Archive for the ‘Ministry’ Category

Where Is the Spotlight?

December 14, 2021

I was sitting around the other night with a group of folks, all church-going Christians. All Lutherans, even. And they started telling a story. This story involved an associate pastor at their church – a very large, successful church by contemporary church standards. This associate pastor was a gifted preacher and teacher and also had a gift for working with young people. During his time with the congregation, focused on outreach to youth, large numbers of youth were attending the various programs offered by the church. Some of them were bringing family members as well. All seemed good and wonderful.

Then this pastor took a Call (a job offer of sorts, in our vernacular) to another congregation in another state. While it wasn’t stated explicitly, the implied result is that the youth attendance dropped dramatically. And now the congregation was in the position of determining what sort of person they ought to Call as their next associate pastor. And the consensus of the folks gathered there was that they needed someone very charismatic who could once again be a draw to youth.

Not an atypical story by any means. I’ve heard variations on this story in recent years. A beloved pastor retires and through careful planning and a five-year transition plan, leaves the congregation in the hands of a known and vetted pastor. And yet within a short span of time the congregation begins to shrivel and die. Vibrancy disappears. The new pastor isn’t this or that. The new pastor doesn’t have the same gifts as the older, retired, beloved pastor.

These aren’t congregations that I would imagine to be flimsy in any sense of the word. I know some of these pastors personally. I know their depth of character, their lives of faith, their excellent knowledge of the Word of God and their understanding of what the Church is as the Body of Christ. Yet somehow, when they retire – sometimes after decades of service to that congregation – the congregation begins within just a short time to shrink and shrivel.

What is the Church? What does it mean to be part of the Church and more specifically part of a congregation, one small piece of the Body of Christ? What does that entail? Where is the spotlight? I ask that question not as a condemnation of these retired pastors, as though they intentionally sought to be the center of the life of the Church. They weren’t and aren’t. They worked hard to emphasize discipleship and to instill in people an understanding of what the Church is, an understanding that goes back to 1 Corinthians and St. Paul. An understanding that the particular pastor is not what matters. What matters is Christ. The spotlight needs to be on Jesus, not on St. Paul or this pastor or that pastor. And what is apparently happening these days is that despite pastors who recognize this and try to practice this, at the end of the day (or their service), it turns out that for their parishioners, the spotlight really was on them as the pastor. Somehow what they sought to teach and instill in their parishioners never really took hold. Or, as the parable of the sower, took hold in a rather superficial way that only lasted until the pastor retired and people were disenchanted with the replacement.

Something is missing. Something is not getting communicated. Or more accurately, something is not taking hold. As a result, the Church has a tendency to utilize worldly wisdom to determine what sort of pastor they need to have in order to remain healthy and vibrant. And yet the irony (at least in my denomination), is that the health of the Church and congregation ought to be maintained even when the pastor is less than capable. Martin Luther designed an entire teaching curriculum to assist fathers and parents to teach their children the essence of the Christian faith in case they weren’t getting it on Sunday mornings, and in the understanding that even if they were getting good preaching and teaching Sunday morning, Sunday morning wasn’t enough given the plethora of other voices and ideas encountered or dominating their lives the other six and a half days a week.

Christ is what matters. And a healthy congregation needs to recognize that the pastor’s sermon and Bible study on Sunday morning cannot bear the weight of the faith, or even the weight of holding a congregation together. The Church is where the Word and Sacraments of God are rightly received, but that narrow definition is inadequate and always has been. The closing verses of both Acts 2 and Acts 4 make it clear that the Church was more than just a once a week gathering, and that the emphasis was on Jesus and his teachings rather than the particular rhetorical or empathic gifts of the teachers.

Somehow this needs to be communicated once again, so that Christians might draw strength and nourishment from their communion with one another, focused on Christ. Not to the detriment or diminishment of corporate worship or the Office of Holy Ministry or the Sacraments. But that these things might be more rightly revered and cherished. Somehow our programs are missing this, and pastors retiring from successful decades of service are forced to watch (or hear about) how their former parish is withering away.

Thoughts?

