November 30, 2020

Church Changes

St George ELCA

I have found myself in an interesting position lately.

I’ve been preaching at a small, rural Lutheran church about fifteen miles from my home. It is a sweet, traditional congregation, a church that was founded in 1838. For some time now, they have had a semi-retired pastor serving them. They are too small to support a full-time minister, but this gentleman has been a good fit. Recently, the last remaining elderly member of his family passed away, and now he and his wife are ready to embrace a fuller retirement and travel together. The church is wondering what will happen.

They have asked me to help out over the past year on Sundays when their pastor was away, and I have gladly obliged. I miss preaching and leading worship, and delight in the opportunity whenever I can.

Of course, there are barriers. Because I didn’t complete the call process in the ELCA, my ordination (granted by a non-denominational church) is still not accepted by the denomination, so I can’t preside at the Table. The leaders have to ask permission of the Bishop every time they want me to serve communion, and it’s a hassle. So mostly we have services of the Word.

I’ve made my feelings known here about communion — I have come to think our worship is not completely “Christian” or satisfying without it — so I miss it tremendously when I cannot share the Table with my brothers and sisters.

While this has been going on, a few weeks ago the pastor in our home church resigned. This is a big deal. He planted the church twenty years ago and has been the only minister the congregation has known. He’ll be moving on to another call, and for the first time, these good folks will go through the process of seeking a new pastor.

The first thing the chairman of the Council did was call me. I have often preached when our pastor was on vacation, and the church generously supported me when I was going through my ordination process with the ELCA a couple of years ago. The pastor was something of a renegade when it came to denominational rules, and he himself considered my ordination valid, so he rarely objected to me presiding at the Table. There were times when it was appropriate to seek higher permission, such as when I filled him for him while he took a sabbatical, but otherwise I was able to minister freely and fully.

Since Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday are upon us, the Council asked me to fill in so that the congregation could have a familiar friend leading these special services. I agreed to do so. I encouraged them to seek permission from the Bishop so that I might lead both in the Word and at the Table, and he has granted that. So, I’ll be leading worship, preaching, and presiding. I’m looking forward to it.

The Bishop also met with the Council last week and outlined a plan for the near future. I heard about the details today, and I think it’s well considered and should help the church make good decisions.

Altar effectAnd here I am again.

If this had happened a year ago, it might have thrown me for a loop and had me questioning my calling and current vocation. But I’m content with how things are turning out. I’m a little frustrated at having to ask permission every time I want to serve communion, something I’ve done for almost forty years. I kick against the goads of denominational red tape. But on the other hand, I’m thankful that our church is not on its own to have to figure out what to do next.

My experience as a pastor in a non-denominational, free church setting made me a believer in denominational oversight, assistance, and accountability. Much as I hate bureaucracy and the inefficiency of their processes, their sometimes silly rules, and their tendency to rarely look outside the little box of “how we’ve always done it,” I see value in the help that is available to lay people in the church who are suddenly thrust into the position of having to seek a pastor, keep the congregation encouraged, and pay the bills until who knows when.

I also know God will provide, Jesus reigns, and the Holy Spirit is active, which is what my non-denominational friends will insist is all a church needs to consider. However, I don’t believe God generally works apart from means or without the cooperation and participation of his people. There was an “apostolic” level of oversight in the NT as well as local congregational life.

As for the little country church where I’ve been preaching, I don’t know what’s next in store for them. But I’ve learned a few things over the years, and I suspect that the denomination will not be placing them on the front burner. I may find myself tied up on Sundays for a while to come.

That would be fine with me. Just let me have a place at the Table, please.


  1. Well, mazel tov.

    I absolutely agree with you about apostolic oversight. I grew up in a free church, and I still consider their form of church governance the least Christian thing I’ve ever experienced. Fruitless hypocrites like me were empowered to vote on the church’s direction—no wonder things constantly went wrong. I don’t like red tape either, but I’d much rather have it than that whim-driven chaos.

