Author Topic: God's Call, the Church's Call, and Ordination  (Read 2817 times)

Richard Johnson

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God's Call, the Church's Call, and Ordination
« on: September 20, 2006, 06:32:56 PM »
God’s Call, the Church’s Call, and Ordination
by The Rev. Ernest A. Bergeson

Pastor Bergeson is a retired ELCA pastor in Harwich, Massachusetts. He originally submitted this article for publication in The Lutheran about the time of the formation of the ELCA.

For some time I have struggled inwardly over what I have seen happening to the position of the ordained clergy within our Lutheran Church. When I became a pastor in the Augustana Lutheran Church in the 1940’s, the most important thing I had to do in order to be accepted as a candidate for ministry was to convince the matriculation committee at the seminary that I had truly received an inner call of God to serve the church in preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments. We had to present to that committee a biography of our spiritual journey to that point. Everything hinged on convincing the committee that I had that inner call so that when my seminary days were completed, the call could be confirmed by the church in a call from a congregation.

It was only then that the Ministerium of the Church would further examine me to determine if I understood fully the implications of the inner call in submitting myself fully to the apostolic faith as set forth in the Confessions of the Church. It was then that the Church voted to ordain me as a pastor and invoke the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that I would be true to my calling. Even though we never called ordination as a Sacrament, as did our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, the Church had a view of ordination that essentially sacramental. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we were following what the Apology to the Augsburg Confession says: “But if ordination be understood as applying to the ministry of the word, we are not unwilling to call ordination a sacrament.”

What later troubled me in the LCA has troubled me even more in the ELCA: we have somehow gotten away from the idea of the inner call and the sacramental character of ordination. We have more and more opted for a strictly functional view of the ministry. Instead of probing the validity of an inner call, it seems we have instead probed the psychological and sociological suitability of the individual to hold what we consider the “professional status” of an ordained pastor.

I could not bring myself to vote for the ordination of women at the LCA Minneapolis convention in 1970, because no one presented a good theological case for the change. All the arguments were of a psychological and historical nature. It took an evening of hearing a woman who had been studying at the Episcopal Seminary in Cambridge to bring me to change my mind. Here I heard for the first time a person spilling out her heart about the fact that she had experienced the inner call of God to the priesthood of her church, but at the time her church was denying her the opportunity to fulfill her God-given call. I was so convinced of her having that inner call that I said to myself, “Who am I to say that women should not be ordained if God issues the call?”

I remember an evening when a classmate of seminary days and I were talking about our call to the ministry, and a young intern was listening in. He seemed all ears as he said, “Tell me more. I’ve never heard this before.” He sat fascinated by our view of what it meant to be ordained and sent out by the Church with the Gospel. We talked about the inspiring send-off we got from Dr. Bersell’s sermon about springtime in the Augustana Church at our service of ordination. Is this kind of experience completely lost to a Church that wants to treat ordination only as a step toward the hiring of a functionary who is nothing more than a professional employee of a congregation?

Now that I have become one of the retired pastors of the Church, the ELCA for sociological reasons only is disenfranchising us as voting members of the ministerium of the Church. The new Church, even after a study of the ordained ministry, has opted to endorse a functional view of ordination, giving voting status only to those who are directly under call by a congregation or to special service in the Church. The sacramental character of ordination seems to me to have given me a life-long call of God that can be terminated only by being defrocked for cause. I have fought against the idea of the three-year “on leave from call” limitation because I felt it was theologically untenable. That is why I have over the years always voted against putting anyone on that status.

Recently I read that Dr. James Nestingen, in speaking to the ALC bishops, said that ordination is not a civil right for an individual, nor is it a personal endowment. I would challenge that as a completely erroneous way of looking at the permanent and sacramental character of ordination. Just as psychological and sociological aspects of the ministry exist but must never supersede the theological meaning of ordination, so talking about civil and person rights of the individual has little to do with the understanding of the gifts of the spirit to the individual in ordination. The only civil right it involves is that granted by the state to pastors to be the agent of the state in performing a marriage rite and certifying that by the filing of the marriage license with the town or city clerk.

In summary, may I say that God’s call, the Church’s call and the bestowal of the gifts of the Spirit for the fulfillment of the office of Word and Sacrament have to be seen in a way that is consistent with the historic apostolic character of that office under the ultimate authority of Christ. A pastor is committed in ordination to a life-long office under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit which the Church recognizes, and the church holds him or her accountable. If the ministry becomes the functional job of a professional, as it seems to have done in the ELCA, then the integrity of the office is lost.

