When 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.
That 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.