Keeping vows (December 2011)

Started by Richard Johnson, February 16, 2012, 06:28:59 PM

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Richard Johnson

Keeping vows
by Peter Speckhard
Forum Letter December 2011
Copyright 2011 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

Every time a celebrity wedding ends in divorce mere moments (seemingly) after the vows are exchanged, it is only natural for Christians to lament the state of marriage in our culture and wonder how the church can avoid endorsing the culture's view of marriage. This same sense that a solemn vow ought to mean more than it does applies to the idea of the divine call of pastors to congregations as well, but before going into that I want to explore the marriage example a little more fully.

The decline of marriage parallels (tough to prove cause-and-effect, but there is no doubt there is a strong correlation) the advent of "no-fault" divorce. But like many declines, it begins with good intentions and a seemingly reasonable approach to exceptional cases—marriages that just had to end and there was no way to untangle the whys and wherefores. For every frivolous celebrity divorce you see in the headlines at the checkout counter, you probably personally know a divorced person about whom everyone would say the divorce was necessary.

The common sense solution
And in cases when both parties want the divorce, common sense (seemingly) says that forcing them formally to assign blame would just add another layer of bitterness and fuss to an already difficult situation, especially if neither party technically did anything that would justify divorce. Hence the common phrases "irreconcilable differences" or "we just grew apart."

But the problem with the magical, common-sense, no-fault solution to the problem is that it implicitly, even invisibly, introduces a new doctrine into the equation. It isn't stated explicitly and thus it rarely gets questioned, but it essentially states that it is better to be forsworn than to be unhappy. That is the underlying principle that makes a no-fault divorce possible. This is, after all, the only life in this world you get, and breaking a vow is simply one of the many things God forgives. Better to divorce and, having been forgiven for breaking the marriage promise, start over than to limp along in an unhappy marriage. At least modern thinking says so.

Wreaking havoc   
But this taken for granted though invisible new doctrine then wreaks havoc far beyond the exceptional cases in which it really seemed to be the most reasonable solution. Once it has been established that there need be no pinning of blame for divorce via some formal charge of some specific misconduct that justifies divorce, such as adultery, well, that same principle can just as easily apply to a divorce which one side doesn't want. You can be divorced against your will by the spouse who swore never to divorce you, all purely on the theory that said spouse is no longer happy being married to you, it is better to be forsworn than to be unhappy, and there need be no evidence of anything you did wrong to justify the divorce. Your spouse's unhappiness justifies it.
Questionable as that may sound, that whole line of reasoning has already been firmly established by the no-fault divorces already granted to others. True, those who first introduced no-fault divorce were probably not intending to see the concept used in this way, but they made the fatal mistake of solving one type of problem by putting the practical results ahead of the theological/philosophical reality, with far-reaching and unintended consequences. Once the practical trumps the faithful, once it matters more what works than what is true, well, a whole vow-based institution crumbles in time.

Fidelity vs. happiness   
Implicit in the very nature of vow-taking, any vow at all, is the assumption that fidelity matters even more than earthly happiness. For of course nobody would bother with a vow to do something only so long as they preferred doing it. The force of the vow is entirely in the promise to go on doing it even when it makes you unhappy. Military oaths, oaths before judges and juries, marriage vows, confirmation vows—all these absolutely depend on the truth that it is better to be unhappy than be forsworn. Centuries ago the Psalmist recognized this: O Lord, who shall sojourn in Your tent? Who shall dwell on Your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right . . . who swears to his own hurt and does not change. [Psalm 15]

There is probably no way of forcing our society to take marriage seriously again. But a parallel problem is worming its way into the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (and perhaps other Lutheran bodies as well) and ought to be stopped. The call of pastor to congregation also rests on the strength of solemn vows made at the ordination/installation service, and (as is sadly but increasingly clear) it can be cast aside on the same principles as have been established by no fault divorce, with "bad fit" taking the place of "irreconcilable differences."

When circuit and district leaders seek practical solutions to problem pastorates, and those solutions bypass the bitterness and fuss of proving scandal or false doctrine by allowing the congregation to take steps intended to force the pastor to resign or "move on," those leaders enable the crumbling of the vow-based institution in general in the name of particular problem-solving. It is a short-sighted approach. 

