Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Father Ronald Stephens

Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, a historic parish church of the Missouri Synod, is served very ably by its pastor, the Rev. Douglas Punke. I have witnessed, and been served by, excellent pastoral leadership, by a great variety of men at Zion since I moved to Ft. Wayne ten years ago. And Fr. Punke, in particular, has done an outstanding job in many ways, some obvious, and some a little more unsung, since he became pastor here in November of 2003. I shall write more on him down the road. The topic on which I'd like to comment today, however, is the newest member of Zion's pastoral staff, Fr. Ronald Stephens, Headmaster of the Zion Academy, and Associate Pastor.

On 15 June, Fr. Stephens was ordained at Zion, in a beautiful, relatively traditional, Ordination Mass. The Ordination reminded me in many ways of the last one I saw at Zion, that of Fr. Larry Beane, the inimitable pastor of Salem Lutheran Church, in Gretna, Louisiana, who was ordained in July of 2004. On this occasion, Fr. David Petersen, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Ft. Wayne, gave the homily. Below my remarks here you will find Fr. Petersen's sermon. I encourage you to read and meditate upon it.

Since his ordination, Fr. Stephens has plunged himself into the sort of work for which the seminary quite simply does not prepare a man, that is, running a school. He has also been preaching the Gospel, teaching the faith, and saying Mass. Fr. Stephens is a pastor who is faithful to the liturgical heritage of the Church, and committed to the Confessions; I was blessed to know him when he was a seminarian, and I am blessed to know him in his vocation as pastor. He might be flattered by these remarks, if indeed he reads this blog, but I wanted to express my appreciation. The perspective of the laymen, that is, the Hearers, is very important, and this layman is thankful for the ministry of Christ in the life and vocation of Fr. Ron Stephens.

Here is Fr. Petersen's sermon:

The Ordination of Rev. Ronald Stephens, Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne

2 Corinthians 3:4-11June 15, 2008 A+D

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pastor Stephens has not been trained for the job you have called him to do. He will have to learn how to do it on-site. Even if he succeeds, it will be a painful process, because there is no easy way to learn this job. Even a degree in school administration is only theory and more than one incompetent professional looks good on paper and is loaded up on credentials only to fail in reality.

What may surprise you is that none of his classmates have been adequately trained for the jobs to which they've been called either. Even those who walk into what we think of as a stereotypical Lutheran congregation to be the sole pastor don't really know what they're doing. They haven't been adequately trained for it, and all of them have to figure it out on-site.

That is because you can't really train a man for this work. You can teach him some stuff. You can develop an attitude and aptitude. You can familiarize him with the tools and resources. But there are no experts on the Bible or pastoral care. There is always more to learn.We don't adequately prepare men for the Ministry anymore than the United States Army adequately prepares men for combat. Training helps. It increases the survival rate. But some things can only be learned in the actual experience. And the chaos of war has a way of taking out even the best-trained soldiers and teachers' pets and of making heroes out of losers.

So we've trained him as best we could, and we have tested him. Because we can determine, to some degree, if men are fit for the work. Testing exposes those who are puffed up with the spirit and excited at the possibility of serving in the Church, but do not want to pick up their family and move to Ft. Wayne or St. Louis. They want to keep their connections, their income, their family, and suppose that their current work is so important that they can't follow the Lord around in the expectation that He will take care of it while they are gone. If men will not endure hardship for the Ministry, if they are not willing to go where called, and to pay a cost for it, they may not be fit. It is the first test. And sometimes the Ministers have to leave the sure thing for the thing to which the Lord beckons them. There is a risk. Because the Lord calls some men to places only to have them shaking off the dust. The apostles knew failure in the Ministry. So that willingness to follow, to risk, to put one's hand to the plow, is essential to the character of the men we ordain into this Office. Pastor Stephens has passed this test.

So also we can see how a man responds to the strange hierarchical character of the seminary with professors and staff and different grades of students, or even an idiot of field ed supervisor or vicarage. If a man will not subordinate himself in the classroom, if he refuses to recognize the office apart from the man or to treat it with honor, then he cannot and must not be put into a position where he would have authority in the church. No one can lead who will not follow. If he cannot obey, he cannot give orders. Pastor Stephens has passed vicarage and field work and the seminary.

The academic work and testing is also important. Does the man have the ability to do the work, to understand and articulate the Faith? Will he do things he doesn't want to do? Even things that seem to him useless? Can he meet deadlines? Is he reliable? Does he have the intellectual capability? Can he make judgments and prioritize? Is he diplomatic? Can he discern between adiaphora and ceremonies and things essential? So also has Pastor Stephens passed these tests.

