Monday, June 23, 2014

The Unwritten Rules of the Missouri Synod

It’s ordination season again. So, here’s something for the pastor-elects out there. Of course there are exceptions to all the following rules. Unwritten rules are always rules of thumb like that . . . but for what it may be worth, this is my perception of how the Synod really works. Your mileage may vary.

1. Three years out of sem before you can get a call.

Your first call out of seminary might be wonderful; you might spend your whole active pastoral career there. Or it may be a real struggle—financially, pastorally, in regard to conflict, etc. Or it might be something in betweena fine place to serve but . . . you’d like to be closer to your inlaws . . . or you just don’t quite fit in there . . . or you discover you don’t want to be an associate pastor anymore . . . or you discover you’d like to be an associate pastor from now on . . . or whatever. Well, no matter the situation you are expected to gut it out for at least three years before you call the DP up and ask to get on a call list. If you are in a tough spot, find good brothers to commiserate with, go to confession, pray the Psalms, keep your nose to the grind stone, and mark that calendar at your installation plus 1095.75 days. When you reach that day, call your DP and make an appointment to talk it over. Which brings me to….

2. Your DP’s opinion of you matters.

The District President is charged with the oversight of your conduct of office: that’s why he really is, in the Biblical sense, an “overseer.” Now, complaining about the boss is a long-standing American tradition, and complaining about the bishop is an ancient Ecclesiastical tradition as well. And complaining about the polity of the MO Synod dates to 1847. So I recommend you don’t hold out for perfection here. His job really is harder than it looks. Your DP will be at least as flawed as you are. You’ll have as hard a time getting along with your overseer as your people will have getting along with you, their overseer. What do you wish they would do for you even when they disagree with you? Do that for your DP: show up at Winkel meetings and general pastors’ conferences; work hard at your vocation; keep in touch; explain everything in the kindest way; encourage your congregation to give to the district mission; pray for him. If you build a healthy relationship with your DP in this way, that will pay big dividends all the way around.  

3. If a member from a neighboring parish starts visiting regularly . . . 

. . . the etiquette is this: inform that pastor of this fact. Whether you particularly get along with this pastor does not matter. Depending on the strength of your relationship with this pastor, you’ll need to either give him a call, send an email, or just mail a form letter saying “Your member, so and so, attended worship and received communion on such and such a date.” Getting into the habit of sending such a letter to the home congregations of all visitors is a great pastoral practice. This will pay big dividends for you the first time one of your sheep goes looking for greener pastures…

4. If your parish has a school, your kids will go there.

If that does not appeal to you, then you will need to look for another field of service after you tough it out for those three years (see #1 above). The only exceptions to this rule that I have ever heard about working in any way occur where the pastor’s kid has special education needs that can only be met in the public system.

5. Your wife has a full time job.

I wish I could give more specific advice here: but all politics is local. The job description of “pastor’s wife” varies even more than the local job description for “pastor’s unwritten duties.” If it’s possible for your wife to get in touch with the former pastor’s wife, that might help. But just keep your ears and eyes open for the clues folks will drop about what the pastor’s wife’s job is . . . and what it isn’t!

6. Get your face time.

You are expected to be visible. You have to get your face time in the public, with your people, with people who aren't your people. If you're an extrovert, this is easy. But if you're an introvert, like me, it takes effort. You have to do it, and you have to learn to make it look easy and somewhat enjoyable. It will be work. And you won't always feel like it, but it pays big dividends in the end. The best way for me to do this was to learn how to ask questions. Questions show that you take an interest in something besides theology. The people already know that you're a theology geek. They want to know you that you have more depth. They want to know that you care. Questions help to demonstrate that depth and care. 

An offshoot of this is that you will be expected to love children. I love my kids. I enjoy being around them. I mostly look forward to coming home and spending time with them. But I don't have a natural affinity towards all children. As a pastor, you are expected to like every child. And you need to find something lovable about them and engage that. 

7. Your children are a reflection of you.

Speaking of children . . . like it or not, the behavior of your children are a reflection on you. Most congregations, and I say most, can overlook the usual foibles of children. They can even do this for the child with DSM IV diagnoses. But if all of your children are crazy, if none of them listens to you or their mother, they will see you in light of them. In other words, they expect you to be a parent. They don't expect perfection, but they do expect discipline. Be a parent, which comes with the every minute decisions you make. Teach them to look people in the eye when they're spoken to. Teach your boys how to shake hands. Don't make them perfect, but be their parent and discipline them. And spend enough time with them so that they don't hate the church because it's always stealing their dad from them. 

