Sunday, May 17, 2020

A New Seminary President. . . Updated. . .

Yesterday the electors gathered to interview and then name the next President of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.  There are those who might suggest that this is no news at all.  Some may even be members of our church body.  The reason is that some have come to believe that seminaries just do not matter like they once did.  They would suggest that we live in a world of online education and that seminaries need to get with the times and switch to online training of pastors.  Residential education has become too expensive, too time consuming, and too difficult upon students who have to leave home or place of service just to attend the seminary.  Certainly living in the shadow of the corona virus has taught us a few things and nearly every school and every kind of school in America ditched in person instruction in favor of online education.  If it worked for the emergency conditions of a pandemic, why won't it work for normal conditions?  In fact, if it saves us money, cuts down on the time it takes to train a pastor, and is easier on the student, why wouldn't we switch to online education in which a seminary and a seminary president are not quite so important or central to the life of the church as they might have been in the past?

That is my point.  Seminaries are vital for the life of the church and for our future.  Residential seminary education is not some antiquated practice but remains the most profound and efficient way to form men into pastors for service to the Church.  In this respect, electing a seminary president is a very important act for the Church.  We are putting the leadership not simply of an institution but of a process by which candidates are prepared for their lifetime of service as pastors of God's people.  All of this is happening in the strangest of times -- from the corona virus and its impact upon the life and health of the congregation to the growing secular character of the world around the pastor and the people in His charge.  Now is not the time to give up on residential seminary education.  Now is the time to strengthen the seminaries and shore up the educational program which prepares pastors for the Church.

In this time of change, we needed a steady hand at the helm and Dr. Larry Rast has proven to have that steady hand.  Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne has flourished under his leadership even in times when residential seminaries are under great pressure.  He has done so largely by maintaining and keeping the focus on residential seminary education.

Ft. Wayne is slightly smaller than St. Louis in residential numbers but St. Louis has a huge online student body.  While the Synod authorized this program, it has evolved in ways that many have found troublesome.  Instead of being targeted toward ethnic ministries where pastors are so urgently needed or small and isolated rural congregations or individuals deeply connected to and needed in the places where they now live, this online education program has been used for those who simply do not want to go through residential seminary education.  This is a matter of great concern by a great many within the Synod as well as a challenge for a campus costly to operate and a faculty that must be sized to accommodate this online presence.  I hope and pray that the election of Dr. Rast will give this a thorough review.

In addition, the chapel is not the center of campus life in St. Louis the way it is in Ft. Wayne.  Since  the liturgical life of the chapel is a significant partner in pastoral formation, this is one area where St. Louis will need to review the practices of the past and the role of the chapel in the life of the community.  One need only point out the full-time staff that assist the liturgical life of the campus community in Ft. Wayne with the single individual in St. Louis to see an example of that difference.

Finally, with whispers throughout the Synod that we may not need two residential campuses, we need a strong individual to advocate for the right path to the future.  While I am not adverse to a chancellor style structure in which a single individual would be President of both seminaries and a certain amount of administrative staff could be trimmed with a unified structure, I am not convinced that this is the right move right now.  It may well be.  Time will tell and those who believe in this will have to make their case.  I can say that I am not in favor of a merger and a single campus.  I do not believe that this will serve the interests of our church body or aid in the training of clergy for our congregations.

Now, of course, the situation has changed.  Dr. Rast, ever the faithful churchman, discerned the calls and elected to remain where he is at Ft. Wayne.  While this is great news for Concordia Theological Seminary, it leaves St. Louis even more up in the air.  Electors meet June 2.  They could elect a president from the remaining candidates or decide to issue a call for new nominations.  We will see what the future holds. . .

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