Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Ministry’s Promises: Vows Making and Vows Keeping and the Office of the Ministry

I have been a pastor for 30+ years now; I have not always been a good one. I give thanks daily that I live under the grace of Christ’s forgiveness.

I have been a husband for 31+ years now; I have not always been a good one. I give thanks daily that I live under the grace of Christ’s forgiveness.

And here is the intended tertium comparationes (the point of comparison) for this essay.

This pastor has, over the course of the years, witnessed the destruction of some marriages when the husband, by his sinful actions, has destroyed the bond between husband and wife. At other times, the wife, by her sinful actions, has destroyed the bond between husband and wife. Biblically, there are only two reasons why the Lord permits a marriage to end: [1] adultery, and [2] malicious desertion. God is never glad for a marriage to end since He Himself has established the estate of marriage and the vocations of husband and wife. This pastor has also witnessed some of those destroyed marriages restored to wholeness: forgiveness and restoration, though wholly undeserved, are powerful, life-imparting, one-sided gifts!

Similarly, this pastor has witnessed the destruction of the relationship between pastors and congregations over the years. Sometimes that relationship has been destroyed by the pastor’s own sinful actions, actions which in some sad cases disqualified him for the Office of the Ministry to which God had called him. At other times, that relationship has been destroyed by the sinful actions of the congregation, with the result that the pastor, though not disqualified for the Office of the Ministry, has been forced to leave the Office in that place, sometimes never to receive a Call to a congregation again. Historically, the church has only recognized two, or three, “grounds” for removing a pastor from God’s call to serve as the pastor of a given congregation. Those “grounds” are: [1] persistent teaching of false doctrine, [2] leading a scandalous and offensive life, and [3] the inability or refusal to perform the duties of the office. (“The Divine Call.” A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. February 2003. p. 42-43. This same document notes, also on p. 43, “. . . the removal of a man from the office of the public ministry is a very serious matter and should not be carried out capriciously or arbitrarily.”)

In more recent years, this pastor has heard of “ecclesiastical supervisors” who have stated that there are, or should be, new ways and reasons for removing pastors from their calls to their respective congregations. This turn of events is of grave concern to this pastor because the act of removing a pastor from his office undermines the Office of the Ministry, denigrates the Word of God, and, besides the obvious devastating effects upon the pastor and his family, also results in the serious wounding of souls for whom the Savior Himself died. Whole congregations are thus weakened and the witness of the Gospel in a given community is compromised. The Lord is not honored thus.


If any do not know, then they must be taught that an essential element of marriage is the covenant relationship which is established by means of the mutual vows of husband and wife. Both husband and wife, mutually but independently, pledge their troth to one another, “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy will; and I pledge to you my faithfulness.” (The Rite of Marriage, Lutheran Service Book. In this same rite, husband and wife are charged, “[Name of bridegroom], will you have this woman to be your wedded wife, to live together in the holy estate of matrimony as God ordained it? Will you nourish and cherish her as Christ loved His body, the Church, giving Himself up for her? Will you love, honor, and keep her in sickness and in health and, forsaking all others, remain united to her alone, so long as you both shall live? Then say: I will.” And “[Name of bride], will you have this man to be your wedded husband, to live together in the holy estate of matrimony as God ordained it? Will you submit to him as the Church submits to Christ? Will you love, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health and, forsaking all others, remain united to him alone, so long as you both shall live? Then say: I will.”)

In their vows, properly made, wife and husband do not establish their vows conditional on the promises of the other; rather, the husband says to his wife that, whether or not she is faithful to him, he for his part will be utterly faithful; reciprocally, the wife pledges the same. This is the model of the perfectly unilateral covenant which God has made with His people in Baptism. Essential to marriage, then, is the promise given (and received) even as an essential element of God’s covenant with us is His promise unilaterally given (and received). With these faithful promises God fulfills the respective vocations of husband and wife, vocations which He Himself has established. With His faithful promise, He draws us into His holy family in Baptism. With faithful promises learned from God, husband and wife draw one another into marriage.


The mutual promises of pastor and congregation is also an essential element in how God fulfills the Office of the Ministry. Pastor and congregation are also vocations which God Himself has established. The pastor is to care for the congregation, and the congregation is to care for her pastor. But what happens when one or the other, or both become unfaithful to their vows?

