FAQs on the LCMS Specific Ministry Program (SMP)

FAQs on the LCMS Specific Ministry Program (SMP)

Editor’s Note: These “frequently asked questions” were prepared in conjunction with the Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, faculty response to the SMP Task Force recommendations


Is this a synodically approved program?

Yes.  In fact, it is the result of over ten years of wrestling with the growing needs to provide an alternate form of pastoral education, especially for specific needs and situations.  It was developed with significant representation and input from both seminaries, the synodical office of pastoral education, the Council of Presidents, pastors and mission leaders from the field.  Before coming to the convention, the proposal received the review and support of the CTCR, the BPE, and the CCM.  It was presented at the 2007 convention, with rather vigorous discussion over several days that clarified numerous questions and addressed many concerns.  It was then passed by a 76% majority of the convention delegates.

Immediately following the convention, both seminaries moved forward with their work toward implementation, and the first students matriculated in the fall of 2008.


Why was this program developed?

The historical impetus was the growing need for providing pastoral ministry in situations where full time ministry could not be maintained.  The 1989 convention sought to respond to such needs through the licensing of lay deacons at the district level for supervised Word and Sacrament ministry.  This practice was controversial in allowing for pastoral ministry to be conducted by men who were not, in fact, properly called and placed into the pastoral office.  Since many of these men were part time, were already serving a situation that had no other recourse to pastoral ministry, or for other reasons could not leave that place and come to traditional seminary education, the church sought to offer a regularized program of pastoral education and certification in a non-residential mode.  DELTO (distance education leading to ordination) was a major initiative to respond to such needs, and in many ways it was the precursor to SMP.

An additional catalyst for the SMP program was the increase in mission and ministry opportunities within a church body that was declining in members, congregations, and outreach.  Part time and local pastoral ministry was also augmenting existing ministries, for example, in a larger congregation that was seeking to start a new congregation from within their staff, but was unable to provide full time ministry to such a mission plant.

Thus the SMP resolution itself references both the concern for small, sometimes isolated congregations where “full time ministry could not be maintained,” and also to meet the multiplication of situations “where a traditionally prepared seminary candidate or pastor is not available, especially in needing to ‘provide for an increase in pastoral ministry to meet such needs of the church, especially in light of the mission challenges of today’s world.’”

Thus it can be said that the SMP program was developed to meet both the ministry, i.e. pastoral ministry, and mission needs of the church.  And it sought to do so in a way that engages “the best collaborative thinking and creativity that we can muster to provide missional pastoral leadership driven by the depth of theological integrity that remains a hallmark of our church and its ministerium.”  (Quotes are from the prologue and the Whereas sections of the resolution itself.)


How is the program delivery different from DELTO?

DELTO itself was a so-called “TEE” (Theological Education by Extension) model that engaged in offsite residential education.  (Professors travelled away from the seminary to teach a group of students in a local setting.) As theological education became increasingly comfortable with distance education technology, especially at the higher levels of curriculum design and delivery that began to demonstrate the ability for building community, the objectives and the means of the DELTO program were superseded by well-constructed and closely evaluated distance education. The model engaged both asynchronous (students working on their own) and synchronous (students and instructor together in a live classroom mode), and included residential seminars on the seminary campuses.


Are there theological concerns with this sort of pastoral formation, education, and certification?

Scripture provides several models and, more importantly, specific criteria for pastoral ministry (e.g. 1 Timothy 3), but it does not specify any particular mode, pattern, or length of pastoral preparation.  The New Testament model of raising up local elders, already proven for spiritual maturity and leadership, is actually much closer to the non-residential models that the sending of potential candidates off to a centralized location for pastoral formation and academic education.

Throughout its history, the church has provided numerous ways of raising up pastors.  The Reformation period, itself a product of theological education at the university, moved theological education in the direction of higher education, though, at the same time, Luther was well aware of the very minimal education of many clergy, for whom he provided the Large Catechism as a form of “distance ed” continuing education.  In our own history, we have had various models, including both a practical seminary and a more “theoretical” seminary program, often in a healthy tension to complement each other.

Theologically, what makes someone a pastor is the examination and certification and the call and ordination, all of which signify the orderly process, approval, recognition, and reciprocity of pastoral ministry across the church.  By divine order, there is one office of the public ministry.

