Monday, September 12, 2011

Memo to Synod: Mind Your Own Business

This article was published in the Easter 2011 issue of Gottesdienst. By request it is being posted here. Word is that the mischief herein mentioned is still going on.

Naiveté can get one into trouble. I should have smelled something fishy when I received a request from the LCMS International Center to have my parish participate in a “Perceptions of Ministry Inventory,” a survey designed “to enhance the formation and professional development of parish pastors”; had I been paying closer attention, I might have wondered why the Board for Pastoral Education and the Council of Presidents wanted to assure me that my “privacy and anonymity will be preserved throughout the process.” I might have been a bit suspicious about the fact that the survey packets I was to hand out to various congregational leaders were sealed. Why the secrecy? But I shrugged, Why not? What harm can a little survey do?

Next thing I know, the survey packets are being returned to me by confused people wondering why they are being asked to pass judgment on their pastor’s performance. Fortunately for me, there’s no undercurrent of unrest in my parish. What if there were? These survey questions could be lethal:

How often have you seen that [your pastor]
Expresses his confidence in the Lord.
Recognizes his own intellectual, emotional and physical limitations.
Focuses on important issues in a conflict situation.
Worries about what others think of him.
Belittles a person in front of others.

That second-last one would probably get a higher ranking if the pastors knew what was in these sealed packets going out to their members. And the list goes on:

Appears to believe his own opinions as a pastor should be accepted without question.
Tends to be pessimistic and negative in his attitudes.
Talks and acts as though he is unable to forgive himself.

There are 117 questions in all. Each question is framed in a way that asks the participant to make a moral or value judgment about the pastor.

Frankly, it’s all rather creepy. It’s really creepy. Here we have the bureaucracy of the Missouri Synod butting its nose into the life of the parish, and for what purpose? What good could possibly come of this kind of thing? In the first place, the parishioners are subtly being asked here to craft their thinking in a way that is manifestly contrary to the meaning of the Eighth Commandment, which tells us to “explain everything in the kindest way.” But no matter: the survey needs to be filled out, which apparently grants permission to set the divine directive aside for a moment and become judge and jury! And to judge the pastor, of all people to forget to treat with the benefit of the doubt!

There are already plenty of parishioners around the Synod who are eager to do this very thing. The real reason they don’t like their pastor is likely to be (and usually is) that he has some confessional stamina, and so is unwilling to compromise the truth. Say he practices closed Communion, or refuses to allow the Gideons to speak to his people, or will not bend the rules forbidding members of Lodges to be members of his parish. Or say he’s more liturgical than his predecessor was, or conducts the liturgy in a less emotive kind of way, or won’t choose hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross.”

One of the questions asks how much “eye contact” he makes. Seriously? Eye contact? There will always be people who don’t like pastors for all the wrong reasons, which makes holding the confessional line a very difficult task for some pastors—particularly young or new ones. Persistence may require a boatload of patience and indomitable courage. But now, although the pastor is painstakingly hoping to lead his parishioners to a better and richer faith, they find in their hands this ghastly survey that provides them with a howitzer’s worth of ammo for use against him.

Does he behave “like a bull in a china shop”? Why yes! Yes! He does! That’s just it! He’s ruining our church! Is he “argumentative”? Yes! Exactly! He never listens to us! Why, I am led to wonder, aren’t they being asked if they ever listen to him, which is in fact the reason they are called “the hearers” in the Catechism?

And this one’s particularly rich: does the pastor remain “positive and constructive toward antagonistic members”? And now, by a stroke of coincidence, those very members have become more antagonistic.

What’s especially insidious about this project is that the pastor gets some survey questions of his own to answer, but they are of a different stripe. They’re all entirely bland, requiring no sort of assessment at all: questions of age, marital status, years of service, type of parish, etc. Not one of the 38 questions on the pastor’s form requires a judgment of any kind, leading the pastor—as it certainly did me—to think the whole exercise is entirely innocuous and harmless as a dove.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There are no assurances given that these surveys would not be shared with district officials in the midst of a “reconciliation” process between a troubled parish and her pastor, for though a promise of confidentiality is made, the results of the survey could still be given anonymously. And come to think of it, that could actually be devastating if used to accuse a pastor of flaws: anonymous accusations are the worst.

Dr. Glen Thomas, Executive Director of the Board for Pastoral Education, is the one whose name appears on all the correspondence about this, so I called him to express my concerns. Naturally he demurred, but he also said that the survey results may well be used by District Presidents to discuss areas of concern “fraternally” with the pastors whose members’ surveys may have led him to think some areas of pastoral improvement might be in order. I can’t quite imagine the benefit of a fraternal conversation with a District President encouraging me to make more eye contact with my people. Whatever happened to parish visitations in which superintendents looked for and encouraged pure doctrine and practice?