Consider the pastor’s vows of ordination:

+ Do you acknowledge that the Lord has called you through His Church into the ministry of Word and Sacrament?
+ Do you believe and confess the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments to be the inspired Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith and practice?
+ Do you believe and confess the three Ecumenical Creeds, namely the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds, as faithful testimonies to the truth of the Holy Scriptures, and do you reject all the errors which they condemn?
+ Do you confess the Unaltered Augsburg Confession to be a true exposition of Holy Scripture and a correct exhibition of the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church? And do you confess that the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Small and Large Catechisms of Martin Luther, the Smalcald Articles, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, and the Formula of Concord — as these are contained in the Book of Concord — are also in agreement with this one scriptural faith?
+ Do you promise that you will perform the duties of your office in accordance with these Confessions, and that all your preaching and teaching and your administration of the Sacraments will be in conformity with Holy Scripture and with these Confessions?
+ Will you faithfully instruct both young and old in the chief articles of Christian doctrine, will you forgive the sins of those who repent, and will you promise never to divulge the sins confessed to you? Will you minister faithfully to the sick and dying, and will you demonstrate to the Church a constant and ready ministry centered in the Gospel? Will you admonish and encourage the people to a lively confidence in Christ and in holy living?
+ Finally, will you honor and adorn the Office of the Holy Ministry with a holy life? Will you be diligent in the study of Holy Scripture and the Confessions? And will you be constant in prayer for those under your pastoral care?

Then consider the congregation’s vow:

+ Beloved in the Lord, Holy Scripture says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Will you, the faithful, according to the Church’s public confession, and speaking for the whole Church, receive [name] as a servant of Christ and minister of Word and Sacrament? If so, then answer: We will.
+ Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, [name] has been called to be (a) pastor of [name of congregation]. I ask you now, in the presence of God: Will you receive him, show him that love, honor, and obedience in the Lord that you owe to the shepherd and teacher placed over you by your Lord Jesus Christ, and will you support him by your gifts and fervent prayer? If so, then answer: We will, with the help of God.
+ Will you honor and uphold your pastor as he serves Christ in all his God-pleasing responsibilities? Will you aid him as he cares for his family? Will you be diligent to “put the best construction on everything,” recognizing that “love covers a multitude of sins”? If so, then answer: We will, with the help of God.

In the marriage vows, husband and wife pledge their troth “till death us do part.” No provision is made to say, “till I get tired of you,” or “as long as my feelings for you remain this way,” or something similar. Husband and wife, by virtue of their vows, make it clear that they believe that their marriage is to last until God decides to end their marriage, by the death of one or the other of them. Their marriage is not a mutually agreed to contract; rather, God decides when the marriage is over. Husband and wife might have to endure all manner of trials and difficulties, hard times, frustrations, and disappointments with one another. But their vows are to remain; and the vows are written and given precisely in that way for that precise reason.

In the vows of ordination/installation, there is no provision made for “till we get tired of one another,” or “till you get older,” or even “as long as you keep improving your skills.” The pastor is pledged to faithfully serve God’s people in the congregation. The congregation is pledged to faithfully listen to and give respect to, honor and support their pastor as long as the Lord has placed pastor and congregation together. The Lord will decide when their time of service is over by the death of the pastor, moving the pastor to another place, or bringing the congregation to an end. The vows of both are to remain, even when – especially when! – there are difficult times for congregation and pastor. The vows are prepared and are exchanged in precisely that way for precisely that reason.


As no fault divorce has impacted and brought about enormous changes – and not necessarily for the better, as most will agree – in the culture of marriage, so have these enormous changes impacted pastors and congregations – again, not necessarily for the better. Church leaders have long decried the fact that divorce statistics for Christians mirror the divorce statistics of our society. There is a crisis in fidelity.

No fault divorce turns its back on God’s institution of marriage and suggests that there may be any number of legitimate reasons for a divorce: husband and wife may “fall out of love,” they might become “sexually incompatible,” they might come to have “irreconcilable differences,” and any of a number of very creative “reasons” for the deposal of the marriage relationship.

But the Word of the Lord remains. The two Biblical grounds for divorce remain: adultery and malicious desertion. Even then the Lord only permits the divorce if the injured party is unable to restore the other. In an ideal relationship, the Lord wants the injured party, enabled by God’s love in Christ, to forgive and restore the other and thus to renew the marriage.

This same attitude of “no fault” divorce has found its way into the church’s understanding of the relationship between congregation and pastor. Are there other “grounds” for dismissing a pastor besides the three mentioned earlier in this essay? To be sure, some have shown great creativity in trying to define new “grounds” for the dismissal of a pastor from a congregation, but the question which must surely be asked again and again is, simply: are these “grounds” defined by God? Or, are they merely sinful man’s invention? Even as we in the church decry the divorce statistics of both the culture and the church, and as we vehemently decry the attitudes which result in our “divorce culture,” so we must surely learn to decry the statistics of congregations increasingly dismissing their pastors, and the attitudes which are producing a “divorce culture” or a “hire and fire culture” within the holy Christian church.


