13 Theses on Successfully Reforming the Local Congregation

Over the last 15 years, I have had many opportunities to fail as a Pastor.  In fact, I have often told people that I have learned more about being a Pastor from failure than I have from success.  Considering this, most of my failures have been in the area of good intentions – trying to reform local congregations back to their Lutheran roots.  However, in my attempts of reform, I quickly learned that my lack of patience, my lack of trust in God’s Word, and my lack of tact have typically made things worse, not better.  Therefore, through the many years of failure and several situations of success sprinkled throughout, I offer up these 13 Theses on Successfully Reforming the Local Congregation.  These theses are statements of theory that I am putting forward as premises for any Pastor desiring reform in a local congregation that he is serving. 

As with any paper or theological work, there are underlining presuppositions.  That is to say; the following 13 theses have three main assumptions.  They are as follows:

1) A Pastor desiring reform in a local congregation is hoping for reform in the congregation toward a Lutheran DNA. 

2) The criteria for a Lutheran DNA is best described by Rev. Dr. James Baneck in the following way: 
  • The Lutheran Church is Christological – focusing on Christ alone.
  • The Lutheran Church is Scriptural – captive to the inerrant and effectual Word.
  • The Lutheran Church is Sacramental – cherishing the gifts of Baptism and Communion.
  • The Lutheran Church is Confessional – subscribing to the Book of Concord.
  • The Lutheran Church is Homiletical – preaching God’s Word of Law and Gospel.
  • The Lutheran Church is Liturgical – gathering around the gift of the ancient liturgy. 
  • The Lutheran Church is Merciful – reaching out to neighbors with love and compassion.
3) The following 13 theses are directed to Pastors and can be pondered individually or within Pastoral group meetings, or even within a seminary context or church council meeting.  In other words, the theses assume that the reader has a basic working knowledge of the Pastoral ministry.

So, enjoy these theses as you ponder the most worthy endeavor of reform in a congregation. 

The Lord bless and keep you, and your congregations, as God’s Word challenges, comforts, converts, forms, shapes, and sustains.

In Christ,

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard

CLICK HERE to download PDF Version

Thesis I
The Word Is That Which Reforms, Not The Pastor

The Word is something – the Holy Spirit works in the congregation through the Word granting repentance and faith.  That is to say; the Word of God is not spoken merely to impart information like an encyclopedia, but rather, it is spoken to form and reform hearers (i.e., those who have ears, let them hear).  The Holy Spirit through the Word is not content to leave people as they are but wants to convert and change people.  Therefore, the Word must invade; it must continually function as the only source, rule, and norm of the congregation’s faith and practice, for apart from it, the congregation is left in despair and can do nothing.   

In Lutheran and Biblical theology, the Word is not only authoritative and inerrant, but the Word is also living and active.  Therefore, any genuine reform in the local congregation must happen via the Word of God.  It has been said before that without the Word of God, the congregation is no different than a common rotary club.  Without the Word of God, the Pastor has no authority and no lasting and eternal significant influence. 

Thesis II
Pastors Need To Take Time

As a general rule of thumb, a Pastor should plan on successful reforms in a local congregation to take about half the time it took for a misguided doctrine/practices to take shape.  In other words, faulty doctrines and practices are often intentionally and unintentionally laid down and cemented within a congregation over long periods of time. Thus a Pastor must understand that undoing and correcting a faulty doctrine and practice will take time as well.

For example, if a congregation has been mixing consecrated wine back into the wine jar for 20 years, then a Pastor should not expect this practice to be fully corrected in two months but should plan on about ten years as a minimum.  

Thesis III
Pastors Should Shepherd By Leading
Graciously, Not By An Iron Fist

A congregation can sense real quickly if a Pastor is treating them like a project and if they are being ruled with an iron fist.  More often than not, a congregation can pick up on this when they are pushed along too fast.  Pastors cannot forget that shepherding is a long-term vocation.  Indeed, parishioners respond better to a Pastor who patiently and graciously teaches than a Pastor who forces his timetable on the sheep with an iron fist.

