Reformation Day Letter to the Laity: Your Rostered Leaders Are In Some Not-Making-It-Up Real Need of Your Priestly Care
Although we Lutherans like to think he did, Luther never used the phrase “priesthood of all believers.”
He did, however, love to talk about the laity, whom, he believed, by virtue of their being baptized, were also therefore priests.
As far as Luther saw, and all who consequentially call ourselves Lutherans, all Christians have equal access and standing before God, regardless of whether they are called and ordained to service specifically in the church.
In Luther’s thought, there was no room or welcome for any hierarchy of holiness or blessedness or sanctify-edness, common teachings in both his day and ours, all of which suggest that some people are some how closer to God than others.
In fact, it’s one of the reasons that Luther was behind pulling the altar out away from the wall. The resurrection means that the altar is no longer a place of sacrifice for anything but praise.
So now it’s a table, around which all are invited to sit.
If you get closer to it and the wall behind you are not therefore getting closer to God.
All are justified, said Luther, all are equal, all are loved, all are welcome before God, no matter where you sit, where you stand, what you’ve done, or what you do.
Now, to be clear, Luther wasn’t knocking either the expertise or the calling of the priests, or, as we call them now, pastors, as well as rostered leaders.
Luther wasn’t like those of our day who disdain experts in any given field (but somehow see no problem with conveniently appointing themselves as self-declared experts in their stead).
In fact, Luther argued that those in the pews are called to respect the office and role of those called to preach and teach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. Such people have been trained as resident rabbis, in essence, and have some things to teach and encourage that others are called to learn and absorb.
But likewise, Luther made a point of teaching that that street goeth both ways. “Every occupation has its own honor before God as well as its own requirements and duties…All the estates and works of God…are to be praised as highly as they can be, and none despised in favor of another” (LW 46:246).
What Luther was teaching here, of course, was radical for his day: those who are not ordained have the same authority and power of the Gospel within them as do those trained to be priests, and, in fact, duty to serve one another as priests of God.
Relatedly, in Lutheran liturgy, “assisting ministers” are not assisting the pastor in leading their worship, but rather, as lay people, assisting ministers assist the laity in offering their worship.
But here’s the thing that is on my mind this Reformation Weekend:
Right now, many of those called to be rostered leaders very much need those who are called to be laity to, well, to come to their assistance, actually.
So that these rostered leaders can live out their vocation, and stay well doing so, and even just plain stay.
I do believe that it’s a real possibility that the laity might very well have an additional call in these days, which is to give their rostered leaders some love and care in the form of active, vocal, tender, real support and help.
As in Big Time.
Here’s the situation in a nutshell.
Pastors have been called by the church at large and by congregations specifically to preach and teach and administer the sacraments.
It sounds like a great gig.
What could be tough about telling people about God’s love and baptizing babies and comforting people in their losses and getting ample cookies and coffee to boot?
But people, it’s really, really hard.
And these last few years, for many upon many, it’s been not just hard but excruciating, depleting, overwhelming, and mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually breaking.
A vast number of your church leaders are absolutely beyond spent.
If they haven’t already, many are contemplating leaving not just their immediate calls but their Call writ large, if not considering up and leaving the Church entirely.
I’m not making it up: we have a crisis on our hands, and rostered leaders desperately need lay ministers to assist them to simply hang in there another day.
Here’s the general scoop:
Rostered leaders understand their call not to be that they are called to serve their congregations, but to serve the gospel in their congregations.
It’s a whole different thing, you see, if you do the latter instead of the former.
If rostered leaders serve their congregations, then they become beholden to what the congregation says should happen: they become, in essence, an employee of the congregation and not a servant of Christ.
But if they serve the gospel, well…look what happened to Jesus and you get an idea of what can, and often times does, go down.
So I think any reasonable person can see why, for some time—as in decades, if not centuries—rostered leaders have opted to serve congregations instead.
But let me say at the top of my lungs: these rostered leaders are not base.
They are savvy and smart and they love their congregations and their families and they know the cost of following Jesus is really, really high, and they went into this calling even so.
