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I have appreciated Don Brandt’s wisdom and leadership in Lutheran renewal through the years, and I welcomed his article in last month’s CORE Voice. He accurately diagnoses the biggest single problem that runs through all of our Lutheran denominations in North America — our desperate shortage of pastors. And I almost agree with his proposed solution.

Don points out that even when we had more than enough pastors, there were not nearly enough willing to serve in smaller rural and inner-city settings. He notes that these congregations became training locations for pastors who would move on in a few years to a larger church. This does not provide the stability of leadership a congregation needs to be effective in mission and outreach.

I would add that in our time even larger congregations are having difficulty finding ordained pastors. In my North American Lutheran Church, we were told at our pastors’ convocation that some congregations have had profiles posted for a year or more but have received zero interest from pastoral candidates. The ELCA synod I had been a part of recently notified its congregations that because 40% of its churches lack either a called or interim pastor, they no longer have enough supply pastors or authorized lay leaders to provide leadership for these congregations every Sunday.

As an NALC dean, I tell congregations that the total cost of having a pastor (not just the compensation) will approach or involve six figures. Many pastors now serving “full-time” can only do so because their spouses provide insurances and other benefits. Retirements are outpacing ordinations. I don’t think we in the NALC are alone in these challenges.

So far Don and I are on the same page. And I fully agree that what we have been doing is not going to provide the pastors we need to lead our congregations in mission in the 21st century. Not only do we not have people who are in a position to take three or four years out of their lives to pursue MDiv degrees (even online), but many of our congregations cannot afford the salaries required to cover living expenses plus student loan debt (which can easily amount to $50,000 for seminary alone and at least as much for college).

My quibbles with Don are two-fold.

First, and probably minor, he repeats the common misconception that Luther taught something called “the priesthood of all believers.” For all that we have heard this repeated from lecterns and pulpits, Luther taught no such thing. It is actually a 19th Century Calvinist concept. Luther did teach a wonderful understanding of Christian vocation (see the oldie but goodie by Gustav Wingren, Luther on Vocation, Muhlenberg Press, 1957). Whereas the medieval church taught that church vocations were “religious” but others were not, Luther understood that all Christians exercise our Baptism in the world as we love God by serving our neighbors, and that we do so through our variety of callings. These grow out of the Fourth Commandment that establishes the orders and structures of society. Thereby all legitimate callings can be “religious,” as long as Christians engage in them out of love for God and neighbor.

Luther also taught that because the bishops refused to ordain pastors for the churches of the Reformation, the princes and magistrates should claim the authority of their Baptism and ordain pastors to serve these churches. This was not a free-for-all. Luther called on legitimate authorities to meet the need, and to do so by ordaining pastors to serve these congregations. More on that later.

In the Augsburg Confession, Article V makes it clear that the “Holy Ministry” is of divine origin, and that it consists in preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments. Article XIV insists that nobody is permitted to preach or teach publicly in the churches or administer the sacraments without a “proper call” (rite vocatus in Latin, which in the context means “ordained”). The sad reality is that none of our Lutheran church bodies are observing Article XIV today.

As I see it, the problem is the professionalization of the clergy, which took hold in the 1950’s as pastors wanted to have the social status of lawyers, doctors, and others. The Bachelor of Divinity degree was changed to a Masters of Divinity with absolutely no change in the program (a similar thing happened to law degrees), and spiritual qualifications for ministry were largely replaced by academic ones.

It didn’t help that the primary requirement to teach in our seminaries was to have an earned PhD degree and not vital parish ministry experience. And with few exceptions PhD degrees could only be secured in religion departments of secular universities, which had no accountability to the “faith once delivered to the saints.”

Don proposes that the solution is to have lay-led congregations. My counter-proposal is that we ordain those people in congregations who have the gifts and call for ministry, which includes seeking realistic and reasonable ways to equip them to serve faithfully as pastors to God’s people in those places.

Ordination historically is not an academic certification. It involves the Body of Christ discerning God’s call on a person, and then gathering to lay hands on that person and pray for them to receive the gifts they need to serve God’s people faithfully. Does this communicate some sort of “indelible character”? I do not believe that ordination makes a person spiritually superior or gives them some special powers, but neither dare I say that these prayers are inconsequential. Paul called on Timothy to “stir into flame” the gift he had received through the laying on of hands (2 Timothy 1:6).

