Out and About

by Phil Johnson

Annual Meeting Report; Dagmar Soneson at Wooddale Church

For the past 30 years or so, I have intermittently attended meetings of the Covenant Ministerium. The Ministerium Meeting occurs early in Annual Meeting week. A few times I have been present as a pastor. More often, like this time, I have attended because I am interested.

When I took a seat in the very back row of North Park Covenant Church for the Ministerium Worship and Communion Service, I surveyed the gathering of ministers and the choir of ministers in the choir loft. I was aware of different thoughts and feelings from those I have had before on such occasions.

Over the years I have seen many of the faces again and again. A number of these people are dear friends and have been for a long time. As before, I thought about the difficult lives these people lead. In each congregation there are problems. Beyond the agonies and tragedies of people’s lives, there are people who do not like the pastor and there are power struggles. The pastor is usually caught in the middle of such matters.

In previous years, I have felt less appreciation or compassion because I have envied pastors their positions. In spite of the hassles, they have the authority to preach each Sunday, a place of leadership, and they are admired and loved.

Now I felt differently, I was grateful for the faithfulness of these pastors. Grateful for what they mean to their communities. They are people of kindness and caring. Persons who are available to people in their tragedies. Persons who strive to build love in their communities. Any negative views I might have about their theologies, world views, political perspectives—social or ecclesiastical—seemed of minor importance. “We need every one of these pastors; God bless them all,” I thought.

The sermon delivered by Donald Ostrum of Duluth brought to focus for me once more the way ministers must wrestle with what they should be and should do. I know of no profession that makes a person more self-conscious. Who am I? What am I to do? What is my responsibility? are among the persistent questions.

For some time now the pressure has grown for pastors to be good managers and administrators. The vision of church congregations has shifted from the people of God in a community to a voluntary organization that must be built, managed, and financed. This “model” and the pressures involved make it increasingly difficult for the pastor to spend time in quiet, in study, or with the little people. Competence becomes the key value.

Pastor Ostrum acknowledged the tension this creates in a pastor’s life. The tension between the responsibilities of running the organization successfully and of caring for souls. He spoke of the “manic management of ministry of mostly worthwhile activities.” I doubt there has ever been a time in the history of the church when this tension was not present. One can argue that the creation of the Augustinian and Franciscan orders in the Middle Ages were responses to this tension. They emphasized renewed commitment to direct ministry to people at a time when institutional concerns seemed to have swallowed up the church.

Administration is certainly a spiritual gift, but I am more blessed, and I think we are all more blessed in our generation, by pastors who are free to care for souls and to “waste” time than we are by driven persons though they be enormously productive.

I like the proposition that a minister is a person a congregation pays to not take a job. This may not apply well where people are poor and unemployed. However, for most North Americans, a person who is not caught in a rat race, as we tend to be—who can study and refresh his or her soul; who can spend time with children and spouse, or in solitude, or with people who are considered insignificant—is more the person we need to minister to us than another burned-out, hot-shot executive.

Nowhere is this better stated, that I know of, than in the article by Monica Furlong, ‘‘The Parson’s Role Today.” The article may be hard to find. It contains “the substance of a paper given at the Wakefield Diocesan Clergy Conference on April 2nd, 1966.” Each time I need to read it again, I call or write Art Anderson to send me another copy. It is one of three essays in a little British publication entitled Ourselves Christ’s Servants which Art, with his keen nose for such things, picked up years ago.

There were two other points during the week when this matter came into focus again for me. The first of the two was during a question and answer session with President Paul Larsen following the adjournment of the Ministerium busines meeting Wednesday afternoon. One pastor asked the President about his personal life: What are your needs? What are your growing edges?

President Larsen answered, “To manage the Covenant in such a way that it doesn’t eat up the rest of my life.” President Larsen may be becoming an over-taxed executive. If he is an overtaxed executive, who has the time and energy to be the denomination’s spiritual leader? Why is it that Paul Larsen, a pastor from a fervent Evangelical Tradition where the use of the word “manage” in relationship to the fellowship of believers would be unlikely, uses the word “manage” when he speaks of his leadership of the Covenant? Is it an indication of the subtle, pervasive power of the dominance of a new vision of Church and Ministry drawn from the prevailing canons of organizational correctness and success?

The other moment of focus was Professor Donald Frisk’s address to the ordinands to which the rest of us were privileged to listen.

Professor Frisk warned the ordinands not to be misled by our mixed messages as individuals and congregations. They should not think, he said, that we want them to be self-help psychologists, great organizational leaders, or even someone with pizzaz. Pizzaz is wonderful, but only the Word of God brings the New Creation.

