By Paul Koch –
So I survived yet another District Pastor’s Conference.
For those of you not in the know, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod is broken up into districts that spread across the country. Each district holds a yearly Pastor’s Conference where all the pastors gather together for a few days to discuss important issues facing the church and challenges in the district. Now, these conferences can be a hell of a good time. Late nights around an open bottle of rye in the midst of a bunch of colleagues can usually guarantee great conversation and lots of laughs. This year, my friends and I threw our own cocktail party right in the midst of the conference. It was definitely a game changer and sure to be a staple for many conferences to come.
However there is something that happens at every conference, no matter which district you are in, that needs some attention on our part. Every conference has that fateful moment when the President of the district get up to give his report, his “State of District” speech, usually accompanied with PowerPoint slides and lots of stats and interesting graphs. We need to spend some time on this, not because of what it offers in the way of content, but how this changes the conversation going forward. As far as I’m concerned, it is changed for the worse.
I am fully aware that I have a tendency to use the bureaucratic enterprise of the District Office like an abusive boyfriend mistreats his woman. I love them when they give me what I want, but I point out their failures when they are of no use or overly clingy. I know that they are necessary and perform a very useful function in service to our Lord’s church. That being said, I think their function is essentially a peripheral one; it lurks on the edges of the church’s work and is never its center.
So a President’s report at a District Conference is somewhat akin to Unikitty pretending to be a businessman entertaining Lord Business’ drones. It’s a speech that goes like this, “Numbers, numbers, numbers, stats, graphs, mission statement and more numbers – is this working?” And everyone nods their heads in agreement. Our particular sampling this year spoke about the usual failures in growth and then moved to elections in the church and Synodical warnings about overseas mission work. It was nothing out of the ordinary; actually, it was very much just more of the usual fare.
This issue, then, permeated most of the conversation throughout the rest of the day. Pastors seemed to be incredibly eager to talk about re-election possibilities and how the Synodical structure will help or hinder mission work. All of a sudden schemes of political maneuvering took a central role as the means by which the church would stand or fall. Success in the church meant having the right bureaucrats in the right place. Generally, these conversations almost have to occur in the realm of the law; they are about control, about agendas, grudges and other such crap. People take sides and form coalitions, and actually care a lot about very marginal issues in the life of God’s people.
When we end up spending our time talking and fretting about such things, we cease to talk about what really matters. When you get a large group of pastors in the same place at the same time, you have an awesome opportunity to talk about the heart of the church: about proclamation. We could have been talking about how to best hand over the gifts to the broken and hurting in our congregations and communities. We could have been discussing how to encourage each other to strive for excellence in their preaching. We could have confessed our failures and received absolution, and with it the courage to rush headlong into the fight again.
But then again, I suppose discussing whether or not a District President should be President for 18 years or just settle for 15 years is pretty important, too.