Book Review (Partial) – Healthy, Resilient & Effective in Cross Cultural Ministry

November 1, 2021

Healthy Resilient & Effective in Cross Cultural Ministry by Laura Mae Gardner, D.Min

I call this a partial review for two reasons. The first is the copy I was gifted from long-term overseas Bible translators is a pre-release copy that only has the first eight chapters – roughly the first half of the book. Secondly, I only really skimmed it as it’s designed for sending agencies and those who oversee overseas workers.

From that perspective it’s an amazing book, even in the unfinished form. I have no doubt that folks in our own Office of International Mission have read this or other resources like it, as I recognize some of the recommendations from the book in how OIM is structured and the interactions I’ve already had with them. A fantastic resource (and the link above is to the finished Kindle version of the book – a print version of the finished book is here) for those entrusted with the recruitment, evaluation, deployment, management and ongoing care of overseas workers!

One Last Time

October 30, 2021

I relented sometime in the last year and watched the musical Hamilton after my youngest two memorized literally every song and sang them incessantly. And while I’ll be the first to admit I’m no fan and therefore a poor critic of musicals, it impressed me thoroughly and I’m glad for once I didn’t let my stubbornness get the better of me.

We were listening to one of their Spotify playlists the other day and the song One Last Time came on. Take a moment to listen to it if you haven’t. It’s beautiful. Not just musically but in what it talks about. I won’t pretend to know whether it accurately reflects how Washington and Hamilton interacted as Washington retired, but I think it captures some of the core elements rather well.

President Washington retires rather than seeking an additional term. Rather than assuming the leadership mantle for life and becoming a beloved King he settles for the fleeting role of statesman. He sees that in his leaving office he has a unique opportunity to model to Americans – and the world – what democracy can really be. To give it flesh and bone or, perhaps more accurately, an empty office to fill.

Hamilton is understandably stunned and skeptical, to say the least. How counterintuitive, to follow a course of action that will widely be misunderstood as weakness when in reality it is in fact the strongest course of action Washington could possibly choose to follow. To take the risk that people will watch and learn, or in the mantra of Hamilton, that history has it’s eye on him.

I’ve found this song compelling in recent weeks. The lyrics haunting. Much has changed in my life this year. Much uncertainty. But perhaps the strangest of all those changes was stepping away from a group of people I had loved and served for nearly 11 years. Stepping away from brothers and sisters in Christ because I felt it was the Holy Spirit’s desire for them and for me that this should happen.

I’d never had to do that before. I’ve left employers before in the corporate/professional and academic worlds. Such comings and goings are expected. You miss some people and not others. And in nearly all of those situations I left knowing things would go along mostly unchanged. I was part of a larger entity. My departure wouldn’t substantially affect the organization.

That’s both true and untrue of a pastor and his congregation, a shepherd and his flock.

The nature of pastoral parish ministry is of necessity and privilege a very personal one. As one of my first seminary profs waxed eloquently about for the better part of an hour, a pastor performs a καλου εργου, a noble task. Pastors are privileged to be part of their congregant’s lives in an intensely personal way rarely afforded to those outside immediate family. We are privileged to be present shortly after births as well as shortly before deaths. We stand with people in their moments of greatest joy as well as deepest sorrow. This privilege is not afforded to us because of us personally, but rather the office we bear, the duty and responsibility of shepherd. Caring for the sheep. And that means getting to know them, just as a good shepherd can tell every sheep from another and knows their personality and quirks.

For eleven years I was invited into their lives. And then one day, I left.

In one sense they remain the congregation, the flock, and my departure doesn’t significantly alter that reality. They begin the process of finding a new shepherd. But in another way, the congregation was shaped by my service as shepherd, just as they had been shaped by other shepherds over the last century, and as they will, God-willing, be shaped by their future shepherds.

It’s weird to go from knowing the intimate details of their lives to not having contact with them. There’s a balance of sorts to try and maintain, to ensure I don’t become problematic in their duty of receiving a new shepherd, in not preventing them from grieving (or rejoicing!) and moving on. And not knowing where that balance line is, my communication with them has been minimal, to say the least.

And that’s hard.

