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Thursday, January 07, 2010  

Chicago Diarist

On Tuesday a group from our local clergy conference gathered at St. Luke's Church to study the lectionary texts for Sunday. I was the most junior pastor by far--a distinction made all the more evident because I was the only attendee who hadn't yet heard that Augsburg Fortress was canceling its pension plan. The plan's remaining assets will be divided into lump sums for everyone who has paid in. The retirees will have to shift for themselves thereafter and those still employed will have to make other plans for their own retirement.

Being in the room with pastors in or near the second half of their careers when such news comes out is a difficult experience. There was no bellyaching or self-pity, thankfully--I really can't stand whiny pastors--but a certain somberness. Everyone going into Lutheran ministry knows that it's no way to get rich. But for a long time there was a not unreasonable expectation that a life of faithful and modestly-compensated service to the church would be capped with a secure retirement. Demographic decline and economic downturn have collaborated to erode any security, whether at the parish or national level.

In a way, as these large professional and bureaucratic structures dissolve before our eyes, we see our assumptions laid bare. We were a Christendom church, counting on the legacy of mandatory participation from Scandinavian and German communities. We were a middle class church, tied to the gradually but perpetually rising fortunes of America. We were a church led by educated professionals--men (and later women) trained in theology, Scripture, history, and later the basics of psychology and counseling, people whose specialized labor in preaching, teaching, the priestly arts, visiting, and pastoral care should be regarded similarly to the labor of doctors and professors. We were the moral voice of democratic capitalist America, partaking of its privileges but speaking out with authority on matters of race relations, war and peace, and basic human welfare.

But we learned once again, "God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions." The legacy churches found out we couldn't take any surnames for granted. The expansion of the middle class stalled out in the 1970's, striking at the foundation of the educational and professional status of our pastors. The center of American culture drifted one way, we drifted another, and now we release position papers and social statements that are mocked even by half of our dazed little flock. Americans wanted something different--maybe many different things--from their churches than a staid man in a cassock and surplice pronouncing both repentance and uplift in suitably measured, modern tones.

In their day, the Lutheran churches--along with Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the rest of the mainstream Protestants--were a great thing. When white Evangelicals were largely sunk in intellectual bigotry and apocalyptic belligerence, and the Catholic Church was still figuring out how to engage in democratic citizenship (thank you, John Courtney Murray), the mainline denominations held the center. Insofar as there was a broad Christian culture in 20th century America that was worth defending, it was theirs. They were beset on all sides, accused of both radicalism and excessive conservatism, of theological novelty and of confessional sclerosis, of "political correctness" and of white male domination. And there was some truth to all the charges at some time or place or issue. That, however, is a sign of their success, not their failure, in giving the Gospel a public voice in a mass democracy.

Today of course we live in the waning of this mid-century fluorescence. A generation of right-wing Catholic ideologues and their new friends among the white evangelical movement cackle at this turn of events--proving, as they would have it, that all this time we spent fighting for civil rights and struggling towards women's equality in our churches was so much defiance of God. Lamentably, some Lutherans seem inclined to agree. The only churches that grow, I hear it said, are the prosperity churches, or the churches that spend all their time trying to exclude people. Or I hear that the culture is too secular now. At the very bottom of this self-pitying heap you hear bizarre complaints about the 1987 merger, or moving churchwide from Minneapolis to Chicago, or the seminaries--as if the train went off the tracks because of a bad whistle.

Lutherans need to stop telling themselves these things because they are not true. One parish I know in the area--and surely there are more--gains lots of members disaffected with the local ultra-right Catholic parish. And on the other side of the coin, there are plenty of evangelical and pentecostal churches that are doing excellent ministry without either prosperity pimping or gay-baiting (as a rule, people go to church to hear about themselves, not people they imagine aren't in the room--though a little of that obviously helps from time to time, and there are exceptions for the genuinely sore-headed). In fact, for all our self-proclaimed inclusiveness, it's these churches and their practical, if conservative, theology that seem to be drawing young Latinos, African-Americans, and the truly unchurched. Our secular culture is not so hospitable to the Christian faith as the old country was in the days of the old Church, when a good preacher or a well-executed mystery cycle could whip the faithful into a sentimental frenzy of Jew-killing, but yet it preserves and gives voice to all kinds of religious yearnings. And of the "this wouldn't be happening if we were still in Minneapolis" talk, the less said the better.

The proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments will continue until the second coming. But they will do so, at least for the near future, without the trappings of middle-class security. There will be big churches, some with criminally overpaid pastors and some with merely quite comfortable ones. And there will be smaller fellowships led by pastors hustling up their income for different sources, traveling light, and skipping some of the residential and academic preparation for old-school ministry. Even the multi-building campuses, of whatever denomination, will someday fall into disuse and decay, as nothing built by human hands lasts forever.

I don't embrace this future without sadness. I absolutely adored my largely impractical professional education. I felt, in the weeks after my ordination, like someone trained as an expert buggy-whip manufacturer entering the workforce in 1915. I know I'll have to do things differently than I was trained to do. But I love buggy-whips. I love spending my time in books of commentary and poetry and theology to find just the right thing for a sermon. I love visiting people in the hospital. I love vestments, which take me out of myself (and my modest clothing budget) for a time and speak to God's work rather than my personality or my means. I love teaching the basics of the faith to handful of teenagers preparing for confirmation.

Moreover, I love the people who have given their lives to these humble, all-important tasks. My heart aches for people who had every encouragement to expect a decent minimum from the church and the flock they love and serve but who cannot count even on that. Clergy are often depicted as hypocritical, greedy, dourly judgmental, or merely ridiculous, but that is not my experience. We are people who wished to serve the Lord and his people in very basic, very quotidian ways, and now those ways are shifting under our feet.

Thankfully, of course, our business is not to proclaim ourselves or our mental states, but rather the God who called us to this task, and this week we have a real treasure, from Isaiah 43:

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
[B]ring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.’

There will be floods but we will not drown, fires but we will not be consumed. While we are crafting--or discarding--our ministry buggy-whips, God is crafting us and countless others for God's own glory. In a culture, and even in a church, that imagines ourselves as self-fashioning and self-willed, it is a bracing reminder that the promises of God do not pertain to our pensions, our programs, or our parochial health. They speak of a final gathering of God's people above and beyond our frail little efforts to proclaim hope for it.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:08 AM
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