We have to get rid of our pastor. We just cannot afford him anymore.” One hears that argument and, because every congregation struggles with budget issues, one is inclined to agree with it . . . until you start to rethink it! Can a family decide that it is time to “get rid” of one of their children because rampant inflation is making it harder and harder to raise children? May God forgive those parents who do such a thing. Can a husband or wife decide to “get rid” of their God-given partner because s/he has gotten “too expensive?” The expenses may have come because of one who is unable to work, or is unwilling to work, or is ill, or even who is plain lazy. But the marriage vow said: “for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health ‘til death do us part.” In the same way that the family is held together by promises given and kept, so the relationship between pastor and congregation exists by promises given and kept. Economies change. Let congregation and pastor do as husband and wife are to do, namely, explore ways to keep things together in a God-pleasing manner!

“He doesn’t really love us.” A variation on that one is, “We don’t love him anymore.” This writer has actually seen people walk up to their pastor and say, as though not to hurt his feelings, “Pastor, we just don’t love you anymore.” It sometimes happens. It is very sad. People use this as their reason for an unscriptural divorce. Too many pastors and other church leaders accept that excuse as a reason to be rid of a pastor. God has not promised that every love will grow and flourish. Surely, it is the Lord’s will that love between husband and wife grow and flourish, but because of sin, it does not always happen that way. Sometimes the pastor grows weary. Sometimes the congregation or individual members of the congregation grow weary. But the promises are supposed to remain. May the Lord help love to be renewed. May the Lord lead all to a proper understanding of Biblical love!

“But we’re getting smaller.” This argument is advanced in two ways: [1] to suggest that the congregation simply cannot any longer afford to keep their pastor; and [2] to suggest that the pastor is “ineffective” at the work of “growing the church.” Sometimes the argument is used to suggest 1 or 2 above, sometimes to suggest both. Yet simple logic answers. Are the demographics of your community changing? Are businesses leaving? Are the young people leaving town in search of better jobs and greater work opportunities? Are people having smaller families? Are people generally waiting until they are older before they marry and have families? Are these things the pastor’s “fault?” Marriages and families go through changes, too, and not all of them are pleasant changes. Nevertheless, the “glue” of God’s love in Christ is what is supposed to hold the marriage and family together. Communities go through times of growth and decline; sometimes, they go through times of renewed growth. The changes in family sizes are certainly not the fault of the pastor (who himself might be trying to do his part by having a larger family than most – haha)! The answer, again, is for pastor and congregation to acknowledge those changes and to resolve, together, to continue to serve in the place where the Lord has placed them!

“His skills don’t match our community.” This argument is usually followed with “but he’d make a good seminary professor.” The truth is that the Lord of the church has called His pastors to be shepherds and teachers in the flock of God. He might be a “city boy” who sometimes ends up in a small town or rural parish setting. He might be a “country boy” who ends up in an urban or suburban area. Consider: how many husbands and wives have been joined in marriage to partners who did not grow up in the same circumstances as did they? The key is a loving teaching-learning relationship. There are things which congregations can gently teach their pastor – about farming, livestock, etc. If he is stubborn, he will need to be more gently taught. Similarly, there are things which congregations can be taught by their pastors: teachings from the Word of God. When people are stubborn with respect to Bible classes, etc. and expect their pastor to be patient with them, surely they can similarly be patient with teaching him! This is how the decision to love one another is supposed to work.

“He failed us!” Yes, he probably did. All sinners fail. It’s just a matter of when. Perhaps he failed to remember an anniversary. Perhaps he failed to make a hospital call, or a shut-in call. Have members of the congregation sometimes failed one another? Have they sometimes failed their pastor? Have we all sometimes failed God? Repentance and forgiveness are a part of that “glue” of love which God uses to hold His church together! If he is impenitent, then it becomes another matter. There are some failures which are egregious to the point that the pastor disqualifies himself for the Office of Pastor (the three reasons mentioned earlier). There are other failures which just plain happen. It is like when the husband forgets the wedding anniversary or the birthday of his beloved. It is truly painful. Hurt comes to the relationship. But it can be – and eventually should be – forgiven. Christ died so that our sins could be forgiven. Christ died so that we could forgive one another. Just like in marriage.

“He doesn’t make us feel good!" Increasingly, one hears variations of this complaint in our culture. It sounds similar to the adolescent who somehow becomes “ashamed” of his family. It is real. But it is immature. The Lord has not put His pastor into the local congregation to be in charge of eveyrone’s feelings! The Lord has put His pastor into the local congregation to preach and teach God’s Word of Law and Gospel and to administer the Lord’s Sacraments in that place. This pastor will attempt to be a genuine Seelsorger, that is, a pastor who is a “caretaker of souls.” Sometimes people will feel wonderfully good as the balm of God’s blessed Gospel comforts their hearts and consciences. At other times people will find themselves hurt by the application of God’s Law. The pastor is NOT in charge of people’s feelings even as a husband and/or wife is not in charge of his/her partner’s feelings or a parent is in charge of his/her child(ren)’s feelings. We care about one another’s feelings. We try to be considerate of one another’s feelings. And we forgive one another when our feelings do not cooperate.

