A Pastoral Letter of Thanks & Concern

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, eternally. Amen

There are many, many joys that come with being a pastor. There are also sorrows. Each come as we walk with faithful people through what life brings.  We give thanks to God for the joys and sorrows; for the privilege of sharing the sacredness of life with you and all those we have served over our years of ministry. We give thanks for each of you in our prayers and our hearts.

We write to you today out of a shared concern for our life as a congregation. There are times – trying times – in the life of the Church where we struggle to be about the work of our Lord. In our lifetimes we both have seen issues arise that threatened to tear the Church apart, it seemed. Watching from a bit of a distance, we both recall the evil and bitterness that marked the Church during the civil rights movement. Race divided the people of God. People fought over the Biblical view of race. When we were a little older, the acrimony of Church arguments came closer to home as Lutherans talked about the ordination of women. People left our congregations because they felt that women had no place in the pulpit. Each side seemed to consign the other to hell and damnation for disagreeing. This was not a faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Today, the issue that gives rise to our most basic behaviors, that arouses the deepest anxiety and fear centers on human sexuality. Once again, the Church has struggled to provide a healthy witness to the Christ who is supposed to have the power to unite us even when we disagree; even when an issue is complex and hard to navigate. Our congregation has struggled with an undertone of conflict on this issue since 2009 when the ELCA adopted its statement on human sexuality. Our congregation, like the whole ELCA, is not of one mind on this issue. After five years, it is time to move forward; to be about the business of God in Christ.

Recently, the Council of the congregation has sought to provide support to us as we stand on the front lines of making hard decisions. They asked you to provide feedback to help them lead. We want to give thanks to all the Council members who have worked so faithfully to develop and share this resolution with the congregation. It has been a long conversation and process, spanning more than a year. It has included study of biblical positions and the statement of the ELCA. It was at times a difficult conversation. But, never once did it cause animosity or disrespect; never once was their anything but efforts that were faithful to God, the scriptures, and the mission of the congregation. The Council has shown its gifts for wisdom and discernment; they have prayed often and with power.

The feedback we received, the meetings held with SMA leaders and participants, and the discussions we have had with members reveal that 55-60% of the congregation supports the resolution presented.  We give thanks for those who voiced this support and saw the action as a means of staying true to our mission and their understanding of the gospel.

We also give thanks for those who do not support the resolution and expressed their opinions in gracious and respectful words that truly contribute to the difficult discernment of your leaders. These responses showed that the love of Christ can, indeed, allow people of different viewpoints on important matters live together in peace and with respect because Jesus Christ is bigger than any of our disagreements.

Some responses gave us not a reason to give thanks, but reasons to be concerned as your pastors. We are concerned about those responses that gave counsel rooted in fear: the fear that members might leave, that giving might suffer, that people will be mad. This has been a theme of conversations on nearly every decision – major and minor – for the last three or four years and perhaps beyond. Paul calls the church to “speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” (Philippians 1:14) One of the constant refrains from scripture is “Do not fear” because fear is the opposite of faith. We cannot be faithful and fearful at the same time. We must stop worrying about who is leaving and turn our attention to the strangers who we need to welcome. While we were wringing our hands about who might be leaving, seventeen new families visited our congregation on just one Sunday. How did we worry about them? Not once in scripture does anyone tell the church to look out for yourselves, but instead calls us to turn our attention outward to the people who need the gospel.  

Paul refers to those living in brokenness and who are estranged from God, asking But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?  And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15) Fear will distract us from the gospel. Fear will threaten our future more than any single decision. Fear will destroy us. Fear has already done damage.

We are also deeply concerned about the small number of responses received that were filled with anger, gossip, misinformation and threats.  These lacked respect for your leaders – who are your brothers and sisters in Christ; you neighbors and friends. First, we are concerned because these expressions of anger and malice are what Paul calls “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19. They are injurious not just to the community but to the one caught up in them. Paul teaches that “…enmities, strife… anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions” (Gal. 5:20) are signs that the Spirit is not alive and well in the person and in the community.  The fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal. 6:22-23) These are the signs of health manifested in a life rooted in Christ.

Our second concern is that this kind of gossip and accusation diminishes us as the body of Christ. It makes it harder, if not impossible to do what God calls us to do. Wild speculations, assumptions not based in facts, misinformation and lies have no place in our life together.

It is unfair and cruel to call the leadership “irresponsible” for dealing with an issue just because you think they should have done it differently. It is disrespectful to tell a Council (which includes two pastors) that they should “read the Bible” as if they have not. It is unhelpful to threaten to withhold giving or leave the congregation if you don’t get your way. That is not how mature Christians deal with each other.  We can both tell you that neither of us will ever alter a decision that has been arrived at faithfully because someone threatens to leave or stop giving. This leadership approach cripples the congregation and makes the mission about keeping everyone happy.  A congregation that tries to be everything to everybody will be nothing to no one.

