The Reality of Dismissed yet not Defrocked Pastors

frustrated-manWhen I presented my paper about whether a pastor could be dismissed for any reason by a congregation, there was one main thing that made people almost universally uncomfortable.  Some agreed with the basic premise of the paper and others disagreed much as I expected.  But what brought the most questions was my assertion that if a pastor was to be dismissed from a call, he should also be removed from the ministry all together.   Why is that true?  As the paper asserts, either a man is fit to be pastor in any location (including his current one) or he is not fit in any location.  The nature of the kingdom and the nature of the pastoral office demand this conclusion. 

The reason people are uncomfortable with this conclusion is because it  is so much easier to move past conflict than get to the heart of it and deal with the sinful mess unveiled.  But when it comes to the Church we are compelled to do the latter.  Only then can Jesus do his work of reconciliation in the situation. 

In this post, I want to elaborate on the good that is brought forth when we do the hard work of truly determining whether a man is fit for the office of pastor or not rather than seeking to move quickly beyond conflict.

First, there has been much talk in the Synod (reflected in resolutions that will go before convention this summer) about the plight of those removed from one congregation and then left in limbo (often referred to as CRM status) without a call.  Some have suggested that these pastors have been terribly mistreated by  our synod.  And in one way, who could disagree?  We have told them they are fit for the office and then refused to afford them opportunities to serve in the office.  

However, truth be told, some of these men are probably not fit for the office. They have insisted on certain things as necessary to the Church that are not necessary.  They have been domineering over their people in ways that exceed the authority given to them.  They are not and maybe never were able to teach the faith.  They should have been removed from the office or never allowed to be ordained in the first place.

Others were truly forced out wrongfully from the office they were called to fill.  People would not receive the Word their pastor was called to bring forth.  Personal preferences became idols.  People did not understand the nature of the office their pastor had been given.

The truth is that there is hardly any way to know what is really the case with these men in most cases, especially from afar.  Even up close, it can be hard to ascertain the spiritual nature of the conflict.  But why do we even have so many of these men?  Is the answer problem pastors or problem people?  Who knows?  Those given the responsibility (although often armed with no authority) simply did not ever truly find out and deal with it through the Word.

All too often, men are dismissed under the guise that it is okay precisely because they remain on the clergy roster and therefore will receive another call.  However, such an outcome is certainly not common.

officeministryThat is why the real question must be answered at the time of the contention within the current congregation.  We cannot dismiss a pastor “lovingly” to seek another call when such a call will never come.  We must ask and determine the answer to this question, “Is the man fit for the office or not?”  If so, he is not dismissed.  Issues are worked through.  Sin is confessed and absolved.  But the man called remains.  If not, he is removed from the clergy roster.  He is rendered aid in moving on to another suitable vocation. 

In this way we deal honestly and faithfully with the pastor.  He knows exactly where he stands and what the Church has deemed him fit to do in the Kingdom.  It deals with any sins he needs to confess.  It makes us able to help in his areas of weakness.

Secondly, it is also the faithful way to deal with the congregation involved and its members.  We so often let congregations chew up pastor after pastor because sin and false understandings are never ultimately addressed.  We often never speak truth to them because we fear that they will react in a way that effects us, the district, or the synod in a negative way.  In this way, congregations’ spiritual dysfunction become habitual throughout the generations.  And this is not only bad for future pastors but it is also dangerous for the spiritual life of those persisting in unrepentant sin.

Many are asking what to do with these men stuck in limbo in the LCMS, deemed technically fit for the ministry and yet treated as if they are not fit for the ministry.  Honestly, I have no good ideas about this.  Others are and will be ( I hope) working to figure out how to deal with their situation.  I hope those doing this work will neither assume all of these men as useless rejects or as pure and faithful martyrs. The hard work of determining these men’s fitness for ministry will be so much harder now than it would have been then, even though it would have been plenty hard then.

Here is what I know.  We must stop creating more of these men.  We must figure out in each case whether a man is fit for the office or not.  If he is, he stays in his current congregation as pastor until called elsewhere by God.  If he is not, he is no longer eligible to serve anywhere.  The unwillingness to work through this difficult question has caused way too much trouble already.

This is why pastors cannot be dismissed from a congregation and not be removed from the clergy roster no matter how uncomfortable that truth makes us.  It creates the very limbo so many are suffering in right now.  Those not fit for the office wrongly continue to believe they are.  And those truly fit for the office rightly wonder why they are not given opportunity to serve.  This cannot continue.  We must have the Godly courage to deal with sin and the confidence that God’s forgiveness is the answer.

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12 Responses to “The Reality of Dismissed yet not Defrocked Pastors”

  1. Jason Harris Says:

    This doesn’t take into account congregations who come to a point that they genuinely can not afford to pay their pastor. When this became more and more evident in my first call, we started on a series of meetings with the District President to discuss options, dual parish arrangements, loans and so forth. When the church repeatedly delayed making a decision and told me over and over that I might not get paid the following week, I was the one who set a date for the following summer and said that if I had not received another call by that point I would resign my call and return to seminary to work on my STM.

