[Jesus said] “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” - Matthew 6:24
As we saw last time, the idols that have infiltrated our faith are falling left and right under the stress and changes wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. We looked at the fallacy of thinking “it can’t happen to me” or “that only happens to ___ people”. With that we tore down the idol of modern medicine and the belief that there’s a pill for whatever ails you. We also looked at the changes in family dynamics as children did school from home and the family was “cooped up” for months on end and the grandparents and other extended family couldn’t be visited. This time we’ll look at a couple more idols removed from their thrones by a microscopic virus.
When Covid-19 first landed on our shores in a few nursing homes in the Seattle area, very few thought it would spread with such rapidity throughout the country. By the middle of March, stay at home orders were issued with fines and penalties for non-compliance. Restaurants, clothing stores, malls, parks, and all manner of places for doing business were shut down overnight. Back then we were told it would only be for 14 days to “flatten the curve”, but that two weeks turned into two months and now it looks like there will be business restrictions for a year or more. Do you remember the last movie you saw in a cinema? The last live show / concert?
Suddenly those who build their lives around their work found their most important measure of self (and self worth) were floundering. It’s not just the economic impact of closed businesses that show them to be an idol, it’s how they affect our attitudes and identities. If I thought of myself first and foremost as a __(insert vocation here)___, and then that business was shuttered by the government, my sense of self is shaken and needs to be reexamined. Who am I if I’m not working in a particular field? Am I really not an essential worker?
Of course there is the financial side of it too. The government stepped in with
stimulus checks, loan forbearance, increased unemployment benefits and the like, but all that doesn’t tackle the spiritual dimension of setting one’s vocation as one’s god. When I “fear, love, and trust in” my ability to earn an income that takes care of all my needs - what do I need God for? Maybe when I die and want to get to heaven, but He’s pretty irrelevant in my day to day life - until the idol falls. This idol of money and I must obey my master (making more $) is very pervasive in our land. Greed and discontent and jealousy over the fortunes of others (why do they get an extra $600 week while I have to work at minimum wage?) were suddenly revealed for the idols they are. When this idol was overthrown by Covid-19 it led to many other disruptions.
Yet we have known the dangers of putting money before God since Moses carried the two tablets of the Law down from Mt. Sinai. Jesus warns against the Canaanite god “Mammon” in the reading cited above. Paul instructs Timothy to be on guard as “the love of money is a root of all forms of evil” (I Tim. 6:10). Greed even made it to the list of 7 deadly sins in the middle ages. Yet this god shows no signs of going away anytime soon in our consumer driven, capitalistic society. Perhaps it’s a good thing to have runs on toilet paper and canned goods, to have one’s paycheck reduced to 60% of what one previously earned, and other means of “involuntary simplicity”. By doing this we see what is most important in life - and it’s not the pursuit of wealth. We come to see how we are reliant on God, not just for salvation and eternal life, but also for “our daily bread.” We have learned, reluctantly at first, that the really important things in life are things that money cannot buy. Maybe an economic downturn was just we as a society needed.
Related to this is a personal idol, and idol I did not realize existed until it was pointed out at the Doxology retreat I attended in October. This idol remained firmly enthroned throughout the early days of the pandemic and demanded my offerings of love and devotion. The idol was myself. What hit me like a cannonball as worship was forbidden (or fined heavily if you gathered with more than 10 people) was the fact that Church and all it does to help people in times of crisis was deemed “Non-Essential” - yet liquor stores, racetracks, and strip clubs could remain operational. If the Church is not essential, then those who work in the church are deemed non essential employees. In short - I don’t matter to this culture. This sense of being non-essential was compounded by the fact that I was still working, but not getting paid (no offerings = no salary). We made sure every member of the congregation got a phone call every week or 10 days to see how they were weathering the Covid storm, but Michelle and I got zero phone calls to see how we were doing, even though she was a front line worker and I was a high risk candidate.
The demon of self-pity and self-loathing was firmly enthroned. I don’t know how many weeks or months I was stuck in this “funk” of “nothing you do matters to anyone.” When I received word that Pastor Merz was taking a call to Montana and Pastor Serina was leaving the same week for CTCR in St. Louis, I went back to my Lutheran Confessions and Walther and began to read again what the church is and what church work is all about. Then it hit me; It’s not about me, it never has been, it never shall be (world without end. Amen.?) All that matters is that the good news of new life in Christ Jesus is being boldly proclaimed - by Zoom or Facebook live if need be. How governor Murphy feels about this being essential or not is really quite irrelevant. How the culture, both within and outside of the church, receives this message is not my responsibility. My worth is not tied to how well received this Gospel is by others. All that matters is that I am, and ever shall be, a blood-bought child of God, saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Salaries, recognition, numbers online, all that stuff is just icing on the cupcake - they don’t really matter.
Perhaps a healthy dose of humility was called for, even if it is bitter medicine. When we turn inwards as individuals or as a congregation and forget the real task of which we get to take part, then maybe God steps in and uses these events like Covid-19 to get us to look outside of ourselves and to the salvation and well being of others. For all the damage; emotional, spiritual, economic, relational, physical, etc. that this pandemic caused, maybe God can still use it to make some good come of it. God truly works in mysterious ways if this is the case.
Now, the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects are not the only things that have happened in the last 7-8 months. There are a few other idols which have not been shown for what they are by this crisis, but are certainly toppling now. We’ll take a look at the idols of nature / eco-warriorism, social fabrics and race relations, and how God overthrows these idols as well in the next blog.
Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
-I John 5:21
Keep yourselves from idols. Sounds pretty easy right? I mean when was the last time you saw an idol in the shape of a man, woman, beast or bird? Come across any Asherah poles lately? Idols are just an Old Testament thing - or so we’d like to think. In the explanation to the first Commandment, Luther reminds us that an idol is anything we fear, love, or trust in more than the Triune God. There are still a great many idols out there - most of which don’t have temples or statues.
As we enter the 6th month of this pandemic, we see the world getting angrier and more divided. BLM, QAnon, Antifa, Republican, Democrat, Christian, Atheist, we all have our titles and tribes and these tribes seem to be increasingly violent towards each other. Civil unrest is not surprising during an election year, but 2020 seems different; almost as if the angst is caused by something else. Of course we have Covid-19 and all the changes that wrought, and maybe that’s the root cause. Perhaps Covid-19 and the response to it have exposed our idols for what they are.