I worry and pray for them, in some ways as I worried and prayed for them while I served them. Most of those prayers don’t change, and to them are added prayers for their protection and wisdom and peace as they prepare to Call and receive a new shepherd, and prayers for that shepherd that he will know them and love them even better than I attempted to.

There’s also the human, most likely sinful aspect, of wondering what the long-term effects of my 11 years with them will be. What did they learn from me while I was with them? How was I a good shepherd and how did I fail them? And what did they learn from my departure as well? Did I teach them how to say good-bye, as Washington sings to Hamilton? Meaning did I model for them things that will be helpful as they move forward as individuals and a congregation? I wonder. I worry. I pray.

I can think of lots of things I wish I had done differently. I can worry about whether I was right to deal with this sheep or that sheep in this way or that. I can imagine how things might have differed had I opted for alternate courses of action, more firmness here, more gentleness there. But I can’t change any of those things now. Now they move on, one way or the other, for better or worse for their time with me, just as I move on changed for my time with them. We each have to follow the Holy Spirit’s calling in our lives the best we can.

My consolation in all of this is one day we’ll meet again. No longer as shepherd and sheep or pastor and congregant but simply as brothers and sisters in Christ. Fellow heirs of the kingdom of heaven. By the grace of God I pray I conveyed that hope and certainty to them over the course of 11 years. Not perfectly, obviously. But always pointing to the one and only Son of God as the best and most perfect one to not simply emulate but trust in with every moment of our lives, every circumstance. Because only He can handle those highs and lows, those doubts and misgivings and uncertainties and regrets. Only He can redeem them all until his return when we’ll never need to learn or teach how to say goodbye again.

Imagining Repentance

October 29, 2021

Your Grace, it is such an honor to have this time with you.

Thank you my son, I have wanted to meet with you for some time.

Really? A man as busy as you, leading the Church, and you’ve wanted to meet with me?

Of course my son. A good shepherd cares for every sheep from the least to the greatest. But sometimes more time is taken with the greater ones, as they have greater responsibilities. Especially now that you hold such an important position yourself.

I am thankful to God I can serve him and his people as President of the United States.

A fine understanding of vocation, my son, and the reason I have hoped to speak with you. I pray God continues to use you even more mightily in the future!

How do you mean, Your Grace?

My son, you loved your daughter Naomi very much, I know. Her loss – along with your wife – was very hard on you.

The hardest loss in my life, Your Grace.

Very understandable. And yet you support the murder of unborn children. A position you once were much less in agreement with, when you had far less influence than you do now.

I support the rights of women, Your Grace. I strive for the equality men and women are created under by God.

But the Word of God on this matter is clear, my son, as is the voice of the Church. Your Church. The One, True Church. She has not wavered on that stance, though of course some within her wish she would. The stance of the Church upholding the sanctity of human life from conception is clear.

Your Grace, you must understand….

I commend to your reading Job 10:11-12, Psalms 127 and 139. Consider Joseph’s faithfulness to the life of our Lord and Savior in the virgin’s womb. Consider the difficulty, the inconvenience, the scandal that Mary would be found to be with child before her marriage to Joseph was finalized. And yet in spite of these things they acted in faith that the child was of God. You may also be interested to read The Didache which dates to the time of the Apostles and which states categorically that Christians do not murder the children or the unborn. Even though these were common, culturally acceptable practices among the Greeks and Romans.

We must defend the conscience of each person, Your Grace, of each believer.

And at times my son, we must also speak hard truth, even to those in power. Ever this was the case as well you should know from Scripture.

Then what are you saying, Your Grace?

What you already know to be true in your heart. What you have grown accustomed to making excuses for to satisfy any number of needs. You know it is wrong to kill an unborn child, my son. It is a sin. A violation of the Fifth Commandment. A violation of the Holy Church’s Law. You consider yourself a good Catholic, do you not my son?

Of course, Your Grace!

How can you consider yourself as such when you publicly support with your person and words a policy the Bible, the Church, and your Savior condemn as sin? Can you say to your Savior’s face that your public and professional support of abortion is not a sin? Do you think He will commend you for your stance?

I…I do not know, Your Grace.