I pointed out to Dr. Thomas that the questions overall seem crafted in a way which encourages or elicits a negative assessment of the pastor, and all he could say was that a low mark on the negatives would itself amount to a positive mark. Right, and by the same token there was nothing sinister about the Pharisees’ temptations, since Jesus did the right thing by refusing to fall for their tricks! Further, Dr. Thomas told me several times that if the pastor determined he did not wish for his congregation to participate, he was free to choose that they not do so. Yet this reply sidesteps the feint embedded in the tool which leads the pastor to think the questions asked of his parishioners would be of the same vanilla flavor as the questions asked of him. How could he know otherwise? The parishioners’ packets were sealed. Dr. Thomas was pleasant enough to talk to on the phone, but I note that he did, er, “appear to believe his own opinions should be accepted without question,” and while he was polite, he also came off as rather “argumentative” to me. Let’s see, who’s his District President?

Even if these survey questions were not be used in any way to add fuel to a parish fire—though we now know that they may well be used for that very purpose—still, the ramifications of any high negative ratings would reflect poorly on seminary training. And what would come of that? Seminary training in psychobabble, anger management, or a host of efforts to make the pastor somehow nicer, while more likely serving to emasculate him. Forget integrity, theology, faithfulness; let’s concentrate on things like eye contact.

But the worst in this is that these kinds of menacing questions can get a train rolling along the perilous track of unintended consequences in the parish in which the questionnaires are circulated. They serve to help the “antagonistic members” to frame complaints in more concrete ways, even if the concretion of the complaint would bear little similarity to what is really irking the complainant. Is the pastor strong in his confession? Now he can be called stubborn, unyielding, hard to get along with. Is he willing to persist even when attacks on his person depress him? Now he can be called one who “distances himself,” is “easily hurt,” or “fatigued.” Honestly, if the devil himself wrote this thing I couldn’t imagine it being worse.

The Catechism quotes 1 Timothy 3 in saying that “the overseer must be above reproach,” etc., and to be sure, that list of requirements for a pastor is daunting: “. . . temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” That list is enough to deal with in itself. The last thing the pastor needs is a cadre of people whom the Synod has now abetted in their opposition to his efforts to be faithful, by offering them a potential list of nebulous character adjustments.

So here’s a little memo to the Synod: mind your own business, will you? If you really want to be of service to the churches, how about some encouragement for struggling pastors? How about reminding parishioners of what they owe their pastors? Gee, that sounds awfully “abrupt,” “driven by guilt and fear,” and needing “to have the last word,” doesn’t it? I suppose we might have had to change the way it’s put, were it not from the Catechism.

Go ahead, fill out a survey about me, and when you get to the question “can relate to others on a feeling level,” be sure to give me a high mark, because I do know how—I feel—how difficult it can be for those young guys who are just trying to be faithful. And on the question, “expresses anger or hostility toward other people or institutions,” you can rate me high on that one too, especially right now. Count this pastor as one whose anger is particularly reserved for meddlers.

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  1. Just got that same survey here at our church. And yes, it seems to go to great lengths to protect the pastor from knowing what is being asked about him.

    Not my first rodeo with "surveys" like this. If the stuff does hit the fan, it won't be my first time that bureaucracy failed to listen to anything beyond words on a paper, no matter who they came from or what their character is like.

    Ahh, it is what it is.

  2. This is nothing other than the Vicarage assessment that is handed out every year. The same sorts of questions are given to specific congregational members to score on a scale--Always to Never. Does the Vicar display his love of God? Always or Never? Seriously? Does the vicar submit to authority? Always or Never? Hmmm. Needless to say, the 7 congregational assessments are weighed more heavily than the Pastor's assessment in the end! Then, when the guy gets back to Seminary for his fourth year, he has to answer for the "negatively" assessed questions. Never-mind if Grandma Schmidt is the chair of LWML and mixed up the grading scale putting 9 where she might have put 1, or vice versa.
    These are manifestations of the terrible hold psychological minds with their quasi-psychological assessments have in our Synodical formation and oversight at the moment. Can Psychological thinking help us in our formation? Maybe, but not like it is currently being practiced. I am afraid we are in need of a distinction. A ministerial use is needed, not magisterial, which is currently practiced. Until then, even Vicars and Seminarians who display any kind of backbone theologically are going to be "psychologically" flagged. Where it goes from there? Another post is needed for that matter.

