Preaching and the Bureaucratic Malaise of the Church

By Paul Koch

This week, I gathered together with a decent-sized group of my colleagues for a monthly meeting in which we receive the gifts of our Lord together, study theology, and discuss matters pertaining to our district of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. We have a good group of guys, and I always do my best to try and attend these gatherings. After all, there will usually be passionate disagreements about practice, heartfelt please for future endeavors, lots of laughs at the expense of some brother who didn’t show, and certainly a beer or two during lunch.

Luther reminds us that God is so generous with his grace so that we can even find it in what he calls “the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren.” And it is just this that keeps me going back month after month, year after year to this little gathering that goes unnoticed by the rest of the Church. At its best, it’s a place where God’s grace is lavished upon me through the words and actions of my brothers in Christ. There is something good about being able to confide in those who are engaged in the same vocation as me. There is a level of honesty and wisdom that I cherish at these meetings. At its worst, these gatherings become embroiled in the ugly beast that is Church politics. Here the concerns of preaching, teaching, and administering the Sacraments are set aside for issues of electing District Presidents, nominating for some position within the Church, or concerns about the direction of synodical initiatives.

Now, of course, elections, nominations or any other bureaucratic endeavors of the Church are not in themselves bad things. They certainly can be done with joy and confidence and even a contrarian attitude that continues to be a blessing to the gathering. However, I have found that such attitudes tend to be in short supply, or at least they don’t speak up in the meeting.

Instead, (at least these days) there is a certain heightened concern about all things political, whether within the Church or without. Just as one neighbor may be passionately opposed to Trump’s presidency while another will vociferously advocate for the building of the wall, they will play on one another’s fears and create nightmare scenarios that seek to sway votes one way or the other. And unfortunately, the same attitude creeps into the Church’s bureaucratic endeavors as well.

The issue that I’m trying to highlight here isn’t that these discussions shouldn’t be had, nor that they have no merit or place within the Church. Rather, the issue is that fears of the bureaucracy and its development and direction seem to be of far more concern to many that the actual proclamation that we are called to make from the pulpit every Sunday. In other words, when sitting around a few tables with fellow pastors, the conversation is never so lively and animated as it is when we discuss Church politics.

The sense you get from such discussions is that the bureaucratic necessity of the Church is of greater import than the actual routine proclamation of God’s Law and his Gospel into the hearts and minds of sinners every Sunday. Of course, no one would ever come out and say that this is the case, but that would be the clear impression given to any bystander that observed the meeting. This impression taints the ethos of the Church and ministry. We begin to think that the real power is in the structure and configuration of a governance model. If only we had the right model, the right structure, why then we would solve all the problems of the Church.

Let us never forget what is foundational and what we desire to build on top of it. Let us keep the first things first as we champion the Gospel over our attempts at glory. Let us remember that it is the proclamation of the Gospel and the Gospel alone that is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”