You must reflect on this, my son. Not in light of politics or career. Not in light of the so-called rights the West has created out of thin air and in blatant contradiction to the Word of God. You should well know that we do not improve upon an error by creating another error.

What am I to do, Your Grace?

No more and no less than each of us must do each day, and by the grace of God we are given a new day in which to do it, or another hour in which to begin it. Repent. Acknowledge your sin and guilt before your Savior. Take refuge in his mercy and grace and forgiveness, which you receive at Holy Eucharist. Turn from your sin. Do not endanger your very soul with so great a sin and worse, so great a refusal to see your sin. Repudiate it. Publicly, as you have embraced and facilitated it publicly.

What you ask, Your Grace….

I do not ask, my son. As the Vicar of Christ I command. I point you to his Word and his Church and call you to confession, to repentance, to forgiveness, and to eternal life. You are not responsible for what others do in spite of your refusal to condone such terrible sin any longer. But you can in your life and words sound a clear warning for all those like you who seek to obey the voice of God through His Church, yet insist on the right to determine which of His words you accept and reject.

(…)

Go now, my son. Reflect. Read. Pray. Repent. Confess. Receive the assurance of your forgiveness in the Eucharist. And trust that in your repentance you find not death but life, not suffering but joy, not enslavement but freedom. And by your great example, many far smaller and weaker sheep may be guided away from paths that lead only to death and suffering. Rise, my son. And may the Lord bless you and keep you; may he make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen, amen, and amen.

Book Review: Serving Well

October 25, 2021

Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie or Weary Cross-Cultural Christian Worker by Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter

Recommended by a friend who had it recommended to him, this is not my favorite read. The style is not one I’m very fond of, overly friendly and informal with useful tips interspersed with emotional self-disclosures. I think this book probably has some very helpful advice to the various groups the title highlights, but it’s the sort of helpful advice that isn’t really useful until you’re in the midst of a situation, and then you’ve got to figure out where that particular nugget of wisdom might be. Major sections are organized by what you might want to know or think or feel before you go, as you’re leaving, once you arrive, before you leave, and as you return to your country of origin.

There’s some good advice in here, or at least it makes sense. There’s also plenty of stuff that isn’t helpful for an analytical person like me. Others may find the personal and intimate approach very appealing.

If you like relational sort of heart-to-heart writing you may love this. And those of you with overseas experience already may find it really quite helpful. But it’s not going to be helpful to me at this point, and therefore probably not the first resource I would reach for down the line.

Book Review – I Believe

June 29, 2021

I Believe: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed by Alister McGrath

The first book I finished in preparation to teach on the Apostles’ Creed is this one. Alister McGrath is a well-known theologian who comes from a different Christian tradition than mine – one of the reasons I wanted to read his take on the Apostles’ Creed. I know he and I differ on some rather fundamental issues but I was curious how he would deal with the Creed. Overall, he deals with it very, very well.

He notes early on that one’s view of the Creed is tied to one’s view of Scripture. Since the Creed simply summarizes core aspects of Biblical revelation, if one dismisses the Bible as just the work of human authors or unreliable in the process of copying and translation, one is not going to be terribly excited about the Creed, and will likely dismiss all or parts of it out of hand. However if one takes Scripture seriously, as Christians have for the past two thousand years, then the Creed will be a handy way of boiling down the core matters that define whether one is a Christian or not.

This is important.

Anyone can call themselves a Christian. But for 2000 years the basic litmus test for such an assertion is whether or not they believe everything the Creed states. Not because the Creed is inspired in any way, but because the Creed is anchored firmly in Scripture and Scripture is the defining source for Christian faith. You can call yourself a Christian all you want, but if you deny any elements of the Creed, you are dismantling a very integrated theology and world-view, one that Christians for thousands of years have insisted cannot be dismantled. It is either accepted in entirety, or it cannot stand up to sustained critical examination.

