By Paula Schlueter Ross
Mark Couser, 26, has been working with the Lutheran Inner-City Network Coalition (LINC) North Texas, in Dallas-Fort Worth, for the past five years, helping to train church planters and other leaders.
He’s “felt the call to pastoral ministry for awhile,” Couser admits, but also feels called to serve in the rapidly growing, ethnically diverse, Dallas-Fort Worth area. It would be hard for him to leave the ministry — and relationships — he’s been building for five years to attend a traditional residential seminary program, he says.
And now, he doesn’t have to. As one of the first 29 students admitted to the new Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) Program at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Couser is elated that he can fulfill both dreams: train for the pastoral ministry and continue his full-time work with LINC.
While he’s excited about finally beginning seminary studies, which will give him a “stronger theological foundation,” Couser says he’s glad he can also stay with LINC, continuing “to be in that [ethnically diverse] field and to plant more churches and to reach the lost, reach the nations” with the Gospel.
The SMP program — endorsed by LCMS convention delegates in July 2007 — prepares a new category of clergy via “distance education,” enabling students to continue their own “specific ministries” as they complete seminary courses at home.
Some 50 SMP students are beginning their studies this fall at both Synod seminaries.
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, kicked off its SMP classes with a Sept. 3-5 orientation on its campus. Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, is completing reviews of some 25 applications to its program, which begins in October.
A prospective SMP student does not initiate the application process himself, but leaders at a site that has a pastoral ministry need — together with the president of the LCMS district in which that need exists — nominate the candidate for admission. The candidate is expected to serve at that site, in his “specific ministry,” during the four-year SMP program and after graduation.
Students serve as vicars during the first two years of the program, which includes eight seminary courses that are completed under the supervision of a local “mentor pastor.”
After completing the two-year vicarage, the student is eligible to receive a call to serve as a “specific ministry pastor” at his vicarage site.
Once ordained, he completes eight additional seminary courses over the next two years and remains under pastoral supervision, even after graduation.
The application for admission to the SMP program was first available online March 31, according to Rev. Glen Thomas, executive director of the Synod’s Board for Pastoral Education and chairman of the SMP Program Committee.
“Given the relatively short time that students had to complete the extensive application process and be ready to begin course work this fall, I think the fact that we will have approximately 50 students enrolled in this first group of SMP students indicates that there is a need for this program in the church and that the church has embraced it as a high-caliber program of formation for pastoral ministry,” Thomas told Reporter.
Even though the convention resolution establishing the SMP program passed with a 76 percent vote of delegates and the program has “broad support in the church,” it is still “in its earliest stages,” Thomas noted, “and we will be doing a lot of analysis and assessment as we move forward.”
“What we learn could lead to some changes,” he acknowledged, “but I want to emphasize how pleased we are at this very early point with the program, with the cooperative spirit between our two seminaries as they work together in this program, and with those who are enrolling in the program.”
Rev. Oscar Benavides, director of LINC North Texas and Couser’s mentor pastor, says the SMP program is “excellent” because Couser “gets to use the things he’s learning” in the seminary classes in an immediate, practical way.
Couser’s brother, Peter Couser of Fort Worth, also is in the inaugural SMP class at the St. Louis seminary.
Rev. David Brighton, pastor of Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Warner Robins, Ga., and mentor for SMP student Dr. Clarence Riley, 53, said the SMP program provides “opportunities” for both students and congregations. It’s giving Riley — a full-time professor with two teenage sons — an opportunity to become a pastor without uprooting his family, and it’s giving the neighboring 40-member congregation he works with an opportunity for outreach.
“Clarence has a gift for evangelism,” Brighton told Reporter, “and he’s going to work to really get [members] looking outside themselves and have an outreach mentality that I think could really help that congregation grow. So we’re excited about it.”
Riley said the program “absolutely fits my need and allows us, as a congregation, to help a sister congregation that’s struggling.”
He added that he is “just so very thankful that the sem has decided to put this program out there for us.”
Says Thomas: “There are many situations throughout our church that present both challenges and opportunities for pastoral ministry. A man serving as a specific ministry pastor could provide a solution for some of these situations.
“From new mission starts to congregations that are struggling to provide Word and Sacrament ministry, the SMP program provides a pastoral ministry possibility to be considered.”
And, as The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod leads the Ablaze! effort to plant 2,000 congregations in North America by 2017, specific ministry pastors, Thomas adds, “can provide a part of the solution to the challenge of providing Word and Sacrament ministry in so many new locations.”
For more information about the SMP Program, contact your district office. To see contact information for LCMS districts, go to www.lcmsdistricts.org.
Posted Sept. 12, 2008