Meeting the Challenges of a Changing Church and Culture
Six hundred empty pulpits. That’s what a recent ELCA study revealed. We currently have 600 pastoral vacancies in churches that want and can afford a pastor. Moreover, and taking into consideration estimates of the number of congregations that may shrink or close in the coming years, that number is expected to grow to 1,000 vacancies by 2020. And those figures only report pastors — and so don’t reflect shortages in youth workers, church musicians, or professional lay leaders in congregations and social ministry organizations — and is focused only on the ELCA, and so barely scratches the surface of the shortage of trained leaders that is besieging the larger church.
When you first hear those numbers, you might imagine that this is a great time to be a seminary. After all, we’re in the business of training leaders for the church and the demand has never been higher. Yet seminaries across the system are immensely challenged. In the last year Andover Newton, the country’s oldest seminary, announced it would sell its campus and be incorporated into Yale Divinity School as a house of studies, and the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced it would close. Even with a $55 million endowment, it didn’t feel it could make it financially. The ELCA network of seminaries has also struggled, losing a combined $70 million in operating deficits over the last decade, as enrollment dropped 40 percent while health care and other costs grew.
Which is why the initiative to create United Lutheran Seminary has never been more important. We need to rethink how we train leaders for the church from the ground up in order to prepare leaders who are responsive to a changing culture that no longer has a vested interest in church life. And we need to do so in a way that is sustainable to the church and more accessible and affordable to our students. We are working toward this goal by combining the resources of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) and our partner the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (LTSG) in order to create a more efficient and effective seminary so that we can greatly increase the amount of financial aid we offer students. All full-time, residential, ELCA students who have been entranced by their sponsoring Synods are eligible for full-tuition scholarships, and all other students — part-time, distance, and from all Christian traditions — are eligible for LTSP scholarships that match contributions from a sponsoring congregation or church body up to 100 percent.
We are also creating more pathways to graduation, building on the success of our Accelerated Cooperative model (where students are placed in a ministry context to work half time from day-one and complete their full-time studies in three years) and launching a Distributed Learning (DL) version of our MDiv (where students can take up to two-thirds of their courses online and complete at least one-third of their courses in residential intensive classes) which makes it possible for students who cannot move to campus to earn their degree.
We are also constructing a new curriculum that is focused less on simply completing courses and more on enabling students to acquire — and demonstrate — competency in the essential skills of equipping congregations and other Christian communities to receive, share, and live the good news of the Gospel. Such a “competency-based curriculum” has the potential not only to more effectively train church leaders but also to do so in a way that respects and builds on the gifts and experience our students bring.
All this good work is paying off, as this fall both LTSP and LTSG have experienced significant growth in their incoming classes — LTSP is up 50 percent among MDiv candidates and 30 percent overall. But we are far from close to meeting the great need of the church. Indeed, as important as seminaries are — and I believe United Lutheran will play a significant role in the coming years in reshaping theological education across the church — we cannot do this work alone. We need congregations who raise up young persons to see themselves as potential leaders in the church. We need congregations who support our Christian camps and other organizations that are so important in forming and shaping Christian faith and identity. We need congregations who see seminaries and synods as partners in training the church’s leadership and are eager to invest in these emerging leaders so that these leaders are free to serve where the church has the greatest need.
Notice I said “congregations,” not just pastors. While pastors clearly have a critical role to play, too often we’ve consigned all the work of the church to them rather than recognizing our shared responsibility to meet the church’s need for effective and faithful leaders. Congregations have always been at the center of the Christian movement, and that is never more true than it is today. Congregations matter. Their leaders matter. And together we can make such a difference in a world that desperately needs to hear good news.
As I read the statistics about the shortage in church leadership, I am reminded that nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus said that though the harvest was plentiful, the laborers were few. While that word resonates deeply and perhaps painfully today, I believe that just as the early followers of Jesus made great sacrifices to raise up leaders and share the good news, so also can we rise to the challenges before us, trusting the One who died and was raised again to breathe new life into our churches by both challenging and equipping us to move forward in faith. God blessed the efforts of those early believers, and God will bless ours as well. Thank you for your continued support of and prayers for the LTSP community as we move forward to continue to fulfill both our mission and ministry in a new and vibrant way as United Lutheran Seminary.
Yours in Christ,
The Rev. Dr. David J. Lose is President of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia