Thursday, May 2, 2013

Immanuel, Michigan City

Last week marked two and a half years that I have served Immanuel Lutheran Church, Michigan City, Indiana, as its vacancy pastor. Readers might recall that Immanuel's pastor, Pr. Kevin Palmer, died suddenly from a torn aorta on a Saturday morning in October 2010. He was only 38. I was called later that day and asked to preach the gospel on the morrow. The appointed OT text (Gen 32; Jacob wrestling out by the Jabbok) served as the basis for our meditation. (Kevin's widow and their three children--then ages seven, five, and two--have continued to be members of the congregation.) What I thought would be a few months of pastoral emergency fill-in has extended to the present.

So during these many months I've been juggling pastoral responsibilities along with my regular university duties. This term I taught my regular three courses: two sections of the basic introduction to Christian theology that nearly all Valpo students have to take as a part of their general education requirements, one section of a course on twentieth-century Christian theologians, and one section of a course that explores theological similarities and differences between Catholics and Lutherans. I'm grateful that my department chair has been gracious in allowing me to continue to fill this pastoral vacancy. He and I (and more importantly, my wife) have agreed that I will only continue in this role through the summer, if necessary. (The congregation has extended a call to a pastor and we are waiting to learn if he will accept the summons.)

The duties of the part-time pastor include the following:

--preaching at the three divine services on most weekends (typically around 165 worshippers per wkend);

--serving as liturgist at those same services;

--leading an adult Bible class on Sunday morning (we've been studying Bonhoeffer's Discipleship in the aftermath of our year-long study of the Gospel according to Matthew);

--teaching confirmation instruction to an apostolic number of seventh and eighth graders for two hours on Monday evenings during the school year;

--pastoral counseling on Wed evenings and Sat afternoons;

--visiting the sick in the hospital and other care facilities;

--regular communing of those members who are home-bound (the elders of the congregation have been very helpful in this area);

--writing the monthly pastoral devotion for the church's newsletter (to read the reflections in the latest issue, go here. I thought it important to write about "patience," since the congregation has been waiting such a long time for a full-time pastor);

--monthly meetings with the elders, church council, and worship committee (and dealing with all of the typical challenges and issues that surface in these settings);

--midweek services/preaching in Advent and Lent;

--teaching two six-week adult confirmation classes per year;

--being the spiritual leader at the summer's week-long vacation Bible school;

--and, of course, baptizing, confirming, marrying, and burying, as those needs arise.

Since January 1 of last year, there have been 23 baptisms (19 children, four adults), six confirmations, two weddings, and 17 funerals. Sixteen adults have joined the congregation by rite of transfer or re-affirmation of faith. We'll be welcoming another seven new members on Sunday. It is always good when there are more baptisms and adult confirmations in 16 months than funerals...

Last Saturday (4/27/13), the local newspaper interviewed me about the congregation. This is the first of its "church in the spotlight" series. Not sure why they picked us to go first, but it did give me an opportunity to describe Immanuel and to articulate our core evangelical-Lutheran beliefs. You can read that article  here.

I have been especially grateful for the many opportunities of cross-fertilization between congregational pulpit and university podium. I have been reminded of what a challenge it is to preach on a regular basis, week in, week out, throughout the church year. This experience has also forced me to reflect more carefully upon the differences between what one does from a pulpit and what one does in a university classroom. Sure, there are similarities--I'm probably more "homiletical" than most of my university colleagues--but the differences are important.

Yes, the elders and some within the congregation know about my public concerns with the LCMS position on women's ordination and creationism. One of the elders is a member of the Indiana District Board of Directors. Early on I agreed with him and the other elders that I would not make these issues "an issue" in my pastoral ministry to Immanuel. As far as I can tell, I haven't done so, since there hasn't been a need to do so, although I have informally shared my reasons for my concerns whenever someone in the congregation has asked about them. Frankly, more basic and central issues, matters of life and death, have kept my time and attention focused on the proclamation of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the need to share God's love effectively and creatively with all, especially those who are troubled, suffering, grieving, and questioning.

We hope God will soon send a full-time pastor. For now, the congregation and I will keep on keeping on--by God's grace.


  1. Immanuel's online videos demonstrate that you are fulfilling the first duty of a vacancy pastor very well. Thank you for sharing your message with the larger community of faith.

  2. As a member of Immanuel's congregation, I can attest to Pastor Becker's commitment to fulfilling his pastoral duties. I consider him a tremendous Blessing to our congregation, stepping in/up during a very sorrowful time and continuing minister to us faithfully even though I know he already had a "full plate". He has faced challenges and conflicts in this temporary position, that I'm certain a lesser man would have walked away from long ago. I hope these downsides have been offset by the numerous baptisms, new members joining and many other positive occasions that his ministry has been part of at Immanuel. Again, he and his family have been a blessing and joy to this congregation. I personally will feel a loss when a permanent pastor does fill the call.