What Statistics Say — and Don’t

As the Director of Vicarage and Deaconess Internships, I keep track of how many congregations apply for a vicar and how many students are available for vicarage assignment.  A three ring binder sits on a bookshelf and I can go back to 1990 – the year I began in this position.  The number of congregations applying for a vicar has ranged from a low of 171 (1992) to a high of 263 (2005).  This year the number of applications dropped to a new low – 159.  The number of residential students has also had quite a range from a low of 141 (1991) to a high five years ago of 223 (combining the residential students from both seminaries).  This year we had 144 students available.  The numbers have certainly fluctuated over the last two decades, but what caught my attention was the dramatic decrease the last 5 years:  104 fewer vicarage congregations and 79 less students.  Indications are we’ll have even less residential students next year, probably reaching a new low. 

            I have heard various explanations for this drastic decline in numbers.  The economy, fewer youth in the church, less church work students in the University system, fewer PKs, postmodernism, student indebtedness and the rise of the DELTO/SMP program are the most frequent ones.  No doubt it’s a combination of these and others.

            However, I was reminded of what the stats don’t say during the funeral service for Dr. Quentin Weselschmidt.  Dale Meyer spoke of how God had given His Church, and particularly Concordia Seminary, a gift in this humble and faithful servant.  Gifts, not statistics, form our prayers and prompt our thanks.  I have been given the gift of working with hundreds of congregations over the years in the vicarage program.  Nearly all of them have received our students with a sense of joy and anticipation.  Not all vicarages have gone well, but most all the congregations have a proper sense of pride in the service they provide to these students.  What gifts they have been!  And I have been given the gift of working with over 2400 residential students these past 20 years (an interesting statistic as well), almost all of them having received that envelop on Call Day with joy and excitement.  Most have served in that learning environment with humility and faithfulness. 

            I tell the students preparing for vicarage and deaconess internships that they should not see themselves as gifts for the ministry but that the ministry is God’s gift to them.  But listening at a funeral and reminiscing over two decades of stats, I also realize that congregations and students can become God’s gifts to each other and to us at the Seminary.  I won’t stop keeping the stats, but what they don’t tell us is how prayers are formed in thanksgiving for the gifts God gives His church in the congregations and students who humbly and faithfully serve Him.

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  1. Jaron Melin May 19, 2010

    This reminds me of Jeremiah.

    There he [Jeremiah] came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” (Jeremiah 19:9-10).

    However, God replied to Jeremiah: “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (Jeremiah 19:18).

    Although the statistics of the situation seem to be out of control from our perspective, God is still in control. He has it all calculated and figured. He will carry out his purpose and plan. Therefore, we have no need to worry and have all the reason to hope and work even more fervently.

    • Tim Koch May 25, 2010

      I think you meant to quote 1 Kings. And it was Elijah that came to the cave, not Jeremiah.

      At any rate, thanks for the thoughtful reflection. There are a lot of often unrecognized gifts walking around.

      I’ll keep praying for more.

  2. J Gillard May 20, 2010

    Encouraging reflections, thanks.

    I realize the article is about the GIFTS and not the STATS but allow me to add another reason for the drastic decline. Most of the boomers who got the call later in life have already cycled thru campus and you’ll see fewer and fewer enroll because boomers started retiring in 2008 (10,000 per day back then, surely higher now). These second career guys blessed us with a bubble–that is also a GIFT.

  3. Dean Pfeffer August 26, 2010

    Thank you Dr. Nielsen for such an insightful posting. I am one who was truly gifted through my vicarage in Sheboygan, WI… what an awesome experience it was for me and my family in 1992-93. Now, as my congregation moves into the vicarage program, it is my prayer that we at Hope may gift our future pastors just as I was gifted by my “professors” at Our Saviors. We know full well that despite what the statistics show us God will continue raise up men who will go into the fields and take the precious Gospel message to those who are living in darkness that they may come into God’s marvelous light! Blessings on your awesome minsitry as you match student and congregation to be God’s gifts to each other!

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