It is not that these tests are only tests, pass or fail. They are part of the training. Mistakes are expected. We are looking for growth, maturity, and humility. More is expected of those nearing the end, than is expected of those who are just beginning. But four years of this can prepare a man if not adequately train him for every possibility. We aren't forming headmasters or chaplains or senior pastors. We are forming character and theologians. If a man shows himself capable of learning, growth, change, and a willingness to follow where the Lord leads, he is fit. If he passes these tests and endures the gauntlet, then the Ministerium presents him to the Church. This process began some time ago for Pastor Stephens, but today is the culmination. The clergy are gathered here to bring him to you and say: "This man is not a neophyte in the faith. He has proven himself trustworthy, reliable, and competent. He is ready. We welcome him as a fellow bondservant of the Lord and commend his instruction, prayers, and service to you as from the Lord."

But is he ready to be a headmaster and associate pastor? Not quite. Not any more than his classmates are ready to be sole pastors, missionaries, hospital chaplains, and the like. He is ready to begin, to start becoming a headmaster and associate pastor, or whatever it is that you need and the Lord provides. It seems to you that you need a headmaster and associate pastor. That may be right. Most likely it is only partially right, and most likely, it wasn't the purest or most pious request you've ever made. For it was probably mixed up with budgets and cash flow and enrollments and standard parish-school-district politics and power struggles. Somebody here
probably thought (or thinks) it was a stupid choice, or you've got the wrong man.

But that doesn't matter now. The Lord has provided. There is no going back. And if after months of planning, Eisenhower didn't know exactly what D-Day would take or bring, why should you know what your school or parish needs? You've brought your wisdom to bear as best you could, within the constraints of budgets and forecasts and personalities, and now it is time to hit the beach and trust in God. It doesn't matter what you lacked or how you failed or what you didn't know then or thought would be better. What matters now is that the Lord has sent this man to you as a Minister of His Gospel. Most of you think what you need is a headmaster and associate pastor. So that is how he will begin and what he will strive to be. But it is quite possible that the Lord has more in store for you than you've dared to ask. He might modify your plans, or Pastor Stephens' plans, along the way. I suspect Pastor Stephens will learn a few things, will grow into the position, and that he will provide in short order exactly the sort of service you are hoping for.

But whether he does or not, the Word of the Lord will not return void. The Lord always provides. He keeps every promise. What we most need, more than schools or health care or cheap gas, is the Lord's Holy Word and Sacraments. And this He has promised to us in the Office of the Holy Ministry. He has instituted this Office in order to deliver Himself to us, to elders and ushers, to the Ladies' Aid and the children sitting at the desks in the school, and even to the teachers and parents and custodial staff and senior pastor. Pastor Stephens will serve, as he has been prepared to serve, in this Holy Office. He'll probably have to wipe some bloody noses and clean up some vomit along the way. He might have to learn to eat sloppy joes or to call cardboard with tomato sauce "pizza" or to always carry kleenex in his pockets and to quit bothering to polish his shoes which children are stepping on or become an expert in copy machine repair. And I don't want to hear him complaining that the seminary didn't prepare him for these things. So what? He will do what needs to be done, as all Ministers of the Gospel do, in direct response to the needs of the children, teachers, staff, and families he will serve. His duties will change as those people change, leave, and new people come. It is no more predictable than combat. But what doesn't change is the essence of the Office. What your children and families cannot live without is the Word of God, the Absolution, Baptism, and the Holy Communion. And that is what the Lord will provide through Pastor Stephens, that is what He has sent him here for, and all the nose wiping and floor mopping serves that. He will do all those other things for the sake of the Gospel.

For the Lord won't use Pastor Stephens simply to tell the children about Himself. Through the pastor, the Lord will give Himself to them. He will give them His crucified and risen Body. He will put Himself into their mouths and they will be joined to Him. He will wash them with the waters from His side and raise them up out of that bloody, drowning death to life. He will loose their sins, speak them clean and holy, and deliver them to heaven. Pastor Stephens will be His mouthpiece, a watchman in Zion, a shepherd and ambassador of heaven. And if you want to call that a headmaster, go ahead. It's as good of a title as any.

In + Jesus' Name. Amen.

1 comment:

Fr. Stephens said...

I do, indeed, read your blog (and have for quite some time) and am, indeed, flattered by your comments. Thank you, my friend.