One of our modern idols, one that affects young people in particular, is the idol youthful indestructibility. At the outset the younger members of society felt as if Covid could not affect them, or if it did it would be no worse than the flu - something they’d get over without too much discomfort. They even coined a new term for their god of perpetual health by calling this virus, “Boomer remover” as it seemed to be especially deadly for those over 60. Then Spring Break happened. The bars and beaches were packed. Social distancing was unknown. Suddenly hundreds and then thousands of people in their prime got sick and many even died. The god of “It won’t happen to me” was toppled as well as their worship of youth and mindset of immortality. Suddenly they realized they are just as mortal in the face of this virus as an 80 year old. The virus doesn’t discriminate, it will kill young and old alike. This isn’t just a god of the young. We have become accustomed to the wonders of modern medicine which would seem like a miracle to those only a century before us. If we get sick, or have an accident, or catch a “bug” all we need to do is take the right pill or have the right surgery or procedure and then we can resume our lives as usual with no disruption to our daily patterns. But there is no “cure” for Covid. All we can do is treat the symptoms with various levels of success and hope that our bodies can fight off the virus. There is no pill that is 100% effective at stopping it, no procedure that can correct the damage it causes, not even a vaccine that works without catastrophic side effects (at least not yet, though trials continue). All we can do is change our lifestyles to stay 6 ft (or more) apart, wear masks everywhere we go, and wash our hands often or use copious amounts of alcohol based sanitizer - and even that isn’t a certainty of protection.
The idol of invulnerability has been cast down. Whenever an idol falls, those who feared, loved, and trusted in it understandably become anxious, fearful, and angry. Much of the violence and vitriol we see in our world today has nothing to do with the cause(s) for which the perpetrators claim. You don’t hold a police department accountable by defunding it and burning down its stations. You don’t show that Black Lives Matter by demolishing the businesses of black business owners. When your “god” fails to save you and that / those which you love, it’s natural to look for a savior (or a devil) elsewhere. So when idols fall, where do you turn?
Christians are well aware of this idol and refuse to worship it. We know we are mortal and that we have all sinned in some way, shape, or form, both in what we have done (commission) and in what we have left undone (omission). We know the penalty or wages of sin is death and that death will eventually come to all of us. But our God is not a god of the dead but of the living. He raised the body of His crucified, dehydrated, shock-ridden, spear punctured, Son to life again on the third which has been perfected just as Christ’s body is. This is our hope when we say “I believe…in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” We know the earthly god of immortality and invulnerability to be just another idol.
Another of the idols Covid-19 has cast down is one that many of us, even regular church-goers, bow down to. That is the idol of family. If you have ever skipped out on church or refused to serve God n some way to see your grandchild’s soccer game or go to a family reunion, or just have some “family time” during the worship hour; then you have offered your pinch of incense to this idol. Now there’s nothing wrong with loving your family or spending time with them, in fact we are commanded to honor our fathers and mothers and to love our children and raise them in the fear and knowledge of the Lord (proverbs1:7 and others). Jesus makes it plain that family can become an idol when He says, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;” (Mt. 10:37). The key phrase in Jesus’ teaching is “more than me”; if family comes before God, we’ve got things in the wrong order.
Covid has certainly changed family dynamics. At the outset of the lockdowns and other mitigation strategies, we were expecting a baby boom by year’s end. But just the opposite has come to pass. Recent surveys show that marital intimacy has precipitously declined in this pandemic, down as much as 60% according to some results (too much of a good thing?). Divorces, especially online divorces, have increased 140% compared to last August (last month data was available). Domestic and child abuse are on the rise and parents having to suddenly become teachers and full time care givers has caused cracks in the family unit to open to full blown fissures. For many months, children could not see their grandparents, cousins, and, in the case of blended families, their step or half siblings. School and community sports were put on hold as were graduations, weddings, reunions, and other gatherings. Even funerals were restricted and many families never got a chance to say good-bye or find closure during the Covid-19 months. All it took was a virus one-billionth our size affecting less than 10% of the population to cast this idol from its throne.
While some families are seeing the fallacy of this idol, others have been strengthened by having to spend more time together. Parents and children who often passed each other by as one went to school or sports and the other went to work are now getting to know one another. When God is at the center of the family and their trust is in Him, then the inconveniences of the Covid-19 era are not earth shattering. As we resume worship, more families are seeking baptism, weddings, confirmations, and Christian education to strengthen their families and the understanding of the God who makes spouses, “no longer two but one.” (Mt. 19:6). Turning from an idol back to the Living God will always yield better results than what the idol promises.
Of course there are a great many more idols that have been knocked off their pedestals these last few months, but just take a few moments and consider what it is that you “fear, love, and trust in…above all other things.”. In the next installment we’ll continue looking at some of these idols in their post-Covid state as well as an idol of my own making that I just recently realized had become an idol in my life.
Until that time, I’ll leave you with John’s words, “Children, keep yourselves from idols.”
Be glad, O people of Zion, rejoice in the Lord your God, for He has given you the autumn rains in righteousness. He sends you abundant showers, as before, both autumn and spring rains. The threshing floor will be filled with grain; the vats will overflow with new wine and oil.
- Joel 2:23-24
According to my outdoor thermometer, it dropped down to 47 degrees last night, and my tomatoes were not happy. When I let the dogs out at 7 AM, I could see my breath. I expect this to happen in September sometime, just not as early as it happened this year. My walnut tree is already turning yellow and losing leaves and for the first time since April, I had to grab a jacket when I left the house. This can mean only one thing; Fall has fallen upon us.
It’s definitely a time for the changing of the seasons, even if Covid-19 is still present and active and the official start of Fall (autumnal equinox) is still a week away on Sept. 22. Monday night Football has begun (as have Sunday and Thursday games - go Patriots!). Baseball is winding down and getting into playoff mode, even though the season was delayed due to Covid. School has started again, though in hybrid, online, and / or in person modes. Beach-going is over for the year and summer vacations are done. While we may miss summer and all its activities and joys, we rejoice in the coming of the autumn season.
Back in Joel’s day there was a rejoicing at the coming of autumn as well. After a long and dry summer, the rainy season would begin. Crops would swell and the grapes ripen for pressing into wine. Last year’s spring calves and lambs would now be at “market weight” and provide fats and proteins for the coming long dark and cold of winter. It was a time when wheat sown in the spring would be harvested and ground into flour to give us our daily bread. There is an abundance to autumn that just doesn’t happen in any other season of the year. In our time and place, we may look forward to “pumpkin spice” ____ (well, everything seems to be pumpkin spice now) as well as apple picking, pumpkin picking, fall mums and other late blooming flowers, hayrides, bonfires, and the distinctively fall smell to the air.
It is a change of season for the Church as well. We entered Pentecost just before the start of summer and will remain in the season until November 29 when a new Church year begins. So while we may not change the altar paraments to a new color, the texts and themes of our weekly readings have undergone a change of focus. For the next several weeks, we have a prelude of the coming end times as many of the parables and miracle accounts speak of “…so it will be when the Son of Man comes in His glory….” As we enter into October the theme shifts to one of harvests and reaping a harvest of souls for Christ or bearing fruit of the Kingdom of heaven. In November, as we count down the last few weeks of the Church year, we get to the specifics of Christ’s second coming in glory to judge both the quick and the dead. Liturgically it’s still Pentecost, but there is a definite change of seasons as well.
