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Feb 9, 2013

Lessons for (and from) Lutherans about What to Say (and How To Apologize for Saying Things You Shouldn't Have Said)

The Missouri Synod Lutherans are in the news-- and it has not been a good week. The Religion News Service reported:

A Lutheran pastor in Newtown, Conn., has apologized after being reprimanded for participating in an interfaith vigil following the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

... Morris' church is a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the denomination's constitution prohibits ministers from participating in services with members of different faiths.

It's not the first time a Missouri Synod pastor has been reprimanded for joining an interfaith prayer service; a New York pastor also was suspended for participating in an interfaith service after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

You see, LCMS Lutherans are friendly with evangelicals, and often feel like evangelicals, but generally they do not participate with others-- in a sense, they are sectarian. To be fair, everyone is sectarian to a degree, some more than others. For example, many denominational churches don't take communion outside their own local church. Your theology impacts your relationships and associations-- though the world won't always understand that.

So, as the New York Timesreported:

The Rev. Rob Morris, a new pastor who lost one of the members of his congregation in the shooting, defended himself in an open letter published by the church, saying... "I believed my participation to be, not an act of joint worship, but an act of community chaplaincy," he wrote.

Honestly, I don't know enough about the service to indicate what I would do. I've written a long cover story for Christianity Today about how to related in a multi-faith world, and I imagine I would certainly look for "community chaplaincy" opportunities in such a tragedy.

Regardless, my concern here is the media and culture backlash. I've seen it before-- a denominational official, a well-known pastor, or the denomination itself says or does something explosive and it goes viral. It's an all-too-common pattern.

Though I do not know about this situation, these statements are often made to appease (or rile up) a small but vocal part of the denominational constituency. Those statements go national or even global, bringing embarrassment on the denomination and making the work of the churches more difficult.

So, how do we do our best to avoid and then address these things? Well, I suggest five considerations for how denominations can deal with conservative religious beliefs in a world that often won't understand:

1. Know that what you do and where you go makes a statement.

An LCMS Lutheran (or evangelical) pastor at a multi-faith service will make news-- and will make others uncomfortable. Just about every LCMS Lutheran remembers the controversy caused by the 9/11 prayer service. If you are a denominational pastor, you must consider how your actions will impact others. That's part of being in a denomination.

2. Sometimes, denominations should consider less public forums for hashing out theological conversations.

I wonder if some of the loudest voices condemning Pastor Morris, and pushing for public trial or rebuke, regret the damage now visited upon their denominational reputation. Maybe not, but I wonder if it would have been a better course of action to have the Council of Presidents discuss and then to present at plan or recommendation at the national LCMS convention-- perhaps following a study and report from key leaders.

To oversimplify, I know that there is a division in the LCMS between those who would consider themselves more evangelical (and confessional) and those who would consider themselves more confessional (and less evangelical). Perhaps this moment was not the time to surface some of those tensions and to undermine the witness to a world that does not understand why, from their perspective, you can't pray for the hurting families of murdered children.

3. Don't change your sincerely-held beliefs, but know that the world is watching.

I'm not Lutheran and don't share the same sectarian approach, but I understand and even respect it. However, we must understand that the world is watching and they won't understand the nuance of our arguements-- and we should act with that in mind. Anyone not expecting this backlash is not paying attention to our culture. Believe what you believe, but learn to express it in a world that rejects what you believe. You probably won't persuade them, but perhaps you could enflame them a little less.

4. Your words need to be clear, even outside your movement.

From the perspective of the world, the LCMS has simply rebuked a pastor for praying with the families of massacred children. When handling issues such as this, great care must be taken to try and understand how your message is being communicated. I know we get quoted out of context. Count on it and make it hard to do so. Then, take the lumps as they come if you have expressed what you believe as well as possible. My guess is that such lumps will come more frequently as our culture continues to shift-- but try to be clear to those inside and a little more comprehensible to those outside.

5. Apologize clearly when wrong.

Although there may have been missteps in this process, I was encouraged by one thing. Matthew Harrison, president of LCMS, has shown a better way (one that I wish many others would have followed in years past). Yes, some of the most strident denominationalists will actually like a secular backlash-- to them, opposition and ridicule is proof that they are speaking the truth. However, I think President Harrison has shown a better way earlier today, stating:

As president of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, I take responsibility for this debacle. I handled it poorly, multiplying the challenges. I increased the pain of a hurting community. I humbly offer my apologies to the congregation, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Newtown, Conn.; to Pastor Morris; and to the Newtown community. I also apologize to the membership of our great church body for embarrassment due to the media coverage.

I'm encouraged to see President Harrison apologize. I'm thankful for the honesty and wisdom displayed here-- and I am praying for him right now.

In conclusion, I don't think it is my place to opine on the confessional standards of other movements-- I actually respect them. When I have spoken at Missouri Synod national gatherings, I think they found me to be appreciative and respectful of their tradition and thankful for their ministry as brothers and sisters in Christ.

But as an observer of (and advisor to) different denominations, I see this as an all-too-common problem with ramifications beyond this one Lutheran experience. Simply put, I am amazed at the capacity for people at a denominational platform to say things in ways that hurt the mission of the churches and missionaries in a denomination-- and they hardly ever apologize.

I appreciate a denomination with open microphones and participative processes. Such systems promote accountability. Yet, denominational leaders and influential pastors also need to be accountable to our churches in what is said and, more importantly at this moment, how it is said. Words can help or hurt the mission of our churches.

I think we can proclaim the truth with grace and compassion. So, I am not writing about the theology per se, but rather about how we do confessional theology in public in a world that is pluralistic and syncretistic. What we believe is already odd to a pluralistic world, we don't need to make this harder by saying it poorly, thinking that the world won't notice.

I'll be praying for my Lutheran friends dealing with the backlash as I know they have prayed for pastors in my and other denominations as we felt such a backlash of our own making.

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Posted:February 9, 2013 at 12:00 am

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