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 between—a 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!