I am not arguing for dumb pastors (although the smart-aleck in me might wonder whether the academic captivity of the churches has alleviated this concern). We were ordaining pastors in North American Lutheranism for 125 years before we had a seminary. Their training and preparation was through mentorship. There is no reason we couldn’t have more than one clergy roster, or that we could not establish a system of ongoing mentoring for those unable to pursue the academic track.

I wish we could fill all our pulpits with faithful pastors formed by four-year residential programs in our seminaries. But as is so often the case, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. We need pastors in many of our congregations right now, not ten or fifteen years from now, and simply working harder at what has not been working fits the classic definition of insanity, if we imagine the results will be any different.

To return to Luther: I believe on the basis of the Augsburg Confession that all God’s people deserve and need to be fed with the Word and the Sacraments from properly ordained persons, and that the most important single task of any church judicatory is to provide such pastors for all its congregations. If the judicatory insists on procedures that effectively starve the people in congregations spiritually by denying them Word and Sacrament, perhaps the congregation should adopt Luther’s example and, after prayerful discernment and conversation, ordain people within their own fellowship to serve them. I view this as Luther viewed his proposal for the princes and magistrates to ordain as a “last resort” sort of option, and I am sure judicatory officials will not be pleased if congregations take matters into their own hands. The solution is for the officials to find creative ways to feed the lambs of our Lord’s flock with the Bread of Life. I suspect that here Don and I come very, very close to agreeing. Such a congregation needs to be prepared to accept discipline from their judicatories. [Here is where LCMC with its contract pastors offers a viable option, although I believe they need policies in place to protect people from abusive clergy.]

God has established the Holy Ministry of Word and Sacrament, and He has given us the task of determining how to structure and organize it in this time and place. The structuring of the Office of the Ministry has changed many times throughout history, and needs to change today. I fully agree with Don that what we are doing has not served us well for many decades and will become an even greater problem as time passes.

The answer is to re-evaluate how we discern that God has called a person to Holy Ministry. Once we make that discernment, after prayer and serious conversation, the solution is to ordain the person. St. Peter would not be acceptable as a pastor in most of our Lutheran churches today. We need to look at God’s call and gifts and not merely at academic degrees to determine whom God has chosen to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments in our congregations.

To all decision-makers in our church bodies, our Lord says: “Feed my sheep.”

Join the discussion 21 Comments

  • John Ruff says:

    Excellent article and I am in full agreement with you. I think that mentoring people who want to do this role is more than acceptable and is in the example given us by Jesus Christ himself.

  • Thomas Jacobson says:

    Thank you, Steve. We need to become much more flexible in how we provide pastoral leadership in our congregations.

  • Michael Bennett says:

    I was surprised to find myself sympathetic to Don Brandt’s article. Then I read yours and found more to agree with. Ordain people who are suitable pastors.

  • Richard F. Michael says:

    Well said, Stephen. For the sake of good order…

  • Ryan Cordle says:

    Excellent article. An organized and substantial mentorship path to ordination simply makes good sense in our current environment.

  • walter bunk says:

    I was a Parrish Ministry Associate in our local ELCA church. Through the office of the Synod Bishop, I was authorized to perform all pastoral functions, except perform marriages. Our local congregation was vacant of an ordained clergy for too long of time .I filled that void off and on for a few years. Finally an ordained female clergy of the UCC accepted this position as a part time pastor. She later became an ELCA member. Gone are the traditional order of worship. Worship became so watered down that I could no longer attend. Consequently I searched for a new church to attend, and am now a member of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. I am now filled with wonderful worship and amazing preaching of Gods’ word.

  • Phillip Gagnon says:

    Well said, Steve. I tend to agree with you. You might want to engage David Wendel regarding the Ordination Under Special Circumstances (OUSC) process which seeks to address some of your points. Might make for an interesting dialogue. I hope to share a pint or a few with you again, Steve. Blessings to you and Linda!