It has been said that we have a couple waiting in the wings to be married and so, we are pushing some kind of personal agenda. This is absolutely false. No member of this congregation has approached a pastor about a same-sex marriage to date, and no one is on the horizon.  It has been said that this is all part of plan to drive out members who don’t agree with the pastors. This is a painful attack that is completely false. Your pastors may be calling the congregation to be ever clearer about our identity and some may not like who we say we are. But, we took an oath to love and serve the whole congregation and we take that seriously. It has been said that the new photo directory is an effort to cover-up the “fact” that many of the people we photographed before have left. This is nonsense. It has been said that these discussions show that we are “caving in” to the world around us. That is an opinion that many do not share.

We do not support a congregational vote on this matter for a number of reasons. Nobody wins in a close vote. The tyranny of the majority alienates people from one another and that is counter to the gospel. Votes create winners and losers and can fuel division rather than heal it. The Council is elected to govern the congregation’s life between annual meetings and to make policy decisions.  The resolution itself is a policy about supporting pastoral decisions and falls well within the council’s authority. The Council, in this case, has reviewed the biblical studies and the statement from the ELCA. They have debated and questioned. They have prayed. That kind of preparation cannot be assumed about a simple congregational vote. Lastly, if policy decisions are to be made by the congregation we adopt a decision making process that is laboriously slow and calls into question the purpose of the Council. It establishes a pattern of decision making that cripples the congregation. It also perpetuates a habit of mistrust of leaders to do what they have been asked to do. This has often plagued our congregation and kept us from a united purpose and mission.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the time has come for us to live in faith, not fear; to reject a culture of gossip and partisanship; to live as God’s people in love with each other and our Lord. We give thanks for the many, many of you who are grasped by that vision. We pray for your support and your efforts to live in love, and even in disagreement over particular issues, because our unity in Christ is strong. We pray for those who have struggled with fear and anger, that the Holy Spirit will allow us to come and reason together; to respect each other for the sake of Jesus, not because we share the same opinions.

In Christ

Tim Olson, Lead Pastor & Pam Schroeder, Pastor for Care and Discipleship

Light in the Darkness

So, I was thinking about this passage from Isaiah, so central to the Christmas gospel:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)   

This hopeful proclamation from the prophet Isaiah is part of the Christmas message. Light overcomes darkness.  To tell the truth, things have seemed pretty dark to me since Christmas preparations went into full swing weeks ago – around Halloween, I think.  On the surface, people are talking about looking forward to the holiday.  Underneath, however, I sense an all too frequent dread or stress.  I don’t think it has anything to do with the annual “war on Christmas.”  You know – Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas (even though the English origin of the word “holiday” is holy-day”); kicking the crèche out of the town square; banning religious songs at the school choir concert.  I don’t really buy this kind of war on Christmas as a real issue.

That said, I do think something dark and destructive has been happening to Christmas.  Maybe it is a war of sorts.  It has shaped Christmas into a rather hideous creation.  It has involved us all in a systematic erasure of the meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ.  We still call it Christmas, but maybe it should be called “Consumerist-mas” – the “Feast of the great Consumption.”  There is little Christ left in its observance.  We go on a binge dedicated to dark excess instead of bowing before the Light of the World.  Jesus came bring us the light of freedom, yet the post-holiday credit card debt will shroud us in a kind of slavery for the next two Christmases. Jesus came to give us peace, but we end up doubling our antidepressants because our stress over the perfect holiday has plunged us deeper into a dark hole.  The real focus of the season is how much money was spent and made, not how light has entered our darkness.

I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill or the Grinch.  But, I’m afraid were missing Jesus in the midst of all the jingle bells. I fear we have lost our minds, our hearts and our souls.  We live in a world where benefits are cut to millions who are poor and will have no holiday. At the same time the TV encourages us all to buy diamonds and a Lexus for our loved ones so they know we love them.  We force the least powerful and poorest working folks to work all day on Thanksgiving so we can all get an early start on our excess. That just does not sound like it has anything to do with Jesus to me. You see, my fear is that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas – consumerism did, and we all helped.  I fear that the true power of God’s incarnation is completely negated by wrapping the manger in foil paper and selling it for $39.95.

Advent is the first act of resistance against this dark progression of commercialism.  The holly jolly world of retail Christmas plays on our desire for instant gratification. Advent makes us wait, a spiritual discipline we may despise, but is essential to our maturation in faith.  Faith is about joy, but also about enduring the darkness as we await the real light.  The strings of bulbs on our houses only decorate the darkness and since they burn out, don’t bear the true light of Christ.

Amidst all our celebrating, spending, preparation and panic, Christ will come. Of this I have no doubt.  Notice however, that the only ones who noticed God breaking into our humanity were shepherds, who had nothing but the silent night.  Maybe if we get a grip on our holiday, Christ will get a grip on us. Christ came to a manger, not the mall.  May Christ come to you whether a new blender does or not.