Wednesday, November 28, 2012

There is something wrong when. . .

I clipped a sentence from a story about the Boston Archdiocese and the story of its rebirth from the ruin of the sexual abuse scandals.  The sentence is simple enough but its truth is profound.  There is something wrong church is no longer the first choice of the best and brightest...

Every now and then I get myself in trouble for agitating against the short cut paths to ordination created by my own church body and for sticking up for first career clergy as what should be the norm and second career the exception.  I will admit I sometimes sound resentful and curmudgeonly about the subtle shift in our Synod where the single, first career seminarian is the oddball in the sea of diverse people who are anything but young and single.  According to Synod's Reporter, 40 percent are over the age of 30, 47 percent are from an LCMS Concordia University, 60 percent are married, and the age range is from 21 to 69 years old with an average age just under 30.  I am happy for every one of them.  Don't take my comments in the wrong way.  But I still wonder why nearly half our guys studying for ordination are over 30 and coming to the Sem from other careers.  Why was this not their first choice?  If it was their first choice, why did it have to be deferred?

According to Synod's own figures, one fifth of our active Pastors are in MY age group -- 55-59!  The next biggest segment are those aged 50-54.  Combine the two and nearly 40% of our Pastors are age 50-59.  Now another shocking number.  The next biggest category are those 60-64.  If we add up those 50-64, the total is 54% of the entire ministerium of the LCMS.  Those under 40 constitute but 19% of the total active Pastors in our church body!

My point is this.  There is something wrong when the ministry is not the first choice of our best and brightest.  As I look back upon those who entered St. John's College in Winfield as pre-sems with me, I recall some of the brightest and most gifted young men I have ever known.  Certainly that was true at Concordia Senior College as well.  Those were troubled times for our Synod and still the classrooms were filled with bright, dedicated, and gifted young men seeking ordination.  My constant worry then was whether or not I was smart enough or gifted enough to serve the Lord in His Church -- especially when I compared myself to my peers!

What is wrong today?  Could it be that we are not paying enough to attract them?  Some of the cynics may think this but I don't.  Student debt and low entry salaries are real enough factors but they are not the primary ones, I believe.  Could it be that there are more options available today?  It is true enough that the career choices are exploding but it has been more than four years since hiring was up and people in college had a real expectation of a great job at a good salary at the end of that college career.  But I don't think this is the reason either.  Could it be our culture no longer values the religious vocation in the ways it once did?  Heck, I was inspired by Bing Crosby and those priest movies back then but neither the high esteem of religious vocations nor the lack thereof contributed much to my decision.  I don't think that this is a primary reason for the situation today.

I will be blunt.  I think that too many Pastors (sometimes me included) speak of the Ministry as if it were a burden we are not sure is worth the effort or the energy.  We talk about the church structure as if all the folks in St. Louis were idiots and all our elected leaders were clowns.  We talk about the work of the kingdom as if it were a losing battle to the forces of darkness and the weapons of the Gospel were useless against the enemy.  We discourage men from considering the pastoral vocation either by overt words or by the attitude we bring to what we do as Pastors.  We talk about the Synod as if the glory days were in our past and about the need to break up church into little bits of people who like each other and get along theologically and in terms of personality.

Now don't get me wrong -- I don't think we should gloss over the errors or minimize the problems before us.  But is it not important for us to exhibit the confidence in the Lord of the Church as much as we discuss the errors and debate the problems?  I was told once that in politics and religion, the conservatives tend to eat their young.  In other words, we sometimes place the bar so high that in order to be happy, hopeful and healthy we must be in heaven (or, perhaps, commiserating and complaining since we do seem to enjoy that).

If we are to prepare young men to take our places, if we are to equip the Church to do Christ's bidding, if we are to meet some of those problems with solutions, and if we to do the work of the Kingdom faithfully, we need to exhibit the hope we have in Christ to the world.  We need to be positively Lutheran and positive about the Lord's work.  You cannot simply be against things and, thankfully, our confessions are not simply bullet points of condemnations.  They speak positively of who we are, what we believe, what we confess, and what we teach. 

