by Roland Lovstad
It’s fair to say no two ministries–or congregations–in the LCMS are alike. They may be small churches in rural America, “megachurches” in the suburbs, or historic congregations in urban settings. Surrounding these congregations are wonderful opportunities to bring God’s Word to immigrants, ethnic groups, blind or deaf people, families, children, military personnel, college students–the list goes on and on.
“The seminaries are responding to the needs of the church for pastors in different social and cultural contexts,” observes Rev. Glen Thomas, executive director of the LCMS Board for Pastoral Education (BPE).
In addition to traditional on-campus study, Thomas cites the Ethnic Immigrant Institute of Theology, the Center for Hispanic Studies, the Deaf Institute of Theology, and the Specific Ministry Pastor program. These programs allow men to stay in their home areas, learn via distance education, work under a local pastor-mentor, and attend periodic classes on the seminary campuses.
The seminaries and the BPE are addressing another important topic, too, that of the cost of education and the amount of debt future pastors incur on their way to becoming the next generation of LCMS clergy.
This fall, Thomas says, the BPE will convene a group from around the Synod to address questions of seminary costs and student debt. “We do not want to make seminary study so economically challenging that it will be a stumbling block for someone to prepare for pastoral ministry,” he says. “Still, there is a concern that we maintain the fiscal health of our seminaries.”
Those two issues are important because actuarial tables show that pastors of the Baby Boom generation are reaching retirement age. Projections for the next decade are that each year 200 LCMS pastors will retire and each year another 100 will leave the ministry for other reasons, according to a study conducted for Concordia Plan Services, the major provider of health, retirement, and disability benefits for the Synod. The study also projects that 25 pastors will die or become disabled each year.
In comparison, the seminaries expect to place about 220 graduates this spring. The study assumed a “no growth” condition in the Synod and made no estimates for supplying pastors for 2,000 new congregations by 2017–a target for the Ablaze! Movement.
“I think there is perhaps a false sense of security right now within the church, but lurking below the surface is the fact that our clergy is aging at an alarming rate,” Thomas remarks. “That certainly is going to have an impact on our congregations and their ability to receive a pastor.”
Thomas emphasizes that the desire is to support students and the seminaries so students can enter their ministries with manageable debt loads from their undergraduate and seminary education.
“It’s a complex issue that will take a lot of thought–creative thinking, in fact–-and we look forward to the opportunity to address the issue,” he says.
The BPE is elected by the Synod in convention to coordinate between the two LCMS seminaries, provide oversight function, and advocate for seminary education.