8. You're not unique.

This isn't an unwritten rule of the Missouri Synod, but it's a rule that we all need to be reminded of. You will be tempted to think that you're the exception to the rule, that what you have to deal with, that the problems you face, that the hours you work are unique. There is a grain of truth to this, but it is only a grain. You will have to work long hours. You will have to face situations you never expected, situations that you don't think you were trained for. You will have to do things you don't like doing but are nevertheless necessary. But you're not unique. Everyone who has ever lived has had to do this. Everyone who has ever had a job in their life has had to do this. You will be tempted by the Siren's song of the nine-to-five, punch-in-punch-out job. But unless you're Odysseus, you will crash on the rocks. The grass isn't greener on the other side. You give up one set of problems for another. Don't forget your first love (Rev 2:4). If you do, you will end up like Narcissus, staring at yourself and consumed by it. 

May God bless your ministry!

How to Write Better Sermons

Part 1: Prewriting
David H. Petersen

Here, by request, is the first part of a multi-part series on sermon writing as writing by Fr. Petersen, writing in his regular column, "Commentary on the War." For more of such quality articles in our fine print journal, click here to read about it, or simply here to subscribe.  -ed

The Rational
Seminary education in North America has to assume a number of competencies based upon an earned Bachelor’s degree. One of those assumptions is that men entering the seminary are competent in composition. They almost never are. Thus they muddle their way through seminary, vicarage, and then their weekly duties without ever writing decent outlines or crafting thesis statements. To be sure, it is possible, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to deliver wandering, nearly incoherent sermons that edify and nurture the flock. The Lord works through His ministers and His Word despite the weaknesses of His ministers. The Truth gets out.
Nonetheless, sermon writing is writing. It is not completely unique or distinct from other forms of writing, even if it is closest to speech writing. Preachers, then, can learn from other writers. They can improve their technique. Improving the writing process improves the sermons themselves. Better written sermons are more focused. They are more easily digested and followed by the hearers. There are, however, other benefits. Getting better at the process also makes the preacher more efficient and makes the task more pleasant, less of a chore for him. My suspicion is that our homiletics classes, for one reason or another, have focused more on how to do the exegetical work and how to deliver a sermon than they have on how to write. 

The Process
Though the vocabulary varies among textbooks, the writing process, academically considered, is normally broken into four stages: prewriting, writing, revising, and proofing. The first thing to know is that these four stages are meant to describe a creative process. The process is not a list of steps to be mechanically followed. It is a fluid process.
A writer always starts with some sort of prewriting, but he might move very quickly at times into writing and revising; yet, at the same time, he will usually continue to gather ideas and to conduct research right up to the end. The point is that it is a process. All of it needs to be done. When writers try to take shortcuts they normally do more work, in a slower fashion, and produce a weaker product. Some preachers, no doubt, follow the process unaware. When the process is understood, however, and when it is utilized in a deliberate fashion, it will not only make the job easier and the sermons stronger, but it will also free the creative process.

My assumption is that the sermon’s goal is to bring comfort through a particular text. We do preach for conversion, but it is the conversion of the baptized, the daily drowning and rising of Christians, rather than the conversion of the unbaptized. If we were seeking the conversion of the unbaptized we would pick the texts that we felt best spoke to conversion or to that person’s particular struggles. That is the task of evangelism and apologetics, not preaching. The comfort that Christians receive in the sermon is Law and Gospel application. They are slayed and raised through the Word. That brings comfort because they are recast again as God’s children, His afflicted and His baptized. The Gospel absolves them, God loves them, in the preacher’s voice. Still this could sound as though it is indistinct from bedside consolation. Again, what makes it unique is that the preacher is using an assigned text and set of propers. He is bringing light and comfort to the Christian in the specific context of the liturgy and church year. 
That makes sermon writing easier than most other writing. Sermons are a response to and an expansion on a specific text in the midst of a specific set of propers. Thus the triumphant entry on the Sunday before He dies reads differently on the First Sunday in Advent than it does on Palm Sunday. That assignment and context means that the preacher doesn’t have to cast about for ideas in the same way that other writers do. Nonetheless, the preacher does need to cast about within the text he has been assigned. He needs to gather and prune ideas. He needs to think about a thesis statement.

