The Missing Ingredient

Last week, the Union Station Hotel in St.Louis was a time machine. Apart from being a glorious historical building, I stood among Lutheran Hour supporters and staff and I enjoyed a spontaneous recall of memories from when I was a kid helping my parents with whatever they were doing for church or the Lutheran Layman’s League. Sunday school, elders, sunrise easter breakfast, shrove Tuesday, Christmas, picnics, fair booth…church life was full and lively. Last week I saw in LCMS what I remember of the church growing up.

I visited the seminary for the first time (second really, but the first time was too short). More than a thousand voices sang “Lift High the Cross” as flags and mission directors from over fifty countries around the globe processed. It was impressive. It was joyful. It was hopeful. Rev. Greg Selz, speaker of the Lutheran Hour, wrote a liturgy that was traditional and contemporary without being a “blended” service. It was brilliant. Mrs. SolaGratia and I had try eyes for the first three notes of the processional, and after that were just lost it. I could hard believe my eyes. The seminary students I met were serious and of quality – these are young guys knowingly and willing learning to be humble servants of God’s people. The people from across America who spoke about what is going on in their churches were open, sharing a lot of what was familiar to us – an aging church in decline. But, while a lot of it was familiar, there was a lot that wasn’t.

The contrast between LCC and LCMS is stark. It’s haunting…and not just in some lame Halloween reference kind of way. LCMS has its own issues and divisions. LCC is politically less diverse, more consistent in worship style, but we lack something. I thought about it, and then thought about it some more. Then I had a restless night of sleep. Then I inadvertently turned conversations into interviews as I tried to suss out the difference between LCC and LCMS. What did LCC adopt from LCMS? Was there anything LCC didn’t take with it that has caused its institutional weakness? The question points to the answer.

LCC’s crisis of faith isn’t a crisis of faith in God. We know the gospel. We know the law. We have a uniform way to practice (that some choose to ignore). We have the confessions as the doctrinal standard by which we all understand scripture. When LCC left Missiouri synod in 1986, we took with us the liturgy and worship practices, we took theology, we took music, we adopted the same polity and political structures, we took district structures, and we even kept using resources from Concordia Publishing and Lutheran Hour Ministries. The one thing LCC didn’t take was something it didn’t have, and still doesn’t: a professional church administrative class.

At the head of every auxilliary and service organization in LCMS is a skilled and experienced administrator. These are people who, for a living, run medium sized organizations with hundreds of employees. We’re talking about administrators with the ability to run medium sized businesses, but to run them in a not-for-profit, which is even harder and subject to more financial instability.

LCMS administrators uniformly get their experience within the church, either at at district or synod offices, schools, colleges, or at other auxilliaries and service organizations and agencies. Some church secretaries are professional. It’s one thing to handle 100 people and a pastor as a secretary. We visited one “larger” congregation in the St. Louis area: 3400 active members. ACTIVE members. Four pastors – one of them just visits people…his whole job…visitation. In short, you can have a professional administrative career in the Missouri Synod. These skilled administrators have one, two, and sometimes three degrees in administration. One particularly stellar leader I know pretty well was actually discouraged from going into seminary. He was told, “We have enough pastors right now, get an MBA.” He did. And now he’s the leader of the biggest auxilliary in Lutherandom. Someone had the insight to understand that pastors are pastors and administrators run things.

We’ve seen the likes of this before. In 1980 Concordia College Edmonton suffered a fire which burned down its gymnasium. The board and the church talked about what to do next. Who could save the place? Cue Rev. Dr. Orville Walz. Dr. Walz not only brought Concordia back from the brink, but he laid the foundation for two major expansions after he was called to Concordia, Seward, Nebraska. Dr. Walz has a PhD in education administration. His career is to run Lutheran universities, and he did it fantastically well. That’s what professional administrators do.

At first it struck me that it might be silly to think that administration is where LCC fell down. Then again, CEF in ABC District didn’t collapse because expert administrators were on top of things. I’ve worked in some workplaces that you can only describe as chaotic or complex. The administrators provide the stability to make my job as a producer possible. Without their groundwork and the stability a bureaucracy offers, I can’t work.

It’s a case of “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but very few things look like a nail. And fewer things that look like nails actually ARE nails. Nails are tricky business.

In the church, to a pastor, everything is a spiritual concern. When we start treating everything like it’s a spiritual problem, then we run the risk (which we do often) of flagging disagreement as some kind of sin – I’ve never been clear on which of the 10 commandments “disagreeing” falls under. Money becomes mission – just send a cheque and mission happens. When pastors are administrators, spiritual concerns become administrative concerns and that’s not an appropriate way to operate. I think this may well be the root of why LCC (at very least ABC District) co-mingled the two-kingdoms: we let pastors handle the spiritual and temporal life of the church. They should only be concerned with spiritual life, leaving temporal, earthly, monetary concerns to professionals (and yes, I know there are pastors who are excellent administrators, but if they’re using their gifts they’re pastor administrators and generally not in parishes – which is largely what we see in LCMS).

LCC’s solution to have a senior administrator in synod is too little too late, but it’s a step in the right direction. I’m not old enough to remember the arguments for becoming an independent church body. Someone reminded me last week that Brazil used to be District of LCMS along with Alberta-BC, Man.-Sask., and Ontario districts. But Brazil has nearly a quarter-million members, enough to have an effective administrative class supporting its work. LCC is about 1/10th as big. LCC seems to have been a misstep.

In Canada we pay extra for travel, internet, mobile phones, fresh fruit and vegetables. We don’t have the critical mass of population to really make those things on a scale that makes them super cheap. The same problem of scale plagues LCC. The one thing we don’t have to support the church’s work is professional administrators, and it’s the one missing ingredient we needed, and still need.

Pastors are pastors. Administrators are administrators. By making pastors administrators, their focus of spirit, became co-mingled with the practicalities that administrators are accustomed to dealing with, including budgets and finance. And now, we have clergy who are worried about finances, and structures.

Ultimately the issue is authority. More specifically the misuse of authority. Pastors hold the office of the keys. It’s not their authority, but Christ’s authority that pastors are given. And considering his total disinterest in earthly things and entirely focused on faith in God and how we treat each other, it’s a bit unseemly that pastors get too involved with budgets, buildings, and the day to day business. In fact, we’d probably have a healthier church if pastors were just pastors and not given to being “leaders” in the institutional sense.

We jammed a round peg into a square hole – let’s not be too surprised about the results.

Andreas Schwabe is editor and publisher of SolaGratia.ca, and an Edmonton-based multimedia & communication strategist and producer. His focus for SolaGratia is on administration, governance, and issues of faith. For clients, he writes or produces just about anything.

2 thoughts on “The Missing Ingredient

  1. Larry

    Shitty pastors and Shitty administrators. What a combination!

  2. ANO

    Quite the astute observation.

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