With this in mind, it’s interesting that McGrath is able to assert wholeheartedly the opening description of God the Father – Maker of Heaven and Earth. If he is an ardent supporter or defender of theistic evolution, he doesn’t go into it here. He rightly maintains that God is the creator of all things but skirts the issue of whether the Biblical description of a seven-day creation is literal or possibly metaphorical. Some might argue that such an issue is tangential and unrelated to the generic statement of God as maker of heaven and earth. However as McGrath notes elsewhere in this book, to discount the miraculous in one part of Scripture throws a wrench into maintaining support for the miraculous elsewhere. And while I don’t doubt McGrath would argue theistic evolution is not denying God’s miraculous creative role, there are many Christians (myself included) who disagree with him.

This is a good introductory exploration of the Creed. Each chapter takes up one of the twelve faith statements. McGrath first explains all of the relevant parts of the statement at hand. He then returns to address how the ideas play out today. To affirm that God is the Father is one thing, but if it is to be more than an intellectual assent, it should have some interplay with how we live our lives if we believe it to be true, and McGrath does respectable work at connecting those dots.

At just over 100 pages in length (plus a bibliography and some helpful notes for those who want to use the book for small group study) it’s not exhaustive by any means. But it’s a good reminder (perhaps to those in McGrath’s Reformed stream of Christianity) that the Creeds are very helpful and good, and should be greatly esteemed.

The Apostles’ Creed

June 28, 2021

As I continue the transition from parish ministry towards eventual deployment as a theological educator overseas, my first opportunity to interact cross-culturally will come in August. I’ve been invited to lead a winkel consisting of a dozen or more Taiwanese pastors and church workers. A winkel is a Peruvian word that translates roughly to “fish slapper”.

That’s not entirely true. It’s actual an old German word with a variety of meanings depending on syntax, but in this usage it means corner or spot and is the traditional word in Lutheran circles for a gathering of pastors. These meetings usually include prayer, study, theological conversation, worship, the Sacraments, and general fellowship. I’ve been blessed to have been a part of the same winkel group over my nearly 15 years in ministry, and it was a good experience. Ideally it should be a place to be encouraged and strengthened by people who all are called to the ministry in similar capacities.

So I’ve been invited to share the teaching portion of a cross-cultural winkel. I’ll be doing it long distance as I’m still in the US. The topic I’ve chosen is the Apostles’ Creed, and more specifically, the First Article of the Creed. As such, I’ve been doing some reading and research on the Creed, and I’ll be sharing book reviews shortly.

But first and foremost, I’m reminded in this study of the importance of what you say about the Bible. The Apostles’ Creed has been in use for probably 1600 years at the very least, and the core tenets it summarizes are well-attested to going back to apostolic times. But the Creed is only as helpful as your view of the Bible. A low view of the Bible – meaning you don’t accept it (or at least all of it) as the inspired Word of God maintained in integrity through history and directly relevant and definitive for Christian belief and practice today – will mean you probably don’t think much of the Creed, since the Creed is based entirely on Scripture. If you have a high view of Scripture, seeing it as the reliable, inspired Word of God and normative for Christian belief and practice, then what the Creed says won’t be very surprising, although there is still plenty to think about!

So before you start studying the Creed, come to some conclusions about how you think about and interact with the Bible.

Changes

April 10, 2021

In a couple of hours I will officially change jobs. Last Sunday – Easter Sunday – was my last official day with the parish I’ve been pastoring for nearly eleven years. And this morning I will be installed into a position I accepted nearly two months ago, have nearly completed initial orientation and training for, but still isn’t official until I’ve been installed.

I’m staring at piles of boxes in my office as I write. I’m 80% done with packing things up, waiting now to figure out where we’ll be living for the next few months until my family and I are able to deploy to the field I’ll be serving. We’re leaving the United States and I’m leaving traditional parish ministry, both for the indefinite future. I’ve accepted a position as a regional theological educator for my denomination in Southeast Asia, working as a support and resource to partner church organizations in that part of the world. I bring to the task a curious mixture of parish pastor experience as well as experience as a collegiate educator and corporate trainer. It’s an unusual mixture, accumulated in reverse order from many of my colleagues who pastor first and then go on to teach.

