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!


  1. If your kid finds himself in a toxic situation in the parish school, remember that you are required to handle your household well. A good dad never sacrifices his child to get along in the parish. Make the effort to work with the church school... but if your child continues to suffer, get him out of there.

    1. As Pastors Beane and Curtis have already written on the subject, I don't need to add anything. So I don't disagree with you. But the expectation is still there.

    2. One of our past pastors home-schooled his kids with his wife, and the Lutheran Day School was twenty yards away from his parsonage. I don't blame him...the school had gone out of control, was no longer Lutheran in doctrine (basically a private school for all the rich non-Lutherans in town with no rostered Lutheran teachers), and was no longer cooperating with the congregation's pastors or board of elders.

  2. I agree with Jim. There are limits. There are exceptions. But overall, I think Father Jason's general advice is sound. There is a cost associated with everything. If the cost of complying with these "rules" is too high, other alternatives have to be explored. But beware, parochial life can be a minefield. Each step - no matter which direction - brings a whole new set of challenges... and potential explosions.

    1. We are in agreement, Larry.

      Hey, baby pastors: walk softly, carry a big Bible, and get to know your people. These are the most important individuals outside of your household, for God Himself has given them to you!

  3. For sure...exceptions are real. But I think Pr. Braaten included an important caveat: if the school is a no go for your family, you will probably need to find another field of service sooner rather than later. And I'm sure that there are exceptions to that rule as well....but exceptions by their nature are rarer than the rule.

    One thing I've grudgingly learned over my time in the parish: there are limits to what is possible. That comes hand in hand with learning that "our sufficiency is not from our ourselves."


  4. "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."

    DSM V continues to get no respect from the public.

    Which attitude, given the APA's mendacious desire to pathologize the human experience, such as grief ... will almost certainly be labeled as a "disorder" in DSM VI.

    "...spend enough time with [the children] so that they don't hate the church because it's always stealing their dad from them."

    There is much melancholic wisdom to be mined here. On reflection, I have decided that this is precisely why my kids hated vaccinations with a fierce passion, and much prefer LaZy-Boys to chaise-lounges.

    Your (unworthy) servant,
    Herr Doktor

  5. I would add one or two more rules. 8. Respect to a certain degree comes with the collar but the majority of the respect for a Pastor is earned. Put in your time at the hospital room, in the funeral home, around the kitchen table, etc... Show you are frugal with their resources -- not cheap but careful to make sure it goes as far as it can. They will respect you for respecting them. Nothing earns the respect and the trust of your people more than the time you spend with them in crisis and your careful use of church funds. This will help you when you have to make unpopular decisions.

    9. Be of good humor -- take the work as seriously as anything but do not take yourself that seriously. Nothing angers people more than a self-righteous Pastor and nothing eases tensions more than a self-deprecating man (not taking the pastoral calling lightly but yourself while raising up the church, the office of pastor, and the sacred and solemn gifts given to us in the Divine Service. Do not be a joke teller in the pulpit but it won't hurt you to have a good sense of humor elsewhere.

    10. Respect the confidence of your people. They will only trust you with the most difficult things if they can trust your confidentiality. Do not divulge the confessions of your people and do not divulge private conversation. Your people will not respect you or your office if they cannot count on your pastoral discretion in conversation and the inviolability of the confession.

    Just a few thoughts. . .

    1. Nice additions, Pastor Peters. Thanks.

    2. Amen to the critical importance of confidentiality in all communications.

  6. I find it a bad thing that so many problem congregations are used as a stepping-stone before getting a new call within that first three years. The Synod needs to start working on keeping pastors in the same parish for their entire career.

  7. Can we please stop using the "first call" language? You do not have a "first call" out of seminary; you just have a call. Every time someone says "first call," twelve angels lose their wings. ;)

    1. Pr. Messer, your ordination is because of your "First Call" so what is wrong with calling it a first call?

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. It assumes that the Lord of the Harvest will eventually call you elsewhere, i.e., there will be a "second call" or "third call," etc. We shouldn't assume such things. Plus, it just runs contrary to what we believe, teach, and confess about the divine call. We do not have a "first call" out of seminary, but a call. I'm not going to throw fits about it or anything; I just think the language is confusing and that it would be best to steer clear of it. What are the congregations who call pastors from the seminary to think? "Well, the Lord is sending us a pastor, but this will be the pastor's 'first call,' so we shouldn't get too attached to him. He'll be leaving, after all." It's just odd language to use.

    We don't preside over the weddings of never-before-married people and consider them to be their "first marriages." Now, you can't push the marriage metaphor too far here, of course, since the relationship between pastor and congregation is not exactly the same. But, there are many similarities. A pastor should not go into a parish with the mindset that it's a "first call," as though there will be others, but with the understanding and firm conviction that this is his only call, vowing to serve Christ's Bride in that place for as long the Lord wills, which, upon receiving that call, is for as long as he lives, as far as he knows.

    1. A very valid point, indeed ...

    2. Yet some congregations are used for that very purpose -- the new pastor waiting his one to three years before feels like he can get out of that place.