It is a time of transition in our organizational life as well. Until Reformation Day (Oct. 25) and probably for some time after that, we will be sharing our pastor with Our Savior, Stanhope. Soon it will be time to look to 2021 and start setting our ministry goals and what resources we’ll need to meet those goals (aka budget). After many seasons of warnings about declining worship attendance, participation in the “nuts & bolts” of running the church as an institution (officers, programs, etc), reduced giving, and other reductions, it is certain that we cannot enter 2021 with the same mindset and organization we did for 2018. What 2021 will look like, we don’t know yet. It will certainly be different than 2011 as we are no longer the congregation we were ten years ago. Fall is when this transition begins to take place
But even though much may change, there are some things that will remain the same or at least very similar. The sun may rise later and set earlier each day throughout autumn, but it still rises in the east and sets in the west each day. The days may be mild (instead of brutally hot) and the nights get chilly - but this happens every autumn and is not unexpected. Our service time may have changed from 10:00 to 10:45 to allow pastor to preach at Stanhope at 9:00, but we still hear God’s Word in its fullness, truth, and purity each week and get to receive the Sacrament administered according to Christ's institution each week. Add to this all the Covid-19 protocols and we see many things changing, yet remaining familiar.
C. S. Lewis calls this “the Law of Undulation”. In both Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, he highlights this fundamental law of how God works with us. Every season is different, yet always the same. Fall may or may not start on the equinox, but it always has certain things that typify Fall. In November we’ll have new (maybe) political leaders, but we’ll still have our three branches of government. Worship changes every week - different hymns, readings, sermons, prayers - but it is always the same - Invocation, God’s Word, our response, the Lord’s Supper, blessing. This Law of Undulation is universal throughout our world, sacred and secular. Thus one may say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” We’ll look more at this Law of Undulation in our weekly Table Talk on September 23 on Zoom - I hope you’ll join us for it.
In the meantime, pull out your sweaters and pack away your shorts, rake leaves, go for a drive through the beautiful Fall scenery as the leaves show God’s creative wonders. Some things may change, but God’s love for us endures forever. Amen.
Teach me Your way, O Lord, and I will walk in Your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may honor Your name. - Psalm 86:11
When did your education come to an end? High school? College? On the job training? When did you stop learning? This can be very difficult to answer as our world is always changing and we’re always learning new things. Formal, institutional instruction may end with a degree, but that doesn’t mean the learning has stopped. I consider it a wasted day if I haven’t picked up at least one piece of information I didn’t know before. Granted, some may say that I’m a walking compendium of useless information (like how many stomachs a sheep has and the names of all 4 of them), but our learning is never supposed to come to an end.
The last couple of weeks we looked at the upcoming school year and colleges reopening in the midst of Covid-19. Last week we looked at how our preschool provides more than just a basic education to the children and families we serve. Today I’d like to explore why we still need to keep learning even as adults. We see the need for this in the worldly realm as more than 1/3 of students in colleges and universities now (especially online) are adults in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s training for a new career. No longer do we go to school for x years, get a job in ___ field, and then stay with that employer throughout our lives. It is now expected that a member of generation z (the one that comes after the Millennials) will change careers at least 4 times throughout life. This isn’t just changing jobs or companies, this is changing one’s career field; like going from an accountant to a mechanical engineer. Each of these vocations requires a certain skill set and training to be proficient.
But what about faith learning. Certainly we learned all we need to know in Sunday School and Confirmation class. As can be seen from Redeemer and other Sunday schools, less than 1/10th of the children “on the books” are partaking of Christian education weekly. Pew Research Co. has that number down to 1 out of 20 children overall. It doesn’t get much better when they hit their teens and it’s time for Confirmation - 75% of children baptized never confirm their baptism. And this carries through to adulthood. Only about 1 in 10 Christians worshiping on a Sunday morning will attend a Bible class sometime during that week. So it should come as no surprise that those who claim to be Christians really don’t know much about what the Bible says about the faith they hold. This is also why those being trained in preaching (homiletics) are being taught to make their sermons “didactic” or “teachable”. It’s the only time 90% of the people will receive any Bible instruction.
Yet this is the polar opposite of what we find in both the Old and New testaments. Moses commanded God’s people to “talk about these things when….” (Dt. 6) and saw all of life as an opportunity to learn more about God and His workings in our lives. Jesus called His followers “disciples”, which is another name for students. We are not just to follow Jesus or to believe in Him, we are meant to learn from Him and emulate His actions. His disciples ranged in age from their late teens (John) to the late 30’s / early 40’s (Peter). Even the great teacher, St. Paul, spent 12 years learning more about Jesus before beginning his missionary work.
In the early Church, one of the first things that was done was to set up Christian education centers, called monasteries, for the instruction of both young and old. In the Celtic Christian tradition this education was offered regardless of gender - yes, those silly Celts even taught women to read and write; scandalous in the 400’s! Luther would promote and encourage learning at all ages and even developed text books to aid in learning (Small Catechism for kids, Large Catechism for adults). The point is, our learning about God and how to live as Christians never ends.
But how do we do this in a post Covid-19 world? We can’t all gather around a table shoulder to shoulder sharing Bibles and other resources. Wiki, YouTube, and Google have their limitations. Zoom could be an effective way of getting together while staying socially distanced - but there’s always background noise, technical glitches, and the like. Facebook live and webinars (non interactive Zoom meetings) can work well so long as there aren’t too many questions. So how are we to continue learning when in person instruction is out and technological teaching has its shortcomings?
The best way is the way it’s always been done - one on one with a mentor and a mentee. Most of the instruction we are told to do takes place in this one to one environment, usually a parent or grandparent passing down what they have learned to their offspring. Yet those who experienced the homeschooling experiment of March to June realize that the parents need to be informed first to be able to teach. Even if its not perfect, professor-level learning, the faith can be taught by letting the faith be caught. Our lifestyle and example will teach far more than our words will.
So will you walk the path the Lord has set, to walk in His ways as the Psalmists so often encourage? Will you teach and share what you know, while still learning and growing in your faith yourself? As we as a nation prepare to go “back to school” don’t let the new ways of learning make you a truant and leave you “simple”. Join with us Sunday mornings for worship (online if that’s the safest option for you), on our Wednesday night Zoom devotions, or other ways of coming together to learn from Lord Jesus. There’s plenty left to learn, let’s learn it together. Amen.
Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies: nothing you desire can compare with her.