However, by the collaborate human wisdom and the sanctified due processes of the church, the manner, place, and scope of pastoral formation and education, as well as the responsibilities and jurisdiction of any one position within the public ministry, can be determined and distinguished in light of the needs and best interests of the church corporate itself.


So are there distinctions or restrictions for specific ministry pastors?

What is important about the Specific Ministry Pastor program is that thoughtful and intentional distinctions have been built into the program from its very conception. The preamble to the synodical resolution clearly outlines the “theological foundations guiding the proposal.”

DELTO required 20 seminary courses on top of 10 courses within district programs, roughly equivalent to the alternate route programs at our seminaries, and led to the one general rostering category of “minister of religion—ordained.”  It included no residential components, and the 20 seminary courses were taught in intensive weekends at extensive sites.

The SMP curriculum consists of 16 seminary courses, taught at an M Div level, on top of 7 competencies learned at the local or district level, with at least one annual residential seminary, but it leads to rostering as a “specific ministry pastor,” with restrictions on his pastoral jurisdiction and scope of responsibilities, precisely at those points that go beyond the local level to the breadth and depth of theology and corporate church at a trans-local or synodical level.


Is it true that one can be ordained after only eight courses?  Isn’t that a very minimal amount of pastoral education?

The SMP program brings together two somewhat competing concerns: the need for pastoral ministry by someone who is not yet a pastor, and the need for such pastoral ministry to be provided by a pastor — someone who is properly certified, called, and ordained into the pastoral office.  Since most candidates are already serving in contexts in need of pastoral, Word and Sacrament ministry, the sooner such candidates are regularized into the pastoral office, the better.  On the other hand, ordination vows require a commitment to Scripture and the Confessions and to Lutheran theology and practice that dare never be taken lightly.

The SMP proposal sought to find an appropriate middle ground between these two concerns, with candidates assigned as vicars as they begin the program, so that they may engage in supervised pastoral practice as has always been the purpose of the vicarage program.  (And unlike a licensed lay deacon or lay minister, a vicar is enrolled in a seminary program and publicly recognized as a seminarian on his way toward becoming a pastor.)

Regular call and ordination follows the eighth (at CTSFW) and the ninth (at CSSL) course.  Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions are engaged throughout the curriculum and inform every course.  Both seminaries have at least one specific course dedicated to the content of the Confessions before call and ordination.

It should also be noted that admission requirements for this program require basic competencies in seven areas, including the same entrance competency exams in Old Testament, New Testament, and Christian Doctrine required by the St. Louis seminary for all programs of pastoral formation. The applicant must also demonstrate a basic competency in the practice of leading worship and preaching prepared sermons, under pastoral supervision and with good public presentation. He must profess an understanding of the mission of the church, including the commitment to seek the lost and nurture them in the faith and the demonstrated facility to articulate the faith and share it with the non-Christian. And he must demonstrate an understanding of the importance of teaching the Christian faith and life to those of every age.

Following the first cycle of courses that lead to ordination, the student must be committed to complete the second round of courses (a total of 16 over four years) to be eligible to remain rostered as a specific ministry pastor in the LCMS.


How does the education compare to more traditional models, etc.?

Again, it should be remembered that the amount of theological education does not make one a pastor.  The SMP coursework is rigorous and taught at an M Div level.  Courses are based on the same content as residential courses. At CSSL, substantial interaction with seminary faculty is part of the weekly schedule, including the evaluation of a 5-8 page journal and a two-hour live classroom on-line session.  Students are expected to put in 10-12 hours per week, but most indicate that they commit much more time, as much as 15-20 hours per week. This is not a “light” or “easy” path toward call and ordination.

Further, theological education in and of itself is only part of the preparation for pastoral ministry.  That is why we often use the word “formation,” which is closer to the biblical concept of paideia (2 Timothy 3:16), and inclusive of the full range of criteria Paul sets forth in 1 Timothy 3: 1-7.  While such formative development and spiritual maturity is an integral part of our residential and MDiv programs, the academic MDiv degree itself does not necessarily assure the church of the full range of pastoral qualifications, either.  In many ways, the SMP model provides for the local recognition of spiritual maturity and leadership as an admission requirement, rather than something that must be “grown into” after a traditional assignment, call, and installation.


But the amount of the curriculum is still significantly less than an M Div, isn’t that right?

