Sunday, November 8, 2009

Quicker Paths to the Ministry... or Not

I grew up in the middle ages of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. I went to a Junior College, then the nearly all male ministry prep Senior College, and then to the Seminary. If I would have grown up in the dark ages of our church, I would also have gone to boarding high school at one of those Junior Colleges/High Schools. But I missed out on that for two reasons -- my parents and my decision to become a Pastor was late in high school.

There were more than 30 young men (some of us still boys) in that first year at the Junior College. The curriculum was designed almost to test the mettle of those seeking the noble task. Some began to have second thoughts right away. Greek will do that to you. The preparation was a large dose of classic liberal arts education (with heavy doses of philosophy, English, speech, composition, and languages, as well as a little science thrown in for good measure). By the end of the Junior College experience the numbers had declined significantly.

At the Senior College, perhaps the most rigorous of my educational experience, the introduction of Hebrew and people like Ribar and Soovik seemed to test the mettle even further. But there were also folks there who taught us to think, and, to think theologically. There were interest groups (I belonged to the High Church for Lunch Bunch). There were more and more courses that pressed us into the mold of pastoral formation. By the end of the Senior College years, more had dropped out of that original group.

Seminary came at a very bad time. The split in the Missouri was happening, the Seminary at 801 DeMun had become a ghost town, and the Springfield Seminary was soon to become the Fort Wayne Seminary. Even more dropped out at that point and a few found their way back a few years later. In general, most of the folks who made it to Seminary, stayed, completed their coursework, completed an internship (vicarage), graduated, and were ordained as Pastors.

Some thoughts about all of this... first of all this common experience was its own formation process toward the Pastoral Ministry. It created a kinship with those who shared the same path and a collegial relationship was formed by living in the same places, having the same teachers, doing the same stupid things, and, this is important, some 7 years of community life together as a liturgical community (chapel, Eucharist, dorm devos, etc). The people who taught us lived nearby and we were in their homes and they were in our dorms (most of us, well, nearly all of us, unmarried until the end of the years of pastoral education).

Second was the sifting process of the Church that was not so much the obvious faculty interviews of the Seminary and its final seal of approval but the Church getting to know those who sought to become Pastors and listening to them, watching them grow, advising them in times of questioning, and suggesting that they consider other paths of service to the Lord when it became apparent that the Pastoral Office was not for them. This seemed random to me at the time but now I see the wisdom of it all.

Third was the connection that was made between the first steps in the journey and the final finishing stages at Seminary. It was really one long process. At the time it seemed like bits and pieces of unrelated material but as I look back there was a purpose for it all and that purpose was to form the person into the office. I had purchased classics of Lutheran theology and history long before Seminary (Schmid, Krauth, Prenter) as well as been introduced to the early church fathers and having discussion classes on then contemporary figures (like Wingren, Stott, and Tillich).

Finally, it provided me with a chance to get to know this church body in a deep and intimate way before I was to represent this church body in the Office of Pastor and before I was to become a member of this church body through ordination.

All that process came to an end with the demise of the Senior College and the Junior College feeder system turned in the Concordia University System of today. Few of those who enter Seminary come from one of our own church's educational institutions -- in fact more than half are second career people who enter from other vocations to the vocation of Pastor. Now the time of formation is cramped into three years on campus and one year of internship (vicarage). Most are married and live off campus, have jobs, family responsibilities, and children. They do not live in dorms or spend late night hours roaming room to room looking for a theological fight to do battle in. It is not their fault -- I do not blame them -- but the situation has changed.

Now the Church in her wisdom (?) is thinking about shortening the process or distributing the Seminary faculty throughout the Synod to have mini-seminaries and to shift some of the burden of theological education to other locales and other people (local clergy). As a product of the old system, I cast a dissenting vote to all of this talk. I think it undermines what is already under pressure. I vote "no" to reducing the requirements, in particular the formation that happens when you spend life together around classroom and chapel. The Office of the Pastor is not simply about function -- Luther once remarked that you could train an ape to say mass but he would not be a Pastor. We need to tread carefully on anything that will lessen the time of lessons and weaken our already weak knowledge of those who come to the Seminary seeking the approval of the Church on their vocation of choice. If anything, we need to pause right now and give a good long look at making it a bit longer -- like adding in some formal colleague oriented review and reflection after the end of the first year or two or five... to see if there are any gaps or wounds or rough edges.

The Church took a tremendous leap of faith with me some 30 years ago... but at least she knew me pretty well along the way and many folks had had their say so about me behind the scenes as well as with me in the room... I for one think the Office and the Church are too important to act hastily in this regard... 1 Timothy 5:22 Do not ordain anyone hastily.

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