Mutual vows   
By LCMS doctrine and "old school" practice, the pastor is called to that congregation by God, not the congregation. The congregation is the means, not the source of the call. Consequently, the pastor is not an employee of the congregation in the traditional sense. He serves God by serving the congregation with Word and Sacrament, and the congregation serves God by receiving those gifts. In addition, the pastor makes a solemn vow in the presence of the congregation to teach according to the Confessions, to do all the duties of a pastor, and to adorn the office with a holy, non-scandalous life. The congregation, in turn, (and this is the key point that is often ignored) vows to receive the pastor as placed there by Jesus Christ and to support him in his ministry.
But we all know that sometimes there is just a "bad fit." The pastor is too old-fashioned or too hip for the congregation's tastes, or too odd or too much of a drip to attract young families looking for a church, or too attached or not attached enough to the traditions of the congregation. When that happens—as it frequently does—strong personalities come to the fore; meetings get longer and harsher. Otherwise uninvolved churchgoers get alienated; attendance starts to drop, and pretty soon key people are transferring out. The writing is on the wall that as long as this pastor is here the congregation will keep declining. How long can that be allowed to go on? What if you're just not happy with him?

Being forsworn   
The only way the "marriage" could end would be by the congregation closing, God calling the pastor somewhere else, or the pastor failing to live up to his vow. All three of those things happen with some frequency. But declining congregations unhappy with their pastor need another "out." They don't want to close, they can't assume such a rotten pastor would get another call any time soon, and he hasn't broken his oath such that he can be removed from office for reasons of scandal or false doctrine.

But now there is another possibility, if not in doctrine then at least in practice: just forget about the oath the congregation took at the installation and refuse to support the pastor and his family until he "moves on" because he "just isn't working out." There is no downside to that approach as long as you don't count being forsworn as a downside.
I believe this sort of thinking has an alarming amount of support from the circuit counselors and district presidents in the LCMS. They would never say so, but their focus is often so much on practical solutions that make headache situations go away that they forget the underlying theological principles and allow congregations to get rid of pastors without any formal charges of scandal or false doctrine. It is the equivalent of a no-fault divorce that one side doesn't want, and it heavily favors the congregation.

Make the problem go away
There is a long list of pastors who have been removed from office for breaking their ordination/installation vows. I'm not aware of any list of congregations removed from the synod for breaking their ordination/installation vows. Yet every congregation that has punitively reduced a pastor's salary in an effort to get him to go elsewhere has done just that. There are two-way vows at an installation. In our system, the pastor is held to his vow. The congregation all too often is not. The congregation can be forsworn in order to be happy and there are no consequences.
I'm not claiming that pastors are without blame, nor am I without sympathy for people whose congregation is served by a problem pastor. After all, what are you supposed to do with the guy who keeps putting the office staff under the lesser ban for weird and incomprehensible reasons, or who refuses to allow anything but Gregorian chant in worship, or who does any number of strange things that are killing the congregation? I don't know what the answer is, but I do know what it is not. The congregation ought not simply forsake its installation vow in order to make the problem go away.

The type of scenario I'm addressing has happened to a pastor friend recently, a man who does none of those alarming things. The unhappy congregation offered a severance package if he would resign or a 50% salary cut if he refused to resign. And the circuit and district leadership involved thought it was the best solution. I disagree. I think the congregational leaders have been misled into thinking (according to this invisible new doctrine that nobody seems to acknowledge but everybody seems to go by) that it is better to be forsworn than be unhappy. In the long term nothing good can come of that even if it seems to solve all kinds of problems for the congregation.

What is a promise worth?
How will the congregation make the same vow again when my friend is finally gone and their hoped-for new pastor is installed? Will they promise to support him in his ministry as long as key people are happy? As long as attendance and offerings are up? What mental caveats will have to be inserted when the district president or presiding minister asks the congregation if they will, among other things, support the new pastor and his family? "We will, with the help of God, unless . . ."
Wherever there is honor and fidelity and thus the potential for meaningful promises to be made, it will always be better to be unhappy than to be forsworn. Elsewhere, even the happiness won't amount to much, for it was purchased at the expense of the deeper, lasting happiness that comes through, not despite, honor and fidelity. It is our Lord's lesson to us in Gethsemane. God made a promise. A promise must be kept. No matter the cost.   
—by Peter Speckhard, associate editor    
Forum Letter December 2011
Copyright 2011 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

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