Over the last 30 years, one study after another has shown an impending shortage of church worker, and a need for more seminary students. In 2010, 32 seminarians were not placed because of a lack of congregations in need of candidates. Apart from a few extraordinary years, or unusual local conditions, the percentage of vacant congregations is roughly what is has always been in our synod (between about 3.5%-7%). How could all of the studies have been so wrong?
Many of them were commissioned or supported by the seminaries. The seminaries have been given an impossible task. They are to train pastors for the LCMS, with effectively no financial support from the church, while also going into the congregations to recruit men, and then also certify them as fit for ministry following one of ten different tracks to ordination.
Obviously, seminaries exist to provide training for pastoral candidates in the church. In the 1980’s and 1990’s the LCMS entirely cut synod funding to the seminaries. In the years since, funding from synod has improved to what can generously be described as “a negligible part of the seminary budget” (roughly 3%).
This means that our seminaries must fund themselves with tuition dollars and donor gifts, rather than support from faithful members. Instead of honest evaluation of pastoral candidates, the seminaries must treat them as funding sources. Instead of donor gifts being a loving response to the gift of pastors which God gives the church through the seminaries, the seminaries must seek out endowments, which may or may not conflict with our confession. (One science grant available to seminaries is from a foundation seeking to weaken the scriptural doctrine of creation in six days at seminaries across the nation!)
The seminaries can not be expected to serve the church if they first must feed themselves. The church must provide for the seminary training of her pastors – only then can the church expect that calls to faithfulness will be taken seriously. Harvard and Yale started out as seminaries. They are barely Christian anymore. Our sister church in Canada had one of her colleges repudiate church doctrine because it needed too much outside funding. It is a tragic situation when that happens to a college. It is a travesty and a misuse of God’s gifts if we allow it to happen to our seminaries. Without proper funding, calls for faithful theological service are impotent, and our seminaries will eventually drift and become secular institutions. The LCMS is not immune to basic rules of economics history regarding faithful service or lack thereof.
Demographic studies of the past have looked at projected retirement of pastors. They have not looked at congregational needs. Our rural and urban congregations (over 50% of the synod) are often small and in declining areas. We need to consider whether they can continue to properly care for pastors. Combining congregations is an option, I’ve seen it work. But it means one less pastor needed to fill a pulpit. The same is true in many of our urban areas. I’ve been a pastor there as well. Small congregations are often burdened with large outdated facilities and high maintenance costs. They can not afford the building, they can not move because there is no where else to go. This pattern has been repeated hundreds of times in our synod’s urban congregations, and too often the district advice is to close and donate the proceeds to the district.
We have no idea how many pastors will be needed in the future, because we have no idea how many congregations will be combining to form multi-point parishes, or sadly, closing their doors entirely.
We can not know the future. Our task is to remain faithful, and to pray that the Lord of the harvest sends laborers into the vineyard. But we can commission a study that looks at projected need for pastors, as well as ability of congregations to care for them. Then, we can begin to plan based on a realistic assessment of our needs.
And here again, the decisions will not be easy. Do we still need two seminaries? I have heard varying opinions over the years, and those opinions have become deeply ingrained on both sides of the issue.
Two seminaries were needed at one time. Thanks be to God, it provided needed help during the Seminex crisis. But only 96 resident students were certified and placed in 2020. The combined enrollment of the seminaries is slightly over half what it was a generation ago. In addition to a demographic study of congregations, we need a well considered study of the long-term viability of the two-seminary model, considering demographic, logistical, and property issues, as well as theological ones.
Concrete Proposal :
Provide the Best Training while Preparing Pastors for the Future
A study will be commissioned, looking at the cost/benefits of keeping two seminaries, combining them, or some level of joint work between separate and merged. In addition, the synod must consider ways to fund any pastoral training via direct giving from the church, or their own unencumbered endowments. We can not be stingy with support, and be surprised when outside support comes with unfaithful strings – this is too high a cost to pay.
Ten tracks to ordination are not required. The study will evaluate which tracks are not only necessary, but useful in providing proper training for pastoral candidates. Emergency programs have too long defined the basic pattern of seminary training – we do not need three different emergency programs(DELTO, EIIT, SMP). Such programs must be, by definition, for unanticipated emergencies. Once you regularize them, they cease to be emergency programs. If there is truly a need for emergency pastors in rare instances, those must be considered on a case by case basis. How can we do this? By not only funding the seminaries properly so they can have the freedom to focus on training, but by also giving them the authority to determine what training is required for pastors. It will not be a one-size-fits all program. It will be theologically rigorous, with a regular course of thorough training as we have always done, but also allow the seminaries flexibility in training so that, working closely with District Presidents and local congregations in times of emergency need, they can provide sufficient training for men to begin ministry, and ongoing training to continue to develop the pastoral skills and theological acumen of any pastors certified for emergency service.
In exchange, the church will place responsibility for recruitment of candidates on pastors and congregations. No longer will the seminaries be required to find their own sources of funding or students. Pastors and congregations will identify qualified men to serve, and point them in the direction of the seminary. The admissions office will exist to help them through the admissions process, not to recruit church workers. That should never have been something the seminaries needed to do, and the church at large needs prayerfully to fulfill this long neglected duty.
The church will also begin to fulfill her duty of examination and certification of candidates. A rigorous examination of doctrine and practice, faith and life will be established to ensure that each candidate is ready for ministry. Those who need more training will be returned to the seminaries with specific areas of concern to be addressed. Those who are ready will be placed according to the church’s usual pattern.
To accomplish this a commission on certification will be formed, consisting of parish pastors who have proven themselves by faithful service, and also including district or synod officials. A comprehensive examination will be developed, both written and oral, in which the candidate will demonstrate both mastery of the material, and aptness for teaching. The commission on certification may then certify or recommend further training in various areas. The commission will be able to appoint other pastors to assist in their work, so the task does not become overwhelming. In emergency situations, the commission on certification can allow for ordination subject to continued training in certain areas. This will allow for timely ordination in true emergencies, while also making sure that shortcomings in training in such cases can be remedied.
Once certified, candidates will be placed by the District Presidents according to our historic practice.