A Message from Pastor Hale
The call is easily misunderstood because it is not of this world, yet it is very much of this world because it is tied up with ordinary sinners and their arbitrary decisions. But it will never be understood unless we start with Scripture and God’s will. Pastors are called by God into His harvest field to preach His Word. He sends every pastor to be His ambassador and speak with His authority to free sinners from Satan’s bondage. This is an article of faith. Pastors do not always appear to be divine gifts, but they are not the point: God’s Word is the divine thing which pastors are called to deliver and Christians are to hear and obey as if God Himself is speaking.
The Word belongs to all the baptized and is the right of every Christian to believe and use it. But God is a God of order. When gathered together, we cannot all speak and exercise the keys to heaven in competition in a chaotic fashion without sinning. But this is not a human order, as if we need a boss or manager over all the saints in a congregation – it is a divine order. “And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ ” (Rom. 10:15). If anyone sees the pastor-congregation relationship as a fight for control or power, he does not see the divine relationship that the Lord established. The Lord rules over and works through both parties.
Pastors do not choose themselves to speak for Christ, but neither do congregations choose their pastors. This does not appear to be the case if we use our eyes. We see pastors making selfish, thoughtless decisions that do not honor the call from our Lord. Congregations vote to approve a call to a pastor with limited knowledge of him. But God works through sinners, even if they are following their own sinful will.
It is always God’s call, even when it comes through a voters’ assembly, so it cannot be rescinded, unless the Lord Himself does so. Pastors are not pastors for life, though. If they cannot do what God demands of the office or they sin against the scriptural expectations, then God is the one removing the pastor – as long as His Word is followed. As St. Paul often repeats, pastors are called to be God’s servants – not spineless lackeys or abusive kings. “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). God’s call gives the confidence to preach the Word, whether it will be well received or not. But it also demands that the congregation listen and not let human pettiness get in the way of divine instruction.
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Pastors are not accountable to congregations and all their wants and whims. Neither are pastors tyrannical rulers that congregations must submit to unconditionally. The Word of God is the power of the office, not the person in the office. And the Word taught correctly has all the authority of God Himself. So Christians are to hear and submit to God’s Word, because it is Christ speaking to them – not a sinner who appears inadequate and weak. But apart from God’s Word and His ordering of pastor (which means shepherd) and sheep, there is no power structure or spiritual authority – as there is in every human relationship. The power is God’s Spirit in the Word and pastors are to use the Word publicly in Christ’s name, just like every layman is to use the Word at home and in their own earthly vocations. The public, external call makes demands on pastor and congregation, so that the Lord is foremost, not sinners. But understood rightly, the pastoral office is a great gift to His church and God’s express will for congregations.
Practically, the process of how a call is extended is a black box to many. And it is very earthly. Congregations develop personal feelings (positive or negative) toward their pastor, and vice versa, because we are real sinners. But that earthly attitude is to be subservient to God’s will and office. The pastoral office is to be honored and supported because of God and His Word we expect to hear from it. Christ trumps all emotional, personal sentiments. Pastors have the same personal reactions as congregations and may not feel like they are doing divine things when they preach and teach. But the call is an external thing – not an intangible feeling – that both pastor and congregation can point to. It is truly a comfort when earthly situations become difficult and trying. The public office allows God’s Word to be the center of attention in the midst of sinners who are forgiven. God’s will is to be done over our sinful will. And His divine will to relieve sinners of their guilt, so they partake of eternal life in the Son, is always present in His Word, no matter who speaks it.
But what about a pastor who receives a call who already has a call to serve? This is a perplexing situation for the pastor and congregations. Both calls are divine, even when one is from an unknown congregation. Yet, it is fully God’s will and call to preach there, as is the already existing call. Both are equally divine. I’ve heard several odd questions over the years that deny the divine aspect of the call: “Are you open to a call?” “Are you considering the call you received?” If calls are divine, doesn’t every one have to be taken most seriously? To not do so would be to dismiss God Himself who issued the call. How can a Christian ever not be open to God’s will? No, God’s call is never something to be dismissed. Even “retirement” is an unbiblical category when it comes to the pastoral office and is simply resigning the call to be a pastor for Christ. The call makes the pastor, not education, certification, experience, or aptitude. That is simply another way of saying that God Himself makes a pastor.
A pastor with two calls cannot serve God’s sheep in different locations. Both calls are fully of God and real, but only one can be lived in and served, so the other is not “rejected,” technically. It is “returned,” so another man can be sought to fill the call. It is not about the person himself in the office, but the hearing of the holy Law and forgiving Gospel of Christ that creates faith. The Word which makes faith makes Christians. So the deliberation of the call is not to be a negotiation or hostage situation. God works through every call, because the office belongs to him – not pastors or congregations. But this is something to believe, congregations or pastors are not promised to see it. Even when the call is mistreated or ignored, it remains divine.
Does a new call mean a pastor wanted out of a church or he is unhappy? It doesn’t matter – the call itself is divine and of the utmost seriousness. It is much like marriage. Whether a couple dated for ten years prior or got married after one date – marriage is always a holy and divine calling, not a personal choice for us to end. It doesn’t matter how much a married couple likes or dislikes one another – God’s call to be faithful is what matters. And just like every marriage must end, the Lord removes every pastor – in His own time though, not ours. But we are to respect and love God’s will more than our own.
In our synod, any church can call any rostered clergyman: active, retired, or without a call. There is no one secret, magical call list of pastors who want a new situation. They can tell certain people to circulate their name, but the call list is truly the entire clergy roster, in practice. The call remains God’s will and tells the pastor where to serve, even if it means laying down his life. Districts can have lists of names, but congregations are free to ignore them (and often they should). In practice, this process can appear quite messy and disorganized – but the call itself is always holy and above us and our sin. We are to trust that good results, and must, because it is the Lord’s work and office ultimately. It is God’s will for every congregation and Christian to have a pastor who preaches God’s Word faithfully. We are not to lead ourselves – but to be led by Christ, who always speaks in His Word. Amen.