- Proverbs 3:13-15
“Education in a Christian atmosphere.” That is the motto and mission of our Redeemer Preschool. It guides not only what we do but how we do it. It sums up how we see “the preschool” as an integral part of our ministry here at Redeemer - we could no more divorce ourselves from the preschool than we could from preaching or the Sacrament. It is part of who we are as Christ’s body in this time and place. While providing an education in a Christian atmosphere is not the only ministry of Redeemer, it is our chief ministry. We impact more lives through the preschool than we do in any other ministry, including Sunday morning worship.
Last week we looked at education in general and the challenges facing teaching our young in a Covid-19 era. Now let’s turn our attention to the efforts of our preschool ministry and how they are carrying out the command to “help your neighbor in his every need;” for there is certainly a need for early childhood education. Let’s use the preschool’s motto / mission statement as our guide.
The first part is providing an education. What is to be taught is determined by the State. There are academic standards which say that by the end of the first preschool year a child should be able to recognize shapes, sort by size differences, have developed fine and gross motor skills, etc. . By the end of the second year, in preparation for kindergarten, a child should be able to count to 10, know shapes and colors, be able to recite the alphabet and know the sounds for each letter, know the days of the week and months of the year, and things like that. This is true for public, private, and parochial schools - but that’s where the similarities end.
The state may say what is to be taught, but they give great license on how it is taught. At Redeemer Preschool, these “facts and figures” are taught in a number of ways. We learn about shapes by not only looking at pictures of squares and circles, but by holding a parachute as we try to get the ball through the hole in the middle (what shape is the parachute, what colors do you see, etc.). As children learn tumbling they find that their bodies can become triangles or two of them may form a square, or they may have 4,6,8, or 10 come together and make a rectangle. In stories and songs they learn about the letter “B” and all the “buh” sounds of words with b’s in them (the the butterfly on the bubble). They learn to count while assembling crafts or doing drawings that will soon hang on refrigerator doors. There are so many ways of passing on this information and our teachers and aides are some of the best at using multiple ways for the children to learn and retain this information.
It is not surprising then that the kindergarten teachers of Newton, Sparta, Andover (both township and borough) and other school districts know when they have a child who came through Redeemer preschool. When our students leave here, they are among the best prepared for the next step of their academic endeavors. Over the last 40+ years, Redeemer has built a reputation for excellence and not a few of our students are 2nd or third generation Redeemer preschoolers. This is a testament to our teaching staff and also proof positive that we are fulfilling our Christian duty to help our neighbor in this way.
But learning ABC’s and 123’s is a very small part of providing an education and not what makes Redeemer Preschool unique among the number of early childhood education options in our community. The second part of the mission statement is also critically important - “in a Christian atmosphere.” What does this mean? Well let’s break it down a bit.
When you hear the word “atmosphere” what comes to mind? As a nerd, my mind goes to the mixture of gases (67% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 3 % carbon dioxide, and other trace gases and water vapor) that are gravitationally bound to the planet and exert a pressure of 14.1 pounds per square inch on everything at sea level. The more basic answer is “air”. The atmosphere is the air we breathe. It surrounds us and makes life possible.
A Christian atmosphere would then be Christ surrounding us, giving us life, and being in every breath we take. Christ is in everything we do as a preschool. He is in the numbers (count the loaves and the fishes). He is in the seasons and the days (Sunday is the Lord’s Day because He rose from the dead on a Sunday). He is in the songs we sing, the words we speak and read, the games we play, the food we share. He “is our all in all" as one of our songs so simply puts it. You don’t have to go very far to find Jesus at our preschool - He is everywhere and in everything.
This is far different from Kinder Care or other preschools. This makes Redeemer unique among early childhood education opportunities in our area. This is also what makes the preschool part and parcel of the Church and her ministry. Just because you don’t have a child or grandchild in our preschool this year does not mean that you have nothing to do with the preschool. This is our congregation’s primary way of carrying out Jesus’ commission to “make disciples of all nations”. This is not just the preschool staff’s ministry, this is your ministry. This is the way that we meet and serve our neighbor and share the Good news of salvation through Christ alone with them.
So how will you support this wonderful opportunity we have to serve our neighbors with their need to “raise up a child in the way he should go, so when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Prov.22:6)? Will you help our staff provide this vital ministry to the children of our community with your time, talents, and treasures?
Will you pray for our preschool families and those who are weighing the risks of sending their children to school as Covid-19 is still making headlines? Will you pray for and support our teachers and aides as they perform this ministry on the congregation’s behalf?
As we prepare for the beginning of another school year, please stay tuned for updates as to how you can help Redeemer Preschool serve the needs of our neighbors. As we go through this pandemic school year, I’m sure the plans we have in mid-August will be modified by mid-September and change yet again by the end of October. It’s going to be a wild (but worthy) ride, so please keep your arms and legs inside the carriage until the ride comes to a complete stop.
- Pastor Brian
Then Paul said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. At the feet of Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.” - Acts 22:3
As we come to the end of August, the news is full of plans for “back to school”. How do we go back to the classroom while we are still unable to eat at a restaurant indoors. Sitting in an enclosed room for an hour to eat will cause a “spike” in corona virus infections, but sitting for 6 hours in a room with kids who have trouble keeping a mask on for more than 10 minutes is OK? Even if (and this is a big if) children have a lesser rate of infection and symptoms, what about the teachers, bus drivers, custodians, office staff, and cafeteria workers? How do we keep them safe?
I’ve seen a lot of different reports of what various school districts are doing around the country and a few things have become clear. This will not be school as we knew it back in September of 2019. Perhaps the biggest difference will be in the social aspect of school. Most schools will not have cafeteria service and students will eat at their desks maintaining the requisite 6 ft. distancing from each other. No more sitting with friends around the lunch table. For the younger kids, recess is canceled as are sports and clubs for the older crowd. For many students this is the main reason to go to school, to see and socialize with friends - also the cause of much school aged anxieties. Is it still school without the social aspects?
Back in March there was a rapid transition to online learning with the end result of many parents saying there is too much “screen time” and not all children are visual learners. It doesn’t look like this will change much come autumn. We can’t use books as there’s no way to sanitize paper without destroying it. Teachers can’t pass out or collect homework sheets due to concerns about disease transmission, and with the greater distances between students and students and teachers, some kids will have even more trouble seeing or hearing the teacher. So what’s left? Having the kids pull out their Chromebooks (or other tablet) at their desk and submit all homework in electronic fashion. This isn’t very different from what was happening at home.
The other thing most educators and officials agree on, though not often told to parents, is that the likelihood of another shut-down / closure is very high. Georgia is the first state to reopen their schools and EVERY district has had to shut down again to do contact tracing, testing, “deep cleaning”, and in some cases quarantining of students. These are usually only 2-3 day shut-downs, but they happen frequently. Will this happen in NJ where we have a lower transmission rate? Only time will tell.
