Low Seminary Enrollments
Editor’s note: The following is President Dale Meyer’s regular editorial for the Summer 2017 issue of Concordia Journal.
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has a shortage of pastors. For some years now, the Council of Presidents has not been able to fill calls for new pastors from the seminaries because there have not been enough graduates from Master of Divinity programs to meet the needs. The consequences of this shortage are serious to the life of the Synod in many ways, especially because the shortage of pastors jeopardizes faithful pastoral care to people and thereby diminishes vitality and growth in congregations without a pastor. At the outset it must be said that this is more than an LCMS challenge. Of seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), 55 percent report low MDiv enrollments. The reasons for the decline are complex and known. How we turn this around and seize opportunities for growth is less appreciated. Unless we see this contextually, we may indeed increase enrollments but only temporarily. Without a larger contextual vision, our memberships could continue to decline, resulting in diminished LCMS ministry presence in communities of twenty-first-century America. I suggest we recast how we think about the seminaries’ enrollment problem.
It is one-dimensional to say we need more students. To express that need in fuller contour, I suggest we understand our challenge to be recruiting the next generation of pastors who will lead congregations in the dramatically different twenty-first century. The differences between the American culture in which my home congregation formed me and the coming environment for congregations are amazing. One cultural change among many: Today “most American adults agree that it is a good idea to live with one’ s significant other before getting married and most adults either currently or have previously lived with their boyfriend/girlfriend.” Another change: “There is growing acceptance of porn, particularly among young Americans.” As overwhelming is technological change. Ray Kurzweil of Google says, “The twenty-first century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress.” Thomas Friedman describes the impact all this change is having on us. “The rate of technological change is now accelerating so fast that it has risen above the average rate at which most people can absorb all these changes. Many of us cannot keep pace anymore. ‘And that is causing us cultural angst.’ (Erik Teller).” Congregational angst too. We have lost our privileged place in society. The biblical illiteracy prevalent in American society shows itself in our church members. The “nones” are increasing. Regular worship attendance is now assumed to be once every few months, not every Sunday. You can add to that list, reasons why the future looks so daunting, but consider this. Many of this year’s graduates from Concordia Seminary were eleven-years-old when 9-11 happened. The losses in church life that my generation grieves are not known to tomorrow’s future pastors. Our seminarians are Christ-centered, Bible-based, and want to serve and grow the congregations they will be privileged to serve. When a donor asked me, “What’s the Seminary doing about millennials?” I first did not know what to say, but I recovered and said, “Our students are millennials. They’ll figure out how to minister to their peers.” I believe that is true. Our role, yours and mine, is to mentor them in the unchanging truths of God’s word so that they will take those truths into the changing world of their coming ministries. The Lord of the church is raising up the next generations of pastors to lead in the challenging times ahead. Please help us recruit the winsome personalities, the keen intellects, and the lovers of Jesus and the Bible for the future.
The essence of congregational life, gathering to hear the Shepherd’s voice, will not change. What will change, more than I can imagine, is how the effective pastor leads a differently conditioned laity. The LCMS congregations we have known were set in America’s manufacturing economy. Now we are in an information economy. Faith is information intensive, fides quae. People working at the plant could bring their questions to church on Sunday. In an information economy, they will want to find their faith answer immediately. Interactive on-line Bible studies will complement the Bible class at church. Congregations will send out their own daily devotions. Some pastors already take tweets during their sermon (how they do that is beyond me!). And in an information context, the priesthood of all believers will assume a more integral role in the life and leadership of the congregation. The laity can access theological information and can theoretically learn all the theology they want. From what providers will they learn? From their pastor, congregation, seminaries and synod, or from some less trusted source? What will all that ready theological knowledge to a connected and committed laity mean for the leadership role of the local congregational pastor? No longer simply the “answer man,” he will be equipping the saints like never before, in ways like never before, all because of the digital information revolution. What will result in the new contours of faithful participation in congregational life is a clearer understanding that we are in this church because we follow Jesus—faith. Worshippers knew that decades ago, but it wasn’t as clear because we lived in “Christian” America. Faith in Jesus, true as it was, was homogenized with “Christian” cultural America. By the way, what about the financial cost for what is to come? With information technology, we can accomplish more with fewer employees and less money. Doable!
I mentioned that 55 percent of ATS seminaries are struggling with low enrollments. These ATS seminaries, some 270 schools, come in all shapes and sizes: denominational seminaries, freestanding seminaries, and divinity schools embedded in universities. Some have gone totally online; others are both residential and online. They graduate social workers, professors, theologically minded laypeople, and pastors. Of all these differences in ATS seminaries, the two seminaries of the LCMS are almost unique. Our MDiv programs produce pastors, period. We serve one denomination, period. There are seminaries that serve over 100 denominations. Imagine that! Where do they go to turn around an enrollment shortage? Concordia Seminary and Concordia Theological Seminary know precisely where to go, to you and the people of our church. Together we can recruit the pastors to lead our congregations long after you and I have been taken to heaven. If we don’t do this, congregations without pastors will languish and, most sadly, people will wander away from the Savior without an under-shepherd to seek them out. We can look at this simply as a shortage; the glass half-empty. In fact, the shortage is a symptom of our current transition to a new twenty-first-century context for congregational life. In all the unknowns of what is to come, tomorrow’s pastors will lead coming generations into ever-clearer understandings of faith and ministry. Thank you for partnering with us.
 Barna Group, Barna Trends 2017 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017), 101, 87.
 Thomas Friedman, Thank You for Being Late (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 187.
 Ibid., 31.
 Smalcald Articles, III, 12.