A Culture of Call
As I write from the ELCA Conference of Bishops in Chicago this first week in March, there are many blessings to celebrate, yet many obvious and pressing challenges facing this church. After the spring assignment process last week for students graduating from the seven ELCA seminaries, we lamented the trend that started a generation ago but is now pushing us to critical levels. Cumulatively, the 65 ELCA synods currently have 330 “first call” openings in congregations, but we only had 91 total seminarians to fill those openings. North Carolina had eight graduates and was assigned four of those 91 for our 17 (including nine part-time) first call congregations.
All of our ELCA (and other denominations’ too) seminaries are facing critically low shortages of students, which threatens their very existence. This is why Southern Seminary (Columbia, S.C.) became part of Lenoir-Rhyne University, Pacific Seminary became part of California Lutheran University, Trinity Seminary (Columbus, OH) is becoming part of Capital University, and Gettysburg and Philadelphia Seminaries have merged. As educational institutions, their budgets are largely enrollment and tuition driven. Without enough students, they can’t stay open. But the greatest threat to the life of church as we know it is quickly going to be not enough pastors to serve congregations. Several of the ELCA synods have fewer than half of their congregations served by full-time, called pastors. Some have fewer than a quarter. We need pastors.
Combined with the wave of retiring baby-boomer clergy that is already occurring and will accelerate over the next 7-10 years, the gap between congregational pastoral needs and available clergy will widen noticeably. Many congregations will likely need to share a pastor with other congregations or do without a called pastor altogether. This is already beginning to happen. Forgive me for just blurting out the issue, but I see no benefit in pulling any punches.
As I visited with a congregation council several months ago, they told me they wanted five or six names of “young pastors in their 20’s” from which to choose. When I shared with them that the youngest pastor we had at that time in NC was 30, and that we had a severe shortage of seminarians, a council member said, “It seems to me that the NC Synod has an upper management problem if you can’t do any better than that.” I responded to him that we don’t have a little pastor factory at the synod office in Salisbury nor at the Lutheran Center in Chicago. Pastors come from congregations, are members of congregations, are nurtured, groomed, encouraged in church vocations, and recommended for candidacy by congregations.
We need more parishioners like Ms. Ruth Uzzell, my Sunday school teacher in 3rd grade, who pulled me aside to tell me, “You’d make a fine little preacher someday.” She planted a seed, and she continued to remind me that she thought I was called to ministry even through my college years. When is the last time your congregation sent someone to seminary? How can your congregation grow in developing a “culture of call?” Please remember that ALL of our ELCA pastors not only have served congregations; they COME FROM congregations. Seminaries educate and form, synods and the churchwide organization accompany and guide through candidacy and facilitate the call process, but we haven’t had a pastor yet who didn’t come from a congregation. This is just another critical way that we are church together.
Walking with you,
Bishop Tim Smith