  2. Richard Hershberger says

    There is a lot I could criticize about the ELCA, having grown up in it and its predecessor LCA. That being said, the call process is where it tends to come through. It isn’t when you want an improvised amateur hour. This is the first time the one congregation has done it, but it is old hat for the synod.

    It also is a time when the synod forces the church to take a hard look at reality. If that small country church can’t afford a full time pastor, it follows that some other arrangement needs to be worked out. Back in the day, circuit riding pastors were pretty common in small country churches. Assuming that consolidating those churches is not in the cards, this is the likely solution.

    Speaking of old school, back in the day (before my time) conservative Lutheran churches typically had communion just four times a year. My understanding is that this was due to an off-the-cuff remark by Luther, when asked how often people should take communion. The standard for lay people at the time was once a year, at Easter, so the four times a year response was a dramatic expansion. This was then taken as normative: an interesting bit of legalism, and a nice illustration of the difficulty of interpreting remarks made in a different cultural context.

    • And now, in many conservative Lutheran churches, the pendulum has swung so completely the other way in that not having communion every Sunday is looked on as a sign that maybe your church is veering away from orthodoxy. I’ve tried to explain to more than one young pastor/seminarian that standard practice has changed quite a bit in my 50+ years on this earth (not to mention my elders!) so they need to approach these things with gentleness and caution. I know my grandparents would never have taken communion every Sunday! That would have signaled Catholicism!!

      • “…my grandparents would never have taken communion every Sunday! That would have signaled Catholicism!!”

        Great insight!

        • Oh, and I think your insight relates to yesterday’s post, too, about Peter Enns’ book “The Sin of Certainty.” God cares more about our trust in HIM than “correct” beliefs.

          • turnsalso says

            Perhaps even “correct” practices?

          • Perhaps even “correct” practices?

            Let’s hope so, because how do we get to “correct” practices without first having “correct” beliefs?

        • And yet, as a 56 year old 3rd career pastor, I find a hunger for weekly communion among those who may have never experienced it before, especially younger folks. All the best to you, CM, as you forge ahead in your calling.

          • and having recently moved to a church that only has Communion once per month …. I hate it, I literally hunger and thirst for Communion every Sunday (at least)

            from my reading of Acts … it was a mark of the believers that they ‘broke bread’ when they met together.

        • Rick, that’s a literal ststement of fact, and exactly how older people in my family put it (“too Catholic”). I never understood that reaction, but then, i grew up during the Vatican II era, when the similarities between Lutheran and RC beliefs and practice became much more obvious. (I’m not saying that they’re the same; only that there’s a great deal of common ground.)

      • I have just started attending an LCMS church and am in the long process of learning Lutheran theology. As one who has spent my entire life in Evangelical churches I find the Lord’s Supper every week a place of refreshment and renewal. It’s a means of Grace. A “structured Gospel”, as I’ve seen it put here at Imonk. I think I’d rather have written rules of Grace than unwritten rules of Law of the Evangelical church (what we “do” for Jesus, you need to have”passion” and “crazy love” and be “radical”, etc. etc. etc.). I’m sorry if this offends but it’s how I see it.

        • And God’s peace to you Chaplain Mike as you lean on Him in your journey. Or should it be Pastor Mike now? 🙂

        • I need to qualify my statement. The LCMS church I’m familiar with offers Communion every Sunday, but in different services each week. There are at least two Evangelical churches that I know of that offer Communion every Sunday in all services. I don’t want to throw Evangelical churches “under the bus”.

    • Weekly communion is, however, the original practice of Lutheranism. There is a reason it fell out of use in early America: Because we refuse to let lay men administer the sacrament, and because of the scarcity of ministers. The circuit riders would travel to different churches, often presiding at any particular congregation monthly or quarterly. When he was in town, that was when they would have communion. Now our churches are better staffed, our ministers better trained and distributed, it’s only natural that our theology would drive us back to the practice of frequent communion.

