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

Practicing Forgiveness

So, it seems like the posting from last week that pointed out that forgiveness is a practice we undertake instead of a feeling we have for our enemies was helpful to some of you.  So, I was thinking that maybe pushing a little deeper into our struggle to forgive and reconcile might be helpful for all of us who try to follow this Jesus we call Lord.

The first habit I have that makes the practice of forgiveness hard is that I work above my pay grade.  I look around the world and I see all kinds of people who are just wrong: The neighbor who does not act like a neighbor, in my (not so) humble opinion (IMHO); the member who is not faithful enough, IMHO; the person “living in sin” and on the list goes.  Now, these folks are not hurting me directly, I just know they are sinners.  Am I to forgive them so easily?  Should we not condemn all those who, IMHO, are dishonoring God?  Probably not, that is God’s job.  They have not wronged you.  They have wronged God – IMHO. You?  Me?  We are to remove the log from our own eye, drop the rock we were about to cast and concentrate on our own sins.  You see forgiving the whole world for all the things that we choose to allow to annoy us, to get under our skin, is what God does.  And I know that it is annoying in and of itself.  Counting the sins of others is very often what enables us to focus on someone else’s problems other than our own.  Stop judging everyone and the load presented by practicing forgiveness gets much lighter.

The second habit I have is something that keeps me from answering the call to reconcile at all.  How often have you felt wronged by someone – spouse, child, friend, and co-worker – and, with arms folded and a look of righteous indignation on your face have waited for an apology?  After all, they should know what they did wrong.  After all, you deserve the apology.  And if they have not figured out what they did wrong, I’m not going to tell them!  Some obvious pouting and a little silent treatment will motivate some humble attrition, right?  Notice what Jesus says in Matthew 18:15:  “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”   

Now, wait a minute Jesus – I am supposed to go to the one who wronged me?  Yep.  I’m supposed to talk to the offender and not share my hurt with others?  Now, you are getting it.  I’m supposed to take the initiative and speak one to one?  I’m afraid so.  And worse than all that I am supposed to go with the purpose of “regaining that one.”  Yes, as I did for you.

This teaching follows the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus leaves the 99 healthy sheep behind to look for one errant problem sheep, bringing it back to the fold.  In other words, we go not to get an apology; not to extract what is due; but to forgive and restore a relationship.  The burden here is all on the wronged party.  That just seems, well…. so unconventional; so difficult; so wrong, Jesus! 

Matthew 18 continues by telling us if we can’t regain the one by our own effort, we involve elders. If that does not work, we bring the matter to the church.  If that does not work, we are to treat the offender as “a Gentile or tax collector” – precisely the people that Jesus endlessly welcomed. As Paul says, we – the followers of Jesus – have been given the ministry of reconciliation.  To us falls the duty of peacemaker and bearer of forgiveness. (2 Cor. 5:18)

So, how do we do this?  How do we deal with all the hurts and sins committed against us? 

  1. Take an honest look at what offends you.  Just because your feelings got hurt does not mean you were sinned against.  Our hurt, anger, and resentments are all too often the product of our own making.  We choose anger way too much – when we are tired, anxious, stressed.  If we took everything said and done to us, as Luther counsels, “in the best possible light,” we would be happier people with a drastically shortened list of enemies.  So, before you run off to accost the one who hurt you, sleep on it for a while.  Pray about it for a long while. Ask yourself if the hurt was intended, if it is meaningful enough to destroy the relationship.  Be a grown up and put away the childish things like wanting to get even or hit back with words.  You’ll grow in understanding yourself.  And you may find that there was no breech to repair in the first place.
  2. Confess your own role – My mother always said of any conflict, “It takes two to tango.”  There is always a second side to every coin.  When a rift develops in a relationship, before we confront anyone with forgiveness, we need to be honest about our part in the problem.  Almost always, we will find that we are to blame as much as the other.  Celebrate your forgiveness in Christ – and now maybe you need to ask for forgiveness from another, instead of the other way round.
  3. Discard the emotions – Figure out how you go to another person and tell them, rationally and without anger that they have offended.
  4. Bring forgiveness, not a request for an apology – Your forgiveness must be genuine, not a ploy to point fingers or to evoke an apology. Forgiveness is granted whether accepted or not; and is the doorway to a renewed relationship. Truly, forgive and then forget.

What is hard about forgiveness for you?  Add your insights to the conversation.  Leave a comment, or just an Amen!

Pax Christi, Pastor Tim