There are also concerns about teacher shortages and qualifications. If the math teacher gets sick, or is exposed and so has to quarantine at home for two weeks, who will teach. Do we want the English teacher guiding the class through trigonometry?
Will the physical education teacher be able to lead students through Romeo and Juliet? There are also many teachers who due to health conditions or age are at high risk for complications or death from Covid-19 and so may opt for early retirement. Despite government comments to the contrary, teachers never signed up to be “front line workers” in the fight against this virus. Don’t even get me started on their abysmal pay or the lack of respect for teachers in schools today!
So what do we do? How are we to teach our children what they need to know to function and prosper in today’s world? It is worth remembering that basic education for all is a relatively new concept in human history. We’ve only been doing mandatory, guaranteed, public, education for about 175 years (mid 1800’s were first public schools). When I served in Nebraska in the 1990’s, many of the older farmers spoke with pride of having gotten up to 6th grade - as that was all that was required in rural areas in the 1930’s. When we look at global education, we find that 40% of the earth’s population cannot read or write or do simple arithmetic. Yet the world continued to revolve around the sun and spin on its axis.
Prior to the 1840’s, basic education was done at home. There would be the learning of letters and numbers, how to write (as there was no texting or email), as well as some vocational training. Sons would often learn their father’s trade (much like Jesus learned the trade of Joseph), and daughters would learn how to manage a household and make sure everyone was fed, clothed, medicated, etc. Today we call this sexist (misogynistic I think is the term in vogue) and old fashioned, but it worked for thousands of years of human civilization.
Another aspect to this at home, unstructured, learning, was the moral component. From Socrates teaching at the symposium in Athens, to Luther’s Small Catechism, to “student handbooks” of today, an understanding of morals and ethics was part of the educational experience. Paul too would be taught the law of God by the great Pharisee Gamaliel. This was not theoretical metaphysics, this was day to day, real world, practical actions and thought patterns. The third generation Socrator (disciple of Socrates), Aristotle, spent most of his instructional time with the young Prince of Macedon (Alexander the Great) teaching him ethics. How to live a virtuous life, pleasing to the gods, was far more important than calculating the parabolic arc of a catapult shot. Education in the Christian era also focused first and foremost on knowing God and His expectations for us, what we now call “character development”. Even in public schools, the Bible was a source for learning how to read (long before the Dick and Jane series or Magic School bus). That all changed in the 1960’s and we’re reaping the results of that as a society now. But teaching at home one can incorporate the Biblical world view into all other realms of learning.
So what will schools look like when they reopen here in another 3 weeks or so? That’s the great unknown. We have no more idea of what October will look like at this point than we knew about April back in January. Amid all the changes of this school year, one thing remains the same. Children learn more from their parents (and other primary caregivers) than from anyone else. Okay, maybe you aren’t teaching them the Pythagorean theorem, but you are imparting life lessons by your example and how you live your life. You are teaching your children or grandchildren what is important in life with every interaction you have with them.
In closing then, I would turn you to a more modern paraphrase of Deuteronomy 6, that of Crosby, Stills, and Nash where we are encouraged to “Teach, your children well…” Whatever may happen with the public schools this year, we have the opportunity (and duty) to be teachers to the children in our care. May God bless you in this endeavor. Next week we will take a look at our Redeemer Preschool and why this is such a vital ministry not just for the preschoolers, but for us as a congregation as well.
Until then, may God’s peace be upon you.
I waited patiently for the LORD; He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit and set my feet on a rock and gave me a form place to stand.
- Psalm 40: 1-2
As we adjust to a “new normal”, we also begin the process of a new normal for Redeemer. In the next few weeks we’ll be beginning a new adventure of shared ministry with Our Savior, Stanhope. What form this will take and what the particulars will be are yet to be determined. But one thing we can know is that it’s time for another Self-study.
To know where we want to go, and how to get there, we need to begin with where we are and how we got here. Many times the Psalms speak of paths or guiding our footsteps. We might recall Psalm 23’s words about “You lead me in the paths of righteousness for Your name’s sake,” or if you’re a child of the 80’s you might recall Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith’s musical rendition of Psalm 119:105 where we sing, “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” In more modern poetry, you may be familiar with the Footprints in the Sand parable. In all these examples, it is God who is setting our feet upon a certain path. Where this path leads we may have only a vague idea, but we trust Him who is leading us.
So how does a congregational self-study fit into all this? Before beginning a journey - or even part way through - it’s good to look at a map, or Waze, Streetwize, or other GPS guidance system. It’s really hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re starting from. This is the purpose of a congregational self-study, to take a snapshot of where we are at and to look at how we got here. Then we can chart a course for where we want to go, what we need to “pack for the trip”, and what milestones we pass along the way.
The last time we did a self-study was after the retirement of Pastor Diamond in early 2010. Have things changed at Redeemer over the last 10 years? You bet! We are not the same congregation we were 10 years ago. You are not the same as you were 10 years ago. Maybe back in 2010, you weren’t retired yet, or your kids were still at home, or your health was much better than it is now. Perhaps you weren’t even part of Redeemer back then. We’ve all aged and changed in the last decade. For myself, ten years ago I was single (and a single parent), fighting a losing battle against clinical depression, moving to a new city, and starting a new call.
The same changes affect us as a congregation. We have grown older and our energy level is reduced. It takes longer to get going in the morning, and we don’t want to drive at night. Most of us are now on fixed incomes and struggling with rising expenses. Our health and vitality may be diminished both as individuals and collectively as a congregation. We simply cannot do what we did a decade ago.
In the last 10 years, I have done 6 weddings (not including my own), 4 or 8 baptisms (4 for preschool families who are not active members), confirmed 23 catechumens (of whom 2 are still active), received 8 transfers in or professions of faith, signed 23 transfers out, and officiated 42 funerals (7 of which were for family members of Redeemer members or other non-members). As many as have passed away have also moved away, some to be with family within NJ, but most out of state. Some others have simply stopped attending or transferred to other local churches. We are not the Redeemer of 2010 anymore - and haven’t been for some time.
So now it’s time to ask, “Who are we?” as a congregation. “What have we got that’s worth holding on to?” and “What are things that are keeping us from reaching our goals?” “What do we have to offer others?” A crucial question might be, “What would motivate someone to become a member here?” In the business world this is known as a SWOT analysis - Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. What do we do well? What could we be doing better? What needs exist in our “target group” (the unchurched around us)? What would we need to overcome to reach them? Once we have the answers to these questions, then we can start to walk down this new path. If we skip this step we’ll be walking in the dark and it will be as “blind guides leading the blind” (Mt. 15:14).