      Of course, as Lutherans, we don’t have any such laws that our churches must adhere to. Frequent communion is good enough. The important thing is that our understanding of its value leads us to avail ourselves of it often. “How often is often enough?” is a question that turns a beautiful gift of grace into a demanding criteria to be met. If we truly understood the mystery, I don’t think weekly would even be enough.

      • Christiane says

        Hi MIGUEL,
        I was watching a historical documentary about fishing and farming in Norway in the 1940’s, and on one particular fjord, there was a Lutheran pastor who made the rounds to the church once a month, and all the families would come in their row boats over the water to the Church, dressed in their national costume (bunads) and gather for communion. I think ‘circuit riding’ still exists in places that are hard to reach and a bit isolated. But still communion means something special. The other Sundays? well, the narrator says that his mother listened to the broadcast of the choir at a cathedral on the radio. I will include the reference to this remarkable film:

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          You don’t have to go to 1940s Norway for circuit riders.

          In the Owens Valley (along the California-Nevada border east of the Sierras and west of Death Valley), half a dozen small Catholic parishes (from Bishop to Laws to Lone Pine to Olancha) are all served by a single circuit-riding priest.

      • I agree with you Miguel. I am discovering a whole new way of viewing the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the Lutheran Church. It is indeed a beautiful mystery, a means of Grace that we can’t receive enough.

    • I’m inclined to feel that a little red tape can be a good thing, because congregational transitions can invite conflict. In a way, being forced to go through a (cumbersome) process neutralizes some natural tendency to get into a frenzy, or to leap over the interim period too quickly, or to respond in a passion to whatever has recently transpired. There’s only so long that a person can stay riled up; Committee Meeting #10 has got to be about the limit, right?

      Also, if not neutral, the bishop is at least a few steps removed from the local feelings and politics. And since the process is imposed by the higher-ups, everyone can blame “the process” or “the domination” for what they don’t like. No local goats need be driven into the desert.

  3. The title alone wanted me to sing “Church Changes” to the tune of “Earth Angel”.

    A young Marty McFly goes back in time to prevent the split of his parent’s church…

  4. Michael Bell says

    Would it work to come up with a Communion Schedule and present that to the Bishop to affirm all at once?

    • No, he requires separate permissions, unless it is something like a sabbatical (and I was technically an intern at that time so my status was different).

    • I think that part of the idea might be to not make if convenient for non-ordained ministers, for the purpose of encouraging every congregation to have an ordained minister.

  5. So much easier to live by rules than to trust in the spirit of our Lord. So in God’s pathway lay the small stones of annoyance and by his spirit we can continue on his pathway.

    • Heaven forbid the Spirit lead us to cooperation and mutual submission to agreed upon principles for the sake of unity. Heaven forbid people actually come up with rules to protect good things.

    • I don’t know. Going without any rules or human accountability, solely “in the Spirit,” can lead to fine things; I suppose John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) could be an example, and so could some of the American Civil Rights martyrs and activists.

      It can also lead to the People’s Temple and Jim Jones. Because if you are accountable only to what you think is the voice of God in your mind — well, you’d probably better be a saint because otherwise that voice is pretty soon going to start sounding like your own.

  6. That Other Jean says

    I’m very glad you’ve found a way to serve as both Chaplain and Pastor in ways that make you and the people you serve happy. All the rules about who can do what, when, are bound to be burdensome, but they are surely better than the free-form, Pastor-driven ego trips that pass for governance in far too many churches.

  7. May God continue to bless you on your journey, Chaplain Mike. Yes, rules are annoying, but no-rules can be more annoying still, as a hierarchy of one evolves and the “guidelines” become crazy and crazier.

    Our Episcopal church is in the position of your little dying country church, and it’s hard. We haven’t had a priest for two years; we have “supply priests” who come in to do the Sunday sermon and communion. Our diocesan contact person said she would redouble her efforts to find us a priest, and since she has barely contacted us in the past 15 months, we are asking ourselves, “What’s two times zero?”

