It was my first district pastor’s conference after moving to Wyoming. I had only been here a few weeks. It seemed like seven hours was a long way to drive for a three day conference. I did not go. The next year I had made plans with family from out of town. The plans had been a year in the making. Again, I did not attend.
The day after the second skipped conference, I received a phone call from a brother. I explained that I had not intended to miss two spring conferences in a row. Plans had already been in place. I had attended the fall conference. Certainly, an exception could be made. He frankly told me, “I don’t know what things were like in your old district. In Wyoming, pastors are expected to attend conferences.”
Four years later, I was totally slammed with work, and I had overextended myself on community projects. I was often out of town, rarely around my house, and seldom to be seen at the church. I really needed to finish projects and get back to my family and parish. I attended one day of the conference anyway. Why? Because it’s how things are in Wyoming.
While in New York, a veteran pastor mentioned that the clergy roster of the LCMS “used to be a band of brothers.” I’ve heard that lament before.
Once upon a time, pastors came up through “the system” – four years of prep school, six years of seminary and then placement. Page 5 and Page 15 were all the liturgy anyone ever needed. Suit and tie, perhaps a Geneva gown, and your wardrobe was complete. Bible, Book of Concord, and a Dogmatics was enough for any pastor’s library. The seminaries were filled with men of renown. Names like Pieper, Mueller, Graebner, Maier, Arndt were not simply authors of old books. They were the living voice of the synod. Later would come Peipkorn, Franzman, Caemerer, Bertram and Danker. But Seminex brought the specter of distrust into our Zion on the Mississippi. “The System” collapsed. Men now came late in life to be pastors. Soon they would not come at all. They would be ordained in situ. Since 1989, when Augustana XIV was deemed inadequate for bringing God’s gifts, they need not even be ordained.
In the late 1990’s new pastors would be integrated into the synod via the PALS program. It was a replacement for the abandoned monthly Winkel-Conferenze. Had those not faltered, PALS would not have been necessary. Pastoral conferences, required by bylaw, were reduced and practically eliminated in many districts. Costs were prohibitive. The bylaws decreed triennial visitation of each congregation. That was abandoned long ago. The synod in 2013 passed a resolution saying “let’s actually do this thing that is required”. The Council of Presidents still is studying the issue to find a way to make it workable.
Is there any hope that we can once again become a Band of Brothers? Solutions like “We just need to get to know one another” or “We need to trust one another” speak to the resolution of the issue, not the process.
I am in a district that can claim that the pastors are still a “band of brothers.” But it is hard work. It’s what I have learned. It’s what the synod forgot. I did not create this district, the procedures, or the atmosphere that makes it possible. I inherited it. How is our district so united? Not just because “The Wyoming District is that way”. Religiously, the state of Wyoming is mostly Evangelical (East) or Mormon (West). That is, the culture of Wyoming is not Confessional Lutheranism. So how do the pastors and congregations of our district have such unity?
We take seriously our commitment to each other. Not just by saying, “Brother, I trust you.” But by doing the hard word of triennial congregational visitation, twice-yearly 3 day conferences, circuit winkels each month. And all are focused on doctrine and practice.
We do not always agree. The disagreements are spirited at times. But, every pastor trusts and respects the other pastors of the district, because we work, struggle, and pray together so very often. There are those who may not personally get along. But there is respect between them. There are those who may not agree on this or that. But they support each other.
Because as a district, we have made a commitment to support and respect each other, as a way of honoring the office we undeservedly hold. But we lay the foundation for that with the hard work of monthly, annual, and triennial gatherings as a district and as circuits. We discuss and argue over theology at these meetings. We do not shy away from the hard topics. We dive into them, eager to learn anew from God’s Word. It is not easy: one circuit is 8 hours of driving end-to-end. There is often outside study as well. But it is necessary. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
If one thing were to come out of the joint conference between the Atlantic and Wyoming districts, I would hope that it is a renewed appreciation on both sides for the importance of the hard work of being a synod, and the necessary task we have of working together to remain so.
The other option is that we continue our slide into being “a synod joined together by a common health and retirement plan”. And in the hostile landscape of our secularized culture, that’s just no longer an option.
NOTE: The opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the author. They do not represent the opinion of anyone else in the Atlantic or Wyoming Districts, or in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Please also note that this disclaimer is made freely by the author, and not at the request of any person or group.