    • Steve Shipman says:

      I have been in conversation with David and the whole group of deans on this issue. OUSC ended up being the animal created by a committee, that missed the entire intent of the process. I hope the folks administering it can finally come to terms with the crisis we are facing in the NALC; Bishop Selbo has addressed it many times. And it is not only an NALC issue, as I tried to state. It is not even just a Lutheran issue, but impacts most of the Christian churches in the Western world. We seem to have uplifted academic credentials beyond their relevance for pastoral ministry while dismissing gifts of the Spirit and life experiences that equip a person to serve faithfully in Word and Sacrament. Yes, there needs to be proper vetting and supervision (including for us with seminary degrees). And where possible, the traditional path needs to be followed along with a path for spiritual formation. But right now we need at least 50 or 60 pastors in NALC, and going forward we are told we need 300 by 2030 just to keep up with deaths and retirements. Drastic action is needed now, not a few years from now when the problem will be even worse.

    • David Charlton says:

      I believe we should into earlier American models of forming pastors, as well as models from Africa. Is there a place for a reinvigorated ministerium? What about catechists and circuit pastors?

      The term “lay-led congregation” is too ambiguous. In one sense, all congregations are lay-led. That’s why we have congregational councils. Many services in the LBW can be lay-led. The question is the ministry of Word and Sacrament. What if vacant congregations made greater use of the prayer offices and the Service of the Word?

  • Duane D Nelson says:

    The NALC “Ordination under Special Circumstances” isn’t working out?

    • Steve Shipman says:

      It will only have limited value because it requires something like 42 academic hours (a full-time course load on the masters level for two years) and $20,000-$30,000 to complete. Most of the people I know who expressed interest in it (and who would be highly qualified to serve in our congregations) took one look at it and determined it was unrealistic for them.

      • Duane D Nelson says:

        EXACTLY! “We have always done it this way” has created this crisis and will not solve it.

  • Matthew Voyer says:

    Great article. I agree wholeheartedly. I had the honor of leading a conversation with our Synodically Authorized Ministers about funeral planning. I am thankful for those who are supporting different ways to affirm and equip those called to ministry.

  • Mike Lubas says:

    Both you and Don make good observations combined with pastoral and professional insights, Steve. I wonder however, if we’re trying to put new wine into old wineskins or vice-versa?
    Bottom line, as we pick at, re-define and ponder the meaning of ministry within the beloved yet increasingly convoluted nomenclature of ‘pastor’, should we refocus upon developing the title of (Congregational) Chaplain for the complex and urgent matters at hand? The nomenclature is widely understood in terms of call and care. And if thoughtfully infused with the good points both of you make, even in disagreement, might it serve as a new wineskin and healing mindset.

    • Steve Shipman says:

      You make good points. “Pastor” is our normal Lutheran term these days for those who exercise the Office of the Ministry, as defined in AC V, but I’m not sure whether or how often the word is used in our Confessions. The question has to be whether the person is spiritually and intellectually competent to exercise the ministry of Word and Sacrament in a congregation. And the answer may not be a one-size-fits-all system of preparation.

    • Duane D. Nelson says:

      Is there a Biblical reference to Congregational Chaplain? Is it in the Augsburg Confessions? Book of Concord? Did Luther ever mention it?

  • Tim Eichler says:

    I agree with you. However, I would like to add a caution that issue is not just the ordination process. The mentorship process will need to be just as rigorous. What I mean is that we have clergy, regardless of denomination who function as a pastor being a “job” and not a “call”. I have observed this phenomena beginning as a rural 3-point parish in North Dakota as a first call, 30-years as a chaplain in the Navy with a variety of leadership and oversight of clergy (at one point I oversaw the Navy’s Professional Development program), and since my navy retirement served an Episcopal congregation, ELCA Congregation, a large PC(USA) congregation (7-MDivs on staff), and now in a very small ELCA congregation. The issue to discern is the heart and mind of the individuals involved. The key to the success is oversight and mentoring which has been lost in many of our seminaries. There is much to contemplate.

  • Mike Lubas says:

    Duane,
    I suspect you know the answer to your question. But even if not, what please is your point?

    • Duane D Nelson says:

      Mike, my point is, how far is NALC willing to stray from scripture to solve a man-made problem?

  • Mike Lubas says:

    With all respect and appreciation for your firm grounding against what I call an epidemic of fluffy theology and fuzzy Christian practice, my point about chaplaincies Duane, is skewed toward adiaphora of nomenclature leaving every salvific element of a priesthood to Christ alone. I fully agree the problem is man-made and would never want more arrogance via title, head tripping and me-centered-wokeism to further dilute the preaching/teaching of the Way, the Truth and the Life. And I do understand my terse suggestion would need serious refinement in application… were it to ever get that far, Duane. Blessings.
    Mike