For example, if a Pastor wants to correct the practice of mixing consecrated wine back into the wine jar, he can do one of two things.  1) He can say, "I probably will be at this congregation for about five years before moving on to a bigger church, so I better get this fixed in the next couple of years."  As a result, the Pastor will become pushy (often without knowing so) and maybe even treat his sheep with an iron fist, seeking to accomplish his goal within a short time frame by sheer force.  And then, as can be expected, the sheep will eventually bite back.  2) Or, the Pastor can say, "This has been the church's pattern for 20 years.  I will start working on this problem by teaching God’s Word, and then pray - by God's grace - that it can be corrected in ten years."  In the second example, the concern will most likely be remedied in ten years (and often a lot shorter than expected).  Furthermore, it will be fixed by the Word of God and not by the force of the Pastor’s gruff heavy-hand.  

Thesis IV
Pastors Effect Reform In Practice
Primarily Through Teaching Doctrine

Pastors must keep in mind that bad theology or a lack of theology will typically lead to bad practice.  So, if the Pastor wants to reform incorrect practices, he should start with correct teaching.  

For example, if a Pastor is in a congregation that has open communion and plans to undergo reform towards closed communion, the Pastor should first start teaching about the Lord’s Supper.  Then after a considerable time of teaching, the Pastor may get a questions like this, "Say, Pastor, my Catholic brother-in-law is visiting and wants to take communion.  I don’t think he should.  Am I right?"  At this point, the Pastor has a tremendous opportunity to teach about communion specifically and within a practical context.  That is to say; with one layperson’s practical question, a Pastor can start the dialog with other laypersons in a more concrete and specific way than before.  The Pastor can say in a public Bible Study with Ted’s permission, "Ted and I were talking about whether his brother-in-law can take communion or not.  From everything we have learned this last year about communion, what should we say to Ted’s brother-in-law?"  By going this route, the Pastor is appealing to the theology that has already been taught and is then gently pushing the laity to connect the doctrine of communion to its practice.  If the theology has been adequately taught and given time to take root in the laity, the laity will most likely arrive at the right conclusion, or they will ask the Pastor for his input.  If asked for further input, the Pastor can then speak very candidly towards the sheep, because the sheep are ‘asking’ for his guidance and input.  Indeed, when the Pastor is asked specific questions of doctrine, the Pastor can rejoice in the opportunity to teach – the specific question towards the Pastor generally shows that the ears of his parishioners are open to hearing.    

Thesis V
Pastors Should Avoid Teaching Ad Nauseam

Teaching the flock must happen first before changes in practice can occur, and teaching a particular doctrine takes time (See Thesis I).  Teaching over longer periods – avoiding teaching ad nauseam – gives the congregation the time to learn, adjust, and reform.  

So, if doctrine drives practice, where should a Pastor teach?  Well, back to our example in Thesis III.  A Pastor can teach on communion every time that he has an opportunity - when the circumstances and context allows.  That way it is natural.  A Pastor can teach on communion on Holy Thursday.  He can teach on it in the catechism.  He can teach on it when a text alludes to the Lord's Supper in Bible Study.  A Pastor can do a newsletter on communion as well.  There are many and multiple ways that a Pastor can patiently teach a particular doctrine throughout the year.  The mistake of some Pastors, though, is that they will jump on one particular problem in the congregation and will beat that subject over and over and over - ad nauseam – resulting in parishioners turning a deaf ear to the Pastor.  In other words, Pastors need to keep in mind that if they intentionally hit on a particular doctrine only 3-5 times a year that they have not failed.  Indeed, teaching on a particular doctrine 3-5 times a year over a three-year-period will cover a particular doctrine some 9-15 times.  This amounts to a substantial amount of teaching over 3 years.  Over time and Lord willing, the doctrine will sink in and will begin to allow the Pastor the opportunity to change practices   

Thesis VI
The Pastor’s Conscience Will Never Be At Peace,
Especially During Reform