  3. I received a packet of these recently and opened the one for the "Women's Ministry Coordinator" since we either 1)don't have one or 2)I am him. I was greatly surprised to see the very negative casting of the questions.
    I wonder how Jesus might be evaluated ... What if the scribes were the evaluators, What if those in the crowd who turned away were given one of these. For that matter, what if Thomas, or Peter or the other disciples were given them on their Master at various times in His earthly ministry...???

  4. Got our surveys last week. Looked at them today. As you say, the pastor's survey is rather innocuous. Although the one I got, supposedly sent out to all pastors ordained two and five year ago, does ask for some rather bizarre judgments of the community and its people.

    There are only 94 questions for the cong. "lay leaders," but they are of the same character of which you speak and include the ones you have mentioned. And the whole thing starts with two bald faced lies.
    1)The survey begins: "Dear Parishioner, Your pastor, Rev. ________ __________ , has asked you to fill out this survey . . . "
    2)The cover letter from the DP says,"This process does not require you to evaluate your pastor, . . . "

    Interestingly enough, in a survey that is cast non-judgmental, the "U" in the evvaluation scale stands for, "Unknown, judgment not possible.

    Pretty good answer for virtually every question in the survey.

    The abomination *is* in the temple.

    Rev. Kurt Hering, Pastor
    Trinity, Layton

  5. I got one of these from my district office. Or at least it says that sometime in the new year I'd be meeting with my DP about the results. What happens if I don't pass these out/participate?

  6. My suggestion is simply, and kindly, return said surveys and say, "No thanks, and may I remind those that sent these surveys out that such activities are not in keeping with the Synod's advisory nature."

  7. I may do that. Thank you, Rev. McCain. Guess I haven't been out long enough to feel entirely comfortable telling synod "no" even when it isn't really their business. Hey look! An area of growth, identified!

  8. While there are many things more important in evaluating a pastor, don't belittle eye contact during a sermon.

    A friend of mine gets rather agitated when parishioners make comments about his "reading" his sermons, even when the comments are value neutral, casual observations. He will sometimes challenge parishioners to come up and see his sparse outline/notes on the desk of the pulpit to demonstrate that he is not reading. One day, when he was still bothered by one such comment, I told him rather bluntly - "They think you're reading it because you never look at the congregation. Even when you look up and turn your face toward the congregation, your eyes are closed. The longest you have actually looked like you were making eye contact was 1/10 of a second, and even then, you looked frightened to have done it - and it is as much of a distraction from hearing what you preach as stuttering. That's why nearly every time I'm here when you are in the pulpit, I have my eyes closed for most of the sermon - so I can hear what you are saying without being distracted." (He wasn't too terribly happy with me at first, but it is true. He writes fairly good, solid sermons but the only way I can hear the good, solid doctrine is to shut my eyes because his inability to look at the congregation is such a distraction. He's been working on it, and it has gotten better.)

    I know that good sermon delivery cannot make up for poor content, but poor sermon delivery can be the devil's playground of distracting from good content as well. It is not something to despise your pastor for or remove him over, but it is a topic that can/should be brought to his attention in terms of a possible area of improvement.

    As for Synod getting involved by sending out such a survey? I'm having a difficult time figuring how the plusses outweigh the minuses on this one.

  9. Defund and disband the Board for Pastoral Education and the Council of Presidents. TW

  10. First time I saw this, I thought it was funny; a joke. Not to be taken seriously.

    What a sad statement. In very poor taste.

  11. Here is a draft that a pastor might use in corresponding with his DP.

    Greetings to you and peace through our Savior, Jesus Christ.

    I am writing to thank you for the opportunity to participate in the Pastoral Growth and Support Project. At the outset, you should know that the initial reaction by the Board of Elders to both of your letters was positive. They did also have some general concerns and questions regarding the program.

    The chief concern had to do with the current general feeling of peace. I responded that you and I both understand that concern, and that no one wants to create any unnecessary problems.

    The question was then asked if the congregation’s and my involvement in the project could be delayed until sometime in early 2012 to give more time for the positive direction that the congregation is now headed to continue. It was also mentioned that my and the congregation’s time are currently being focused on our participation in DOXOLOGY.

    The Board of Elders remains optimistic about participating. It would help them to have more information concerning implementation. We agreed that it would be best to ask if participating in the project be postponed until sometime early in 2012. Would that be acceptable? That way I could finish the Doxology training. It would also afford myself and you the opportunity to personally meet with each other to discuss what I have learned, my goals and progress toward those goals.

    I appreciate all of your time and interest in cultivating positive growth in our congregation. I look forward to hearing from you.

    In Christ,
    Pr. Jon C. Olson

    In Summary:
    1) Inform your Board of Elders
    1) Enroll in DOXOLOGY
    2) Be respectful


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