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
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.