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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Seminary Numbers and An Alternative Vision

This month's Reporter has some interesting statistics on current seminary and "ordination-track" education programs.

Total Seminary ordination-track students: 767
Number of those students in residential seminary program: 545
Number of students in distance education ordination track programs overseen by the seminaries: 222 (127 SMP, 95 ??).

In other words, we are getting to the point where nearly one out of every three new pastors will not be receiving a standard 3 year + vicarage, MDiv education, with day in day out interaction with other students and faculty. Neither Q Party nor Isolation Party will mean anything to these gents. Hebrew and Greek will be hobbies they will have to pick up in their spare time.

In 2007, the SMP program was approved with a vast majority of the votes. Both seminaries sent faculty-administrators to give their imprimatur. Hope was held out that SMP would be used to rein in "lay ministry" and centralize all programs leading to ordination under seminary supervision and control. We were assured that this program would not harm the seminaries' future enrollment. We were assured that this would not become an alternative path to ordination for someone who just didn't want to pack up and move to seminary and pay the large tuition fees.

Well, that was 2007. The subsequent shortage of calls on Call Day, the economic straits hitting parishes and parishioners, the continuance of "lay ministry" programs (though three districts, at least, sent in resolutions to the 2010 convention to stop that), and plummeting seminary enrollment tell another story. (I know a man in the St. Louis metro area who graduated three years ahead of me at Seward - so he is not yet 40. He is smart, capable, as "ethnic" as I am, and currently attends a large suburban church. He is also enrolled in the SMP program. Huh?)

Questions to ask at this point:

1. What would seminary enrollment be if the SMP program and other non-residential and district "ordination-tracks" did not exist?

2. What will a clergy roster of 1/3 distance educated pastors without an MDiv look like? What will that composition mean for the quality of parish education, scholarly output, and denominational reputation? What will it mean for clergy pay?

3. How many more calls would be available if all "lay ministers" had their "licenses" revoked, and district presidents insisted that financially struggling parishes band together in 5-, 6-, 7-, or 12-point parish associations to call a real pastor? Wouldn't this be better than telling men in the seminary that they will need to be "worker priests"? If a congregation can't pay you a full salary and you will thus need a part-time job - shouldn't the first part time job to be considered be another part-time parish? Roman Catholic parishes in this area do just fine with this priest-sharing program.

An alternative vision for pastoral preparation in the LCMS

* End all anti-AC XIV "lay ministry" (see below for details on how). Also end all non-residential ordination track programs and tell the current enrollees that whatever classes they have already taken will be to their credit in the seminary residential program. This will be an easier pill to swallow once you...

* ...commit to once again make seminary cost-free for ordination-track students (You can get $780,000 to spend on this just by ending the CTCR and telling the seminary faculties to perform its functions - one of which is evidently to tell us all to plant gardens. Give me the Synod budget and the cost of making seminary tuition free and I'll find you the rest of the cuts) - this would allow the Synod to....

* ....cap enrollment at the seminaries based on an estimate of the number of calls needed four years in the future provided by the DPs plus 10%. This would allow only the top student candidates to be brought into the program and give graduates a more sure chance at receiving a call on Call Day four years hence. Drop-outs could be replaced from names on a waiting list.

(An aside: * Follow the SELK model of three years of class, ordination, one year of service as a curate, evaluation, and first permanent call.) Update: I have it on good authority in my inbox that this is not a fair representation of the SELK system.

These points would also have the happy consequence of encouraging forthright, realistic, and honest appraisals of future pastoral needs uninfluenced by the desire of the two seminaries to keep enrollment up in order to keep the doors open.

The current Reporter also tells us that, once again, baptized and confirmed membership in the LCMS is down for the umpteenth straight year. How on earth are more pastors the solution to a problem of falling membership? This is a demographic problem that will require a demographic solution (i.e., Lutherans need to trust God to plan their families instead of writing off "Be fruitful and multiply" as an artifact of a bygone era). There's simply never been a Christian denomination that was able to turn around a demographic decline via evangelism. It just ain't gonna happen, friends: ask the Shakers. If you want the LCMS to grow, or just plain exist in 50 years, then start preaching on Psalm 127:3-5.

How to end the current "lay ministry" situations

* Invite all congregations who are happy with their current lay ministers to call those men to the Office of the Ministry. If they will not call a man, then his "license" is revoked. If they continue to employ him without calling him to the Office of the Ministry, they should be disciplined just like any other congregation who seeks ministerial services outside the LCMS clergy roster.

* The men thus called should be examined and, if qualified, certified by the district in which they serve and then be ordained. Since they have not been certified by the Synod at large, they are not eligible for service in the Synod at large but will serve out their ministries in the district that certified and ordained them. Of course, they will be welcomed at the new tuition-free seminaries if they want to be on the Synod wide clergy roster.

* It should be made clear that the above district-certification process is a one time affair undertaken to correct a problem 21 years in the making and will not be repeated.

If not this plan, then what? Can we continue to consider ourselves the world leader in confessional leadership when we have thrown out one article of the Augsburg Confession? Can we expect to be the same church body with 1/3 of our new pastors lacking a formal education worthy of an accredited graduate degree? Can we expect a healthy and dedicated ministerium when each man comes out of the seminary with crippling debt?

One anecdote on that last point. When I was looking at getting an MA in classics at Washington University I first expressed my concern over cost to the department chair. His response: "Oh, well, we know we can't charge tuition for the program - because, I mean, what kind of money are you going to make with a master's degree in classics?"

Verily, the sons of this age are wiser. . .


Pr. H. R.29 Comments