Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Overburdening the Seminary
A gazillion years ago when I was a student at the colleges of the LCMS in a pre-sem program, the seminaries did not have to recruit. They did not spend all the much time seeking students. The church had provided them a reliable pipeline of students through the junior colleges and Senior College. There were others seeking to enter the ministerium as second career individuals and this, too, was a steady stream that did not require much effort for recruitment. The sems received those whom the church brought to them.
Of course, in the tumultuous 1970s with the exile and such, sems did recruit but less from the perspective of recruiting candidates to consider the pastoral ministry than to get those already in that pipeline to choose their route over another route, their campus over another campus. Seminex, Ft. Wayne, and 801 were all recruiting from the pool in an effort to survive (for 801 and Seminex) and in an effort to expand (Springfield/Ft. Wayne). That was an anomaly.
When the feeder system of junior colleges and Senior College was swept away, with it came a brand new responsibility laid upon the seminaries. They now became recruiters for the Office of the Ministry. I do not recall ever having been recruited by anyone. I choose Winfield and then the Senior College. The recruiters were the local Pastors, Circuit Visitors (Counselors), District Presidents (an ordinary responsibility for the Bishops of the church), and parents who believed that the brightest and best should consider first the highest office, that of Pastor. No more. The colleges recruit students. Period. Where they go from there is not much of their concern as long as they attend and pay their tuition bills. The seminaries now recruit candidates for the Ministry. They have recruiters who come by in an annual swing to talk to those who might be thinking of being a Pastor. The church has come to expect them to recruit and they recruit (like the colleges) because they have bills to pay and a need to justify their own existence.
Listen clearly. I am not condemning the seminaries. I am lamenting what we have done to them. We have placed on them the whole burden of identifying potential candidates for the pastoral office, figuring out a way for those students to pay the cost of the training that the church expects, and then examining and commending them to the church at the end of this whole process. The seminary spends too much of its time recruiting students and raising money to finance the whole shebang. They must, however, because that is what we have told them to do -- if not by actual command then by default.
The seminaries are not the ones who should be approving candidates for ordination and call. In understand why they do it but it is not the best practice. First of all they can only qualify candidates as having completed the academic qualifications which they themselves require and then approving them as having done nothing during the seminary and vicarage years to question their personal aptitude for the office. They cannot examine them from the perspective of the church and they cannot determine whether or not these individuals are axios (worthy). This is not because there is something wrong with the seminary but that this responsibility belongs not to them but to the church. We have delegated it because we have no means of doing it apart from the seminaries and because it is a convenient way to blame them for any failures who happen to slip through. Approving a candidate for the ministerium is not the same as judging them academically qualified and/or having no obvious or discernible personal hindrance to the office. But that is what it has come to mean. Could it be that some congregations have trouble accepting their Pastors because they have not been clearly told and in unmistakable terms that these men are worthy (axios) under the judgement of the church (bishops, visitors, etc...)? Just a question worth asking, I think.
I do not fault the seminaries. They are under incredible stress to pay their own way and accomplish all that we have delegated to them. But it is too much. We have ended up then with people whom the church does not know or does not know well being approved for ordination (some rightly and some wrongly). We have ended up making the seminaries fund raisers and the students have ended up bearing the lion's share of the cost of the very preparation the church requires. The old system cannot be reborn. A new system must be put in place. Seminaries must have some guaranteed funding so that they can accomplish the responsibilities we assign to them. Students must be relieved of the great burden of financial cost in addition to completing the academic requirements for the pastoral ministry. The church must step up to the plate and do the job of both recruiting (brightest and best) candidates for training and then be there to judge them worthy or not for ordination and call. The solution does NOT lie with on-line classes and an alternative route of reduced classwork for the church will surely be shortchanged in the long run by allowing a non-residential seminary program and a short cut to ordination.
Maybe I live in la la land. Some folks think I do. But this is far too urgent and important a subject for us to simply keep on doing what we have been doing and expecting a different and a better result.
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I don't know what the answer is, but the answer is not to put it into the hands of the DPs. If they really were bishops and acted as such, maybe. But we are not vetting men for corporate positions, and that's what (most) DPs seem to think the Church is about.
As with any educational institution, whether secular or religious, I think it is a matter of educational quality. A top quality school, really teaching what is needed, will attract students. A school that is seen as a necessary gateway to the ministry will not have that quality, but rather will be more and more parochial.
While denominational sems must necessarily reflect their sponsoring denomination, they should be more than indoctrination mills. Students should be attracted to them because they student see the quality of their products. Are the graduates well prepared to deal with Christ's Truth, or are they simply prepared to parrot the catechism? Are the graduates taught to think, or taught to respond reflexively?
If the LCMS sems are having difficulty, perhaps they need to look at what they are teaching and how. Where are the potential students going instead and why?
The fact of the matter is that there is currently a glut of clergy in the LCMS and an ever increasing number of churches that are unable to fund clergy with a "full time" salary. Also, as a result of the great recession a few years back, fewer clergy are now able to retire as once predicted.
The Seminary recruiters are often reticent to share the above facts. I suspect this is because they also have a vested interest in fund raising - which is frequently combined with a recruitment emphasis.
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