Change is hard for people and I’m no exception, though my tolerance for it is higher than some. Apparently that’s a valuable trait in overseas work, where daily routines can be fluid, to say the least. I leave behind the joys of preaching and teaching in a predictable cycle for the uncertainties of learning a new language, adapting to a new culture, and participating in the work of the Church in a different capacity. While there’s the exoticness of relocating to the other side of the world, there’s also sorrow at leaving literally one of the most perfect climates on earth for a much hotter and more humid climate. I’ve demonstrated repeatedly in my life that I can learn enough of a language (four of them, at present) to achieve short-term academic objectives, but now I have to become fluent in a fifth language. And not just ordinary fluent, but theologically fluent.

It’s exciting. Slightly terrifying at times. Oddly comfortable most of the time. I’m grateful I don’t have to do it alone while also realizing my family will need to negotiate most of these same challenges. Together we’re confident we can do it. We do believe God the Holy Spirit is leading us in this direction, opening doors and facilitating the transition. We also realize that’s no guarantee of success (at least in worldly terms). Finding that balance between humility and excitement is a day-by-day process.

I’ll be continuing to blog, though the topics may take on a decidedly more international slant. The same issues of culture and faith and life that I began writing here with fifteen years ago continue to be a source of continued fascination. And I’ll try to keep it mixed up a little bit with less weighty observations. Perhaps I’ll have time to resume work on some of the longer-term projects I’ve launched here, such as completing my study of the Bible’s treatment of alcohol, and finally finishing my analysis of Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. I plan to keep up with the Rambling postings each Sunday, as hopefully I’ll continue to have preaching opportunities, even if those become sparser as time goes on.

I hope all of you will keep in touch here as well. Your comments and questions have been the best part of blogging, and I’m grateful for the opportunities to dialog.

Guess I should go finish packing the last two boxes of my theological library. It will be fascinating to see where those boxes get unpacked!

How We Do Things

April 9, 2021

Tomorrow I will be installed in a new position. I move from being a parish pastor to working for my denominational polity in the capacity of an overseas theological educator serving partner church organizations in Southeast Asia. This requires the relocation of myself and my family to Southeast Asia, after a process of creating a network of supporters who will pray, encourage, share with others, and provide the financial stability for us to sustain years of work on the other side of the world.

Different church bodies handle these sorts of transitions differently. Some are very directive and a person can be moved at will by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to different locations or different positions. Some are very localized and independent and a pastor is essentially accountable to no one for the career decisions he (or she) makes. Lutherans are in this regard very consistent with our approach to most things, trying to hold together the tension the Bible sometimes creates when it describes different things without directing or prescribing them.

That means as an ordained minister I am not solely responsible and neither is my denominational body for matters of new or different positions. There are multiple entities involved in this. The Holy Spirit of God is acknowledged as a prime mover and director in these things, though in practice He is difficult to identify or quantify! I have a role to play, as does my denominational polity, and finally the specific people also affected by such changes – the congregation I have served for the last 11 years and the people I will be working with in the future. All of those entities are presumed to have a voice in this. The nature of that voice and how it is expressed vary, but they are all factors that contribute. Ideally this minimizes personal whim to some degree and provides some level of accountability.

I was issued a Call at the end of January. Think of a Call as an offer for a job. These days a Call usually occurs after some period of mutual exploration and discussion. Traditionally though, this was not necessarily the case, and a pastor in our denomination might simply receive Call documents in the mail out of the blue from some unknown congregation. In either situation, it’s the pastor’s duty to inform his current congregation of the Call, and then to prayerfully consider the Call and whether he should accept it. The Call documents should contain the basics to inform such a decision – location, information about the Calling entity, job description, compensation description, housing issues, and medical insurance details, for starters.

The pastor prays, discusses with family, and comes to a decision. If he declines the Call he notifies his own congregation and informs the Calling entity in writing and that’s the end of the story. At least until another Call arrives! I know a guy who had three Calls to consider in a period of less than six months!

If the pastor decides to accept the Call, he informs his congregation and the Calling congregation as well and plans to transition. Transitions are hard and therefore are recommended to be reasonably swift without being too abrupt. The congregation the pastor is leaving needs to begin making plans to Call a new pastor and hanging around for months and months is usually counter-productive to this.