This is also a critical step before joining together (even temporarily) with another congregation. What strengths might we have that can benefit another congregation? What strengths does the other congregation have that can support our weaknesses? Are we starting from a similar place and walking to the same goal? Without a self study there’s no way of knowing if the two congregations are even able to work together - but more on that next week. Doing a self study is usually the first step in the call process and is done within weeks of a vacancy. While Redeemer is not vacant - at least not yet - it is still a good exercise to go through as we prepare for the next chapter of Redeemer’s story.
It is my hope that the Redeemer leadership will be starting this soon. When the time comes, please give us your input. We don’t know if this will be by congregational mailings, phone interviews, or surveymonkey.com or some other method. We will need everyone’s response and thoughts on these matters so we can plan appropriately for our future together. If you’d like to help out with this, just drop pastor a line or speak to any member of our ministry board. I’m hopeful this can be completed on or before Reformation Day, but we’ll see how it goes.
Until next week, stay safe. Join us on Facebook Live Wednesday nights, worship with us either in person or via Zoom Sundays at 10:00, and keep an eye and an ear open for further updates. God’s peace be with you all.
- Pastor Brian
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work may be a joy and not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. -Hebrews 13:17
This coming Sunday (Aug. 2) we will have the honor of having our District President, Rev. Dr. Anthony Steinbronn, leading us in worship, preaching, and then staying around afterwards for a “talk with the President”. This post-service talk will be focused on the stated goals of this triennium (2019-2022) for the Synod as well as ministry plans for our New Jersey District. Especially poignant at this time will be a discussion about church organization and the lack of pastors for the growing number of older and smaller congregations. But just what can our District President do in regards to these grave facing the Church today?
To understand that we have to join Mr. Peabody and Sherman in the way-back machine and look at the founding of our Synod. Our journey begins at the 300th anniversary of the Reformation in Prussia, 1817. Throughout the 18th century, borders for countries were pretty fluid and by 1817 a (relatively) new kingdom comprised of the various German territories, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, part of the Czech Republic, and various bits and pieces of other Northeast European nations were all joined in the Kingdom of Prussia. This new(ish) kingdom also included the German territory of Saxony, was predominantly Lutheran. As with all other European nations, the State took care of the Church - maintained the buildings, appointed clergy, paid clergy salaries and the like. This is still a common practice in many parts of Europe today, the priests of the Church of England are paid by the taxes collected throughout Great Britain. These civil rulers did a pretty good job of assigning Lutheran preachers to Lutheran congregations and Calvinist preachers to Reformed churches and the like. All that changed in 1817.
That year the King of Prussia decreed that there would only be two church bodies “in all Royal Prussian lands”, namely a Roman Catholic body and a Protestant body. This meant that a Calvinist could preach that there is no forgiveness to be found in the Lord’s Supper (it’s just bread and wine and a memorial meal) and one cannot be certain of one’s salvation as God has already predestined who is saved and who is damned and there’s nothing you can do to know or change that predestination. And this errant teaching could be proclaimed from a Lutheran pulpit, since there was no longer any recognized distinction between Protestant bodies. As odd as this seems to us, it is still pretty common - the United States military has Catholic and Protestant chaplains and services, not Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, etc. Well, the Lutherans in Saxony who held to the clear teaching of Scripture, as systematized in the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, would have none of that.
But what were they to do? The only place in the world where they could practice according to their beliefs was the newly formed United States of America - a country only about 30 years old at that time. To finance his coming wars, the French Emperor, Napoleon sold a vast tract of land to Thomas Jefferson in 1803 (the Louisiana Purchase). This opened up vast tracts of land on either side of the Mississippi River to settlement and immigration. In 1838 a group of 665 Saxon Lutherans left Germany on 5 ships for the new world. Only 4 of the ships arrived in the port of New Orleans (the Amelia was lost at sea), and these Lutherans headed up the Mississippi to the French trading town of St. Louis.
They were led by a bishop named Martin Stephan. He took the title of Bishop for himself as he was the main organizer of the expedition to start a new Confessional Church body in America. The passengers agreed with his taking the title and also gave him much of the authority European bishops had over their flocks. He was in charge of the finances, the food, the places for settlement, and the supreme leader for all matters of faith and life. But it was not meant to last, by the end of 1838, bishop Stephan was caught in the act of adultery. He repented and was absolved, but the sexual misconduct soon resumed. In 1839, he was found to be embezzling funds from the settlement and so was banished to the other side of the Mississippi where he lived out the rest of his life. From that point on, the Missouri Lutherans have not trusted their bishops (even 180 years later) not used that title.
Rev. C.F.W. Walther was now the ranking clergyman and took over the spiritual care of the group, though the finances were now handled by an elected exchequer (treasurer). He refused to take the title of bishop as that had too many European connotations. In 1841 the question arose if they were even a church or part of the Church universal as they were not under the oversight of a duly appointed bishop. This question was settled in the Altenburg debates where it was determined that ecclesiastical forms do not make the Church, only the pure teaching of God’s Word and the administration of the Sacraments according to Christ’s institution. Bishops are nice to have, but not necessary to be the Church.
As Walther and others came to form the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, Michigan and other states in 1847, they wrestled with how they would see that purity of life and doctrine was maintained and who had oversight of what the pastors were being taught, preaching, and teaching. Their solution, based on the United States democratic model, was to elect a President of the Synod and the Districts that make up said Synod followed suit in their District constitutions.
Okay, enough of the history lesson. But in knowing our denominational history we can begin to understand what we can expect of our ecclesiastical leaders. Our District Presidents (all 35 of them) are charged by our governing documents (constitution and by-laws), with preserving sound doctrine and furthering the aims of the Synod as set forth in the minutes from the most recent Synodical Convention. The purpose of a District President is to act as the representative of the Synod for the congregations within his district and any other churches we are in fellowship with.
The duties and authority of the District President are fairly limited in scope. Their purpose is to inform and advise. They have little compulsory power. For example, let’s say St. Mark’s Lutheran Church has a pastoral vacancy. The District President, as outlined in the by-laws, furnishes a list of names of pastors who have expressed interest in taking a new call. These names are given to the congregation, but the District President cannot compel St. Mark’s to select a certain pastor for the call. He can recommend and strongly advise one candidate over another, but he cannot force them to take a particular pastor nor can he simply assign one to St. Mark’s. The exception to this would be a 1st placement coming out of the Seminary. Likewise, the District President cannot order a congregation to close, form a dual parish, or otherwise reconfigure. Again, his powers are limited to presenting the best possible information and advising the congregation on what he sees as the best course of action for the congregation’s future in keeping with the ministry emphases of the Synod. In large part due to the history of Bishop Stephan, the District has no power whatsoever over the finances of a congregation. They cannot unilaterally acquire property or seize the assets of a congregation, nor can they disperse district funds to a congregation without special circumstances approved by the district Board of Directors.
