The path to becoming a pastor has changed over the years. It moved from a man being mentored both in teaching and in practice to an academic model in which instruction happens from those not regularly placed in the service of the Word and Sacrament to the people of God. Some decry this and some do not. I am doing neither. What I am about is how the attempt is made even in academic setting to provide the practical setting in which what is learned is practiced. In my own church's structure, the pastor comes to seminary with a bachelor's degree (a requirement we have adopted in obedience to the credentialing agency that oversees the seminary). Indeed, there is a strict limit on the numbers of students who might be admitted without some sort of bachelor's degree. The nature of that degree and its instruction is less important than the fact that the man has it. Most of the classes are in academic settings, taught by professors who have the requisite terminal degrees required of that self-same organization. It is even a requirement that those degrees be obtained from a diversity of institutions and not the fruit of internally generated doctoral programs. There is logic in this though it does not always produce its intended effect.
As good as these orderly provisions are, our seminaries understand that the academic setting alone is not sufficient to produce pastors for the Church. So there are programs to supplement the classroom. One of these is field work. The idea here is that as a man learns theology in the classroom he will also learn how that theology is practiced in the life of the Church by watching and participating in a congregational setting (perhaps with additional time spent in hospital visitation and nursing home pastoral care). While this is a good thing, it is hard to regulate and hard to duplicate. Some students enjoy a rich and deep experience at the hand of a wise mentor. I was privileged to receive such mentoring at the hands of Pastor Charles J. Evanson at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Ft. Wayne. With several others, I served as deacon at the Divine Service, taught Sunday school, visited the sick and shut in of the parish, and sat for Saturday mornings of conversation that continue to resonate in my mind. But I know others who did little more than read a lesson here and there and watch from afar.
The second tier of practical instruction is what is called colloquially vicarage. Borrowed from another setting, the term has come to mean a year of tutelage on site in a congregation away from the seminary and under the care of an experienced pastor in a congregation that should afford a decent introduction to parish life. My own vicarage took place in a then very large congregation on Long Island. I was alone, the pastor having passed away on the very day I received the assignment. Just as the vicar before me served alone after his death, so I began my service there alone. Months would pass before a called pastor would be installed. Both of us learned to swim or drown, preaching four or five services per week, handling sick and shut in visitation, teaching catechism to several hundred students, and literally acting like a pastor -- all in a congregation with some 900 in worship weekly and 650 in Sunday school! In addition, I oversaw the installation of a pipe-electronic organ, served as regular organist for one service each week, and helped put together a working membership list from notes that showed the majority of information was in the former pastor's mind and not on paper. It was a baptism by fire. I had a wise and caring bishop (Ronald Fink of the Atlantic District), a watchful neighbor (Henry Koepchen), and wise and experienced parish leaders to help me. Not all vicars have such a vicarage and that is a good thing! But too many of them do not benefit from a full integration into the life of the parish, the decision making process of a pastor, or by watching and partnering in the actual work of the Kingdom.
The third tier that provides a practical view of the academic life taught in the classroom happens in the chapel. At the seminary I attended and even more today the chapel is the literal center of the campus and campus life. Around the font, altar, and pulpit, the seminary community is a real community of God's people -- fed and nourished daily on the Word and at least weekly in the Eucharist. Although I do not have the depth of experience at St. Louis as I do with Ft. Wayne, I do not believe that the chapel is quite the focus of the seminary campus and life there. That is a tragedy. For the daily and weekly services of the chapel provide not only the daily sustenance of the faithful but model good preaching and faithful and rich worship. In this way, the chapel with the parish offer a model of what should be and could be in every parish. Those sent forth into the pastoral ministry bring this model of good practice with them and, as they are able, help to raise the sights of the parish and, if needed, correct what is deficient. Instead, the campus life in St. Louis tends to model a variety of practices, some less salutary than others and some that give nod to those whose practice in worship tends toward the evangelical more than the classical Lutheran. It is a distinction with a difference and it tends to show in the ways that graduates from the two institutions lead their people in worship and prayer.
individuals who have not forgotten their life in the parish. When our model works, field work is the substantial embedding of the student in the life of a local congregation under the wise and careful leadership of its pastor. When our model works, the vicarage partners the student with the fuller life of the parish -- under the steady hand of the pastor as they function much like a deacon would. When our model works, the chapel is not simply the visible center but the beating heart of the campus and what happens there epitomizes the best of Lutheran preaching, worship, music, and prayer. But it all depends upon many things working. That is our weakness.
The ancient practice of the minor offices was the replacement both for much of the academic work and other arenas of mentoring to shape the man into a priest, pastor, and father for God's people. If we ever were of a mind to reduce the time spent on a seminary campus, then we should consider restoring the minor orders so that we do not steal what is needed both for those desiring to be pastors of the Church and the parishes to whom they will provide pastoral leadership and care. It may well be possible in many instances to replace in class academic instruction with online (though I remain unconvinced they are the same) but without effective pastors to guide, teach, instruct, and nurture the practice, we may unintentionally leave the pastors without the formation they need and parishes without effective pastors. And the first place this will show is in practice.