]

  14. Oh, how great it would be if pastors focused on watching over their sheep and making sure they are fed the true gospel. Instead, we see pastors who consider themselves to be CEOs, armed with “Best Practices” for growing the church and how they see themselves as to train you to do it. Preach the Word and tend your flock. All the rest is rubbish.

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