Saturday, January 7, 2023

Original intent. . .

Back when travel was by horse and log cabins typical, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod began an educational endeavor that spanned from elementary school through high school and into what was then the equivalent of a junior college.  The original purpose was clear.  These institutions were necessary to raise up church workers.  Sure, there were also those who did not intend upon church work careers who attended as they should -- but from the beginning these were conceived of as agencies to serve the primary purpose of raising up, training, and delivering to the church the pastors and teachers for the future.

As college became more normal for the mass populace, the colleges began to look for another mission.  After all, they could not remain two year schools when the standard for educators in the secular world was a four year baccalaureate degree.  In the same way, the seminaries followed the wave and changed their Bachelor of Divinity to a Master of Divinity degree -- the new benchmark.  By that time, some of the schools had ceased to serve primarily church work students and in some the diminishing numbers of those church work students was accompanied by the increase of programs and degrees that had little to do with the training of church workers.  You saw it as well in the elementary schools that became Lutheran more in name than in identity until in most the vast majority of their student population were from non-Lutheran homes.  Of course, this correlated well with the beginnings of the decline of the numbers of children in Lutheran parishes.  Some flourished with this expansion of mission and purpose and others declined.

Let me say clearly that no one planned for the muddy waters of an unclear mission and purpose or one that was distinctly different from the original reason for their existence.  Those in charge did their best to maneuver through the uncertain waters of change in the 1960s and 1970s and few of them would have ever thought that the original purpose would be either missing within the expanded identity or so small as to be invisible.  But that is what happened.  There are not enough church work students at our Concordias in total to make for one Concordia as those institutions once were.  Now we are unsure what to do.  In order to survive and compete, they must follow the market (or so some say).  In order to fulfill the church's original mandate for their existence, they would have to supply too many resources for too few students (or so some say).  In order to be fully Lutheran, they might have to abandon most formal ties and certainly every regulatory relationship with the church that gave them birth (or so some say). 

A few honest historians will tell you that the track record charted through the ages is that institutions become corrupt when they function and have an identity that no longer serve theirs original purpose.  Corrupt does not always mean evil as much as it means indifferent to or perhaps opposed to the original purpose -- corrupt and therefore heading in a different direction than the one toward which it was aimed.  I am less interested in the secular application of this than I am with the church and its agencies -- begun for noble purpose and for honest need and for faithful service but now different.  Our church body began a bank to assist congregations in the lowest interest rate and ease of access to funds to expand their facilities.  Now it serves as a consumer lending agency for church workers and is looking to expand that mission even further.  Good goals, to be sure, but different from the original mission.  The same could be said of all kinds of agencies designed to serve the purposes of the churches that formed them but now functioning either as non-governmental agencies doing work with tax dollars according to the rules of those who fund them or as agencies that are strategically independent of the church even though allied with some of the church's purposes.  I have already chronicled before how a couple of fraternal organizations designed to help their Lutheran members evolved into a financial powerhouse that eschews the name Lutheran as well as the identity of Christian in favor of a generic fraternal benefit society to help those with money.

So what do we do?  Perhaps we could sell off some of these assets or put a price on them to become fully independent and free to do what they please or shut them down entirely or make them smaller and ordered more toward their original purpose.  I have no answer but I suspect the will and energy of the church is not to expend what might be needed to make them our agencies and institutions again.  Plus, there is, with some of them, a bit of a money trail that would be hard to turn away.

By the way, we are not the only ones with this problem.  Roman Catholics have universities that are Roman Catholic in name only, charitable organizations that are also primarily NGOs, and large institutions that no longer serve Rome but may dictate to Rome (again, because of a money trail).  Almost all the church colleges of old are now in the same boat and many denominations have long ago waved goodbye to such institutions (in identity, control, and benefit).  Even the names are changing so that the institutions are adopting more generic names that do not reflect history or a church association.  It turns out Christians were really good at establishing agencies but may not have been so good at keeping tabs on them so that they remained within the pale of the church's original purpose and intent.  So what is new?

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