Quantitatively, it is an obvious fact that SMP pastors receive less curriculum.  They take 16 courses, or 48 quarter hours, compared to 119 hours required of MDiv students at St. Louis (and 134 at CTS-FW, though Ft. Wayne has historically included more coursework and counts Hebrew language instruction within the MDiv curriculum).  SMP students do fulfill all resident field education, vicarage, and other practicum requirements, and do so over two years of supervised ministry practice, even as they continue their education within the ongoing practice of ministry.

Thus, while the quantity of overall curriculum is certainly less, SMP candidates also learn from a different interactive model between practice and theory, often considered more helpful and even appropriate for adult learners.

Nevertheless, the curriculum is significantly less.  This is so by design, and this fact should come as no surprise to anyone.  That is why the reduced curriculum is recognized by the limitation on the rostering status of SMPastors.  In fact, the program is very deliberate in making such restrictions precisely at the factor of the breadth and depth of theological education, which is more extensive in the MDiv curriculum.  This means that an SMPastor is fully in the pastoral office and can maintain the appropriate jurisdiction within his congregation and district, but he may not serve in certain synodical capacities for which the breadth, depth, and scope of the larger church need to be assumed.

The point is this: these candidates and pastors are certainly well qualified to serve in the ministry context and capacities to which they are called.  They do not necessarily have the full academic background of the residential programs, but for that reason, they are restricted in their ministerial contexts and service.


But aren’t the benefits of a residential program more than simply the academic curriculum?

Yes, this is extremely important and true.  We regularly speak of curriculum in the narrow sense, such as the actual courses and credits that are taken and earned, but we also speak of the curriculum in the broad sense, which includes the entire range of formative experiences done under the aegis of a seminary program.  This would include residential and community life, worship and spiritual life, both corporate and individual, and the daily interaction with fellow-students and with faculty and staff in a variety of contexts and settings.

There is no doubt that our residential programs are a great value and benefit to our church and its ministerium, and we remain fully committed to them.  SMP is not some attempt to undermine residential education as the regular, mainstream formation program.  In fact, SMP is designed to encourage students to continue their education and go on to the M Div and rostering as a general pastor, and the majority of SMP students have expressed such interest.

However, it should also be noted, as already said, that we have never limited pastoral education to one mode or model.  Secondly, we should constantly ask ourselves if the residential programs are, in fact, delivering the full benefits that we might too easily assume.  Much has changed in residential education over the past generation, including the significant increase in pressure upon students in time, money, and family commitments.  Many of our residential students do not get the full benefits of residential education.

And we dare not assume that there are no concerns or weaknesses with the residential model.  It must import practical experiences into the classroom and provide them through field education and a vicarage.  Many students finish the residential program without much actual experience in parish life and leadership.  Some would criticize an academic model as focusing too much on academics, but, on the other hand, we have held high the value of a well informed and educated clergy, building on a strong liberal arts and humanities based undergraduate program that understands the human condition and the human arts, literature, language, and science that is even more important in facing a theological environment that is increasingly skeptical and even hostile.

Finally, residential education is expensive, both in the overhead of full-service campuses that are reflected in tuition, and in the costs of relocating especially married students with families.  And the days of synodical subsidies alleviating these costs are long past, so that seminaries must either raise third-source funding on their own or pass the costs on to the students, which often results in significant debt.


So if the residential program is actually so beneficial, why don’t these SMP students come to the seminary?

The program was devised for pastoral candidates in specific ministry contexts where the ability or even viability of leaving for a full residential experience is not possible.  In some cases, it may not even be appropriate to the specific ministry context, such as ethnic language and culture specific areas of service.  In surveys conducted every year by the synodical SMP committee, students were asked specifically whether they would come to the seminary if the SMP program were not available to them.  On average, over 80%, and in one survey 96% indicated that they would not because they could not.

For this reason, the SMP program is actually extending seminary education to a larger number of qualified men seeking to serve in the pastoral office.


Are they taking called positions away from the more traditional sem students?

No, in the vast majority of cases, this is not true.  SMP pastors serve contexts that would not ordinarily be able to support a graduate from the residential programs.


But aren’t the numbers of residential students decreasing, even as the number of SMP students is increasing?

The number of residential students in our traditional programs is, in fact, decreasing, but the reasons are not directly related to the SMP program.  As already observed, the vast majority of SMP students would not come to the seminary residential programs anyway.  The decline in residential enrollment in our seminaries is characteristic of an overall decline in all theological schools, due in large part to the demographics of aging church bodies and the culture influences on the next generation.  The numbers of students in our pre-sem programs in CUS schools is also decreasing, and by current projections, will decrease even more dramatically in the coming years.

