Let's Talk

Living Theology in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod

Evangelical Lutheran Church In America
Volume 2, Number 1
Epiphany 1997
Ministerial Formation


Servants Ready to Listen

Philip Hefner


††††††††† How inspiring it can be to behold a minister in Godís Church who has both an office of authority and the character to exercise that office with integrity. How discouraging it is to watch someone from whom we expect so much, who has lost, or never possessed, the personal qualities it takes to care for and challenge Godís people in their ministries.

††††††††† In any setting we can be saddened or angered by watching someone with an assignment to fulfill, but inadequate inner resources to get it done. But it is so much more tragic when these office holders are expected to mediate to us the spiritual things of word and sacrament and it is apparent that they have not been formed by those same forces they must represent.

††††††††† We speak of that tragedy most commonly from the lay personís point of view when we complain about youth ministers who have all the right tricks, but canít lead the children in prayer, or organists who want us to admire their virtuosity, but file their nails during the sermon, or pastors who misuse church funds or sexually abuse those they have been called to counsel and care for.

††††††††† But AIMs and pastors also often feel trapped between ever expanding expectation attached to their office and their own sense of diminishing spiritual resources.

††††††††† Fortunately it is rare that our ministers are as devoid of good spirit as were Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, who cared only for their priestly prerrogatives and nothing for the people of God or the sacred traditions. And, though our call committees are always hopeful, rarely does a Samuel come along who possesses both the priestly and prophetic charisma in spades. But Eli gives some advice that can benefit us all (1 Sam 3:9): When God calls, say ďSpeak LORD, for your servant is listening.Ē

††††††††† If there is to be any hope for the Church to nurture the character traits needed to fullfill the office of ministry it will come through the discipline of listening for the Word of the Lord.

††††††††† Readiness to listen for the Word is essential because the character traits of ministry are not simply natural occuring aspects of personality. Hans von Campenhausen points out in his book, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power (Stanford, 1969), that strongest theological traditions of the Church followed Jesusí lead in subordinating issues of both office and character to the charge to bear faithful witness to the Word. Unbalanced reliance on the authority of sacred office corrupts the church as it is bent to serve the needs or mistaken goals of its leaders. But if charisma is made the ultimate reality then the Chuch dissipates its energies in a chaos of enthusiasm. But the biblical and orthodox tradition of the church always closely correlates ĎSpirití toWord and testimony. We know the Spirit who ďhas spoken through the prophets.Ē

††††††††† Keeping office and charisma together the Lutheran Confessions recognize that the ministerial character is not formed through purely interior exercises. The line from God to Godís people is through Christ and through His Church. It comes to us when we hear the Word proclaimed and experience the sacramental ministry of the Church, and in this way it is an act of grace received by faith and not merit (Augsburg Confession V).

††††††††† The way we get people who are ready to listen to the Word of the Lord is by the Spirit working through others who have been ready and have been touched by this Word.

††††††††† Any discipline that can nurture this readiness must be marked by a dialectic, much like that which Martin Luther spoke of when he said that the Christian is perfectly free from the law to be perfectly servant to God and ministry to Godís people. To be ready to listen we must be slave to the Word, but to no other form of self-censorship.

††††††††† Hefner