  • I spend a week at the Concordia Theological Seminary each year and am energized and encouraged by both the faculty and the students -- especially by the worship life of that community.  
  • I am constantly amazed at the quality and quantity of deeply profound, very accessible, and faithful books published by Concordia Publishing House each year.  
  • I have grown to know and to be encourage by more and more faithful men whose confident ministry of the Word and Sacraments provides a wonderful face to Lutheran identity -- especially some of those here in the South.  
  • I have become acquainted with overseas partners and other Lutherans interested in a partnership with our Synod and have found these earnest and solid Lutheran folks from a huge variety of cultures (I am happy to accent Siberia, the Baltic states, Africa, and Southeast Asia, here).
  • I have grown to know and am regularly impressed by the faithful leadership, theological integrity, and personal dedication of our Synodical leaders (both elected and appointed).
  • I listen to Issues, Etc. and Worldview Everlasting, and a host of other exceptional media.
  • I appreciate the good work of Higher Things and a ministry to youth that does not talk down to them or seek simply to entertain them as is the norm throughout the Christian world today.
  • I read regularly some of the theological journals that both impress and challenge me as a Lutheran thinker and Lutheran Pastor (Logia, Gottesdienst, For the Sake of the World among them).
For those who wonder if there will be places for these young men, let me give you one.  Our regional directors for international mission are desperately searching for faithful Lutheran men to serve throughout the world.  Interestingly, I recently was contacted by one of them (you see how in need they are when they seek out an old man with few gifts like me).  In a conversation I found out that our good confessional Pastors either decline to consider or refuse to even talk about these openings -- and some of these doors will close if we do not fill the openings soon!

Remember Dickens Tale of Two Cities?  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. 

Could that be us?  Do we speak this way? There is something wrong when the Church is no longer the vocational choice of the brightest and best. . . when we no longer inspire youth by our words and example. . . when we discourage the dreamers from joining the journey with old men. . .

8 comments:

Ted Badje said...

If most clergy from the gymnasium teaching system era want a return to that system, preach to the congregations to financially support a student through the whole course. I still think the current system in the Concordias is sufficient for training. Pre-Sem students are required to take year of Greek and Hebrew, plus they can take a number of Sociology and Psychology classes.

bitznbitez said...

The age of the clergy in the LCMS, like other similar mainline protestant groups, mirrors the demographic of its members as well.

If my figures are correct the LCMS has 57% of its members > 50 years old.

The LCMS, like other lutherans and mainline protestant churches, were not primarily growing by conversion in the US as by immigration and reproduction, both of which have slowed drastically.

The dearth of younger folks in the pews as well as seminary isn't so much that retention rates of youth are worse as it is there are just fewer youth to start with.

This mirrors the white us population demographic which is the primary demographic of the LCMS and others.

As all these who focus on clever ways to change the style of worship to attract more youth they fail to realize there are just fewer youth period.

Loosing the liturgy won't change that, adding drums won't change that, etc. By my math even if the LCMS ( or ELCA or UMC or Episcopal etc. ) retain 100% of their youth they are in for a prolonged membership contraction due solely to the age demographic caused by reproduction rates below replacement levels over the last 50 years or so.

I think the seminary question you raise is similar.

Anonymous said...

When my son was in kindergarten he said he wanted to be a pastor when he grew up. Now he won't even date a pastor's daughter because he doesn't want his sons to be pastors.


He reminds me of Luther's father.

revalkorn said...

As a pastor who spent 4 years, 7 months and 4 days on CRM, I have a slightly skewed perspective on this matter. I am a product of Lutheran parochial education and the Concordia University System (Bronxville). The mistake I made was choosing a Religious Studies major. If I had had ANY other major, my degree might have helped me when I ended up on CRM. As it was, I couldn't even get a fast food job, and I was completely unemployed for over a year.

Not every pastor will end up on CRM, but I firmly believe the future of the confessional Lutheran ministerium is in bi-vocational pastors, men who can support themselves or supplement their pastoral income with work outside of the ministry. Apostate churches will always have plenty of members and money--Satan takes care of his own--but Confessional congregations will get smaller and smaller as their older members die off and the weak and uncommitted find softer places to land.

I encourage youngg men to get their undergrad degrees in something other than religious studies. I also encourage them to avoid the CUS (for financial reasons if nothing else, though I found all but my Greek and Hebrew to be a waste once I got to seminary). It's not that I don't have faith in the Lord to provide, but I also know that the Lord uses means. Does that make me cynical? Maybe. But having "been there," I know whereof I speak.