Almost ironically, the loss of numbers in our traditional residential program are helpfully augmented and offset by the numbers of pastors serving in specific ministry contexts and eligible for the SMP program.


Do SMP students get the same financial aid and support as residential students?

No.  SMP students receive no financial aid, no discounted tuition, and no other support as is provided to residential students through programs such as the food bank and re-sell it shop.  In many ways, such support programs are assisting residential students and overcoming the high cost and sometimes debilitating debt incurred through the living expenses caused by the need to relocate for the benefits of the full residential program itself.


So why can’t the church better support these residential programs in light of the increasing amount of student debt?

That’s a very good question, and one for which both seminaries are actively seeking help and support.  The old model of our church supporting seminaries through regular weekly contributions that were processed through district and synod into subsidy for seminary education no longer exists to any significant extent.  God’s good people do continue to support seminary education, and specifically its residential programs, in great measure, but they do it directly through the work of the institutional advancement and development programs and staffs of both seminaries.


Shouldn’t these pastoral candidates at least take Greek?

Taking biblical languages is a great strength of our ministerial formation programs.  As a church that takes sola scriptura seriously, we dare never lose the ability to read that scriptura in the very languages in which it was written down for our learning.  Nevertheless, not every pastor must, or even can, use the biblical languages to the extent that they are truly helpful.  Knowing how the art of translation works and understanding the linguistic issues of interpretation is a major part of language acquisition, but a simple and rudimentary knowledge of language itself can only go so far.

All pastors who can’t adequately and competently use the biblical languages are limited in their ability to do more original and generative exegetical research. Some language facility is extremely helpful for following scholarly arguments and engaging the use of commentaries with some exegetical and theological acumen, and this is the level at which most pastors work, including those who have had a full background in the required hours in Greek and Hebrew.

Others will remain dependent on the expertise of others, doing exegesis and a good deal of pastoral ministries in the same mode as those who “paint by the numbers,” and still produce a beautiful painting. In fact, the recognized lack of any biblical language instruction was intentional within the original conception and design of the program. This is a clear distinction between SMPastors and general pastors, but it does not mean that SMPastors cannot preach biblical sermons, properly distinguishing law and Gospel, or teach Lutheran doctrine.

The suggestion to introduce just one language, and in a fairly elementary way, raises the question as to which language is more important.  Since 75% of God’s Word in scripture is written in Hebrew, and since the Old Testament so foundationally undergirds the New, it could be argued that Hebrew would be a better choice for one of the two languages. One can certainly learn something of biblical translation and exegesis from either of the languages, but this may be one area where the educational distinction between the specific ministry pastor curriculum and the residential programs should be maintained.

It is also important to remember that the SMP program is built to encourage continuing education, specifically toward the MDiv or alternate route program that would lead to rostering as a general pastor.  This rostering category would continue to require the biblical languages and assume the facility to do generative exegesis.  In this way, the facility in the biblical languages intentionally distinguishes general pastors from SMPastors.


Can there be improvements?

The SMP programs at both seminaries are now five years old.  We have graduated our first and will be graduating our second cohort at each seminary.  This is an appropriate time for some evaluation, and those who are engaged in the administration, oversight, and teaching in this program continue to make improvements.  We have learned a lot about the curriculum, about these students, and about what they can learn within their contexts.  We have learned much about the appropriate use of distance education technologies, and we are engaging the very cutting edge of these resources.  But that is not to say that the program cannot be improved.  We are constantly seeking to improve our curriculum and its delivery toward the very best pastoral formation and education.  Our Lord, our church, and its ministerium demand no less!  


So how are the candidates and graduates doing?

The evaluation of the effectiveness of the SMP program, within its stated goals, objectives, and learning outcomes, is comparable to that of residential graduates in relation to the goals, objectives, and learning outcomes of those programs.  The attrition rate for SMP is actually higher than residential programs (ca. 20% for SMP and 15% for M Div), but the reasons are significantly different.  Most residential students discontinue for academic or vocational reasons, as their aptitude for ministry is tested against the realities of both theology and practice.  SMP students who withdraw from the program generally do so because of its intensity.  They have a high sense of vocational confirmation, in large part because they enter the program after such aptitude and spiritual maturity has been externally recognized, but some find it difficult to deal with the time demands of a rigorous curriculum while in ministry.

