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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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).”[3] 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.[4] 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.

Endnotes

[1] Barna Group, Barna Trends 2017 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017), 101, 87.

[2] Thomas Friedman, Thank You for Being Late (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 187.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Smalcald Articles, III, 12.

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13 Comments

  1. Michael Mueller June 22, 2017
    Reply

    This situation of over-subscription of graduating seminary students is a very recent event. And there are still loads of pastors uncalled yet today. Additionally, there are many churches who lack the financial wherewithal to call a full-time pastor. And there is a bubble of soon-to-be pastoral retirements. So, the problem is much more complex than presented here.

  2. Michael Mueller June 22, 2017
    Reply

    I believe that what millennials are searching for is MORE personal contact, not less. They have seen to much instability and been lied to too much. Living together before marriage results in a 50% higher divorce rate. They want something in their life that is stable and gives peace and comfort. That is not the internet. I think the internet is a great place to disseminate information and attract eyes and minds to the message, but without connecting them to the church they will never be firm in their faith.

  3. Kevin Bueltmann June 23, 2017
    Reply

    One idea for helping more men hear their call to pastoral ministry is that I think our church body should be more proactive in promoting our Lutheran camps. This is where I, and many other pastors I know first heard the call to full-time ministry.

  4. Walt Harper June 24, 2017
    Reply

    I’m not trying to disagree; but I’ve always thought there wasn’t really a clergy shortage. That is, there are vacant congregations, but when you subtract the ones that can’t afford a pastor, then the shortage goes away. Also, it doesn’t help the new Sem grad to place him (student debt included) into a congregation that has attendance of 35 per week, that’s been in decline for 30 years, and is looking to their new pastor to turn it all around. This doesn’t come from a study of stats; it’s just what I seem to observe. Is this not so?

    • Scott Lemmermann August 1, 2017

      Walt, I agree, and some time ago I undertook my own statistical analysis and came up with this: of the 6000+ congregations, one-third worship below 100 worshippers average and roughly 600 (this is from about 5 years ago) are served by clergy or lay clergy not employed by them full time. No clergy shortage, but definitely a new way to serve as we enter the future. I suggested 20 years ago that half of sem Ed could be done online or over wireless or compressed video at teaching places where the long distance learning already exists. I started this process with 5 other lcms pastors in western Kansas 20 years ago. We met at a teaching hospital learning lab, and Glenn Nielsen from St. Louis sem taught our first class. But they discontinued it.

  5. David C Busby June 26, 2017
    Reply

    I’ll believe there is a shortage of pastors when the CRM rolls are empty.

  6. Doug Koehler June 27, 2017
    Reply

    There are many pastors who have been placed or who placed themselves on CRM status. I would encourage the LC-MS to pull from this harvest of willing servants. If for any reason we are concerned about their ability or capability, offer them a questionnaire or provide added training. Remember the master gave his servants gold and expected them to use what was given; each according to his ability. How can these servants provide increase if nothing is given? Matthew 25:15

  7. Laura June 28, 2017
    Reply

    I know I’m sticking my neck out here, but who wants to be a shepherd in a church where there is no grace for the brothers when they are in trouble? 1 Timothy 5:20
    I know far too many church workers who were treated badly by their District Presidents. Seriously, there’s something wrong here.

  8. Jay July 1, 2017
    Reply

    In my experiences with congregations, it seems to me that the ones who hold their pastors in high regard (care for him and his family, are willing partners in his ministry, and are actively seeking to not only nourish the faithful but seek out the lost… are the churches which are more likely to produce church workers (pastors, especially). Those congregations who hold low views of the Pastoral Office, and are not intentionally involved with any of the ministries of the Church… are much less likely to produce church workers. And, again- from my experiences, most churches seem to fall into the second category. In my opinion, that’s a big reason why fewer and fewer men are interested in becoming pastors.

  9. Paul July 2, 2017
    Reply

    One thing you did not elaborate on is the cost of an MDiv–as much as some private colleges and universities. A seminary student can finish 4 years with considerable student debt. This may be a major factor in the dearth of new pastors. Districts and home churches need to provide more support for their seminarians. In fact, there are so few seminarians from some Districts that full support could be offered to qualified students.

  10. Jason July 13, 2017
    Reply

    I believe President Meyer’s makes good points about the next generation figuring some of it out and how important mentoring is toward that end. And indeed, faithful continued pastoral care is important. I believe one of the problems, though, is that in some ways we as a Synod have not valued pastoral care or the office of pastor. (That is not to say that all congregations, people, or leaders have but that the problem is widespread enough to be one that we all share) I have sadly heard of pastors being removed from their office (but not the roster) for irreconcilable differences and such has been allowed or promoted because it is easier to replace a pastor than a congregation. I believe we have tried too hard to match congregations and pastors together that we have forgotten how to love each other and work through our differences. Some important skills have been forgotten or hindered by technology and could be some of the focus of our seminaries.

    • Jason July 13, 2017

      Yet, to be clear, some of these problems are not the fault of our seminaries (although they are sometimes blamed for them) nor can the teaching at the seminaries solve these issues. Rather, I believe that we as a synod need to work to reaffirm our love for pastors and people by walking the far more difficult path of faithfulness and love, rather than expediency, in all aspects of our life together.

  11. Matt July 14, 2017
    Reply

    I believe one other area that our Synod needs to address is the unwillingness (or maybe inability, since Synod is advisory) of many to consider closing or merging congregations. Why can’t Synod or districts or even pastors encourage small congregations to merge together? Imagine if you take three congregations like the one mentioned above–barely able to pay a full time pastor, avg attendance of 35 per week, and in decline–and merge them into one congregation. I’m not saying every congregation needs to be a mega-church, but there are times when resources need to be pooled, but yet closing or merging congregations seems to be a taboo topic.

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