The exception to this is in matters of doctrine. If a pastor is found to be preaching or teaching false doctrine and does not submit to brotherly correction, he may be removed from office. The process for this is not solely the purview of the District President and is much too lengthy to discuss here. If a congregation adopts practices outside of the doctrine of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod and is not open to repentance and conformity with Scripture, then the District President can remove that congregation from the roster and Synod membership. This too is a long and complex process and is rarely needed. So the District President really only has the one arrow in his quiver - he is there mostly to inform and advise.
So why should we listen to him? As the District President, he has his finger on the pulse of congregations throughout the District. If Redeemer is facing some issue, odds are one or more of the other 45+ congregations in the District is wrestling, or has dealt with the same issue. As part of the Council of Presidents, he also meets 3x / year with all the other District Presidents. Who knows, maybe the Central Illinois District has figured out a viable solution to the issues we’re facing? He also meets and is in regular contact with Synod officials and the President of the Synod and can glean useful information from what is happening Synod-wide. He, and he alone, has this wealth of information and the mandate to deliver that intelligence to the congregations over which he presides. Beyond the knowledge, there is also an accumulated wisdom from decades of service to the Church. The District President is, generally speaking, among the oldest active servants of the Church (sorry Tony). There is much to be learned from such a long tenure and the advice should not be lightly dismissed. We should think of our District Presidents as a wealth of information and sound guidance, a great resource to help us plan how we can be Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, ears, and especially mouth in our time and place.
So I hope you will join me in welcoming Pres. Steinbronn this Sunday to our worship service and further that you will stick around after service to hear what he has to say about the state of affairs at Redeemer, New Jersey District, and the Synod at large. Bring your questions and “put him on the spot”, that’s what he’s here for. With God’s Holy Spirit ruling our hearts and minds, guided by His Word, and with the counsel of our District President, I’m confident we can launch into a new and bright chapter of ministry in our little corner of New Jersey. See you on the 2nd!
- Pastor Brian
John, To the seven churches of the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth. - -Revelation 1:4-5a
For the last couple of weeks we’ve looked at what it means to have a pastor part time. If you haven’t read the “Part Time is Plenty” book by G. Jeffrey MacDonald yet, I highly recommend you go to Amazon or Nook and order it. Much of what has been presented these last few weeks is better explained there. We saw how some churches have their pastor working in another field throughout the week and only doing “church work” on Sundays. We also explored how sometimes two churches can work together to share a pastor. Today we’ll look at some ministry configurations which one might say are “out of the box”. These, to my knowledge, have not been implemented anywhere in the Synod, but they have been talked about a lot. Given the shortage of pastors and the increasing number of churches unable to support a full time pastor (even if linked with one other congregation) some of these may be coming soon to a Church District near you.
The first of these ministry options is what I like to call a Triad. This is when 3 churches call a pastor and support ministry staff. This support could be a vicar (pastoral intern), a deacon or deaconess, DCE, DCO, or other commissioned minister. This pairing, with lay staff support (Sunday School teachers, secretaries, elders, etc.) would then serve the ministerial needs of 3 congregations with each congregation keeping its own building, worship time / style, and traditions. These three would form one congregation from a District, political, perspective with one clergy and one lay vote in total at District Conventions. Also one of the churches, usually the one most centrally located, would become the administrative center for the triad.
For example, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church is in a demographically shifting suburb and the congregation has been declining the last 10 - 15 years, but they have a vibrant preschool and many young families in the community who are not (yet) part of the congregation. Their pastor of the last 22 years, now 67 years old, has announced his retirement. St. Mark’s Lutheran Church has an aging congregation and has not had a baptism (adult or infant) in the last 7 years. They are surviving by a large endowment fund, but their pastor has just taken a call to Indiana. St. Luke Lutheran Church had a congregational conflict which caused the pastor to resign and many of the members to leave the church, leaving them too small and financially distressed to consider calling a full time pastor. There are not three churches within their circuit (dual parishes generally do not cross circuit lines) for them to partner up with. St. Mark and St. Luke could partner, but then St. Matthew’s would have to close their doors. So what’s to be done?
After talking to their District President and working with their Circuit Visitor and District Vice-President, these three churches decide to become one church body. As there are three churches forming one “ministry unit” they thought the name Trinity Lutheran Church was appropriate. Each congregation will release itself from its current constitution and the leadership of all three churches will meet monthly, under the oversight of an interim pastor and District representatives, to set forth a new constitution binding upon all three of the congregations making up Trinity. They gave themselves “a year and a day” (must be Celts) to get this done. Once the new constitution is voted on by the congregations and ratified by the Synod, they would become a new congregation and able to issue a call. Until then they have been assigned an intentional interim pastor and a retired pastor from the District will also help with pastoral needs. Once they are able to call they plan on calling a pastor with 15 years+ experience and a Director of Christian Outreach. Should a Vicar become available, they may call one of these pastors-in-training as well. As St. Luke’s just completed a building drive and has a large, new office wing, the congregational “headquarters” will be there with a St. Mark and St. Matthew campus.
While this is a hypothetical example, given the demographics of our Synod and especially the New Jersey District, it’s not really so far-fetched.
Another way of organizing multiple congregations under one pastor is the Episcopal model. Episcopas is Greek for “bishop” or “overseer” and that is how the term is being used. All the churches, vacant or being served by pastors, come under the oversight of the episcopas - bishop. We see this in New testament times as Paul writes as “overseer of your souls'' to ALL the churches of Galatia and in the passage cited above we see John as the bishop of the seven churches of Asia. This would be one, called, ordained, trained, pastor overseeing 4-7 small churches in a particular geographic area. These churches would likely be too small to call on their own and pastoral needs are being handled by laity trained for the task (like our Leaders and Learners program of years past). The bishop rotates through the churches in his diocese on a regular basis and takes care of baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other functions calling for “a called and ordained servant of the Word.” The individual parishes contribute to the care and upkeep of their buildings, local ministries, and each contributes proportionately to the salary and benefits of the bishop. This model frees up most of a congregation’s time and finances to do the work of the church in their local community in whatever way works for that community. Of course the big drawback is Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession which states, “No one should preach, teach, nor administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.” So how to do Holy Communion apart from the bishop’s visitation? We’re still working on that one.
There was quite a bit of “buzz” some years back about “House Churches” and this too falls under the episcopal format. Even if it is the “head of the household” teaching and preaching to his family and friends, oversight would still be needed. In the case of House Churches this oversight would be done by the local pastor, who would, in effect, become a bishop if there were but 2-3 house churches under his jurisdiction. Here to our understanding and practice of Article XIV is an issue.
