Vanity of Vanities (A Reply to a Note about the LCMS)

Have you ever read or heard a comment and been split between: “better late than never” and “years late and dollars short”? That was my reaction reading this. I am struggling, will struggle and will probably fail as I write to keep my cynicism out of this. So, let me just state my most cynical thought up front. After years of disregarding and exiling anyone who said “you might have a problem”, now that the seminary is having an enrollment problem, we get lines from senior seminary leaders like “maybe we should listen to 20-30 year olds” and “we might need to think about structure”.

Ok, now that I’ve got that out of my system, I do want to write a few vain things in response. I’m going to put on my MBA hat and mix in a certain low cunning. Nothing that I write here is something that I haven’t shared before with others in private conversations. The universal response is bi-polar. In power and over 60 think I’m insane while powerless and under 45 think I’m preaching the gospel.

The first question that must be asked is simply if the LCMS as an institution is one that you would choose for the moonshot Dr. Raabe writes about, or if the better strategy for this institution would be simply to focus on current strengths and realize that size will be smaller in the immediate future. It would be the simple but boring answer to say “years late and dollars short”, focus on strengthening what remains, hold fast what you have. The church of Philadelphia is a real church. Any MBA working through the Harvard case study would say this, but those in power after squandering the last 30 years are going to feel a twitch of guilt, so let’s talk about the moonshot.

First, moonshots are methodical and expensive. Remember the scene from Apollo 13 as they figured out the sequence to get the power below the threshold? The first hard truth that must be digested is that institutions like the LCMS primarily spread along with population migration. That is not going to change. How the LCMS started new congregation, outside of elder fights, was when enough loyal LCMS members moved far enough away and banded together to start a new congregation. That was always reactionary in regards to place. In 1964, peak church, people were loyal enough to denominations to start one of their brand. In the past 30 years that has not been the case. If the LCMS is going to stage a moonshot the first thing it will have to do is learn to forecast population movements and open congregations “on spec”. The SBC and the non-denoms could do this because in that tradition an enterprising young person felt the call, went to where the grass looked green and opened the door. That is not possible in a denomination that requires 8 years of education for ministers. Other groups, like Presbyterians, could do this because they had a middle judiciary (i.e. the Presbytery) that had real access to funds. They didn’t always use it, but some did, and they used it to start churches. You are either trusting freelancers or trusting some form of Bishops with real authority. Our mixed congregational structure is the worst of both worlds for the change we have experienced.

The LINC model (reference Houston) leans toward the non-denom freelancers. The LCMS has fenced it off through ethnic boundaries and then through the SMP. The opposite, a strong bishopric, really hasn’t been attempted. This gets us to the second hard truth. Either of these forms will still take lots of money not currently in evidence. Personally I spent five years working on a LINC model. At the end, the attempt folded for lack of consistent funding. Lutheran congregations are a slow burn or thick environment. In the city it is doubtful that one would ever reach self-sustaining absent a vow of poverty from a missionary pastor probably along with a vow of celibacy. Even in areas where self-sustaining could be reached, it will take time to disciple. It is probably better to think of these new sites in a monastic way. We send people with significant support to start a new place away from the mother-house. We were never good at thin attractional ministries to begin with and the days of gathering “nominal Christians” with attractional gimmicks are over. The new congregation is going to be a place of new evangelization. Whether you choose freelancing or centralized, these new cites are going to have to be supported monetarily as missions for extended time periods. Or we need to be very open about the hardships of the calls.

This is getting long, but I’ve got a couple other hard truths I want to look at quickly. Third hard truth, the LCMS elects leaders defensively and because it is their turn, not because the person has a vision that they would like to lead toward. The result of that institutional bias is stasis, lack of funds and maybe most importantly lack of any real authority to experiment. The LCMS somewhere would need to elect a young-ish person with the mandate to experiment and the vigor and desire to be on the road raising funds one small parish at a time. Fourth hard truth is that many of the congregations that would need to be relied upon need help themselves. I’ll use my place as an example. We have four LCMS congregations within a 10 mile radius. All four are open and living through various special graces of God. We could have two solid places. We could even have one exemplar. Instead we have four Philadelphia’s (Rev 3:7). Fifth hard truth, the LCMS would need to stop eating its young. What do I mean by that? Well, the seminaries spent 2000-2013 taking $60,000 per student and sending them to churches that were often barely operational. Or they didn’t get a call, but the loans were due immediately, along with the reminder that calls are not guaranteed. Or you end up on CRM (some fairly others quite unfairly) and you might as well get a job at selling cars. The entire institution sustained itself by churning through the idealistic offerings of young people. We like to think of the ministry with rose glasses and romanticize the call, but the MBA’s supply and demand has more to do with it than we might like. Right now, those curves meet lower than we like. It will take an external shock (i.e. money or money in the form of time) to move that.

The MBA recommendation in such a case would be a skunkworks. You would need to establish a well-funded wide open experiment zone. The purpose is two-fold. First to protect the experiments from the main system’s immunological reaction to kill it. The second is to fail fast and pivot fast so that you have developed something that works by the time the main institution breaches the walls. The seed is in the stump. As I said at the start I doubt that the LCMS is the institution that one would pick to for this moonshot. My guess is that it needs to be burned again. But that very reference (Isa 6:11-13) would be my hope. God works through death and resurrection. A church full of Philadelphia’s has doors that no one can shut.