Spring Ministerium 2023
St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church
Philippians 1:1-11

Grace and peace to you from God the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We’re here. Look at us. March 2023 and it is again a privilege to be able to gather in person. I am grateful you are here.

Friends, Lutheran clergy in this country have been gathering as a ministerium since 1748; that’s 275 years. Now, maybe you are afraid to ask but you wonder what exactly is a ministerium. The word simply means a gathering of ministers.

Back in the early 1700s, Lutherans in America did not have formal church structures. They were all immigrants and often those who left their homelands in western Europe to come to the colonies did so without a clergy person tagging along. Mission societies sent missionary pastors to tend the folks they could round up in a new and foreign context.

In Philadelphia, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, an “elder brother” as he was called by some, was instrumental in calling for that first gathering of a formal ministerium in the summer of 1748. Six ministers were present and some laity. The ministerium was their effort to create an organizational structure, since their mother churches were an ocean away. Having called themselves together, those ministers dedicated a new church building, approved an order for worship, reviewed the conditions of all their parishes and schools, and most importantly, examined and approved a candidate for ordination.

Eventually, out of similar gatherings, more formal church structures were developed, all tailored to the unique American context. But at the beginning, a ministerium was initiated by rostered ministers to support and encourage one another for faithful leading in an often harsh and politically charged environment.[1]

When Paul and Timothy sent a letter to the house churches in Philippi, they sent their Christian greetings to all the saints in that metropolitan area — along with the bishops and deacons.

Don’t get too excited about miters and diaconal vestments. In the time that Paul was writing, the words “bishop” and “deacon” were ordinary words in the culture. It would be several generations before those became formal titles in the church. A bishop was an overseer or a superintendent; one who watches over things. A deacon was an agent, one who saw that things got done.

I’m not sure about this example, but the other day I think I spotted a bishop and several deacons out in a truck from the City of St. Paul. I was stuck in a long line of traffic behind them as the truck pulled up to a pothole, workers hopped off the back of the truck, shoveled hot asphalt into a gaping hole in the pavement, quickly tapped it down, and then ascended to their perches on the back of the truck, as that liturgical procession passed to the next place of repair. Bishop and deacons at work for the good of the city.

We, too, gather this morning as the saints in Christ Jesus, as deacons and pastors and bishop. We live in a twenty-first century context with its own challenges of harshness and political divisiveness in the culture around us and in the churches where we serve. This is not colonial America nor ancient Philippi, but we can still learn from servants of the church in those centuries long before ours.

If you read Muhlenberg’s journals, you discover that those Lutheran clergy in pre-Revolutionary America were not quick to come together. They did not want to offend their sponsors in Europe and to be quite honest, they were really busy. Each pastor was tending a flock in multiple places and travel was difficult and time consuming.

But they came to realize that they needed one another — for support, for encouragement, and for mutual accountability. They recognized something we also know. To be fully the church, to be a vital and thriving church, we need each other; the give-and-take, the fresh ideas, even the friction and aggravation that come when we disagree. How good it is to gather in person as the ministerium today.

Whether you are the most recently ordained member of this ministerium (Pastor Jenn Luong), the longest serving active deacon, or a candidate for ordination, hoping to receive a call any day now, your presence in this body makes us richer and wiser and more of who we are called to be together for Christ’s sake.

Let me remind you that the most important word in our synod’s name is the word Area. The synod may rent an office at 105 University Avenue West in St. Paul, but we are the synod in Randolph and Wyoming, in Woodbury and Circle Pines and Shoreview, just as much as we are the synod in this city. Don’t ever think that your concerns and the weal and woes of your congregation or institution do not matter to others. Like the first ministerium those 275 ago, we are in this holy work together.

When the Apostle Paul wrote to those fledgling house churches in Philippi, I doubt he ever imagined that we would listen to his word in this time and place. Macedonia seemed like a far-flung mission field in his day. But history reminds us that the church is God’s doing, not ours. And the same Spirit that once called Paul and Timothy to go forth continues to prod and poke and send us in this day.

Did you catch the theme of gratitude that threads through these opening verses of the Epistle? “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” (Philippians 1:3-4)

I know that some of you are having a rough time right now. Some of you are in congregations with a disproportionate number of angry, bitter, mean-spirited people. You can’t seem to catch a break no matter how thoughtfully you work to lead. We can know a lot about family systems and sin, and still it smarts and hurts when people we have cared for snap at us and make us the target of their ire.

Others of you know suffering and challenge in your own family or with your own health. The people, who need anointing with healing oil, are the people in your own home. Just because we are part of the ministerium, it doesn’t mean that we don’t grieve or bear the weight of worry and anxiety and illness.

St. Paul also reminds us that we are in this ministry together. Your burdens are mine, just as many of you have carried me during tough and challenging times in my life. God calls us to be there for one another and I am grateful, always, when I learn of some of the extraordinary efforts you have taken to quietly walk with another pastor or deacon. How amazing that love for one another is in today’s world. I know it has been a lifeline for me and for many of you. By God’s grace, we are colleagues and peers in a time when all of us are trying to discover what it means to be church in a new day.

To be honest, some days it does feel like we are the pothole brigade, imperfectly patching one hole after another, even as others complain about the pavement that is uneven down the road. But friends in Christ, on those days, remember that we are God’s pothole brigade.

As the Apostle wrote to the church in Philippi – “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6) May it be so.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Bishop Patricia Lull

[1] See E. Clifford Nelson, The Lutherans in America, Fortress Press, 1975, pages 50 ff. for more background on Lutherans in the Colonial Era.

View the photo album from the 2023 Spring Ministerium.