A Pastor’s conscience will never be at peace and rest over his congregation, especially when the congregation is in need of reform.  That is to say; when Christians are baptized, they became at war with the old Adam.  Likewise, when Pastors are ordained, their conscience is immediately put into tension for their flocks.  This is why nobody should want to be a Pastor.  The burden of the confessional seal, the burden of the failures of the flock, the burden of realizing that the Pastor himself sins in what he does and does not do, and the failures of other sister congregations, are enough to drive any Pastor to depression.  So, it is not so much a question of, "Is my congregation sinning?" and “Is my congregation in need of reform?”, but rather, it is a given.  Indeed, congregations and Pastors are perpetually sinning and always in need of reform/correction – the question is 'where' and 'how'?  In other words, everywhere the Pastor looks, he should see layers upon layers of sin.  Congregations and Pastors sin with failed practices, incorrectly assumed doctrines, personal moral failures, and so forth.  What does this mean?  It means that the Lord should strike the Pastor and his flock dead and grind them to ash.  O Lord have mercy! 

The ever-present sin and need for reform, though, does not mean that a Pastor should look the other way (i.e., excuse sin and ignore needed reforms).  Furthermore, the Pastor should be alarmed if his conscience is at ease over his congregation’s sin and needed reform, for if a Pastor's conscience is at ease in the Church, he is no longer a good Pastor.  In other words, if a Pastor does not want to be burdened by the sins of his congregation and needed reform, he should join a morally inconsequential congregation (which is no congregation at all) or quit the ministry altogether.  And, if a Pastor decides no longer to confront sin and ignores needed reform in his church, he is no longer a good Pastor either

In the manner described above, a Pastor learns to minister within tentatio (i.e., the suffering of the cross), while learning that the Lord’s grace is sufficient for the Pastor – especially in the Pastor’s difficult work of reforming the local church.       

Thesis VII
Pastors Need To Remember That Most
Parishioners Are Sheep Not Wolves

A Pastor cannot forget that the majority of parishioners are sheep – sheep who hear the voice of the shepherd.  They are not wolves.  Best construction: parishioners only do what they do because of bad teaching.  They are often misguided by false teachers that they encounter elsewhere (i.e., former preachers, preachers on the internet, preachers on the radio and TV, etc.).  In other words, most parishioners are not the Pastor's enemies.  Misguided sheep are not worthy of a wolf beating from a Pastor.  Even when the sinful old Adam gets the best of a parishioner, sheep need to be redeemed from their sin, not castigated with a vengeance for their sin. 

A Pastor must keep in mind, though, that there are wolves in the church and sometimes sheep can succumb to the darkness of sin in a way that they become a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Wolves, unlike sheep, do not hear the shepherd’s voice.  These wolves are known as clergy killers, well-intentioned dragons, and mentally unstable narcissists.  They constitute 1-2% of parishioners in congregations.  The Pastor does not have to seek out these wolves, but these wolves will generally come to the Pastor to attack.  And when wolves attack, the Pastor must be ready to fight with the Word of God and church discipline, for the sake of the flock. 

Now, considering all that has been stated, what typically happens is that the Pastor is not 'hard enough' on wolves due to fear.  Whereas, the Pastor tends to be overly harsh with sheep.  It is easier that way.  In other words, for the 1-2% of wolves, the Pastor needs to stand very firm - not for himself - but for the sake of protecting the sheep in the congregation.  However, with the rest of the 98-99%, the Pastor needs to be very patient, kind, paternal, etc.  Yes, even if the sheep are acting stupid, the Pastor is to be gracious.  And if the sheep are biting back defending the errors of a previous Pastor or their favorite internet preacher, the called Pastor needs to be patient, for the sheep do not know any better.  Indeed, this is one of the crosses that a Pastor is to bear for his flock.      

Thesis VIII
Reform By Addition Is Easier Than Reform By Subtraction

As a general rule, if reform is to occur in a church, the Pastor must note that change by subtraction (i.e., eliminating a bad practice) will typically be met with resistance.  However, change by addition (i.e., introducing a lost practice from the days of old) will usually be supported or tolerated.  In other words, congregations become uncomfortable when things are taken away, but generally, welcome more choices by addition.  

For example, it is easier for a Pastor to add a processional cross to the Divine Service than it is for the Pastor to remove a theologically inaccurate painting in the corner of the Narthex.  Human nature typically rejoices with additional options but resists when things are taken away.  Furthermore, when things are taken away, parishioners become very afraid that they have done something wrong for years – abruptly eliminating a practice in a church shakes their faith and causes them to question their faith.   