Thesis Statements
Sermons need a central point and focus. Without that, even if they are doctrinally pure and do proclaim the Gospel, they become rambling commentaries or loosely strung-together anecdotes. The thesis statement gives focus and direction to both writer and hearer. It is usually a single sentence and it often has the form of Law and Gospel.  Indeed, it is often very helpful, already in the prewriting stage, to think in terms of a Law thesis and a Gospel thesis, that is, to consider or find one problem of man that the text either names or negates or which is suggested in the text, and then to consider its corresponding solution in the cross. What the preacher is after, in any case, is a way to bring light and comfort from a particular text in a pointed and direct way that can be understood by the hearer.
It is important that we emphasize again that the goal of preaching is not to fully expound a single text. The goal is to comfort consciences, to absolve sinners, and to proclaim the love of God in Christ Jesus from an assigned text within the context of the proper and church year.
A thesis statement can take many forms. It can be analytical, breaking down an issue or doctrine in the text. For example, exegesis of St. Matthew 21 for Palm Sunday might cause the preacher to notice that it is highly likely that not all the people who cried “Hosanna” were faithful and understood what they were saying. It is quite possible that at least some of them were simply carried along by the emotion and excitement of the moment and were similarly carried along on Friday to cry out “Crucify.” Thus he might consider preaching about hypocrisy. The sermon would define what hypocrisy is. It would expose the hearers to how they fall into a similar pattern, praising Jesus on Sunday but flinching from confessing Him when it is inconvenient. It would then find comfort for them in the fact that Jesus accepts the praise of hypocrites and is not stopped on His journey by their sin. So also would he demonstrate that the Church has found it wise to put the praise of Palm Sunday on our lips in the Sanctus. We do not fully understand what we say when we sing “Hosanna.” Our lives have been riddled through with failures and we sometimes sing “Hosanna” without even thinking about what we are saying, but Jesus hears and answers our prayer nonetheless. He answers by dying and rising and by then giving us His body and blood to both forgive and strengthen us. Rather than explaining everything that happened to Jesus on the road or tying in all of the intervenient chants and readings, the preacher judiciously picks one point from the text, finds a nice tie to the liturgy, and then applies this to his people. That sort of analysis can be very powerful and helpful for the hearers.
A thesis can also be expository. A sermon can seek to explain something. The preacher might take the same text and decide to explain to his congregation what the word Hosanna means and how that words ties into the name Jesus. He might track various cries for help or saving in the Scriptures and how God answers them. He could find a good deal of help in the intervenient chants and hymns for Palm Sunday. His Law idea could simply be that we are dying and in the hands of the devil and need rescue and his Gospel idea could be how Jesus even gives us the right prayers to pray and is steadfast in His march toward the cross to save us.
Yet another possibility is to make an argument. The sermon can make a claim and then provide evidence. In the Palm Sunday reading the preacher could argue that Jesus enters into Jerusalem in humility not in power. Here he could find evidence also in the Epistle and Collect. He could unwrap what the Humiliation is and how the Exaltation is so essential to our doctrine of the bodily presence. Again, the sermon would have a very tight focus and real application as constrained by the thesis.
Whatever the thesis is, and whether it fits neatly into one of the patterns above, it should be specific. It should cover only what the sermon is going to deal with, prove, or explain. It should then be supported with specific evidence and examples.  It normally appears in the first paragraph of the sermon, usually as the last sentence. It should likewise be repeated in some fashion, maybe not word for word, in the last paragraph.
There should not be any content in the sermon that is not directly related to the thesis. If, as the preacher writes or revises, he discovers something more interesting or relevant, something he hadn’t first considered, he should modify his thesis to include it or change his thesis and delete what doesn’t match. Sometimes the process leads the preacher to change his topic. The danger then is not in changing, but in keeping everything. In any case, the process is meant to be fluid.