  8. My annual funny for St. Patrick’s Day:

    St. Patrick explains the Trinity:

  9. My copy of Without a Vision My People Prosper by David Hayward, also known as the naked pastor, arrived today. I looked at all the pictures and cartoons first, and he is definitely a pastor of the Third Millennial Church of Messiah Jesus, describes himself as a graffiti artist on the walls of religion. Today’s email cartoon is under the heading of “when theology interferes with compassion”.

    It shows a terminally ill man lying on his hospital bed with his family gathered about and a pastor standing alongside with an open Bible. The man is saying, “Dear Lord Jesus, I accept you into my heart as my own personal Lord and Sav . . . Sav . . . ” The next panel shows the man’s eyes X’ed out in death, the family all sobbing, and the pastor says, “Sorry folks . . . Jesus might have been his Lord but wasn’t his Savior.”

    • Christiane says

      reminds me of a blog discussion I encountered when I first studied ‘fundamentalism’ at the source: their own words; it had to do with a robust and shocking discussion of would God burn babies in hell . . . you should have see the ‘yes, it is possible’ crowd’s ‘reasons’ . . . all quoting sacred Scripture of course . . .

      and I thought ‘these people are more troubled than they know’

  10. Ronald Avra says

    I hope that you find it more fulfilling than busy. May the Father prosper your path.

  11. If there was an internet delivery service where they send you a complete communion kit every month and a link to a skype or webinar of a priest, would that be a church service?

    I’m sure it’s coming.

    “For just the cost of a latte a week, you too can save on shipping and handling with your Personal Communion Kit…”

    • “Easy monthly payments of $29.95 recurring, or save 7% buy purchasing 6 months worth of The Body Kit.”

      Can be repackaged as “The Host Kit” for alternative groups.

      • As the Spotify plays…remember the words our Lord gave at His Last Supper… (opens new tab)

        “The Body Kit. Subscribe in remembrance of me.”

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Don’t laugh. Somebody’ll try it for real and make bank off it, like Reverend Welch and his non-alcoholic grape juice.

  12. My thanks to Ben who led me to discover an Episcopal Church about 20 miles from me which every first Sunday of the month holds a service with contemplative silence instead of music. The only apparent downside is that it is at 9:00 in the morning but I could handle that once a month. I’ll let you all know how it turns out, but at this point seems like an even better answer to my request for a said service than I expected. I’m also waiting to try a nearby fellowship of Friends when they resume their weekly Wednesday evening meeting. Not bad for a Done out in the sticks.

  13. “Priest: This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are
    those who are called to his supper.
    “People: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be

    Take it as an opportunity to be reminded that the sacrament is neither an entitlement nor a routine. What a wonder that God meets us there.

  14. Chaplain Mike, our church (also ELCA) is waiting to call a new pastor, too. We have interim pastors (husband wife team) who are half-time with us while still at their regular congregation. It’s been such a benefit to have them step in and help get us through what will likely be an extended interim period.

    I’m sure a lot of people are glad to see a familiar face, while they readjust and ask all the questions that have to be asked.

  15. I love the Liturgy … the words are beautiful and help to create an atmosphere of worship ….
    and yes I agree there has to be order and structure … BUT

    I really struggle with this notion that it has to be a specially ‘anointed’ person aka ‘priest’ only that can preside at the table ….. I wonder where it came from? …. it really does not appear in the NT ….

    my reading of the NT – especially Hebrews – seems to point to Christ as our Great High Priest …. and all believers are also called to be ‘priests’ … as in Rev.5.10

    Also, far too many leaders like to “lord it over” other believers …. we are only the laity after all, not especially called and consecrated.

    yes, it is obvious that I have been badly hurt by those in charge …. but there seems to be a huge difference between the way we treat each other and how Jesus told us to treat each other e.g. Matt.20:25-28