By David Strand
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The 223 attendees at the Synod’s second Model Theological Conference Aug. 23-25 here took about 15 seconds to answer the question posed by the meeting’s theme, “The Congregation’s Ministry and Mission: Who’s in Charge Here?” The feeling was unanimous that, because the church belongs to Jesus Christ, none other than Jesus Christ is ultimately in charge.
With that settled, the attendees, representing every district in the Synod, spent the next two-and-a-half days discussing the finer points of their theme. The 151 pastors and 72 commissioned and lay workers (29 of the latter being women) grappled with such questions as:
- How best do pastors (representing the office of the public ministry) and lay workers and leaders (representing the priesthood of all believers) work together in a congregational setting?
- What is the Synod’s understanding of pastoral and lay roles in the congregation? Jesus, of course, is “in charge,” but who runs the show in human terms on an everyday basis?
- What’s the role of the congregation in all this, and how do pastors and congregational members hold themselves and one another accountable in fulfilling their roles? And,
- How do pastors and congregations reconcile with each other when things go wrong?
At the outset of the conference, Dr. Samuel Nafzger, executive director of the Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR, which, along with the Council of [District] Presidents, organized the conference), said the topic at hand was “timely.”
“When we don’t work together as congregations and pastors,” he said, “the mission of the church suffers.” He thanked participants for coming so well prepared — they had read an extensive list of background materials — and expressed appreciation to Thrivent Financial for Lutherans for underwriting the event to the tune of $170,000.
Conference facilitator Ted Kober, president of Billings, Mont.-based Ambassadors of Reconciliation, a Recognized Service Organization of the Synod, and a former member of the Synod’s Board of Directors, urged participants to treat respectfully those with whom they disagreed. This conference will not result, he said, in the resolution of all of our differences on these questions, “but it can begin a process of opening the dialogue” for the entire church.
In their presentations on the first day of the conference, essayists Rev. Ralph Blomenberg, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Seymour, Ind., and Peter A. Hessler, a Cleveland attorney and member of the CTCR, sounded similar themes.
Blomenberg, representing the pastor’s perspective on “Who’s in charge here?,” said the question of whether pastors or laypeople hold sway in the daily life of a congregation is not an “either-or” proposition. Rather, the ministry of the congregation works best when pastor and people work in harmony, with mutual respect for each other.
“God’s design for His church,” he said, “is that every congregation has a team ministry,” even if that ministry involves just one called worker. He drew the analogy of a clothesline, whose poles work together to keep the cord taut and the clothes off the ground. In like way, he said, “The church needs the twin offices of the public ministry and the priesthood to fulfill its mission and ministry.”
The image of the pastor as shepherd and the people as sheep, Blomenberg noted, if taken too far, can lead to the impression that the pastor is a superior being, while the people are dull-witted animals incapable of doing much. Better to think of the pastor, he said, as a “captain in the army, who leads by example more than power.” The church, he suggested, would do well to think of the pastor less in terms of his being an “authority” than in his having authorization from God to fulfill the distinctive functions of his office. The relationship between pastor and people, who have their own “distinctive functions” as the priesthood of all believers, should be more complementary than top-down.
Hessler, coming at the topic from the lay perspective, seconded the notion that the respective roles of pastor and laypeople “are designed to complement one another rather than compete against the other.” He stressed the importance, as Blomenberg had, of accountability — the need for pastors and laypeople to be accountable not only for themselves but also for the other, even in the case of the other’s shortcomings. In doing so, he said, we will “be bound by attitudes of service, support, and love. The mission of the church will be furthered and, even in the reality of human frailty, frustration, and failure, God will continue His good work in, through, among, and with His church.
“We’re in this together,” he reminded his listeners. “We’ll sink or swim together.”
Both speakers took pains not to blur the “job descriptions” of pastors and other congregational workers. Blomenberg cited C.F.W. Walther’s belief that “the holy ministry, or the pastoral office, is an office distinct from the priestly office, which belongs to all believers.” Hessler added that “there is a difference between the public ministry, over which we all share responsibility, and the office of the public ministry, which is reserved for those we call pastors.”
In the question-and-answer time following Blomenberg’s speech, Rev. Kurt Marquart, a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, said, “We need to name the actual problems that bedevil us.” One such problem, he said, is that some pastors, those in the “pseudo-confessional movement, drooling after Rome,” have adopted “an elitist view of clergy.”
Meanwhile, there is a “low-church grade” that nearly abolishes the ministry, taking the position that “any temporary appoint-ment amounts to a call.” We need to resolve this, Marquart said, by going back to the “golden middle” of what the pastoral office is meant to be.
With the exception of a few breaks, attendees worked continuously, meeting or worshiping well into the evening on the two full days of the conference. They scarcely could glimpse the palm trees, pools, painted skies, and desert blooms of their meeting facility, all of it lorded over by the pale-purple outcroppings of twin-humped Camelback Mountain. Instead, they gathered in a windowless ballroom and stuck to the task at hand.
Panel and plenary discussions centered largely on pastoral and congregational accountability and reconciliation, the latter treated in detail by moderator Kober. Space does not allow a comprehensive review of comments raised at the