by David Petersen
One of the great privileges of serving as a parish pastor in Fort Wayne, Ind., is this: Every spring I can attend the call service at Concordia Theological Seminary. This is a big worship service in the seminary chapel. The Synod president and vice-presidents are all vested and sitting up front in the chancel, along with all the district presidents and the seminary’s faculty. The chapel is full of the students and their families. The organist pulls all the stops, and there are never any empty seats. It feels a lot like a graduation ceremony mixed in with Easter.
After the sermon, the graduating students line up. One by one their names are called, and then another name is read. They walk across the chancel, shake the president’s hand, and are handed an envelope, not a diploma. That envelope has the second name on it along with the student’s name. That second name is where the student and his family will be living and what sort of work they will be doing. It is usually something rather mundane sounding, like “Trinity Lutheran Church, Lowden, Iowa.” The service draws to a close quickly after that, and the students are ushered out to various campus classrooms to meet, usually for the first time, their district presidents.
The service is nostalgic for me, as it is for every pastor in attendance, because I once had my name called in that place along with another name I had never heard before that night. That other name I can now never forget. It will forever define me as a person and as a pastor. Even though I don’t live and serve there anymore, it is still where I became who I am. It wasn’t always an easy place for me, but it will always be a beloved place.
I do not know if there are any parallels to this in the secular world, whether this is a common sort of thing or not, but what happens at the call service has a theological reality that far transcends mere employment. This won’t be, for these men or for their families, simply a first job or the first move in a career. Their names are being tied to another name in something that is closer to marriage than employment. The pastor will give himself to that place more fully than a hired hand is capable of. I am not sure that it is commonly recognized by the laity, or even always wanted, but the simple fact is that the pastor will suffer for that place and those people. His heart will bleed for them. He will pour out his soul and even give up his life for them.
He will do this because he isn’t a social worker trying to make their lives better or a psychologist trying to help them cope in difficult situations. As outrageous as it sounds, as grand and sweeping, the pastor will try to save their souls and the souls of their children. It is God that does the saving, of course, but the pastor will, nonetheless, even when he shouldn’t, feel the burden of it, and it will leave a mark.
That is why I think congregations can get over pastors. Pastors are, and should be, replaceable. But pastors don’t get over the places, the people, they serve. In a pastor’s mind, those two names, his and theirs, will always go together.
And, no, I wasn’t crying at the call service. I had an itch in my eye.
You can read about Call Day 2017 and see the services from both seminaries here: http://callday.ctsfw.edu and http://callday.csl.edu. Please keep these men, their families, and the places they will serve in your prayers.
The Rev. David Petersen is senior pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, Ind.