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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

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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