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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Economics in One Lesson -or- My Plan to Save the Seminaries

When I received my Concordia Seminary-St. Louis 2011 calendar, included with it was a letter from the seminary president aimed at laymen. It is composed of three large paragraphs - the first centers around the beauty of the CSL campus, the second tells of the successes of the How Will They Hear? campaign, and the third paragraph is about gaining students for CSL:

"One additional thing. We need more students on this campus. Over the years, the numbers of entering students have declined drastically. We beg your help in identifying young men and women who show people skills and academic ability to become the pastors and teachers who will serve our children, grandchildren and coming generations. Talk with your pastor about promising young people and let us know their names. . . . While you're speaking with your pastor and other clergy you know, encourage them to consider advanced studies at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. With a little incentive from the congregation, your church workers can keep their skills sharp for the demands of ministry as it challenges us all in today's real world."

First off, I find the rhetoric of this letter very refreshing. There is no talk of a "coming pastor shortage" or "coming church worker shortage." The focus is very much on the health of CSL. And we should be concerned for the health of both of our seminaries. To be a strong, thriving, Confessional Synod, we need strong, thriving, Confessional seminaries - and the reason for this is twofold. First, we need well trained pastors. But what ranks above even that, in my mind, is the fact that we need professional theologians. We need to pay the Nagels and the Scaers of the world to work at theology full time.

Gottesdienst has received some attention in high places of late for encouraging young men to think about the realities of going to seminary today. But let's not inflate our influence. Gottesdienst's hard look at the facts and advice to have a back up plan before entering seminary is not the reason why the number of students at both seminaries has "declined drastically." The cause of this phenomenon at both CSL and CTSFW is, I think, rather clear: the economics of the free market.

Market Forces

The Missouri Synod has chosen to have a more or less free market in pastoral education and preparation - not as free a market as some church bodies, but much more so than others. Some churches choose to have a highly socialized education economy: students are identified and sent to prep school and seminary for free. That is, free to the students: somebody is paying for it, of course, and that is usually the church at large, though as in all higher education, private donors are very important. If a student washes out, that economic sunk cost is absorbed by the socialized system as a whole.

In the LCMS, there are a lot of scholarships, a lot of private donors, a lot of individual parishes that generously support local students. My parishes, for example, are very generous toward the food bank at CSL and individual students at both seminaries. But in our system, the seminaries do charge tuition. And that tuition is by no means cheap. When you consider that for the normal seminarian a four year bachelor's degree is required before you set foot on campus, it comes as no surprise that the topic of "church worker indebtedness" has been all the rage at COP meetings and district pastors' conferences.

And then consider the pastoral labor market - and make no mistake, it is a market: the free market is a "first article gift," if you will, and you cannot banish it from the church by fond wishing. This market is tight. Recently, the First VP of the Synod said that the current number of vacancies in the Missouri Synod is the smallest he has ever known in his 30-some years of service in the church. Three out of the past four Aprils have found more seminarians than calls. Eventually they have "all" been placed - but that "all" does not include those who decide to stay for an STM, or go on a mission trip, or landed a stop-gap CPE deal with a local hospital, or what have you. Thus, some of those who did not seek calls last spring will be seeking calls this spring. We'll see how it goes when May rolls around.

The Economics of Deciding to Go to Seminary

But why is the market so tight? From the perspective of a 22 year old college grad who is looking at seminary, it doesn't really matter. It's simply an economic fact that must be included in his consideration. And here's another iron clad law of that first article gift the free market: increase the supply of something relative to demand and you lessen its economic worth. That is to say, so long as there is a tight pastoral labor market, there will be downward pressure on pastoral pay. This is not such a big deal for those jurisdictions that insist on a celibate clergy. For us, however, we've got more first article gifts to consider: wife, children, and all I have. "Young man, how are you going to support my little girl?" is not a question lightly or rightly ignored by young men in debt in their early to mid 20's.

So, our potential seminarian looks at the current situation and thinks: "Well, my current debt from undergrad is $XX,XXX. If I go to the seminary, I figure on getting, say, 40% of my tuition, books, and living expenses covered by scholarships and a part-time job. So, I'm looking at an additional $YY,YYY in loans. But I see that the past few Aprils guys haven't gotten calls. And I know pastors don't get paid that much, say $zz,zzz per year. I want to get married and have kids. I'll be looking at a monthly loan payment of $AAA or $A,AAA for B number of years just as we are starting out...."

At this point, depending on the young man and his specific situation, his thoughts might turn in any of the following directions...

* And I can certainly serve the church in other ways than being a pastor. Didn't Luther say that God was just as pleased with the scullery maid at her washing as with a pastor poring over his Greek?

* My fiancée can probably get a pretty good job in St. Louis/Ft. Wayne....

* The Lord will provide!

* I wonder if there is another way to become a pastor?