Not long ago I heard Rabbi Murray Rothmann say that he was concerned about the conversions to Judaism that were taking place, not because individuals were theologically committed to the Covenant, but because they were sociologically being brought in through intermarriage. It is with the same concern that I see the polity of the ELCA being shaped by sociological and psychological understandings of ministry, but failing to understand fully the theological character of the office.



The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

pilgrimpriest

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Re: God's Call, the Church's Call, and Ordination
« Reply #1 on: September 21, 2006, 12:02:56 PM »
"In summary, may I say that God’s call, the Church’s call and the bestowal of the gifts of the Spirit for the fulfillment of the office of Word and Sacrament have to be seen in a way that is consistent with the historic apostolic character of that office under the ultimate authority of Christ. A pastor is committed in ordination to a life-long office under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit which the Church recognizes, and the church holds him or her accountable. If the ministry becomes the functional job of a professional, as it seems to have done in the ELCA, then the integrity of the office is lost."

Yay and amen! This is the very argument I made at my last Synod Assembly in 1997 before I left for the Orthodox Church.  I spoke in opposition to the "Call to Common Mission" with the Episcopal Church on the basis that the substance of Apostolic Sucession (teaching and preaching in accordance with the Scriptures, Creeds, and Confessions) was already present in the Lutheran ordination rite. My argument was that to have a mere "mechanical" Apostolic Sucession a la ECUSA without a the fidelity to Apostolic teaching was null and void and is why Rome and Constantinople no longer recognize it as valid. I am reminded here of the story of a young Fr. Alexander Schmemann's curt retort to the Swedish Bishop whom he was tasked with escorting around the Seminary.  This bishop made reference to his own Apostolic Succession in almost every conversation which finally led the exasperated young professor to say, "Your Grace, I don't care who you're in succession with; if you're a heretic, you're a heretic!" :)

Fr. Schmemann in his book By Water and the Spirit (SVS Press) makes a helpful distinction in understanding ministry by describing the priesthood in the Church: the calling and gifting of bishops, priests and deacons to the liturgical and sacramental ministry of the Church; and the priesthood of the Church: the calling and gifting of all the baptized to worship God, proclaim the Gospel and serve in the world.  This sounds quite Lutheran, doesn't it? Sadly the crisis is just opposite for us Orthodox: we have a fairly clear understanding of the priesthood of the clergy, but almost no conversation on the power and importance of the priesthood of all the baptized.

But, we're working on it...

Fr. Bob
« Last Edit: September 21, 2006, 12:08:44 PM by Fr. Robert K. McMeekin »

pastorgary

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Re: God's Call, the Church's Call, and Ordination
« Reply #2 on: October 03, 2006, 12:14:31 PM »
     After eight years in parish ministry, I decided to enter the Army Chaplaincy on active duty.  I had a three year obligation and if I didn't like it, I would could go back to parish ministry.  In any case, it would be a different kind of ministry.  As luck would have it my first posting was Fort Knox which had a thriving Lutheran Congregation.  This along with the unit I was assigned to were the focuses of my ministry.  In fact, there was a Lutheran Congregation in Hawaii on post and another at Fort Hood on post.  These all became a part of what I did in addition to my regular Chaplain duties in my unit.  In all of these places, we did word and sacrament ministry and started confirmation programs for the young people. 

    After my first three years, I wrote a letter to my Bishop.  I explained that I was in the midst of a decision, whether to sign on indefinately, or return to the parish.  My Bishop wrote me back, and I can't remember his exact words, but the effect was "I was getting back into the ministry", and that I would have a period of adjustment.  I wondered about that.  What have I been doing for three years.  It really didn't hit me until some six years later.  Me and another Lutheran Chaplain were getting off active duty and returning to the parish.  He was told in so many words that they have trouble placing "you guys" I think he was told, and something about being "out of the ministry so long.  I was not told these things, but I did get the impression, that, well, we will do what we can.  I got the distinct impression that I was being steared to a rural congregation that they were going to have problems trying to fill.  I must have been a God send, since I didn't currently have a call, and would soon be unemployed.  I am at that rural congregation now, and thought we do struggle, I enjoy the ministry. 