      Pr. Wollenburg once wrote a good article comparing the pastoral call with a marriage.

  10. If a pastor and his wife are considering becoming foster parents they might want to check if you are required to place them in public school. That's true here in NJ and many foster regulations are standardized across the country. Also, some foster kids qualify for a continued subsidy when adopted and in order to keep the subsidy the child must remain in public school. Perhaps this is an exception, but the congregation will need to be made aware of the schooling situation with foster kids.

  11. Just checked Dr. Luke's Acts, and lo and behold, there the Holy Ghost says "Set apart for Me (nota bene: are the implications that the Speaker truly a Person, in every sense of the WORD's meaning? Of course He is!) Barnabus and Saul for the work I called them (Acts 13:2; AV)."

    Well, there you have it. It seems the call of the Holy Ghost is not a book-keeping, bean-counting designation referring to some (numbered) locale; it is something far more transcendent, promoting a work to accomplish... that is, to faithfully preach to the nations and to baptize (convenient and collective short-hand for the blessed Sacraments).

    Further reading in the book reveals that Salamis was not described by the H.G. as the duo's "first call," Antioch in Pisidia as "second call," Iconium as "third call," Lystra as "fourth call," Derbe as "fifth call," Lystra (again; what can one say) as "sixth call" etc., etc. These fellows were setting up congregations and "ordaining elders in every church" (Acts 14:23) ... doing God's Service in every sense, I think, and moving on.

    I concede that Barnabus and Paul are certainly most special cases indeed. But I also surmise that those ordained "elders" were intended by the illustrious pair, in almost all circumstances, to perform God's Service and stay put. Such was their call. I mean, when I think of Ambrose, I think of Milan. When I think of Augustine, I think of Hippo. When I think of Polycarp, I think of Smyrna. When I think of Nicholas, I think of North Pole.

    Just kidding, with the last one.

    The sentiments of the reverend dean Fr. Messer are spot on. The only numbered call we Lutherans should attend to, with a most energetic and rambunctious gusto, is that proverbial "last call" of the local pub.

    Cheers and bottoms up, ya bunch of ornery old swabbies!

    Your (unworthy) servant,
    Herr Doktor SSP

  12. all the stuff from Fr. Jason and the rest of you is fine...I guess....
    but I really groove on the return of "Herr Doktor" my friend, fellow Polycarpian, and hero! Post on "unworthy" one :D

  13. "... spend enough time with them so that they don't hate the church because it's always stealing their dad from them." Who, exactly determines what enough time is? The pastor? The congregation? Where does vocation fit in to all of this? Is the child, or for that matter, the spouse a part of the Divine Call?

    What sway does a congregation hold over its pastor? Does it have ANY authority over his spouse or children?

    Are we losing sight of vocation?


    1. Dear Jack,

      I'm not exactly sure what you're getting at with your question, but to get to brass tacks, I'll simply offer a couple of examples of what I mean.

      If you're writing your Christmas Day sermon on Christmas Eve (barring emergencies) and therefore can't take time out spend the afternoon, the evening, or the supper time with the family, I think something's wrong. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day come at the same time every year. We know that they're coming. Plan for it. There are a lot of helpful tips on doing this, but good sermons come from good pre-writing and writing. And that takes planning. It's the pastor's job to preach. We should treat it like that so we can take time during those busy times to spend it with family.

      The same can be said for Holy Week. It's a busy time. But if we can't spend our day off even during Holy Week with our family, it's our fault not the church's calendar's fault. We know when Holy Week is. We need to plan for it so that we can spend time with family. No child or wife will be angry if their dad or husband is called away for an emergency if he has done due diligence to have everything else prepared so that he could spend time with family had the emergency not arisen.

      Another thing is that takes time away are evening meetings. I shoot to have one Monday a month where all my meetings can take place. That means that I have only one night instead of four or five nights that I have to be away so that I can be home for supper, to help put the littles to bed and read to them. It's not always possible. But the family understands when it's not because I've worked to make it possible other times.

      A third thing is something that my District President talked about when welcoming the new guys into the district. He said look at your day in thirds: morning, afternoon, and night. He encouraged us to take the initiative to work only two out of the three each work day. The other should be spent at home. Of course, barring any emergency. But emergencies aren't that common by their very nature.

      Lastly, I know how much time I waste in a day, and I'm pretty productive. So the reality is that we're not using our working hours very well. The business world actually has some great resources on time and project management. Use those resources. This will help you in the long run.

      So to answer your question about where does vocation fit in? Well, the pastor has a vocation as pastor. If he's married, he has a vocation as husband. And if he has children, he has a vocation as father. Alongside all of this, he is a son. All these place duties upon us. And we do the best we can with the time we are given. None of it perfectly. And so you concentrate on what God has actually called you to do. Where do find that with regard to the vocation of pastor? You find it in the Ordination Rite. That's primary. Then, you look to your call documents, to see if you're doing some of the extras that the congregation has need for.


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