So you are new in town, and looking for a church. Maybe you're a Lutheran, or maybe not, but the parishes on your short list include a couple of Lutheran joints. One of them is St. Birgitta's, with a leaky roof and the letters "ELCA" on its sign. The other is Sweet Savior, with a crisp new roof, a blank spot on its sign where the letters were painted over, and a brand-new affiliation with the LCMC.
Which one do you choose?
There are a lot of factors to consider. Maybe you have a psychological aversion to leaky roofs, and one rainy day at St. B's would push you over the edge. Or maybe you simply can't worship God in the absence of a drum kit and some laser lights, which Sweet Savior offers at every service. Hallelujah! The decision is made.
But failing some straightforward sign from on high, you might want to consider the pastor. Can she preach? Does she preach the Gospel? Does she live the same Gospel that she preaches? And how can you know?
Jumping out of that last question, you also might want to consider the standards to which the two churches hold their pastors. These, as it turns out, are somewhat different.
The ELCA is organized more or less like most Protestant denominations in the US. This means that it tends to be a bit top-heavy, and loaded with legalistic rules and procedures. Many of these -- based on the model constitution for congregations, we would even venture to say most -- concern the preparation, conduct and discipline of the clergy.
Father Anonymous, for example, is an ELCA pastor. He holds a B.A,. an M.Div. and an S.T.M., all awarded with the customary honors. He has completed a basic unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, a year of full-time parish internship, and six years of structured continuing education. Through his synod, he has taken any number of workshops, on subjects ranging from evangelism to ethical boundaries. He has also has continued his education independently, participating actively in various scholarly conferences and publishing a series of articles on liturgical history and theology. He goes on retreat once or twice each year, to do little but pray in community with colleagues.
These are fairly standard credentials. Many of our colleagues hold more impressive ones -- doctorates are hardly thin on the ground; a surprising number of pastors are also accomplished musicians and artists. Many have developed great expertise in psychological counseling, social work, and community development. Nearly all are reasonably accomplished preachers and worship leaders.
Perhaps this is the most important thing to know about Fr. A., or any other ELCA pastor: In the years leading up to ordination, he was under the constant scrutiny both of his seminary faculty and of his synod's Candidacy Committee. He was given a day-long psychological examination, the results of which were reported to his bishop and committee. Since ordination, he has served under the supervision of his bishop. Although this supervision is often nominal, that situation is subject to rapid change. Both the pastor and the bishop are subject to an elaborate disciplinary procedure, which can be initiated easily and ended only with some difficulty -- and which is widely perceived to favor those making a complaint, rather than those being complained about. The existence of such procedures cannot be guaranteed to prevent indiscretions, either personal or theological. But it does tend to keep one's worst impulses in check.
So how about the LCMC?
At the moment, most LCMC pastors are recent refugees from the ELCA. This means, naturally, that they have come through the same processes of formation, education and credentialing that ELCA pastors have. They are accustomed to the same level of scrutiny, and indeed in many cases the reason they have left the ELCA is that they consider its ethical standards to be insufficiently strict.
Pretty much the same deal, right? Maybe for now. But not, we suspect, for very long -- and here's why.
The LCMC considers itself to be "a post-denominational association." Their website does a funny semantic dance, both affirming and denying its identity as a "denomination." It's easy to understand why, since a large part of the LCMC's publicity has focused on the idea that those "typical protestant denominations" we mentioned are clunky old dinosaurs. But what does it mean to be a "post-denominational association"? Specifically, what does it mean in terms of clerical formation, rostering and discipline?
According to its website, the LCMC recognizes two kinds of congregational call, "certified" and "contract." A candidate with a certified call must have college and seminary degrees "or the equivalent," and may have gone through psychological examination, CPE, and internship. Maybe, but with absolutely no guarantee.
As for continuing education, supervision and disciplinary procedures -- well, maybe these will evolve in time. Or maybe they are signs of a top-heavy denominational dinosaur.
The standards for a contract call, meanwhile, are nearly non-existent. Basically, the candidate must subscribe to the statement of faith. Period. No education is required, nor is any other test of intellectual, psychological or spiritual fitness. (Except, of course, for not being gay.)
In theory, of course, congregations might well be the best judge of what constitutes fitness for leadership in their own ministry. In practice, however, it has been our experience that congregations just aren't accustomed to thinking about things that happen outside their immediate environs -- things, in other words, like education, formation and supervision. They are easily swayed by a smooth talker, and lack the capacity to dig much deeper.
Consider this helpful note from the LCMC: "Criminal, employment, and reference checks are the responsibility of the congregation as the employer and LCMC does not conduct such investigations." That's true in the ELCA, too, we expect. (Or we expected, until a commenter told us otherwise; seminarians, at least, are now subject to such checks.) By the time a candidate gets to an ELCA congregation, he or she will typically have been subjected to so much scrutiny that a background check is superfluous. The LCMC lacks the internal resources, or even the desire, to pre-screen candidates for their congregations.
Here's how the subject was recently presented in the newsletter of an LCMC congregation:
A pastor is someone who is called or hired by a congregation for the specific purpose of serving in a pastoral capacity. It is not dependent upon the education of the person being called; it is dependent upon the decision of the congregation to call that person...
Although pastors in the Lutheran church have traditionally been seminary graduates, there is no biblical requirement that this be so. Many other denominations routinely call persons to serve as pastor who have no formal training. Even Lutheran churches often hire associate pastors or youth pastors who ahve little or no formal training. These pastors are commonly addressed by the title pastor [Blogger's note: Really? Not in our experience.]
In the LCMC,... [i]ndividuals qualify to serve as contract pastor when they and the congregation feel a call on their life. ....the only requirement that LCMC has for contract pastors is that they must subscribe to the LCMC's faith statement.....all of the pastors in LCMC, whether certified or contract, are entitled to use the title "Pastor"
That bottom-lines it nicely and honestly.
So if you choose St. Brigitta's, you may get a leaky roof, but you will also get a seminary graduate who is subject to well-established disciplinary codes. This doesn't guarantee competence, but it certainly suggests a basic level of experience and reliability. If you choose Sweet Savior and their snappy drum kit, it is possible that your "pastor" will be a college student with little or no prior experience of parish ministry or even Lutheranism, who has been screened only by a committee of well-meaning but overmatched church elders (who were probably too cheap to spring for the background check), and who is now subject to no external discipline whatsoever.
Your choice, but we hope it isn't a tough one.