    The church was not abusive and corrupt. The real core of the congregation was a group of widows on social security who were driving themselves crazy trying to pay a salary they couldn’t afford. They loved me and would do whatever it takes to keep me there. But several middle aged families with the ability to submit significant offerings (but no historical ties to the congregation, having abandoned a different congregation years ago during a dispute) starting leaving for greener pastures when the 2008 economy tanked and the church finances became shaky.

    There was no evil DP doing a witch hunt to smoke out a confessional guy. It was in the Wyoming district where the theological unity is unparalleled. Neither was it a case of me teaching false doctrine or living a scandalous life. I was accepted into the STM program and now serve as pastor at a small, but well known and respected, confessional congregation in Indiana.

    There are times when churches, who at one time supported a full time pastor, should either close, go dual-parish or use a part time retired guy. The man caught in the crossfire should neither be castigated as a church-killer nor selfishly insist that the little old ladies pay his full salary and benefits indefinitely. Sometimes things need to end peacefully.

  2. Debbie Harris Says:

    The failing economy has forced many people to become unemployed through no fault of their own, including pastors. At I just read yet another story like this – written by Larissa Rucker, the wife of a pastor who had to “peacefully” because of the economy. No sin or bad theology involved there or with my son Jason Harris who posted above.

  3. Mark Lovett Says:

    I appreciate your post and I agree with your premise, with the proviso that there are other reasons pastors may have to resign a call, as the two previous comments note.

    In keeping with your idea, Phil, perhaps we need also address those pastors who can no longer serve for innocent reasons, like money. Some pastors and ministeriums have begun to try and help pastors whose congregations cannot pay them or have large medical bills, etc. This is a nice nod to the problem, but we have a long way to go before we see the holy office of the ministry as part and parcel to the entire church and not just to those who can afford a pastor or want one.

  4. Todd Wilken Says:

    DPs put/keep men in limbo because they lack the courage to defrock the unfit, or stand behind the fit. The DPs have created this limbo. The DPs are this limbo’s doorkeepers and sentries.

    I suggest a 5% reduction in a DP’s salary for every man in his cell block of LCMS limbo. TW

  5. Mark Surburg Says:

    Pastor Hoppe,

    Thank you for your excellent post. Some more thoughts prompted by your post:

    In Christ,

    Mark Surburg

  6. Five Percent Per Man | The Bare Bulb Says:

    […] suggested in a recent post by Philip Hoppe, the District Presidents of the LCMS place and keep men in this limbo because they lack the courage […]

  7. Karl Gregory Says:

    Whatever the reason, the premise of Pr. Hoppe is spot-on. Perhaps those who are “fit” for the Ministry, should be supported by the district, who fulfills the obligation of the Call until that pastor receives another Call.

  8. Chris Says:

    Tu es sacredos in aeternum secundum ordained Melchizidek.–thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizidek.


    I’m going to give two solutions though I’m sure you will like neither. If implemented properly, they will sove the issue at hand.

    1) get rid of the congregational polity system. Pastors should be assigned by the LCMS. Congregations can submit preferences as to whom they think would best benefit their congregation. And the LCMS should listen and find several suitable candidates. Now, it may not work out. It doesn’t always work out when a pastor is called by an individual congregations. But the polity system is why so many pastors, good ones, are left in limbo. The Augsburg confession nor any of the confessions describe congregational polity as descriptive nor normative.

    2) a big problem is the loss among Lutherans of viewing the priest/pastor strictly as a job without any sacremental characteristic. St. John Chrysostom once wrote that after the incarnation of the Word, the greatest gift God gave to the world was the priesthood. If Lutherans regarded the priesthood and priests as gifts and not strictly employees, then this issue would resolve itself. Now, of course, this is something that can be mandated, but requires change in the hearts and minds and that begins with the seminaries. Priests are sacrementaly ordained. Maybe if Lutherans redeveloped this attitude, there would not be an issue,

  9. Erik Says:

    I appreciate the conclusion. The idea that a pastor is either fit or unfit without regard for a “good fit” is naive. . Different callings require different skill sets, “apt to teach” is not 100% objective. Different pastors communicate the gospel more effectively to different hearers.

    That being said I would agree this is a difficult issue to diagnose and our sinfulness clouds the truth. If all sides could repent, forgive, hear, things would certainly go better.

    I would disagree with Chris that the problem is in the people not respecting the sacramental nature of the call but instead lean toward pastors believing they are God’s infallible presence to a congregation that gets us in more trouble. But that is personal opinion based on experience not hard evidence.

  10. Linda Warner Says:

    This article was very interesting. However, the typos in it made parts of it a bit more confusing than they would have been otherwise. If you would like help with the typos, contact me and I can point them out for you.

  11. Debbie Harris Says:

    Lol @Linda – a fellow grammar Nazi!

  12. GC Ludvigson Says:

    Another reason that people are uncomfortable is because they view the office of the holy ministry as a job and are worried about legal ramifications if they remove someone from the roster after he has been dismissed.

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