     Yes, we do have a narrow, functional veiw of call and the ministry.  Though I feel the parish is certainly the backbone of the church, there are many ways and means to serve.  The Army provided a wide arena in which to do ministry.   I did word and sacrament ministry in a chapel and on the hood of a Hummve, in air conditioning and in the rain.  I know many Catholic priest who go back and forth between parish ministry and military ministry.  I am quite sure they are not left to wonder whether they have been involved in "ministry" during their time in the Army.  Indeed, I felted called to the military ministry, just as strong as the call I felt to enter the ministry. 

     When our country invaded Iraq, many of the men and women I served with on active duty were going to war.  I felt an inner call to serve with them, to bring the hope of the Gospel to their situation.  I spent most of 2005 in Iraq working in an Army Hospital.  It was an important call, and I was able reach out and touch others in ways I couldn't here.  That was important ministry; I am back home now, this is important ministry.   

Gladfelteri

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Re: God's Call, the Church's Call, and Ordination
« Reply #3 on: October 24, 2006, 11:21:15 AM »
  After my first three years, I wrote a letter to my Bishop.  I explained that I was in the midst of a decision, whether to sign on indefinately, or return to the parish.  My Bishop wrote me back, and I can't remember his exact words, but the effect was "I was getting back into the ministry", and that I would have a period of adjustment. 
". . . getting back into the ministry?"  Egads !!  Am I really missing something here  - misreading what you wrote, or is pacifism becoming so "hard-wired" in some Lutheran Churches or at least in some corners of some Lutheran Churches that being a military Chaplain and ministering to the soldiers of our country and their family members is not considered being "in the ministry?"  Last time I checked, the Unaltered Augsburg Confession does not forbid service in the military.  Nor does it relegate Lutheran Christians serving in the military as "2nd class Christians."  Jesus did not condemn the Roman Centurion.

". . . getting back into the ministry?"  PastorGary, I you never  left the ministry while you were an Army Chaplain - you were very much in the ministry - in a crucial, very specialized ministry at that!  Although this is seldom seen outside the Anglican Churches (in the Episcopal Church that is most common in the "Old South") and among some Old Catholics / Independent Catholics, I proudly wear my Army ribbon bars and on occasion, my miniature medals, on the left side of my stole.  I suggest you do likewise, at least from time to time - at least around the 4th of July, Veteran's Day, Memorial Day, etc.  Be proud of being in the ministry of serving our troops as a Chaplain.  Let me personally thank you for your dedicated service to our troops at home and on deployment in Iraq.  (By the way, I spent three very good years at Ft. Hood in the mid 1980's.  I occasionally served as a volunteer supply organist for the Lutheran congregation on post which met, at that time, in the old Blackhorse Chapel, when their regular organist was in the field.)

Blessings,
Irl
« Last Edit: October 24, 2006, 11:55:30 AM by Irl Gladfelter »

Gladfelteri

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Re: God's Call, the Church's Call, and Ordination
« Reply #4 on: October 24, 2006, 11:44:27 AM »
And furthermore:  If it is a consensus in some Lutheran Churches that a military chaplain is not "in the ministry" either because of "creeping pacifism" or because he does not have a regular call from a regular, conventional, non-military congregation, may I suggest that the Lutheran Church in question cancel its status as an endorsing religious institution for military chaplains and not permit its clergy to serve in the military at all.

Now that my blood pressure is going up, I will take Charles' excellent advise to have some chamomile tea and then take one of my dogs for a nice walk . . .

Peace,
Irl
« Last Edit: October 24, 2006, 11:52:04 AM by Irl Gladfelter »

pastorgary

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Re: God's Call, the Church's Call, and Ordination
« Reply #5 on: October 24, 2006, 05:55:47 PM »
Thank you for those kind words.  I not sure creeping pacificism had much to do it, at least not with the first Bishop I mentioned.  He in fact is now retired and gave me a big welcome home and a big thank you for my work in Iraq.  My problem involved more the thought or impression that we were "out of the ministry".  I ministered to a more diverse group of people than I have ever come in contact with anywhere in the parish.  And you know, you never know what kind of an impact you have on a soldier's life.  I was on my way home from a theological conference once, when I was pulled over for speeding in a small town outside of Ft Hood, where I served for two years.  I don't think I had ever seen the officer before in my life.  He took my driver's license and went back to his car for what seemed like an eternity.  He returned, gave me my license back with a warning, he stepped back saluted smartly saying slow down Chaplain, he than turned a walked back to his car.  I sat there with my mouth hanging open for a while.