Prewriting and Exegesis
Exegesis is the foundation of preaching. The preacher’s first step is to seek an intellectual understanding of a specific text. He wants to take in its context and nuance within the Bible and also within the propers. But the preacher must know that he will uncover more material and meaning than he will ever use in a single sermon. Sermon exegesis is distinct from Bible class preparation and from research that is done for academic papers. The preacher’s eventual goal is a single idea or theme leading to a thesis statement that can be developed into a sermon. Solid exegesis and study will find many ideas. At this stage, during prewriting, the point isn’t to pick one. It is to develop possibilities and to become fluent with the text.
It is important that the preacher does not settle on the first idea that occurs to him. He should spend time contemplating what the text says, what the state of his people and the world is, and consider many ideas and possibilities. It is very helpful to take notes as a text is being read or translated. If the preacher does not write these things down he will probably forget them or he will focus so hard on remembering them that he will not do any further real exegesis.
Prewriting is the time for gathering ideas. But, again, if the first idea or insight that a preacher encounters is so exciting that he can’t wait to begin writing, he certainly may. He should, however, check with his work from previous years first to make sure he hasn’t simply been drawn to the same early conclusion over and over again.
It is wasteful and vain to think that exegesis can be completed in a vacuum or that after it is finished the preacher can then start thinking about what to say in a sermon. First of all, exegesis can never really be completed. There is always more to know. Secondly, the preacher should contemplate the persons and events of Holy Scripture with his people in mind. He is reading the text for the sake of preaching. The Bible was meant to be preached and applied. It is not a book about other people. Thus the preacher should always be thinking of how the text applies, of what doctrines it presents, and how it presents both Law and Gospel. Nor is the context within the propers artificial to the meaning of the text. In the first place, the Scriptures were written for worship, but so also, the arrangement and setting of texts side-by-side demonstrates the thinking of our fathers. Again, notes, whether they be on paper or a voice recording on a phone or in some other format, are always helpful.
If the preacher skips prewriting, he will usually find that he doesn’t have enough material to actually write. He will probably be immediately bored with the sermon or he will feel as though there isn’t anything of interest to say about a particular text that hasn’t already been covered by Sunday school. If a preacher finds himself staring at a blank screen with nothing to say, he probably has not done his prewriting. Staring at a blank screen is a waste of time. Prepare to write and when it is time, write.
This is not meant to deny that the Holy Spirit inspires His preachers. He does. But the Spirit works through means. If you are dragged by violence, with threat of death, before kings, then don’t worry. The Spirit will provide what you need to say. Yet, preachers need to know that St. Paul tells St. Timothy to continue in the study of the Scripture (2 Tim. 3:14) and to be prepared to preach (2 Tim. 4:2). The first step for preachers preparing to preach is the study of Holy Scripture.

Prewriting Techniques
Any writing textbook or a quick Google search will reveal loads of prewriting exercises for college students. Of particular value is the Purdue University Online Writing Lab ( That whole site is valuable and includes prewriting exercises that should be tried. Some preachers might feel as though this is beneath them, as though these are exercises for amateurs: they are not. Successful, professional writers all use them. Why then wouldn’t preachers?
There are some exercises that I find particularly useful. I like to find the negatives in a text. This is obvious when the text says something like “don’t worry” but it is often the most fruitful when the text only states things positively. I try to imagine what the opposite is or what the positive statements reject. I then try to imagine how we are guilty of the opposite. Another technique I like is to search the Book of Concord for citations of the text in question to see how the text is used dogmatically. The same thing can be done with the Bible reference index for the synodical questions. A favorite technique of mine is to imagine leaving a note in a Bible for posterity. It is a bit vain, perhaps, and silly, but I try to imagine what I would write about a text if I had only a half sheet of paper to stick into a Bible, knowing that my children would find the note after I died. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Is Worship Trash or Treasure?

By Larry Beane

Here is a timely piece about a Lutheran church that is promising a 30-minute service by cutting out the ceremonies.

