With Dr. Bruce Hartung
Q: While visiting my parents this summer, we were talking about their congregation. Not long after their pastor’s name came up, my Dad said that the pastor “can’t stand” a well-known Synod leader, whom he identified by name.
That made me realize how hard it could be for some laity in a congregation to follow the leadership of an institution that sets direction and future possibilities for their congregation. I thought to myself later on, “why does Dad even know that?”
Pastors in our church body have a lot of influence just by mere presence and office. Perhaps we need to continue to be more introspective regarding the power wielded to pastors even through simple means such as the tongue.
A: You are addressing conflict. Is it healthy, or not? There is little question that there is conflict within our LCMS. Some think there is more than the average level of conflict, so the amount of it may be in some dispute. But any way you look at it, healthy conflict is necessary for the growth of individuals and of organizations.
Without healthy conflict, we could not generate conversations about differing ideas and differing approaches to difficult problems and issues. Without healthy conflict, we would look quite vanilla — as in bland, conforming, and uncreative (with apologies to those who love things vanilla). With healthy conflict, we can have a robust exchange of ideas that lead us to some even previously-unthought-of solutions.
But this conflict you describe does not sound healthy, because it moves from the issues or problems that need to be addressed, to personal attack, innuendo, and public negativity. In that kind of unhealthy situation, people are no longer addressing the problem or situation at hand, but rather targeting a person or persons — making the situation one of personal opposition and liking or disliking.
It sounds as though your Dad’s pastor could be at this unhealthy level in his conflict with a well-known leader in our LCMS. It would be such a different conversation if your Dad reported something like, “My pastor disagrees with the person on the following issue or issues.” Stating it that way, we leave open the possibility of exchanging ideas and also have the potential of a lively conversation.
But the way it was stated, it’s apparent the disagreements have become personal. Conflicts rarely are resolved when they are at a personal level.
You also have added another significant issue concerning the pastor’s public statements from the position of his pastoral office and vocation. And, I think you have accurately suggested some considerable need for re-thinking on the part of the pastor.
I would like to add the need for repentance — publicly — on the part of the pastor. Wherever there are public statements of such personal attacks (assuming, of course, that your Dad’s reporting is accurate), there need to be public statements for repentance.
So what can you do to move this in a different direction, since you are involved only with your Dad?
One possibility is to suggest to your Dad that he share his concern with his pastor. Hopefully, the pastor will quickly see the implications of his behavior. Another possibility is that you get your Dad’s permission to talk with his pastor. You, as a fellow pastor, could discuss this matter fraternally. After all, this pastor’s behavior does affect the spiritual life of your Mom and Dad.
In the case of the last possibility, what would be said? Perhaps something like this: “I have heard from my Dad that you have publicly stated that you can’t stand the leader he mentioned by name. Is what I heard true? If so, I’d like to talk with you about that because I think personally disliking someone is not something that should be publicly shared, even though policy or theological disagreements certainly should be shared.” Then you would invite the pastor to tell you his story. And, you could share your concerns.
As you infer, the LCMS does have something of a reputation for differences of ideas morphing into more acute and destructive personal attacks. I think we could all work on this. Here is one chance.
If readers have some thoughts to share on this topic, please write to me.
Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Posted Aug. 8, 2008