Once upon a time, in a town not so far away, there was a congregation that called a pastor. This is, of course, what congregations always do. Sometimes they found their pastor from among their own kin. Other times they reached far and wide to find the man of the Lord’s choosing and sending. And no matter where and how the Lord’s servant is found, that’s what he is: the Lord’s man.
Now, as everyone knows, every congregation is unique. It will have its traditions and its peculiarities. Some of these practices grew up out of the study of God’s Word, others from someone’s idea, and yet others by mimicking other churches. They accumulated generation after generation. But few remember why anymore.
And now, along came their pastor. And as everyone knows, every pastor is unique. He has his priorities and peculiarities. Some of his emphases grew up out of the study of God’s Word and the Lutheran Confessions. Others were ideas he learned in previous parishes or from other brothers in the ministry. Some are a reflection of the pastors and congregations he grew up in. They accumulated through a few short years of preparation and practice.
So, God willing, it goes swimmingly, with pastor and congregation working in harmony. But no one is surprised that when the Lord puts a congregation with a pastor, sometimes they seem to be like opposing currents. The pastor has his priorities and the congregation has its uniqueness. And then when sinners get their way, it can be a fierce storm with a vicious undertow.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This story is still being written.
The fictional story above is grounded in reality. For two thousand years, what you read above has happened over and over. It’s not just the history of this congregation, the LCMS, or even the churches of the Reformation. You can read this same story in the book of Acts. You can read how different churches responded to the ministry of St. Paul in his letters. Or I could share with you the autobiography of one of my relatives who served as a pastor in Grafton and Fredonia in the 1880s. The stories are as old as time.
Try as we might through interviews, documents, and call processes, we haven’t overcome the fundamental challenge that has been part of the Christian church from the beginning. God has chosen to put a pastor over a congregation of sinners. And worse yet, the pastor is a sinner, too. No matter what we do, or think, or say, we can’t prevent conflict, challenges, and distress. The Christian church is a ship always sailing in rough waters. The only way to still the storm, calm the crew, and persevere through distress is in the crucified Jesus’s blood-bought forgiveness. Forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven us is the beating heart of this congregation.
That is not to say that we shouldn’t be attentive to ourselves. St. Paul said to pastors in Ephesus, “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” (Acts 20:28). On the one hand, the pastor’s job is simple. Preach the Word in season and out. Admonish, correct, and teach by the Word with all patience. Steward the mysteries of the Holy Sacraments. Be attentive to all the flock.
And on the other hand, be attentive to yourself, too. That requires intentional self-examination and reflection. The pastor has to review his preaching, teaching, and all conduct according to the Word of God. And the pastor is also consider his own gifts and weaknesses and seek to strengthen and improve. To this end, a few months ago I began to read, watch, and listen to the wisdom of the most widely respected leaders of our generation and generations past.
One of the most helpful in my study is Simon Sinek and his TED talk, “How great leaders inspire action.” In his research as an ethnographer, who study the customs of individual peoples and cultures, Sinek found a consistent thread among the best leaders and healthy institutions. He discovered some remarkable patterns in how they think, act, and communicate.
Our default mode of reasoning is to ask “What” questions. In the church they might sound like this: what order of service are we going to use this week? What hymns are we going to sing? What time and day are we going gather? What books are we going to use to teach the children? What ages go to Sunday School and what ages go to Confirmation class? And so on…
What Sinek discovered is that still to ask “How” questions. How are we going to learn? With readings and sermon or with a study and conversation? How are we going to sing? With choir and organ or with praise songs and a band? How are we going to teach? In the home with parents, in the school with teachers, or in church with the pastor?
You can hear in these ideas and practice challenges from the past and now. You can hear the ways we’ve argued and disputed. Sometimes it’s the surface level of “what.” What are we going to do about this or that? And maybe you’ve dug a bit deeper and asked “how.” How are we going to do this or that? And I expect there are many church-related questions in your mind of “what” we do and “how” we do it.
What Sinek discovered is that truly inspirational leaders and institutions (think: pastor and congregation, teachers, and school) start with “why.” Rather than focus on what they do, or even how they do it, they dig deep and ask why they do it. This applies to everything the pastor and congregation do, to every practice and institution. It requires real self-examination, critique, and soul searching, along with a willingness to abandon some things and embrace other things.
Thankfully, many of the “why” questions are given to us by the Word himself, Jesus. He tells us that we have pastors because: “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? … So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:15-17)
He tells us we have congregations because the church is the body of Christ and given for the benefit of all. They “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers…So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)
In the coming months and years, as the Lord’s man in this place, I will be leading us in reviewing the practices and traditions of the congregation. Our emphasis will always be on “why” we do what we do. In learning “why,” we will be better equipped to ask “what” we do and “how” we do it. Our goal is to not only know “what” we believe, or even “how” we live it out in our life as Christians, but why we believe it and why we do it.
+Pastor Christopher Gillespie