We are in an election cycle in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. To use a battle analogy, sides are being drawn, and soldiers are digging in. “Generals” are starting to jockey for position for nominations, votes, and offices. As a son of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod and one whose family has church workers all the way back to the 1840s, I’d like to share a little perspective from a frontline leader who serves as a pastor.
THE FRONTLINE IS THE CONGREGATION
The frontline of the fight is the congregation’s ministry. It’s where the people are, the resources are, and obviously, where the enemy is. In the congregation, there’s not a lot of glory, but there’s a lot of meaning. There’s not a ton of credit, but there’s so much joy. There’s not a huge amount of safety, but there’s security in leading the flock of the Good Shepherd.
My frontline battlefield is in Orange, California. While I may not have served in the US military, I sure have learned from people who have — and from pastors who faithfully served in the parish for years before me.
OUR BATTLE IS SPIRITUAL
Paul clearly defines our fight in Ephesians with these words:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” [Ephesians 6:12].
Any frontline soldier can define the real fight. It’s the enemy right in front of you. My two cents as a pastor and “frontline commander”: Our fight is spiritual, and the means our enemy fights with is our culture, deception, and with the brokenness of sin. It’s not a pretty sight to be at the front, but again, it’s where the real action is, and the real impact is being made.
PASTORS ARE FATIGUED AND STRUGGLING
Pastors waging the war in the post-Covid age, in my observations, are working harder than they ever have. Young pastors are trying to apply lessons from schools that spoke to a time gone by. Middle-aged pastors are trying to figure out if they made the right decision to pursue pastoral ministry and finding how difficult making a significant contribution is and will be going forward. Men my age are working hard to rebuild congregational ministry and care for the dying and the wounded.
I honor my fellow pastors who had to go to online services in about a 10-day window and then pivot weekly to engage their people. I honor the colleagues who delivered the sacrament home by home throughout the entirety of the pandemic. I honor the fatigue of doing funeral after funeral for people in our congregations who have become our friends and with whom we are very close. I honor the pastors who preached to more empty pews than people as the pandemic ebbed.
And I honor the frontline pastors who are working so hard, with so little encouragement, in rebuilding ministry and program. The work is so arduous and the fruit is tough to wait for. But the calling and the work is so meaningful.
It’s an honor to serve as a pastor when the battles are difficult and when the stakes are high. And it’s exhilarating to serve the Lord Jesus by serving His people on the front lines. As hard as it is, I’m glad I’m a pastor serving a congregation in the battle against sin, death, and the Devil.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS THAT COUNT
Recently, I read through a list of accomplishments from President Matt Harrison, the President of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod.
While I don’t want to be critical of President Harrison, I’d like to make the following observations about the list.
First, few items on the accomplishment list were tied to frontline numbers. Pastors count worship attendance, baptisms, confirmations, school, and preschool enrollments offerings, and, depending on the congregation, other things in context as well.
Most pastors are sick to their stomachs throwing away unused bulletins. We count. Frontline pastors (local shepherds) know exactly the impact of these numbers. They prepare the resources needed to improve them and make plans to feed and strengthen the flock.
The LCMS doesn’t need leaders who bemoan demographics and hope for a recovery in 20 years. We need leaders who support frontline workers and bring resources, training, and a plan to the battle. Victory is more than surviving.
PLAYING DEFENSE DOESN’T WIN BATTLES
Second, very few of the accomplishments can be characterized as going on the offense rather than defense. Battles are waged on the frontlines, not in the rear echelons. However, battles are won with appropriate support and supplies from the rear.
Jesus said the “gates of hell will not prevail against the church” (Matthew 16:18). It seems to me that we are called to offense rather than defense at the front lines.
Good pastors realize that they have to lead their congregations and put forth creative ministry initiatives that allow the troops to go on the offensive. Precious little on President Harrison’s list of accomplishments can be characterized as leading an offensive. They seem more focused on celebrating the past and surviving the present.
PLANNING RATHER THAN REACTING
Finally, a good general is able to anticipate the enemy’s next move and the next front. So much of President Harrison’s list is reactive to culture, to circumstance, and to the ideas he has. Very little of it anticipates coming needs and changing realities.
Where is the plan for how our congregations and church workers will thrive in the coming years? Is our future plan to dig deeper trenches and fortifications, hold the line, and hope not to be overrun by the enemy? I’m not one for digging trenches.
THREE PIECES OF ADVICE FROM A PASTOR
I am a pastor serving in congregational ministry since 1991. Having served in a medium-sized congregation and large congregation — and being the son of a church planter — I would offer this to the “generals” in St. Louis and Synod-wide, no matter who he is or who they are:
1. GATHER FRONTLINE COMMANDERS AND LISTEN
First, gather your frontline commanders (parish pastors) in a somewhat informal setting and listen to what is going well, what is going poorly, what is confused, and what is missing for them — with the emphasis on them.