The fact of the matter is that Scripture is silent on how congregations are to be organized and served. There is no command, nor prohibition against, how believers come together to do the work of the Church. Most of what we now practice has its roots in the Council of Nicaea (part 2) in 326 AD. THAT proper doctrine is to be preached and taught, certainly. HOW that is to be done, not so much. So we have incredible Christian freedom to organize in the best manner for the proclamation of the Gospel.
On August 2nd, after our 10 AM service, our District President, Rev. Dr. Anthony Steinbronn, will be joining us to further explore Redeemer’s next steps moving forward. This is not a voter’s meeting and no decisions will be binding, but it gives us an opportunity to explore some of these “novel” ways of “doing church”. I hope you’ll join us for this informal discussion time. Next week, in preparation for Pres. Steinbronn’s visit, we’ll look at what our Synod and District can and cannot do for congregations when they face a time of major transition. Until then, may God’s peace be and remain with you all.
- Pastor Brian
What, after all, is Apollos? What is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe - as the Lord assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow.
I Corinthians 3:5-7
As we continue looking forward to the probable future of Redeemer, we saw last week that due to external and internal factors Redeemer as a sole pastor, independent congregation will not be possible in the near future. We began to look at what it means to have a "part-time pastor" last blog and we’ll continue that exploration this week.
There is one option of merging congregations I think I may have omitted last week. This would be two small congregations deciding to leave their buildings (sold or redeveloped) and buying a new parcel and constructing a new building equidistant to the two former locations. For example, if Redeemer, Newton and Prince of Peace, Hamburg were to merge / combine, they would each sell their church buildings and parsonages and then use those funds to purchase land / buildings in Sparta (roughly 1/2 way between the two) and start a new congregation with new articles of incorporation, constitutions, by-laws, and officers. This option is rarely done due to an “edifice complex” where people are attached more to the building than to the Lord whose building it is, but it does remain an option.
The most typical way of transitioning to part time pastoral coverage is to form a dual-parish arrangement. This method has a long history in our Synod and is fully recognized by Synodical officers. My first call was to such an arrangement in rural Nebraska and now many dual parishes have moved from rural to more urban centers.
In short, two congregations would “share” a pastor and the costs associated thereof. The division may be 50/50 (typical) or 80/20 or anything in between. How much of the pastor’s time “belongs” to each congregation would need to be sorted out before a call is issued and the particulars as to who is responsible for what laid out in the supplement to the vocation which accompanies the call. Both congregations would keep their buildings (and the expenses pertaining thereto) and non-pastoral staff (organists / musicians, janitorial, school, etc.). Both congregations would need to work with each other instead of against each other as so often happens. For example, if the pastor is to be at Church A on Thursdays for the ladies’ aid Bible study, but has a funeral for a member of Church B that same day / time - how do you handle it?
As can be seen above, the main “problem” with this arrangement is the unrealistic expectation of full time pastoral coverage with part time compensation and prior commitments. One of the biggest questions to be dealt with is the Sunday morning schedule. The pastor cannot be in two places at 10 AM every Sunday. If the churches are close enough together (as most dual parishes are) it is possible that the pastor could lead service at Church A at 9 AM and then (traffic permitting) lead services at Church B at 11 AM. Sadly, many churches would rather close than adjust their service times. This happens both formally and informally, Formally, one church removes itself from the dal parish agreement (called a Concord) and then closes its doors. More often it happens informally as some members of church A decide that 9 AM is too early to get up and be ready for church, so they stop coming. Or church B decides 11 AM is too late and that “church takes up the whole day” and so go elsewhere or nowhere. The result is the same, there are too few people (remember the critical mass blog?) to keep this dual parish operational. This is especially true of “special services” like Easter morning and Christmas Eve. BOTH congregations need to be flexible as to their service times for this to work.
Another thing to remember is that these are two independent congregations, each with their own demographics, histories, traditions, and needs. It is not uncommon for them to have two very different worship styles. In my first call the “old” church used Lutheran Worship (LSB wouldn’t come out for another 7 years), the “new” church was still using TLH from 1941 (remember page 5 or 15?). One may have traditional worship and the other a contemporary service. One may be primarily young families with children and the other more mature members. Thus the pastor would need to craft two very different worship services and two completely different sermons, even if the two churches shared the same text. This doubling of preparation time would take away from the pastor’s availability for other ministries throughout the week - remember, he is still working the same # of hours, just in / for two or more locations. There may be 2 shut-ins at one church and 7 at the other, so how do you arrange for a “prefect” 50 / 50 split? How do you deal with Confirmation Class? What about administrative meetings (council, board, voters)?
There are many things that go into forming a dual parish, any one of which could dissolve the agreement / concord. Thus while an attractive option, it works out on paper more often than in reality.
Another model gaining some headway in districts and the Synod as a whole is the “Circuit Rider'' model, which was used by our Synod in its earlier years so there is historical precedent for it. In this model the pastor is called by the Circuit, not one or more congregations. He is then “vacancy” pastor for all congregations in that circuit which called him. At any given time there may be 2-5 vacancies in a circuit and this number is expected to grow as more pastors retire, fewer enter or complete seminary training, and more congregations fall below that “critical mass”. The Circuit Ride would, well, ride (though drive would be the term in the 21st Century) to each of the churches in rotation. The first Sunday, he may be at church B and the second Sunday at church D, and the third Sunday preach and consecrate at church A and so on. While he’s in town, he would visit the sick and shut in and perhaps lead a Bible study or attend an administrative meeting. His compensation package would be split between the 3-4 churches he rides to and possibly with some help from the other churches in the circuit or the district.
So what do these churches do the other 3 Sundays of the month? Well that seems to be the biggest impediment to implementing this plan. Many churches have gone to Communion every Sunday, whereas in the past a monthly reception of the Lord’s Supper was more the norm. Pre-consecrating the elements is not in keeping with our understanding of the Lord’s Supper as laid out in Holy Scripture, and is therefore discouraged. Video streaming (e.g. Kairos) could be an option, as could lay led services. However the non-Communion service happens, the congregations in the Circuit Rider’s zone would have to be comfortable receiving Christ’s body and blood only once a month or be willing to travel to where the pastor is that week.
The other issue with the Circuit Rider is political. Do the 3 or 4 congregations served by the Rider = 1 congregational delegate for District conventions? Can the Rider serve as the circuit’s pastoral delegate for the Synodical convention? Do each of the congregations get a vote for their Circuit Visitor? These and other issues are generating much discussion right now in Church Polity classes at our seminaries, but as of yet no formal statements have been made by the Synod as to suffrage.
Next week, we’ll look at some “out of the box” options when it comes to pastoral coverage. Until then, check your mailbox at church (now open with Covid-19 safety protocols in place) for a letter to help prepare you for our District President’s Sunday which will be August 2nd at our normal worshiping time.
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.