“Pastors take calls willy nilly! Why should we be loyal to one who won’t be loyal to us?!” This is painful. It is sometimes true that pastors abuse their God-given calls. They view them as “stepping stones” to some other agenda. They are willing, when the going gets tough, to abandon their calls. This is to their discredit, for they are not fulfilling their God-given call. It also happens, of course, that the Lord may call a pastor to a given congregation for a relatively short period of time; this can be maddening to a congregation which has spent a great deal of money moving their pastor in, and which has invested all of the emotional interest in getting to know their new pastor and his family. This can also be quite maddening to a pastor and his family who tire of being called by God to pick up all of their earthly belongings and travel to a new place and try to get their whole family acclimated to a new place and congregation. Pastors who do abuse their calls are wrong! But it is not grounds for dismissing a pastor. If a spouse is, in some way large or small, disloyal to his/her spouse, it nevertheless behooves the other to act in a faithful way since that is the promise of the marriage vow.


There is so much more which could be written on this subject. Much more probably will be written. This short essay has not answered all concerns. But this short essay has, the writer prays, accomplished what he has purposed to do, namely, to suggest that pastors and congregations and ecclesiastical supervisors all look at the divine call entirely differently from the merely pragmatic ways in which we have come to view it in today’s culture. Pastors make promises to God and to the congregation. Congregations make promises to God and to the pastor. In the same way husbands and wives make promises to God, to one another, and to their communities (yes, make no mistake about this latter facet of the marriage vow, one which we have not really discussed here, but which is vital to every community!). Where vows are broken, there must be repentance and renewal; this is the simple yet profound cure! Where inadequacies show up (not everyone gets to live in a perpetual honeymoon!), understanding is supposed to rule the day.

Grave harm has been done to many souls as congregations, pastors and families, whole communities, and the church’s public witness have been deeply harmed by improper understandings and practices surrounding the divine call.

May God have mercy on all sinners, lead us to repentance, and grant us a right understanding and a right practice. Amen.


Anonymous said...

Pastor W.

Thank you for this post. I just discovered your blog from another that I have been reading.

This post is very timely as I have been struggling over the person who currently shepherds my congregation. Of the several "reasons" you list...I could identify with four! Yet, he is the called shepherd to our church.

From reading this post, and the time I have been spending with my new Treasury of Daily Prayer, I am more than ever willing to pray for my pastor, forgive what I think are shortcomings, and ask that God's will be done in our church.

Pastor Alan Wollenburg said...

Well, God bless you, Rex! Yes, we are sinners. We mess up every so often. We need forgiveness. It's just the way that marriage is supposed to work: we forgive, try to learn to be understanding, and live in our respective vocations as the Lord has called us to live. Thanks for your love for Christ which gives you love for your pastor. And, yeah, the Treasury of Daily Prayer is great . . . I am still trying to develop the discipline of using it every single day b/c it is truly a treasure!

Robert Mann said...

Al- there is also another trend- living together. In the pastoral ministry, the congregation contracts a pastor or have a limit tenture call for him. This way both parties can both go or seperate ways. It is almost like a year long try out. This is happening in the teaching ministry. Brian receive a call, both it call for a contract the first year, to see if you will work out. This is aganist all biblical ways. But the church-district-synod is encouraging churches and schools to this trial marriage.

Pastor Alan Wollenburg said...

yes, Pr. Mann, you point out yet another facet of this multi-faceted mess -- even as "commitment" is being totally misunderstood and even re-defined by our postmodern (and post-denominational?) culture, this carries over into the church work vocations. I share your frustration over how calls are being handled these days. While there is a case to be made for a non-tenured "call" (but a much more accurat word would be "contract" b/c that is precisely what it is), one could almost make the case for comparing it to a 'shack up' -- no real promises, no real commitments, no real assurance that, if troubles come, you'll try to work it out . . . If we in the church cannot understand the proper biblical concept of promise, commitment, etc., well, who can, huh??! Kyrie eleison! Best to you and yours, bro!

Anonymous said...

Those two terms (adultery and abandonment) might mirror the two reasons for removal from congregation membership that I read in our church minutes from 50 or so years ago.

Defection (now called Peaceful Release) = Adultery?

Despising the Word & Sacrament (now called Self Exclusion ... I assume) = Abandonment?

Anonymous said...

"He'd make a good professor..."

That comment usually made by a congregation member who has never been to college.


I can remember when I was a kid when my Lutheran Great-Grandmother yelled out loud at one of her daughters-in-law who filed for divorce "You can't get divorced ... you won't be able to take Holy Communion!"

Brenda shaw said...
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