And with that last point we come back round to the question of how we got into this tight pastoral labor market. Part of the answer is certainly demographic change - both in a refusal of Lutherans to consider children as a blessing from God and in the phenomenon of rural population collapse leading to more market efficiency in the form of larger average parish size and a corresponding loss in the number of pastorates. It used to take three pastors to serve three small parishes - now perhaps they have combined to form one large parish with a senior pastor and an assistant pastor: market efficiency up, pastorates down.

Substitute Goods are Not Always Good

But another part of the explanation is the refusal of the Missouri Synod to insist that every man who acts like a pastor be a pastor. "Lay ministry" is what economists call a substitute good. In the past, pastors were a good without a nearly equivalent substitute. There are always substitute goods at the margin - even water has substitute goods at the margin: you can take a "bath" with baby wipes if you have to. Likewise, if your pastor is suddenly sick on Sunday, a layman leading Matins and reading a Luther sermon is an imperfect substitute good for that Sunday. But you can't drink anything but water. And, in the past, you couldn't have a congregation without a pastor.

But ever since 1989, the demand for pastors has achieved greater elasticity due to the introduction of a novel substitute good: the "lay minister."

Now, margarine is not butter. Butter is natural, delicious, and nutritious; margarine is synthetic, disgusting, and can give you unpleasant side effects. But it kind of looks like butter, is smooth and fatty like butter, can be flavored like butter, and, boy! is it a lot cheaper. Thus, the introduction of margarine, as hideous as it is, decreased the demand for butter.

Well, Pastors:Butter::"Lay minister":Margarine. So don't act surprised that the need for pastors has declined since 1989.

Demand for traditional pastors became more elastic yet in 2007 with the introduction of SMP. Now, the hope for SMP was that it would actually decrease elasticity by reining in the "lay ministers" and making them, at the very least, somewhat trained but at least called and ordained pastors. Instead, in many cases, SMP is being used as a way for men to get ordained who would otherwise have become seminary trained pastors.

But don't take my word for it: call your DP and ask him. Seriously. Tell him you heard that a bunch of young, white, suburban guys are being let into the SMP program from larger parishes so as to become assistant pastors in those larger parishes. Based on reports from more than one man in the field who has had this talk with his DP, I'm betting dollars to donuts that your conversation goes like this: You ask your DP, "Rt. Rev. Sir, what is up with these young, white, suburban guys from big parishes being let into SMP? I thought the idea for SMP was that this would be a way for hard to reach areas or small ethnic communities to get real live ordained pastors? I hoped that maybe these 'lay ministers' might use it to repent and become actual pastors. It's not supposed to cut into the seminaries' market!" The DP shall reply unto thee, "Forsooth, that guy is a great guy, he will be a great pastor!" You may say, "OK, great. But why isn't he in the normal seminary program?" And your DP will say, "He is in SMP because the seminary is too expensive."

And golly how things, when they go around, come around! First, a substitute good was found for pastors and now we have a substitute good for 4-year seminary education.

When a substitute good is introduced, the economic value of the original good decreases. Thus, the value of seminary education, from an economic point of view, has inescapably decreased due to the introduction of a substitute good. What have the seminaries done in the face of this reality? They are charging more tuition! What could that lead to?

"Over the years, the numbers of entering students have declined drastically."

A Plan for a Newly Regulated Market

If you're going to have something of a free market in pastoral education, then you're going to have to live with market forces. Of course, what we really have is a highly regulated market with the Synod convention, seminaries, COP, etc., as the regulators. We could change the way we do things. We could scrap what's not working and do something else. We could come up with a plan that will ensure the future of both seminaries. For your thought and consideration, here's my plan.

* 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.

These points would also have the happy consequence of encouraging forthright, realistic, and honest appraisals of future pastoral needs uninfluenced by the very real bottom line concerns of the seminaries.

The January 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 anything like the form it does today 50 years hence, then start preaching on Psalm 127:3-5.

But back to our plan. An important part of correcting the pastoral labor market will be dealing with the current "lay ministers." Here's how:

* 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 22 years in the making and will not be repeated. Further needs in rural or hard to reach communities will be met by the district and/or Synod making sure that an actual pastor cares for those people. And don't tell me it can't be done. Just north of me is the infamously rural and hard to reach Calhoun County, Illinois - stuck between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. In its rural-ness and isolation it reminds me of the Western Nebraska in which I grew up. In this sizable county, there are five Roman Catholic parishes - and exactly one priest. It works.

What's Your Plan?

That's my take on this whole situation. I'm not out to get the seminaries - I want them to thrive. But I'm also not out to hurt young men who desire to serve the Church - I want them to thrive as well, and not end up in debt, without calls, and embittered. We in the Missouri Synod need to take a long and hard look at what's working and what's not when it comes to seminary education. You've seen my ideas for saving the seminaries - what are yours? Do they address the problems of demography, substitute goods, AC XIV, and an educational market? I don't think you can save the seminaries without addressing all of them.

The clock is ticking - if my plan is so bad, let's see yours.


Pr. H. R.44 Comments