Joe Herl said...

I am a product of Lutheran parochial education and the Concordia University System (Bronxville). The mistake I made was choosing a Religious Studies major.

When I was a preseminary student at Bronxville in the late 1970s, they didn't have a religious studies major. They told us that we could relate better to our parishioners if we knew about something besides theology, and they said it would be good for us to have something else to fall back on if necessary. That's how I ended up in music, never having attended seminary.

I also encourage them to avoid the CUS (for financial reasons if nothing else.

I'm in my thirteenth year teaching at Seward, and I'm a stronger believer than ever in the value of a Concordia education. First of all, we attract great students who work hard, and they receive an excellent education. Just in our department (music), four of our six full-time faculty have won teaching awards, and we have among us over forty published musical compositions, a national book prize, and a Grammy nomination in jazz. Second, this is a place where students form lasting friendships. With nearly half our students preparing for full-time church work (in our department, closer to 90 percent), this is a great place to network and develop a circle of friends you can call on for help and advice in the future. And when disagreements arise over theology and practice, as they always do, it's a lot easier to deal with people you disagree with if they are old friends. Third, at a Concordia students can be formed in a Lutheran environment, from daily chapel to Bible studies to professors who integrate the Church's teachings into their courses.

As for the cost, we have enough aid that many students find us quite competitive even with state schools, which typically offer fewer scholarships. And these days, with income-based repayment (available since 2007), graduates with lower-paying jobs do not pay back the entire amount they have borrowed, but only fifteen percent of their discretionary income (ten percent starting in 2012), and after paying that for 25 years any amount remaining is forgiven (20 years starting in 2012, and 10 years for church workers, teachers, government employees, and employees of non-profit organizations). So it is rarely the case any longer that students simply cannot afford a Concordia education.

On a side note, if and when I read this blog, it's usually late in the evening, and I'm one of the last to post replies. I'm wondering whether it's worth posting if everyone has already moved on to the next day's posts. Will my comment even be read?

revalkorn said...

Joe--I don't know how to read, so I probably won't read your comment. *wink*

A lot of my theological education at Bronxville took place outside of the classroom, where I learned that it was okay for women to preach, where I learned that the worship space was less important than the performances and recordings that happened there.

I look at the increasing secularization of Bronxville, and I have a hard time recommending it as a wholesome Christian environment. The mailings I receive as an alumni are about the business and nursing programs, about athletics. It's not the chapel, not the spiritual life.

I won't deny I made friends at Bronxville, and good ones at that. Would I have made friends at a secular school? There's no guarantee, of course, but even if I'd gone to a state school and made no friends at all, that's not supposed to be the highest priority anyway.

Obviously you know better than me how the financial situation has changed in the university setting in the last 16 years, but I was taught to pay what I owe. And to go into the seminary with what was (16 years ago) $20k less in debt could only be a blessing.

Pastor Peters said...

To Joe -- I always read your comments.

To Revalkorn -- The CUS has always been an uneven group of schools. Seward has always had a higher percentage of church work students than others. As a Pastor in the AD from vicarage in 1978 through leaving in Dec. 1992, I know that there were/are challenges to Lutheran confessional identity. Where I now serve, Mid-South, these are more difficult than the ones I experienced in the AD (missions eschewing the name Lutheran, public stats on parish web page charting decisions for Christ, contemporary worship that bears no resemblance to the liturgy in either form or content, etc...).

However, the solution lies in re-forming the schools owned by the Church to be schools of the Church. The solution lies in how we pay (or students pay) for church work education programs. The solution lies in more deliberate press of Lutheran identity in confession and practice so that Pastors do not find adversaries or conflict over this from the get go (like I have in both parishes I have served).

I will pray for you. May God open the door for you to serve again as Pastor of the Church.

Peters+

Joe Herl said...

Revalkorn - I'm sorry about your experience at Bronxville. It was a good school when I attended. It was there that I experienced the fullness of the liturgy for the first time, and I grew to love it.

I'm not sure what has been happening there in recent years, as it was just a few months ago that I began receiving their mailings. For a number of years I was apparently listed on their website as a "lost alumnus." (I wonder who tattled on me! :)

Joe