According to the article, this service "appeals to people who don’t want to sit in church all day on Sunday."
“The whole idea is to get people who are outside of the institutional church, who want something more relational, the opportunity to have that,” [Pastor] Boshoven said. “That it’s half an hour makes it less of a burden in terms of time commitment. The half-hour is fulfilling. It’s something meaningful that brings some joy.” 
At the 30-minute service, there is one song  and an opening prayer. Then instead of a sermon, the pastor reads a story from the Bible and the group talks about it. They end with a prayer, careful not to go over the time limit.
“In my pocket, I keep my cell phone which vibrates and warns me it’s time to wrap it up,” Boshoven said.
This kind of thing is a capitulation to our facebook-twitter immediate-gratification drive-thru-window entertain-me-and-quick-or-I-will-be-bored culture.  Worship is seen as, at best, a duty, something to be endured.  It's funny how other things in modern life are seen in a radically different light, and if they go longer than usual, it is considered a blessing and a joy, a thing to be treasured: such as when the football game goes into overtime, the baseball game goes into extra innings, the band comes out for an additional encore, or the vacation gets extended by a few days.

But when it comes to the once-a-week Divine Service - in which your Lord comes to you in Word and Sacrament, forgiving your sins, sharing with you the good news, and giving to you everlasting life as a free and full gift - it is something to be dreaded and gotten over with as quickly as possible, like a root canal or a colonoscopy.  And if it goes on longer than usual, it is abominable, execrable, if not downright unthinkable: the source of grumbling and shifting in the pews and huffing-and-puffing - in the same category as extended rush hour traffic due to construction or waiting in an interminable line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

And so pastors and congregations are now apparently willing to accommodate the culture by cutting and slashing worship so as to deliver their members, the very people for whom Christ died, from the "burden in terms of time commitment" (Oh horror!) and instead delivering unto them additional Sunday minutes to spend elsewhere, unsullied by signs-of-the-cross, bowing and praying and standing and kneeling, and singing canticles from the Bible and hymns from the service book.  Hooray!

One of the great blessings of a recent retreat that I attended was precisely the opposite of the above.  The contrast was stark and palpable.

Worship was not hurried, not rushed, not concerned about keeping everything as abbreviated and chip-chop as possible so that nobody would (God forbid!) miss a kickoff.  It was reverent and yet relaxed, focused on Christ and the Gospel, unconcerned with the TV schedule or getting little Johnny to his soccer match. We lingered in our Blessed Lord's presence.  We drank in His Holy Word without hustle or bustle, able to contemplate the One Thing Needful that truly matters in this mortal life.  The body and blood were not administered in such a way as to "get-em-in-and-get-em-out."  And in addition to our daily Masses, we gathered for extra time in worship through some of the traditional prayer hours (Matins, Sext, and Vespers).

That is how our Sundays in the parish ought to be.  Each Lord's Day should be a mini-retreat, a time of contemplation and of receiving the Lord's gifts with the eyes of faith and not with one eye on the wristwatch.  Dear people of God, don't exchange your priceless birthright for a bowl of here-today-gone-tomorrow pottage!

I pray that our congregations regain their countercultural commitment to share with their members the authentic delights and joys of casting aside the pleasures of this world - at least for an hour or two on the Lord's Day - and receive the gift of the Divine Service for what it is: treasure to be savored and not simply trash to be endured. 

Kneeling for the Consecration - Theology and Practice

Check out this beautifully-written manifesto defending the traditional liturgical practice of kneeling at the consecration of the Holy Eucharist, written by Deacon Latif Gaba at the blog of the Society of Saint Polycarp.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

New comments policy

We are announcing a new self-moderation comments policy on Gottesdienst Online. Before posting a comment we ask that all readers (and we ourselves pledge to do the same) will kindly first click this link.

Thank you,

Monday, June 16, 2014

Still Viral: The "Brave German Woman"

It's been over six months since "the brave German woman," Heidi Mund, interrupted the invocation of a Muslim imam at a a Muslim / Christian concert at a church in Speyer that had been built to honor Martin Luther, but the video is still viral on the internet.  On hearing him invoke Allah, she suddenly began to shout out her confession from the balcony. "Jesus Christus allein ist Herr ├╝ber Deutschland. . . . Ich stehe hier; Ich kann nicht anders!" she cried, refusing to be silenced, in what she later called "an holy anger." Here it is with her interview, which is quite moving.   HT: Rev. Wade Seaver

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Pics from Gottesdienst Chicago

Pictures from Gottesdienst Chicago, May 20th, with special guest speaker Rev. Rolf Preus. A panel discussion with the editors was also held. About 40 attended, at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Chicago.