Thesis IX
Reform Can Happen By Letting Things Die Naturally

Often faulty practices and misguided doctrine die naturally in the church through people leaving or passing away (i.e., certain individuals will no longer be able to uphold a faulty practice and misguided doctrine if they leave a church).  Furthermore, bad practices and faulty doctrines will die as the Pastor shapes and forms the congregation through the pulpit.   

Note: the Pastor must keep in mind that the congregation generally will follow the pulpit.  And when repentance occurs in parishioners from sermons, faulty ideas and bad doctrine will die with repentance.  In other words, faulty ideas and bad doctrine will die in the pew – often without the parishioner even knowing it.  However, if these same parishioners are directly challenged, they ‘may’ dig into their positions and fight. Indeed, the ego is an influential vice in human nature.      

Thesis X
Pastors Can Effect Change in Practices
Without Theological Warfare

Some practices in the congregation do not have to be theological warfare.  Not every situation demands a theological cage fight.         

For example, let's consider a situation where a Pastor is challenged for wearing a chasuble.  Now, the Pastor could spend 30 minutes talking about the importance of reverence in the Divine Service, or the Pastor could simply say, "I like it.  I think it looks classy.  I've heard that others like it too.  I am sorry that you don't like it."  And with that, the argument is over.  The person most likely won't take on the Pastor over 'preference' - unless he/she is a wolf.  Now, here is the catch.  The Pastor can – at some future point when he is not directly challenged – teach about chasubles in a non-legalistic way.  The teaching in the future, though, will be in a non-confrontational context and the teaching will be done on something that the congregation has gotten used to over time.    

Thesis XI
Pastors Can And Should Appeal to Already
Accepted And Familiar Sources

When looking to bring about reform in the church, the Pastor needs to reform the congregation to something - and that something should be something that is already embraced and familiar to the church.  

In the example above about what to do with communion leftovers, the Pastor should not bring in an eighteenth-century German dogmatic book but should appeal to an altar guild manual already used by the Altar Guild.  Or in the case of closed communion, the Pastor could appeal to the Explanation of the Small Catechism that is already used in confirmation or used in new membership classes.  By doing this, the Pastor is not appealing to himself as an authority or his authoritative books but is merely pointing the congregation back to their accepted authoritative resources that they already believe, teach, and confess. 

Thesis XII
Pastors Should Be Careful Not To Make Gifts Into Law

Reform of a local congregation should have an element of winsomeness.  This winsomeness is not a pious manipulation, but instead, it expresses the joy of God’s gifts that a church is missing out on.  

For example, if a congregation only has the Lord’s Supper once a month, a Pastor can strong-arm a change to have communion weekly.  However, what has happened is that the Pastor has taken the Lord’s Supper – which is a gift – and made it into a Law.  Even though this is not the Pastor’s intention, it is nonetheless, the way that parishioners will view weekly communion.  Communion will be a ‘have to.’  However, if the Lord’s Supper is kept in its context of God’s gift to sinful mankind and it is talked about as the most magnificent heavenly banquet that we could ever experience in this life under the sun… well, it won’t be long until parishioners are asking the Pastor to get more of the gift of communion.     

Thesis XIII
Rejoice in the Church’s Direction

It is easy for a Pastor to get discouraged over a church’s present unreformed status.  However, as said by a veteran pastor once, “Do not look at where the church is currently at, but rejoice in the direction it is going.”  Indeed, since change in a church takes time, a Pastor should not despair from the current status of the church but must rejoice in the direction the church is heading – no matter how fast, or slow reform is occurring.  

For example, if a Pastor is hoping to reform a church to weekly communion, he should not despair if the church is only having communion twice a month when communion only happened once a month a decade ago.  The joy is in the fact that reform ‘is’ happening and that the church has a spirit of receptivity and openness for reform. 


CLICK HERE to 'Like' on Facebook
CLICK HERE to 'Follow' on Twitter
CLICK HERE to Subscribe on iTunes
CLICK HERE to Subscribe on Podbean