All of the various necessities of relocation and other things are secondary to the installation of the pastor in his new capacity. A formal installation is a public event wherein someone called to an official position in the Church is installed in this capacity. Ideally it’s a public witness that the process of reaching this point has been conducted in good faith, though that isn’t always the case, unfortunately. But it is the public declaration that this person has been asked to perform these particular tasks on behalf of the Calling congregation or entity.

In my case, the Call wasn’t from a congregation but from our denominational polity, and specifically from the part of that organization overseeing overseas church work. In this situation, my installation has to occur here in the United States, with a local congregation essentially standing in and representative of our denominational polity. The congregation I am leaving will voice support for and acceptance of my work in this new capacity on behalf of the larger church body. The installation happens here rather than on the other side of the world because here we have congregations who can speak on behalf of denomination.

Installation is a rite, something our church body has developed under the influence of Scripture and in an effort to be faithful to it, but ultimately it’s something we have created for our own use. I’m installed by another representative of my denomination – oftentimes an ecclesiastical supervisor or designated representative. In my case, I’ve asked to be installed by a retired pastor who is a member of my congregation but also spent the first decade of his ministry career serving as a missionary in the Philippines. I like the symmetry of someone who has worked in that part of the world on behalf of the church installing me in my new role in that area, even if my role will differ markedly from his.

Installations can be big affairs – entire church services crafted around the Rite of Installation. I’ve opted for a more stripped-down approach. It’s more appropriate to have a big celebration when the installation is in the congregation where the pastor is arriving. It’s a little harder to celebrate when the pastor is leaving that congregation (though of course there are times when that kind of celebration is pretty appropriate!). I’m a simple guy. A simple service will do.

Once that installation is complete the transition will be final. It is the final acknowledgement that all parties involved trust that not simply human agency was involved in this transition, but God himself. It’s his glory and purpose we’re after, in the end, not our own personal preferences (although I believe He can use those preferences). It isn’t a guarantee of success, but rather how we do things in an attempt to be faithful to God’s Word and God’s people. When it’s done properly it can be a beautiful thing, but it is also a system involving sinful human beings and so it can be manipulated.

Hopefully, this transition is one of the former rather than the latter!

Fear and Loathing in the Confessional

March 30, 2021

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” John 20:21-23

The work of the Church is declaring the good news of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ to those wracked with guilt and desirous of change. Often this gets abbreviated to just telling people about Jesus, but the crucial matter is what you tell them. If you tell them only that Jesus loves them, and never tell them of their sin and need for forgiveness, you haven’t shared the full story. If you only introduce them to the historical figure of Jesus without ever telling them why this historical figure matters to their lives unlike any other historical figure, you haven’t shared the full story. For someone who can see their sinfulness, their need for sin and forgiveness, the most beautiful part of the story is that this is exactly why Jesus is relevant to them. This is what Jesus brings them that nobody else can. And the Church is to be the place marked by both the proclamation of this reality and the actual forgiving of sins.

So when the Church (or a particular parish or priest) refuses to offer forgiveness to those desiring it, there’s a serious problem. An issue in one Roman Catholic parish in New Jersey recently due to the pandemic. Due to complications arising from properly disinfecting surfaces in the confessional – the small cabinet traditionally used in Roman Catholic churches to screen the penitent from the priest and allow them to confess their sins and receive absolution – a priest refused to allow un-vaccinated people to come to Confession, one of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic church.

People are understandably somewhat frightened and weary of COVID. But refusing to absolve repentant sinners is a gross failure of an ordained priest, and one rightly corrected by ecclesiastical supervisors.

The irony here is that the prohibition against any un-vaccinated person coming to Confession was ostensibly for their own “protection”. However to not receive forgiveness is a far greater danger to a person’s well-being than COVID, with potentially eternal ramifications!

Now, I’m not Roman Catholic and I do not necessarily agree with their traditional practice of Confession, or their understanding of the need and role for penance in receiving forgiveness. But if you’re going to tell people their forgiveness is dependent on Confession, and forgiveness is the means of eternal life, and then you refuse to hear their confessions, there’s a dangerous problem at play here!

Thankfully the situation was rectified quickly.