“Preach with the reality of the blessing of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “. . . not just words.” He urged them to preach “from preparation of a heart warmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit—a word that lives, so that we will say: ‘God’s Kingdom was forwarded today. Thank God!’”

It seems to me that it has been and is the Church’s and the congregation’s responsibility to prepare the office for the pastor. We can define the office as a job to meet the prevailing emergencies of life in our times. Henri Nouwen (Clowning in Rome) observes how our present lives and institutions are organized to meet emergencies. Driven by concern for emergencies, as Nouwen observes, time spent in solitude, study, and the practice of chastity is seen as worthless clowning.

Forming the office of pastor as a job means that a busy schedule is necessary. Time must not be wasted. This boils down to running the congregation well, increasing the activities, and being constantly ready with the therapy required or likely to be required by some emergency.

A vision of the office of pastor that is more appropriate for the work of God and God’s Kingdom is the office of study, solitude, and freedom to follow a religiously formed rather than a secularly formed schedule and calendar. Congregations can make the pastor free for that and blessed in that, but in our present age it is not natural because there is great suspicion of its utility and relevance. Utility and relevance, according to a strong prevailing mood, are the only canons by which we are to be guided. But, in light of the overwhelming urgencies and crises of contemporary life, relevance, measured by some sort of success in reducing the emergency, is truly irrelevant.

This does not mean that our daily tasks and our efforts to respond to crises are not worthwhile. Whatever we can do is ours to do, but that is not the starting point for the office of pastor. The starting point, rather, is, as Nouwen says, faith, solitude, and clowning. He writes: “It might be that by deemphasizing solitude in favor of the urgent needs of our world, we are endangering the very basis of our Christian witness” (Clowning in Rome, p. 13). It would be worthwhile for congregations to examine job descriptions for pastors, if they have such, to see whether these job descriptions impede or foster the historic, life-giving, office of pastor.

Reading Nouwen reminds me again how grateful I am for Catholic Christians and for the disciplines and ministries performed by Catholic orders. The orders stand like beacons, shedding light on the Kingdom of God and on the life of the Spirit.

There were other meetings and services during the week I missed some of them. Dr. Homer’s address Wednesday evening “Renewing our Covenant to Teach” was filled with vision and substance. I was impressed and grateful for the efforts of The Covenant in World Relief. Vice President, Tim Ek, has devoted much energy and has worked with compassion on this front.

Some readers may know that I was at the Annual Meeting equipped with a Pietisten paperboy bag and that I was busy, with the help of Ralph Sturdy, his daughter Heidi, and Ann Soderstrom, distributing Pietistens. We passed out about 1000 copies of the summer issue. With rare exception, people received Pietisten gladly, and many encouraging words were spoken.

I hear echoing in my mind the words “Pietisten has slain its thousand, and The Covenant Companion (and many others The Covenant Quarterly, Lutheran Standard, Christian Century, Sojourners, The New Oxford Review, and so on) have slain their ten thousands.” It is our aim, being in the position of King Saul in this paraphrase, to reverse his tragic jealousy of David by praising God for The Companion, et al. We do this in the conviction that, as it says in the Tao in a slightly different connection, “It will be a hundred times better for everyone.” (Tao Te Ching, # 19).

Dagmar Soneson at Wooddale Church

The congregation of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota and others fortunate enough to be there by accident or foreknowledge were blessed Sunday, August 10, by the organ music played by Dagmar Soneson, organist of North Park Covenant Church, Chicago.

Wooddale Church has a fine new building and a magnificent organ. Though thoroughly modern, the church looms on the horizon to one approaching it in a way that reminds one of approaching some of the great churches of Europe. A major feature of Wooddale is its huge organ. The organ project was directed by Mr. Austin Chapman. It has two consoles, 74 stops, 114 ranks, and 6294 pipes, the largest of which is 32 feet in height. The instrument was built by Visser-Rowlands Associates of Houston, Texas. This reporter is no expert on organ matters but I could tell that it was big and powerful. Also, I knew of Dagmar’s desire to test this instrument.

I regret that I missed the Prelude, but I can attest to the magnificent Offertory, “Now Thank We All Our God” (Bach) and the equally great Postlude, “God of Grace” (Manz). I can’t judge whether the exhilaration of the music should be attributed to the great organ or the great organist. I’m inclined to think that the power and beauty of that morning’s music was due mainly to the organist because I have heard equally wonderful organ music played by Dagmar Soneson at North Park Church.