These leaders get to know their particular place and their particular people and their collective stories and dreams, and rostered leaders overwhelmingly do this with sincerity and authenticity and deep love.
It’s an honorable, noble thing.
But there’s this other piece, right, this bit that generally speaking, rostered leaders have not wanted to rock the boat so very much, because it gets messy fast.
So we’ve opted to keep the boat stable (though arguably not moving it much either, and statistics tell us that more and more people are up and getting out of the boat) via the blessing of the Lutheran tradition which pretty much has summed up the gospel in a faithfully Lutheran, relatively easy thing to preach and hear: your sins are forgiven.
Who doesn’t want to hear that?
Everyone wants to hear that.
No one gets mad at that—unless, I suppose, you realize that everyone from your bum of a neighbor to someone who has truly harmed you to people who facilitate systems which generate oppression also get forgiveness.
But we can get through that, really.
That’s fairly easy.
The tough stuff is the stuff that has to do with all the other things Jesus was about: feeding everyone, healing everyone, welcoming everyone, clothing everyone, visiting everyone, teaching everyone, and so on and so forth.
And that he said follow me.
That super duper rankles, especially because these same sorts of pieces are the headline news pieces of our culture and politics of the day, and so it’s easier and safer to just stick with Jesus loves you no matter what.
You’re not lying. It’s true.
It’s just not the whole kit and kaboodle, and silence about that truth has been and is harmful to the Church and to those who need that word to be spoken and heard.
For reasons that are, for lack of a better word (though the irony isn’t lost on me) justified, rostered leaders haven’t preached this piece with wild abandon, this truth that the gospel also means that, no longer afraid of death, and assured that no matter what we and all are saved by grace, we are freed to serve Jesus’ agenda rather than our own.
And that means that Christians are called to act always always always always on behalf of the Least of These, which frees the least from their least-ness and, as it turns out, the greatest from their greatness.
How the gospel washes out for the greatest is the kicker, of course.
Because of that, we haven’t done a great job so very much in teaching that that sort of message isn’t only spiritual, only theoretical, but it affects everything we do and say and are, just as it did Jesus, and just as it did Jesus’ followers, and just as it did those in the early Church.
Our faith claims all of all of us.
So, frankly, who can blame rostered leaders for keeping this sort of news on the DL?
Even if you take out the obvious and universal truth that conflict is not so very often on the Fun Scale, so let’s stay away from that then, there are real risks in preaching the implications of the Gospel.
People, especially wealthy people, will stop coming.
They will stop giving.
They will leave.
And when they do, congregations can’t cover a mortgage.
Can’t cover lights.
Can’t cover heat.
Can’t cover Sunday school supplies.
Can’t cover paying the youth director, the secretary, the custodian, and can’t cover the pastoral staff.
And that means that the youth director, the secretary, the custodian, and the pastoral staff can’t cover their own mortgages, lights, heat, or school supplies.
They also can’t cover the educational loans that they took out to get them in this prophetic pickle to begin with.
And the church also can’t cover the needs of the Least of These, like food shelves, homeless shelters, and support for the needy near and far which tithes and people bring into being.
That’s not even mentioning the annual reports that need to be turned in which request to know how many people are in the pews and how many offerings have been taken in—both relevant metrics if you are serving a congregation, but neither relevant metrics if you are serving the gospel.
Nor is it even mentioning the stresses and strains of Covid, which have pitted rostered leaders between their call to preserve life and also to hold worship, as well as pitting them between those who are pro-masks, pro-vaccines, and pro-virtual worship until this horrid Covid-thing is over, against those who are anti-mask, anti-vaccine, and anti-anything that isn’t in person and as it always was.
And let’s put back in that conflict, some of it quite hostile, even the mundane stuff, not to mention the rising anger these days that the pastor is getting too political…to which the preacher sighs, and even cries, and says for the countless time, “It’s biblical. Take it up with Jesus that they are political biblical texts. I’m simply doing what you called me to do. I’m preaching the texts. And I’m inviting you to live into your baptismal promises to follow Jesus, which is also what you called me to do.”
To make it all the more intense, we are sitting in a political, cultural, social, economic storm like no other, and within a Church which—across denominations—was already declining even before Trump and Covid hit the early 21st Century scene.
It’s a horrible, horrible bind in which these rostered leaders, called by the Church, are stuck.
They are pitted between preaching the gospel and thereby sabotaging the church and their call, or preaching that everything is awesome and sabotaging the gospel and their integrity.
Here’s the wrenching piece of it: every single person who holds any of the above convictions, every single one of these people, is a member of any given congregation.
So how do you serve the congregation when it is split?
You serve the gospel instead of the congregation.
That’s the right answer, of course.
As if that’s easy.
Just ask Jesus how slick that works.
Many laity, especially conservative laity, have felt in recent years as if they have been hoodwinked, played, duped, double-crossed, bait-and-switched, and/or betrayed by the Church.
The Church, they think, has done one of two things:
a) Strayed from what it has been, an oasis of kindness where we hear that Jesus loves you and that we are forgiven;
b) Misrepresented itself all along, now maintaining that the gospel has always been about social justice and advocacy as much as justification.
To be honest, I think their anger is on point and right.
I think that the Church hasn’t been forthright about what it is called to be and what rostered leaders are called to do.
No wonder that so many people are rankled with their church, their congregation, and their rostered leaders.
For all the above reasons and more, we were supposed to tell them and, on balance, for all the above reasons and more, we didn’t.
No wonder people are ticked.
And no wonder rostered leaders are so very, very tired.
They’re doing their work and the work that should have been done for generations before them.
So here are but three reasons why many rostered leaders really could use the assistance of the laity.
1) They are stuck, as in Catch-22-ain’t-got-nothin’-on-their-daily-reality stuck, between the weights of the expectations of the congregation and the weights of the calling of the gospel.
They are legit afraid about the consequences for their congregations, and for themselves, and for their families, if they do what they believe they were called to do.
2) They know, deeply know, of scriptural and more recent mentors of the faith, like Bonhoeffer, and Kaj Munk,and MLK, and Seminex students and faculty, and people who have spoken up on behalf of the ordination of women, and courageous leaders in the GLBTQIA community, all who have with great risk to themselves and their families and their congregations said “Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me.”
And they can’t do the same.
And they feel horrible about it, as in deep in their soul despondent about it.
3) They are coursing with cortisol, and have no time or way to expunge their bodies of the stress.
Too much cortisol, it is no lie, causes all sorts of threats to mental health, physical health, and it can even shorten one’s life.
Rostered leaders are stretched beyond healthy limits, and they have few if any ways to get healthy, because they are called to serve in a congregational call which, paradoxically and painfully, won’t easily let them live out their call.
So here are but three ways that the priesthood of all believers could really minister to the rostered leaders.
1) If you are supportive of your called leaders, and moreover want to hear them preach and teach the implications of the gospel all the more fervently, then please, tell them.
Make an appointment.
If you know of others in your congregation who feel as do you, connect with them and together saturate your rostered leader with private and public support.
Let them and let others in your congregation know that you are grateful for their vision, their courage, and their faithfulness to gospel news and claims.
2) Up your support, in every way: financial, moral, spiritual, tangible, and in presence.
Even, and this is a big Woah Nellie for many Lutherans, even applaud during or after a sermon if you hear something especially gospel bold.
Seriously, we have come to this people.
Lutherans applauding in worship.
It’s that bad.
3) Give your rostered leaders more vacation time, continuing ed time and money, make them meals, gift them with cards to coffee and, for that matter, liquor stores.
Not making it up.
4) Ask them how they are, not as in the perfunctory after worship sort of way, but really.
Listen to them.
Receive what they say.
Perhaps people reading this could add more suggestions in the comments, but I’m calling it a wrap now, because even I can see that the blog has already gotten too long.
But the upshot is this:
Reformation Day reminds us of the good news that we are justified.
Alas, only in recent years have we been prompted to recall that that good news also means that we are freed to be sent out to advocate for and to enact justice.
Privileged people, which, to be honest, is what most of the ELCA membership is, like hearing about justification way more than justice.
But right now, I believe that the priesthood of all believers is called to announce to their rostered leaders, loudly, publicly, unabashedly, that they are called to preach both.
Justification and justice.
And while you’re at it, please let your rostered leaders know that you have their baptized, called, sent, and justified backs.
What in the world did Trump have to do with declining church attendance. Did you just feel compelled to have to stick that obvious bias in the blog?
Good morning Bill.
It is true that, out of my religious convictions, I am opposed to Trump and that for which he not only has stood but has represented and cultivated.
To learn on what religious and theological grounds I base my rejection of Trump, you are welcome to click on the blog tags to the right on Trump, politics, prophetic, gospel, baptism, Resistance, Social Justice, and so forth, not to mention pick up my book published by Fortress Press called “I Can Do No Other.”
However, here above I am referring to quantifiable research, as found, for example, in these articles:
I hope that they will help clarify my reference and the reasons for it.
Peace to you.
Spot on. Thank you.
And I, in turn, thank you!
I feel seen. I am especially aware of the guilt I feel knowing what I am called to against the fear of reprocussions that I and my family would feel were I to be as forthright as our current culture seems to require to HEAR what we are trying so hard to say.
It’s almost a double whammy, isn’t it: (1) the system makes it nigh impossible to preach and teach as a rostered leader is called to do, and (2) a person feels guilt for not doing what one can’t do because the system makes it nigh impossible!
And the stakes all around are so high.
I am very sorry that you, and so many others, are in this quandary.
Perhaps even just naming it might be one way to find some newfound freedom to live out of, and in to, one’s ordained call again.
Thank you so much for this article. My heart and spirit really needed to read it, hear it, and immerse itself in your words. Much of what you wrote is going on in my congregation right now, and it is disheartening. I admit, this helps give me strength to serve the gospel in my congregation, even if they don’t want to hear it. It also helps me to discern my next call. Thank you for your words. I needed these today.
It is such a bind, and so many are in it with you!
The thing is, so many rostered leaders feel alone, but in point of fact they aren’t.
Moreover, the wrenching fix they’re experiencing is due as much as anything to the system which creates the competing truths, and it’s ridiculously hard to change the system.
I continue to hope that Calling a Thing What It Is might offer some leverage, and courage, to do just that: change, and even upheave, the system that no longer works—and, truthfully, might never have anyway.
Wishing you peace,
Two millennia of anti-gospel action requires a steadfast love, education to right the ship. Your article is spot on. Continue to be a light in gospel truth. God bless you!
Thank you for this kind words!
Peace to you.
This is really ‘spot on.’ For too many years, I have operated under the premise that I needed to preach the Gospel at a rate the folks can tolerate. Which sounds good, but too often I opted for Jesus loves you (and everyone else too). Which I now fear only re-enforced the privilege we (including me) have long held in our American culture. What has happened in America since 2015 pushed me to reexamine who I am as a follower of Jesus, who is in a leadership role. The resurgence and seeming popularity of White Nationalism on the Right, and it’s acceptance by about half of the US population and a major political party, is so frightening that I was compelled to preach out against racial injustice, and in favor of racial and ethnic justice. Which has had the effect of too many people becoming angry, withdrawing their financial support and even leaving the congregation. And yet, on the positive side, has emboldened others in the same congregation to openly talk about and work toward racial and ethnic justice. I’m spent … encouraged and discouraged … feeling appreciated and unappreciated … understood and misunderstood … all at the same time. Still asking, How do I live into to my call to serve the Gospel at this time, in this place, by preaching the Gospel at a rate they can tolerate … so they will listen, and hopefully hear, and be transformed by Jesus life-giving, life-saving word.
It is such a bind, and I am so sorry that you are in it.
I hope that you know that by no means are you alone, and that I do believe the Spirit is stirring for a new way of being Church in the world.