Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Know Before You Go

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.


El Presidente said...

And what's so bad about a leaky roof, after all?

Anonymous said...

I sit on an ELCA candidacy committee. I also work at one of the ELCA seminaries.

Yes, ELCA candidates for ordained ministry are subjected to criminal, employment and financial background checks as part of the candidacy process.

Also, a number of seminarians who have failed their internships have terminated their candidacy process in the ELCA and gone over to the LCMC, which has accepted them with open arms, never questioning why their internships failed. Some very ill-equipped and even harmful people are becoming pastors in the LCMC.

Anonymous said...

Does the "statement of faith" include some passage about upholding the pre-CWA09 version of "Vision and Expectation, a document of the evil ELCA?"

Father Anonymous said...

Frankly, the best church I ever served had a leaky roof.

Father Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous: I wish this surprised me, but it does not. Although I only know a single LCMC pastor personally, I happen to know that he also failed his internship, decades ago in the LCA, and had to do a second one, which he barely scraped by.

And as I have said a couple of times on the blog, my own synod has had two quite different pastors leave for other Lutheran church bodies shortly before a discipline committee would have defrocked them.

So, all told, no surprise. Just pain.

Pastor Joelle said...

This is all very disturbing.

LiturgyGeek said...

How does one fail an internship in the ELCA tradition? I'm UCC and have never heard of such a thing, or it never occurred to me that one *could* fail, unless you failed to show up or were chronically unprepared. Even in the case of a "poor match," attempts through the seminary were made to help make it work (or transfer a student, if that was truly necessary).

It seems like frankly more work to fail than to succeed, at least the way I did it.

Father Anonymous said...

It's so rare that I don't have any first-hand examples to work from. But. as I understand it, if a candidate simply doesn't display the right qualities, including maturity, the candidacy committee can require further work -- up to and including a second internship.

And it is the committee that makes this decision, NOT the supervisor. The system does recognize the existence of incompatible personalities. Oy vey, with the stories.

(Although I still laugh at the fact that my own supervisor was a Rush Limbaugh-listening low churchman ... from the AELC. It had all the makings of a disaster, but I loved the guy, and still do. He was a hell of a good pastor and a hell of a good supervisor).

Anonymous said...

and yet you still blame all the ills of the ELCA on the AELC? ;)

Pastor Joelle said...

I had a class mate who failed his internship. Every time he had to preach he would call his supervisor in tears the night before and say he couldn't do it.

He didn't go back to seminary.

LiturgyGeek said...

Huh. Fascinating. Your committees seem to exercise a great deal more power/authority than our committees on ministry generally do. I'm tempted to say that I'm not sure we have that authority, but I think it's more accurate to say that we simply do not use that authority.

Father Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous: There's a bit more to my beloved supervisor's life story. I'm reluctant to share details, which are all very private and which I know only at second or third hand, but it IS instructive. Long before I met him, he was guilty of one very grave error. Rather than accept the punishment prescribed by his LCMS district president, he fled to and was accepted into the AELC. Which sort of goes to my point about schismatic microdenominations in general -- although he did many years of fine ministry in his new home.

@PastorJoelle: Now that you mention it, I had a guy like that in my CPE group. Sweet, smart, and with all the makings of a very fine theologian. But in the first 8 weeks of our 12-week program, I don't think he made three patient visits. They terrified him. His verbatims were about discussions with our supervisor or the lunch ladies. Eventually, the supervisor handed him a bunch of pamphlets and said, "Deliver these to the patients." It was the only way he could stand to walk through the door.

@LiturgyGeek: I don't know enough about the UCC to make a comparison, but it wouldn't surprise me. Our outward mask of liberalism and modernity still hides an inner core of Teutonic rigidity -- thank Heaven! That said, I have heard stories about synods in which the candidacy committee becomes tyrannical and terrifying to ordinands; in my own synod, it is more often a source of support, encouragement, and gentle guidance.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I hadn't thought this out, but what you say is in line with somethings I've heard. My retired-pastor-friend says that his adult child attends an x-elca church that he says didn't seem very Lutheran. And it "calls" people from within to be pastors. My shirt tail relative is a long time member of a very growing now-x elca congregation. She has gone from being an assistant to the pastor to a pastor in training.

OTOH, even our church does a background check on anyone wanting to work with the youth. With the 'net this is a 15 minute process, according to someone I know who hires for an elca camp. Costs $$, but it is necessary.

I do agree that most lay people in a church wouldn't know the right (hard) questions to ask.