If you were fortunate enough to either be watching or attending [virtually] the NE Iowa Synod assembly, then you were treated to a wonderful opening presentation on Johannes Bugenhagen and church leadership by Wartburg Seminary professor Martin Lohrmann.
The NE Iowa Synod is my new synod of roster, and this was my first assembly with this synod. I could say more about the assembly as a whole–and the election of a new bishop, which turned out to be more complicated and fraught than anyone could have imagined [and may I say that interim bishop Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl did an outstanding job of leading the synod through that process, under very difficult circumstances]–but what I want to share here is an excerpt from Lohrmann’s presentation.
As I was listening, I was excited about what I was learning about Bugenhagen, and how his experience during the Reformation can continue to inspire and educate us about church leadership today. It was both a history lesson and an invitation into a model of leadership that is still relevant for the 21st century church. The presentation was very well-done, and very engaging.
But, it was in Lohrmann’s concluding points that I was really struck, and moved, quite frankly; his remarks really hit home for me. This is what he said:
Every generation of the church changes. That’s okay. As the prophet says in Isaiah 40, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” Yes, there are social factors in our time that are largely beyond our control. Yes, our church communities might look different going forward than they have in the past. But if we’re where Jesus is, then we’re in the right place, no matter what else is going on around us. And so many great things are, in fact, happening in our churches, and I want to say “Thank you” for your part in those great gospel experiences. If exciting things aren’t happening, then in Christian faith, we’re entirely free to pause, ask in prayer and conversation about what the Spirit might be stirring up next, and get on board. We are not held captive to uninspiring institutions and boring messages… that’s not what Jesus came for! Instead, with the eyes of faith, we can see that our healthy institutions are nothing other than us and the Holy Spirit in motion, doing more together than we can on our own.
That’s an exciting place to be. It also happens to match Luther’s explanation of “thy kingdom come” in the Small Catechism. Luther wrote, “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” [BC 356.7] We don’t need to work impossible miracles to create the kingdom of God on earth or save the church. We’re not obliged to carry the church like an unwelcome burden on our backs. By no means! The Holy Spirit creates and sustains the church. We have been blessed to be people who pray with all our heart, mind, and strength that we keep getting to be part of it.
It was those last two lines that were so moving to me: “We’re not obliged to carry the church like an unwelcome burden on our backs. By no means! The Holy Spirit creates and sustains the church. We have been blessed to be people who pray with all our heart, mind, and strength that we keep getting to be part of it.“
I admit, sometimes I feel lots of pressure to “sustain the church”–and, I will admit that sometimes this does feel like “an unwelcome burden” on my back. [I hope some of you might be able to relate to that]. So, even though I shouldn’t need to be reminded of the fact that the continued nourishment and sustenance of the church is the Holy Spirit’s work, sometimes I do need such a reminder! And, when it comes, phrased so well and with such a positive spin, I receive it as much needed gospel to my ears and my heart.
Instead, we are blessed just to be on board with the Spirit, following her lead, praying and working together in Christ’s name to glorify God and serve the neighbor. When seen this way, we can receive church leadership as a gift, not a burden; a joy and a privilege, not drudgery. Ultimately, as Lohrmann reminds us, “if we are where Jesus is, we’re in the right place.” I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.