Listen to them. You will find out what they need and be able to help in practical ways that help them accomplish Christ’s mission in their local congregation. Put politics aside and engage all of your frontline commanders.
Good commanders (pastors, too) don’t just bark orders and expect compliance and support. They listen to local needs and opportunities. They know the local capacity to serve and their supplies. They understand who is wounded and who needs reinforcements. They develop logistical plans to support those on the front lines so they can succeed in accomplishing our big-picture goal of preaching Christ crucified for the world.
While attending district conventions is nice, it is a symbolic act and fulfills bylaw requirements. However, sitting down with your frontline commanders is a better way to gather information and understanding. Leaders who do this in congregations as well as at the District and Synod level will gain insight as to what is really going on where it matters.
The act of giving reports at conventions is a top-down distribution of information. It serves the needs of the communicator. Instead, we all need to be leaders who listen to those with boots-on-the-ground in the trenches.
It’s easy to dismiss the frontline leaders when you never see them work. And it’s hard to make future plans for going on the offense when your conversation is Synod-centered instead of listening to local leaders.
2. SHOW SUPPORT FOR FRONTLINE COMMANDERS
Support the work of your commanders on the frontlines of the battlefield. They will carry you much further than you can drive them.
In this battle, the aged structures of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod are as archaic as spears and shields on the modern battlefield. Our local commanders are finding and supporting each other through social media, texting, and all means available to them. Social networks and friendships have sprung up because the frontline leaders need one another — and they are not finding support from the rear echelons.
Like Patton with the Siegfried line, the old structures are being bypassed by leaders who are getting things done in the congregation. The leaders in the rear could help by acknowledging the shortcomings of structure and affirming and enhancing our spiritual and emotional support.
Doubling down on the obsolete is not supporting the practitioners. For example, stifling the new efforts of the LCEF Board to help bring support and health to church workers will bless frontline workers engaged in battle.
So much of this used to happen in circuits. Now, I am regularly in contact not only with local pastors but pastors in Florida, Illinois, Wyoming, and Texas along with so many other places.
Our old structures are not being used, nor are they effective. We have found a way on our own to bypass aging structures and support one another’s ministries.
3. UNIFY — DON’T DIVIDE
Generals need to keep their armies together and coordinate their work. Dividing one’s army and setting one group against another is not a recipe for success. Division doesn’t win battles.
America is rife with the politics of division. So is the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod.
Each cycle we struggle with division. Everyone understands that people’s career’s hang in the balance and care for families and salaries and benefits are on the ballot. That’s a given. This is by nature a political process. From congregations to Synod, we make decisions by voting. Any time we do that, it’s political.
However, we need to stay together as one army. I can see already that the bifurcation is starting. Our lines are being drawn inside the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod tent for our triennial civil war.
Just my view from the front lines.
SOME LESSONS FROM A FAMOUS GENERAL
General Patton was famous for his sayings. Do you find the wisdom of this one?
“Defensive fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man.”
Here’s another one of my favorites:
“Do not take counsel in your fears.”
Patton said that any good soldier is afraid, but he doesn’t put fear in the driver’s seat. Rather a soldier and leader learn to subvert fear and press into combat with courage, which is a learned trait according to Patton, rather than fear.
In the rear echelon are rules, politics, and precious few targets. At the front are life and death, camaraderie and community, and victories and losses every day. It’s where the action is.
Perhaps the view from the front can lead us away from fear, reframe the fight and encourage us all. Our fight is not against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities of this dark world. And our leader, Jesus, is the light no darkness will ever overcome.
Our Savior’s path is a “fearless” one. Remember that He said:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)
As we accomplish Jesus’ will, we will not let ourselves be swayed by fear. That’s a ploy of our enemy. Instead, let His peace empower us. Let’s listen to and support one another, so we can make effective plans for an offensive campaign.
Pastor Timothy Klinkenberg is the Senior Pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Orange, CA. He is the former 1st Vice President of the Pacific Southwest District and a nominee for Synodical President. Pastor Klinkenberg’s leadership in St. John’s church and school ministry has served as a bright light of God’s grace in Southern California. He is a vocal supporter of Lutheran education. His management experience and forward-thinking in mission and ministry have successfully led his large and complicated church and school ministry through all the changes of the last decade.
Pastor Klinkenberg is a skilled, straightforward communicator and would strengthen the LCMS Praesidium as West-Southwest Regional Vice President to face the challenges of preaching Christ to a culture standing against Him.
Would you like to read more about leadership? Here are three links to quick reads about serving as an officer in today’s US Army from Field Grade Leader: