by Beth Anderson, DM, Synod Ministry Coordinator 8/28/2015
Over the past month, I’ve sat with call committees in search of a pastor, with current pastors as they live out their calling with congregations, with seminarians preparing to be pastors (and diaconal ministers), and with individuals wondering if God is calling them to be a pastor (or associate in ministry, or deaconess, or diaconal minister)? I’m inspired by the passion and questions of those who seek to live out this calling with integrity, humility, and leadership. I’m impressed by the faithfulness and leadership of members of congregations and councils as they prepare to welcome a new leader, support seminarians, serve as partners in ministry with rostered leaders, and generously share of their gifts as they live their own callings in their congregations, families, careers, and communities. But the question arises . . . where do such leaders come from? The answer I’m convinced is . . . from congregations. Congregations just like yours.
It is in congregations where future ministry leaders are first shaped and formed. It is in the life of the congregation that the baptized discover what it means to be part of a faith community, what it means to live as a baptized Child of God. Here they affirm their faith and claim their vocational gifts for service in the congregation and the world. Congregations lay strong foundations when they send students off to Bible Camp and wrap graduates with quilts sending young people off with the promise of God’s love and the love of a faith community. In congregations, future leaders experience what it means be a part of a larger community – through ushering, reading, assisting in worship, helping to serve the annual fall dinner, teaching Sunday School, participating in youth group, praying for members of the community, worshiping together, engaging bible study, accepting invitations to serve on committees, teams or councils, and in so many other ways, the people of God uncover their gifts for ministry and leadership. And it is in the congregation where a few among us will first sense a call to Word and Sacrament or Word and Service ministry on behalf of the whole church.
The process of becoming a rostered leader in the ELCA as a pastor, associate in ministry, diaconal minister, or deaconess is not simple. Individuals engage in a lengthy discernment process as they seek to listen to God’s call, engage in theological education, and develop the skills that they will need to lead in ministry. Each candidate for rostered ministry is expected to undertake a program of theological education, engage in a supervised internship or field experience, and participate in a formation process that helps them develop the knowledge, skills, habits and disciplines that will enable them to be a healthy leader for the wider church. Each synod appoints a candidacy committee consisting of rostered leaders, lay members, seminary faculty, and synod and Churchwide staff who are responsible for journeying with the candidate – assisting them in navigating the candidacy process and interviewing them at 3 stages along the way to ensure that they are developing the skills necessary for future ministry leadership in the church.
Not only does the seminary process demand a deep commitment of energy, time, and diligence in terms of study and preparation. It also demands a significant financial commitment by the candidate. For a full-time residential student, tuition costs at an ELCA Seminary is currently around $16,000 each year for 2-3 years depending on the degree program. For part-time or distributed learning students (those who choose to study at a distance through a combination of online and on-campus intensive coursework), current tuition costs run between $5,000 – 9,600 per year or $1,600/course for 3-5 years depending on the degree program. Beyond tuition, students are also responsible for books, fees, health insurance, and living expenses. In addition, with the rising cost of a college education, many candidates are coming to seminary with significant undergraduate debt.
There was a time when gifts from congregations and the larger church covered the majority of tuition costs for students attending an ELCA seminary; that is no longer the case today. Students rely on the support of seminary donors, synodical endowments, and local congregations to help reduce the significant financial costs of preparing to serve as ministry leaders in our congregations.
Congregations can be involved in raising up leaders in a wide variety of ways. Through supporting the leadership of the children, youth, and adults in your own congregation, you help develop gifts for ministry. Through praying for seminarians, seminaries, and congregations, you support God’s work through these individuals and communities. You can send encouraging notes to ministry candidates in the midst of their studies.
Congregation endowment funds can provide scholarships for students from their congregation, or when they don’t have a seminarian, they can consider sponsoring another candidate from elsewhere. We have one small rural congregation that “Sponsors a Seminarian” from elsewhere in the synod by providing a $2,000 scholarship each year throughout the students entire seminary career. Their previous recipient is now serving in our synod, and they are now supporting a second candidate through the process.
You could take a special offering and we’ll provide you with the name of a seminarian or first-call rostered leader who could apply that gift toward their education. Individuals and congregations can make a gift to our seminaries or contribute to the synod’s Ministry Endowment Fund, which grants scholarships to seminarians and debt-relief grants to first-call rostered leaders.
You could invite a seminarian to speak with your Sunday School, confirmation group or adult education about the call to public ministry. Members of congregations can have the courage to name the gifts they see in members of their community and ask that courageous question, “Have you ever thought about a career in ministry?” You could bring members of your congregation to the Discernment Dinners sponsored by our synod Candidacy Committee in June and November each year.
There are many, many creative ways you can be a part of raising up leaders who will share the story of God’s love in Christ with communities like yours now and into the future.
So, where will God find future leaders for the church in the decades to come? With your help, God will continue to glean leaders from the same rich fields that have been raising up leaders for the past generations – from our congregations. Congregations just like yours.