Annual surveys of students, mentors, and instructors indicate a very high level of satisfaction with the program, with the contact and interaction of students with both mentors and instructors, and with the important insight and learnings of course work as it is applied immediately to real-life and real-time ministry situations. Candidates and SMPastors are well-received by those whom they serve, in large part because they began the program with such objective confirmation of the so-called “inner call” by the external call, which is then duly processed as certification, call and ordination at the mid-point of the program itself.

In short, and in sum, the program is doing what it was intended to do, and it is achieving its goals effectively.  Most SMPastors are serving where otherwise a non-pastor, lay minister or licensed deacon, might be asked to serve.  Now, specific ministry pastors are providing pastoral ministry as “called and ordained servants of the Word,” properly called (rite vocatus, AC XIV) according the regular order of the whole church.

Related posts

Theological Symposium – Call for Papers

Theological Symposium - Call for Papers

Theological Symposium - Call for Papers

The Theological Symposium committee invites proposals for open sectionals for the 34th Annual Theological Symposium, September 17-18, 2024, at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. The title this year is “Technology and the Church: Promise and Peril.” Major technological advances are not for...

Lutheran Theology: Kill Your Passions

Lutheran Theology: Kill Your Passions

Lutheran Theology: Kill Your Passions

This is part four in a series of posts by Dr. David Maxwell. The first was "What Should You Do With Anger and Desire?" The second was "Gregory of Nyssa: Direct the Passions." The third was "Cyril of Alexandria: Lull Your Passions to Sleep." My sense is that Lutheran spirituality leans more in...

Cyril of Alexandria: Lull Your Passions to Sleep

Cyril of Alexandria: Lull Your Passions to Sleep

Cyril of Alexandria: Lull Your Passions to Sleep

This is part three in a series of posts by Dr. David Maxwell. The first was "What Should You Do With Anger and Desire?"The second was "Gregory of Nyssa: Direct the Passions." Cyril of Alexandria is a good example of a Christian appropriation of the Stoic view of the passions. The goal is not...


  1. Matt Priem June 19, 2013

    Understanding SMPastor as a title, not a separate office, is there any difference between an assistant pastor and an SMPastor other than eligibility for a call and the fact that the SMPastor was trained specifically for that role?

    Is there a distinction made between “unable” to pursue residential education or a candidate who has received residential education versus “unwilling” to do so? If so, how is this determined?

  2. Rev. Paul T. McCain June 25, 2013

    An interesting post. I have few questions.

    What precisely is the status of the “faculty response” to the SMP program issues? Was the statement, posted here earlier, and now these FAQs adopted by the seminary faculty in a meeting by affirmative majority vote? In other words, is this indeed a “faculty statement” or is it the opinion of several members of the faculty and the seminary president?

    Who wrote these materials?


    • William Foxwood July 3, 2013

      These are questions that should be answered.

  3. William Foxwood July 4, 2013

    Someone should answer Paul McCain’s questions. The people who have studied at CSL deserve to know if the professors under whom they studied agree with this or not.

  4. Desire Za September 14, 2014

    Hi, I have a question regarding not calling a Vicar. He has finished 2 years of the program and our church is due to call him for the remaining 2 years. What happens if we do not call him? Is it mandatory that he has to stop being our Vicar and preaching in our church? The contract he signed doesn’t state anything of this nature. Is it mandatory that he seek another congregation because of this? Please Help. Thank you in advance.

  5. Robert Norris January 31, 2019

    Is a SMP pastor eligible to be a Senior pastor and have other pastors under his leadership or would the SMP pastor have to finish additional course work to become fully ordained before assuming that role?

    • Mart Thompson February 4, 2019

      Specific Ministry Pastors (SMPs) are not eligible to be senior pastors that have other pastors under their leadership. While SMPastors are fully ordained, they must complete one of the programs to achieve General Pastor Certification in order to be eligible to serve as a senior pastor. Those programs include the distance program known as GPC at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, or one of the residential programs that provide general pastor certification, the Residential Alternate Route or Master of Divinity.

  6. Matt September 17, 2019

    What about administering the sacraments? Are SMPs given authority to administer the sacraments in their specific ministry setting?

Leave a comment